an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

The Uses of Culture

A recent article on “Funding: The State of the Art” by my friend Andras Szanto makes for informative and depressing reading. “The search is on for a more compelling vocabulary” to rationalize and impel funding for the arts, Andras reports. The “latest linguistic developments” include applying “quality” not “as a mark of aesthetic sophistication,” but “to denote a positive human environment.”
Good God, is it this difficult to make a persuasive case for the arts? A substantial portion of my professional life has been dedicated to studying, applying, and teaching the story of Dvorak in America (1892-1895). Essentially, this is a story about the uses of culture: how Dvorak helped Americans define and understand themselves. His New World Symphony (1893) was a mighty catalyst for discussion and debate: What was America? Who were Americans? Was plantation song “American folk song”? Were black and “red” Americans emblematic or representative of the American experience?
In New York, Dvorak was received as a prophet; his outside perspective on American mores, American energies, American roots seemed acute, prescient, progressive. In Boston, he was dismissed as an interloper; he seemed naïve, obnoxious. He held up a mirror — as only culture can. I know no better tool for encapsulating the differences between these two defining American communities at the turn of the twentieth century.
Dvorak received grateful letters from all over the nation. From Louisville, Mildred J. Hill, inspired by a Dvorak article in Harper’s (Feb. 1895), mailed him a collection of street cries with a note that she had traveled nearly 300 miles in order to hear the New World Symphony performed in Cincinnati. “I was so carried away by it that I determined to send you the enclosed examples. It takes a real southern person to really understand your work in that Symphony, in my humble opinion.”
In addition to soaking up plantation song, prairie vacancy, and the elegiac fate of the “noble savage,” Dvorak’s symphony was specifically indebted to Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. Americans a century ago knew Dvorak’s symphony, knew Longfellow’s poem as part of a cultural vocabulary that informed both personal and national identity. In the 1860s, Americans knew the religious/scientific paintings of Frederic Church for the same reason: like the New World Symphony, like The Song of Hiawatha, “Heart of the Andes” and “Twilight in the Wilderness” were protean resonators.
It amazes and frustrates me that American history is taught to young Americans as a parochial political/social narrative. How many high school American History courses routinely include Dvorak, Longfellow, and Church? There is no way of knowing the Gilded Age without them. Today, as ever, they enable us to ponder who we are.
Here is some more on teaching Dvorak. Here is some more on Dvorak and America. My Wagner Nights: An American History recounts how Wagnerism held up a mirror to American notions of uplift, to American needs, aspirations, and achievements. Culture delights, provokes, inspires — and instructs.


  1. Andras Szanto says:

    It would be an interesting thought experiment to imagine Dvorak today, filling out a grant application.
    How would he have couched the project to “teach Americans how to understand themselves” in today’s philanthropic lingo? How, a grant officer might wonder, would he measure success? When would the foundation or grant agency know that the goal had been fulfilled and the program could be terminated? How could he be convinced that the programming, delivered in symphonic halls, is not reaching only elite Caucasian audiences? And why would listening to music by a European, it would likely be asked, be a more efficient way to achieve American self-understanding, than, say, educational seminars or networked interactions on the web?

  2. After reading this blog entry and the Szanto article, I find my thoughts coming alarmingly close to notions currently in vogue about the pernicious influence of big money. Much of this sounds like the nervous hand-wringing of those who move in the circles of these big cultural institutions. Will the Whitney find the hundreds of millions it needs for a new location? How big is this year’s Philadelphia Orchestra budget deficit? How is the Met Opera’s funding affecting the planning of new productions? What about the decline in attendance at the Brooklyn Museum? Let’s not conflate culture with the mega institutions of culture and worry that because the millions and billions that sustain them are not flowing as freely as they were in 2008, that somehow our cultural vibrancy is in jeopardy. The money will return when the economy does, though perhaps a certain amount of scaling back will be required. How many high school American History courses routinely include Dvorak, Longfellow, and Church? Not many, sadly, though I suspect this is not new. Yet I think our cultural life still thrives, at least from what I see. There is surely more reckoning to come with new technologies, globalization, etc. But that’s not about money, or about the strength of any underlying support for culture. It’s interesting that you lament the absence from the curriculum of Dvorak, a Czech, along with an American poet and an American painter. Ugh. Over a hundred years later and Americans (i.e., me!) still bristle at the notion the Dvorak is going to tell us, or that we need to be told, who we are as Americans. He provides, perhaps, a good hook on which to hang the discussion about American culture at the turn of the century, but surely isn’t a significant player at the layers of culture that really matter (though admittedly I speak from nearly complete ignorance here). Well, I think your point is right on about the distorted focus on the political/social narrative. But again, hasn’t that always been true in America?

an ArtsJournal blog