Time to grapple with this. Continuing from my last post on arts advocacy…
Second, attacking popular culture — aka what other people like — wouldn’t exactly be a productive way to bring people to our side. “Hi! Support the arts! They’re far better than all that crap you like.” An approach like that — whether it’s explicit, or only implicit in the assumptions arts advocates might make — won’t work, for reasons that should be more than obvious.
But how often — in, for example, the Dana Gioia commencement address that I linked to in an earlier post — do arts advocates more or less say exactly that?
What to do instead: Place the arts alongside popular culture. Try, in fact, to erase any hard and fast distinction between the two, as most younger people do today. I know people in their 20s, who work in classical music, and go back and forth, in their lives, between pop music, art museums, classical concerts, movies, TV shows, Broadway musicals, literary novels, poetry. Why wouldn’t they? I do the same.
And we’ll rank the things we absorb by various criteria, making the same kinds of judgments right across the board. I know perfectly well that Godard, in his films, goes a little deeper than Dollhouse, a new TV show I’m wild about, but I won’t say that he’s doing something that, in its essence, is different enough to put in some exalted category of art. And if, in the same week, I happen to encounter Joni Mitchell and Massenet (whose music Renée Fleming, speaking on a panel at Juilliard, once memorably said wasn’t art, but only fluffy entertainment), I won’t hesitate to say that Joni Mitchell is by miles the finer artist.
So: no distinctions. We have one culture, which we all share, even if we parse it differently.
And so people in the arts should welcome triumphs in popular culture. Example: When Aretha Franklin sang opera arias (the most memorable example is here), opera companies throughout America should have publicly praised her, saying something like, “Well, of course we do it differently, but we’re thrilled that such a great singer loves our music.” And then invite her to sing opera from the stage of the Met.
Of course, other art forms, more advanced than mainstream classical music, have no trouble doing this. When the Metropolitan Museum in New York had a show about how superhero costumes have influenced fashion, that’s precisely the kind of thing I’m talking about. Or when Tom Stoppard wrote his play “Rock & Roll,” which among other things is about how important a love of rock was for dissidents in Communist Czechoslovakia. Art and popular culture, moving side by side.
What else? If you’re talking about the value of the formal high arts — art museums doing shows without a direct connection to popular culture, classic literature, classical music, dance, we know what else goes on this list — then don’t talk in lofty abstractions about how important the art in question is. Instead, talk specifically about what some specific piece of art does. (Or, if you’re talking about a museum show or a classical music festival, evoke the power of the whole thing by using specific examples.)
One model for that, as I’ve said before, is Robert Coles’s book on Bruce Springsteen, in which a great humane psychiatrist and scholar lets ordinary Springsteen fans say in their own words what Springsteen means to them. Surely we can do that with any art. Henry Fogel, former CEO of the Chicago Symphony and former president of the League of American Orchestras, loves to tell a story of a bus driver (I think it was) on an orchestra tour, who fell in love with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. If we had some thoughts about Mahler in the driver’s own words, so much the better.
Or here’s conductor Benjamin Zander, on Mahler’s Seventh:
Of all Mahler’s works, it may well be the astonishingly “modern” Seventh Symphony that most fully expresses the mayhem of living in the contemporary world. It lays out the conflicts and contrasts, then offers a kind of alternative refuge–dream-like, entrancing ‘night music.’ In the end, though, it is in this world, not some remote afterlife, that this symphony finds its true victory. It seems to say: “This is life. It’s rough–but I am going to look it square in the face, and win.”
Iago works much differently. In that role, I felt that Verdi had gotten there ahead of me, that in addition to giving me the script, direction, and camerawork (to continue the film analogy), he’d also done the acting, and that what he’d thought of was deeper than anything I’d find, until perhaps I’d lived with the role for quite a while. So my first job was to find precisely the tone, the color, the subtext, and the timing — everything involved with meaning and with consciouso and unconscious attitude — that Verdi had built into the role, After I’d absorbed that thoroughly — and, much harder, was able to bring it to life in my own performance! — could I think of adding anything of my own.
This didn’t in the least mean that Verdi made me wear a straitjacket. Just the opposite. Verdi gave me a very high kind of freedom, the freedom to touch something greater than myself, and transcend myself in it.
You get the idea. We need to talk about the meaning of art in terms of our genuine experience with it. If some work traditionally labelled art turns out to be deeper, higher, more comprehensive, more deeply moving than many things (or even most things) in popular culture, then the truth of this will emerge from the way we talk about that work. I’m happy to tell anyone what Antonioni’s L’avventura means to me, and has meant from the moment I encountered it when it was first shown in the US around 1960.
