Sorry I haven’t blogged for a bit. Or maybe not sorry — found I got overloaded, forced myself every day to do more than I really could. So after my vacation, I pulled back, and especially didn’t force myself to blog. As I said on Twitter today, I’m finding that time management and prioritizing have to be my top priority.
But the blog is a big priority within that — and besides, I miss it (and I miss all of your comments), so here goes. Two days ago (January 16), I spoke at a class at the University of Pennsylvania. This is a course in leadership issues in the arts, taught by Jim Undercofler, aka the former CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He invited me to come down and speak, and I thought I’d talk about popular culture and the arts. I was there almost two hours, and spoke for only 15 minutes. The rest was interplay with a terrific group of students, but I thought I’d post a quick summary of what I started the class by saying. It ties into a lot of discussions we’ve had here.
Popular culture and the arts. Important to talk about because popular culture is the ocean in which the arts swim. Or, in cultural theory terms, popular culture is the Other, for the arts — the thing the arts supposedly are not.
And when we defend the arts, or look for more support for them, we’re doing it in a world defined by popular culture. So we’re always saying, implicitly or explicitly, that the arts are something different.
Which is where I start having trouble. Because popular culture can’t be defined anymore as something commercial, or even as something popular. It’s evolved its own forms of art, and all too often, people in the arts don’t acknowledge this, or even understand it. All too often, I’ve seen people advocate the arts by either ignoring popular culture, or else dismissing it.
Examples, both of which have circulated widely on the Web: Dana Gioia’s 2007 commencement speech at Stanford, and Ben Cameron’s keynote talk the same year at the Southern Arts Federation’s Performing Arts Exchange. (Gioia used to be Chairman of the National Endowment, and Cameron is Program Director for the Arts at the Doris Duke Foundation.)
Gioia thinks our society isn’t creative anymore, and that the arts can help restore that. He looks back wistfully to a time when, he says, the arts were more widely acknowledged, and when we could turn on network TV and see performances by opera stars like Robert Merrill. I’m afraid that makes me giggle. I love opera, as readers of this blog know, and Merrill had a voice to die for. You can wallow in his singing, as long as you don’t think about it very much, because Merrill also wasn’t notably smart, and — apart from luxurious vocalism — brought very little to the parts he played.
Now we can turn on TV and see Bruce Springsteen, who, unlike Robert Merrill, is very smart, writes his own music, writes his lyrics, produces his albums, has something to say, and is a cultural force in America in a way that Merrill never could have been, because for years (and maybe even now) articulates a vision that helps many of us know ourselves. And know the world we live in. Is seeing Springsteen on TV instead of opera a step backwards, as Gioia thinks? For me, it’s a step forward, no matter how much I love opera.
Cameron is more forgiving toward popular culture, but in his peroration he says the arts are like our family photographs, the record of who we are, just as if popular culture didn’t exist (or had nothing to say). He gives examples, drawn from his own life:
As a man born and raised in the southern part of the United States, the plays of Tennessee Williams, the stories of Carson McCullough, the novels of William Faulkner are my family photographs. As a man in contemporary New York, the plays of David Mamet, the plays of David Rabe, are my family photographs. As a gay man, the dances of Bill T. Jones, the plays of Tony Kushner are my family photographs. But as an American, an American, the novels of Toni Morrison, the poetry of Maya Angelou, the songs of my native American brothers and sisters, the poetry of my Asian aunts and uncles, these are our family photographs. And if we do our job right, they will live and breathe as testaments to who we were, what we thought, what we felt, – just as we turn to the plays of Aeschylus, Socrates and Euripides as the living photos of ancient Greece – not to some record of wars worn or lost.
To which I or anybody else could answer: As a southern man, Creedence and the Allman Brothers could be your family photographs, along with country music, bluegrass, and the blues. As a New Yorker, Lou Reed and Dion and the New York Dolls and the Ramones and Sonic Youth (and Naked City and the original King Kong) could be your photos. Plenty of gay men turned out for the Pet Shop Boys. And if we’re going to talk about black culture, please! Aretha Franklin, Motown, Otis Redding, jazz, gospel, hiphop…it’s an endless list. Does anybody think that people in the future won’t be turning to all these things when they want a record of what our age was like?
Cameron can make whatever personal choices he might like, but to then say that only choices like the ones he makes can be the record of our time — I just shake my head. How to lose your argument, when you venture outside the bubble of the arts. How to make yourself implausible. How to show you don’t know who you’re talking to, when you advocate the arts. How to lose your argument,
And now, in the interest of time management, I’ll save the rest of my outline for my next post.