I retain a certain affection for dumbed-down classics, since (even with childhood piano lessons) I was led into my love for classical music as a young teenager by Arthur Fiedler. Still, I agree with your notion that high-arts organizations should concentrate on serious arts for those who love them. But that does not mean sticking doggedly to the classics, even when well performed. Aesthetic conservatives are too willing to attack anything that deviates from the norm as dumbing down. Innovation — in repertory, in performance styles, in concert and radio formats — can be terrific. Or dumb. You just have to make the distinction for yourself.
There is also a difference between overpraising the local product in a boosterish, non-credible way and being supportive of an arts community to which you have devoted your life. Martin Bernheimer reacted viscerally against boosterism, feeling that only if fledging efforts were judged against the most rigorous standards could the strong survive. But I think of Deborah Jowitt, the longtime dance critic of the Village Voice. She tries to be supportive, and some people complain that in saying positive things about most everything (but not everything), she undercuts her crediblity. Yet if you read her regularly, you can peek between the lines. And her love for and knowledge of dance is so palpable, and her prose so elegant, that she fills an invaluable role.
Nice of you turn our conversation back to me, me, me. It’s funny, your comment about “zingers”. Phillip Lopate, in his review of “Outsider” this coming Sunday in the NYT Book Review, also notes my penchant for what he sees as overcute endings, even though his review is mostly smart and favorable (not necessarily the same thing). But that’s just practicing journalism, in which the model of the lively lead and the ending that pops (the”kicker”) is drilled into us from the outset of our careers. I do think a good kicker can sum up a review or turn the reader in a last-sevcond new direction in a nice way.
My main mentor as a critic was Dale Harris, the longtime ballet and opera critic (and college literature professor and art critic and foodie and on and on). Our lives ran parallel for a long time, until his death. He was a graduate student when I was an undergraduate at Harvard, and I took over his opera program on the college radio station when he needed to devote himself to his Ph.D. orals. He was teaching at Stanford when I was a graduate student at Berkeley, and we both wound up in New York. When I was preparing to take over his Harvard opera show, he demanded written practice scirpts which he scrupulously edited. I can’t say my style or even all my values were Dale’s. But his influence loomed large. So did Virgil Thomson’s, even though we were very different people and he never worked direclyy with me as a mentor. Like most everyone, I loved his insights and his prose style. And when we collaborated on “The Virgil Thomson Reader,” I found him pretty special, too, for all his waspishness toward others.
One last comment, circling back to the ideas of niche audiences and how the Internet can satisfy them better than dumbed-down general newspapers, and of specialist vs. generalist critics and the sense of lost community I feel in the arts and arts journalism today. I spent my life working in dominant instituttions: Andover, Harvard and Berkeley, the Oakland Tribune (big in Oakland even if the SF Chronicle dominated the Bay Area), the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and Lincoln Center. I admired arts that could reach out and bind people into a community. People who didn’t like popular music, or didn’t like journalism, could complain that they reached the masses because they were dumbed down, or just dumb. But I clung the the notion of universal, shared values, for all the individual artsworks that appealed intensely to the few.
I love all kinds of art, from the most esoteric to the most accessible. But I cherish the ideal of an art that speaks to our deepest, most basic values. And I cherish the idea of a means of communication — a newspaper — that is still read by most literate people in a commuinity and can provide a basis for lively discussion, face to face or on the Internet. People complain about the undue power of the Times, and certainly London, which like New York a century ago supports several good competing papers, provides print journalism eqivalent to the Internet today, with a diversity of competing voices. We need both, the jangling dissonance and the harmony that can bring them all together. The Internet is a marvelous tool, one we have only begun to explore. Maybe something one day will arise online to provide a communal equivalent to the role of leading newspapers today. Mankind needs a sense of togetherness, and if print journalism goes the way of the dinosaur, which it well might, I hope something of similar magnitude and authority will rise in its place. Not the authority that is “right” where others are “wrong,” or that silences contrary opinion. But something that we can all share. I’ve been a part of that over the years, and I’d grateful.
I’m grateful to you too, Doug. In Germany, at the end of any major interview in a newspaper or a magazine, the journalist says, ritualistically, “Thank you for your conversation.” So I thank you. Thanks for inviting me to participate in this weeklong back-and-forth, even with downed trees and lost power and your hectic trip to Minneapolis and crashed computers and and the holiday season and my retirement and God know what else has derailed us. It’s been fun, and I hope to carry it on in person with you for a long time to come.