In my last post, about going viral, I mentioned a skeptical Wall Street Journal piece I’d written about stimulus money for the arts. It appeared last Wednesday, and of course grew out of my skeptical posts about the arts stimulus (here and here).
In it, I said much of what you might have read in the blog. The economic argument for giving stimulus money to the arts is shallow, and easy for non-arts organizations to trump. It’s hard to argue for money for the arts when money for crucial social programs — public health, for instance — is lacking. It’s hard, politically, to give stimulus money for arts organizations like the Metropolitan Opera, which seem to be swimming in money. (Even if they’re hurting financially.)
And then I ended with something about the pro-arts arguments I wish we’d make, which would be based on the intrinsic value of the arts (or better still, of art itself). And which — this is the hard part for many of us — would reflect a world in which popular culture already supplies some of the depth and meaning we credit (and often so ecstatically) the formal high arts for giving us.
Which brings me to a book I strongly recommend, and the challenge it gives us. The book is Bruce Springsteen’s America: The People Listening, A Poet Singing, by Robert Coles.Coles is a child psychiatrist, a Pulitzer Prize winner for a book called Children in Crisis, and for more than a generation one of the most humane voices in American writing. A very serious person, both in his own field, and nationally.
His Springsteen book is about why everyday Americans have loved Springsteen, and been educated and inspired by him. Encouraged by him. Taught about themselves by him. Caught in conversations — in their minds, but no less real for that — with him. With references to Walker Percy, a novelist who was moved by Springsteen, and by William Carlos Williams, the great poet, whom Coles knew, and who in the ’50s, living in New Jersey, felt how important, in that age, Frank Sinatra was. And who noted even then, prompted by his son, that Sinatra would have been even stronger if he’d been singing his own songs, his own thoughts, his own words, as Springsteen does.
This book does what arts advocates should do. We talk about the meaning of the arts, their depth, their transformative power. But most often I think we talk windily, in great generalities, without saying much about specific instances, specific things that we or others get from any work of art.
Coles does all that. Here’s book, more than 200 pages long, that tells how Springsteen brought depth, meaning, and transformation to many, many people. With the people talking about it in their own words.
That demonstrates, first of all, what I mean when I say that we in the arts have to acknowledge the artistic strength of popular culture. Whatever we think the arts do, popular culture does, too. (No, not all of it. But that’s an old debate, one most strongly carried on within popular culture itself.)
So we need to do for the arts what Coles does for Springsteen. Until we do, our advocacy, if you ask me, rings a little hollow. So let’s get to work. What depth, what meaning, what transformative urgency, did a production of Tosca at your local opera company have, in the words of people who attended it?
(And yes, I’m deliberately provocative by choosing that example. The question I’d love to provoke is: Do we really believe that everything that bears the label “art” has more artistic value than the best of popular culture? And if we do, can we demonstrate how this is true?)