There”s first the observation of undercurrents, in body language and emotion, that comes from Antonioni’s camera, the way he moves around people, the way he follows them, the way he puts them (well, especially his star and later lover, Monica Vitta) against a background that shows us their entire being — or rather (this is part of his subtlety) the entire being that they’re showing at that moment, showing both consciously and unconsciously. That there’s more to them we take for granted, because Antonioni, in other moments, shows us that.
And then there’s the compassion in the movie, the unblinking eye (or unblinking camera) that Antonioni puts on people who are
n’t making sense, who are damaged, who damage other people. Here we all are. (The people shown are alienated rich Italians, some aristocrats, a choice that puts off some who see the film, who think the things we’re shown are trivial. For me, what Antonioni shows is so deep that it resonates far beyond its setting, but I understand the objection. Just as I understand people who think that the detailed, drawn out things he does with his camera are way too slow, too boring, way too self-indulgent. I don’t agree, but this kind of work isn’t to everybody’s taste.)
So at the end, when a terribly flawed and deeply unreliable man hurts Monica Vitti, and in the film’s unforgettable final scene, she comes up behind him where he’s slumped on a bench outside in the dawn, and reaches out his hand, and touches him, this is a moment of redemption, just possibly, for us all, though it’s to Antonioni’s credit, I think, that we don’t know, and don’t need to know, whether the redemption is Monica Vitti’s, or the man’s, or whether, for all I know, she’s simply gone beyond her former love for him, and can feel pity because she’s free, and sees him for what he is. A strength of the scene is precisely that it could have many meanings. And I know it struck me to the heart when I was in my teens, and has remained with me ever since, as a revelation of how flawed we are, how badly things can go wrong, and yet how still there’s hope.
You get the idea, I hope. I don’t need to say that L’avventura is better than Watchmen, a pointless comparison. I just try to let it stand there on its own, with my gloss on what it means to me, so that others with whom my evocation resonates can try it for themselves. If some things in art can’t support themselves in the market place, and need special funding (whether from government or private donors or both), we can make that case, but again by describing the power, value, and meaning of specific art works, the conclusion being (or the conclusion that we try to draw, and hope that others will accept) that these art works need to be available for all of us, even if they’re expensive, and even if not all of us make use of them.
People understand, I think — I’ll end with this — that there are valuable things in life that they themselves might not make use of. I won’t hesitate to argue the worth of art like L’avventura, which in fact many people don’t like at all. (As I’ve said before, I like a lot of things that aren’t exactly popular.) What’s crucial, I think, is to admit that it’s not for everyone, but that it still has an important meaning, an important function in our lives.
A big part of that — as dramatically opposed (I think) to the Johnny Mathis approach (“Wonderful, Wonderful”) I made fun of in my last post — is that art exists in part to challenge us. Not everyone needs to accept the challenge, or accept it for every art work that purports to put a challenge forward, but we can make a case that the challenge is important, as Caroline Levine does in her book, which I cited in my previous post. I might also talk about art as an experimental laboratory for life and culture, a place where new attitudes and thoughts and new emotions are tried out, as well as new ways of evoking/describing/thinking about/embodying new things. One key point is that we don’t need to know, in any work of art, what these new things are, or what the artist means in showing whatever she might show, or in doing whatever she might do. The very form of new art might surprise or shock or bother us, or be, at least at first, entirely incomprehensible.
But we can learn, as we know (or ought to know) we always need to do in life. We in the arts could provide examples of things learned from art, of art that taught us new ways to feel and look and listen and live, art that seemed beyond most normal experience that later was wildly influential. (Popular culture understands this perfectly. Look, for example, at the joke that’s regularly made about the Velvet Underground: “When their first records came out, only 15 people listened to them. But all 15 were inspired to start path-breaking bands.”)
But that’s a shallow — if still perfectly valid — way to do it. It’s more powerful, I think, and more true to the nature of art, to say that we don’t know what role a new art experience may pay in our or anybody else’s later life, and that this precisely is a part of art’s value, that it can bring us something new without either we or the artist needing to know what benefit we’ll ever get from it. The experience itself — and the openness to new experience — should be reward enough.
It goes without saying, of course — or it ought to — that all of this can happen in popular culture as well. In fact, my use of a film example (a commercial film, in fact) immediately places me in a netherland that maybe isn’t fully recognized, by those who make decrees like this, as art. Next time I write about things like this, I’ll talk about Beckett instead. Or Webern. Or Morton Feldman.
And I don’t mean to say we make our case just by talking in the ways I’m outlining. To get support for art, we have to make every case we can — an economic case, an argument that art helps kids learn, whatever. But we can’t pretend, as many music advocates seem to do, even without meaning it, that art music is the only kind of music that kids can learn from, or that can enrich anybody’s life. And our economic and practical arguments need to be grounded in our unabashed talk about the value of our art — something, I fear, that if we really did it faithfully and honestly would blow a lot of hot air out of the present concept (and practice) of “the arts,” and leave us much closer to the deep artistic truth that all of this is supposed to be about.