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The Erasure of the Arts

Upswing

This week’s The American Purpose carries another of my essays on the erasure of the arts from the American experience – how it happened and what to do about it. It’s a sequel to my piece in the current American Scholar on the impact of the pandemic on culture.

My new piece takes the form of a response to The Upswing, the important new book co-authored by the sociologist Robert Putnam (who also wrote Bowling Alone) on the disappearance of “social capital.” It’s another way at looking at today’s fragmentation of American life. 

I write: 

To me the most salient feature of The Upswing, the most surprising and disappointing, is incidental. In their consideration of how Americans bond or don’t, [the authors] fail to consider novels and poems, concerts and plays, paintings and sculpture. Beethoven preached universal brotherhood with overwhelming eloquence. Cold War cultural diplomacy discovered the healing commonality of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. But there are no symphonies or concertos in The Upswing. . . . 

In fact, I have the uncomfortable feeling that The Upswingmay partly be a symptom of the shortcomings it observes. And it is not alone. Another recent study of the American experience of wide importance is Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States. It’s a marvelous read, entertaining, informative, provocative, elegantly turned – and yet wholly omits the arts. Could an 800-page, one-volume history of Germany do without Goethe or Beethoven? Could the history of Italy be told without Michelangelo and Verdi? Britain without Shakespeare? Spain without Cervantes? And yet Lepore’s emphasis on the Black experience, so welcome and overdue, omits any reference to Black music; jazz and the Harlem Renaissance, Ellington and Armstrong, Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson are all silent. Absent, as well, are Whitman and Longfellow, Moby Dickand The Sound and the Fury, Huck Finn and Rhapsody in Blue, Hollywood and Broadway.

Is this perhaps a phenomenon of the left, rejecting “patriarchal” high culture? Apparently not. Ben Sasse’s Them: Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Heal, by a Republican senator with an impressive intellectual bent, plausibly opines: “The problem is that our ever more ferocious political tribalism and mutual hatred don’t originate in politics, so politics isn’t going to heal them.” Adducing the same torn fabric as Putnam and Garrett, he blames the digital age. He laments the diminishing pertinence of friends, church, and community. But I happen to be a stranger to Senator Sasse’s world of church and picnics. I worry that religion may be as much a divisive as a binding factor in America’s map of red versus blue. When I think about fostering a lost “sense of place,” I think about shared American identity via shared history and culture (as did Willa Cather, whose formative frontier experiences in Senator Sasse’s Nebraska included the Lieder and operas of German immigrants). 

And now there is the pandemic to drive it all home. In European nations, “save our cultural institutions” is widely regarded as a necessary cause. In the US, the same cry is not heard. What is going on? Were the arts always a negligible component of the New World experience, insufficiently cultivated? Or did they become negligible? Are we as a nation simply too young to dig deep expressive roots? Too diverse? Too much crippled by our original sins of slavery and the Indian Wars? Is any of that pertinent to bowling alone?

Comments

  1. I belong to a group on Facebook for classical singers. It passes for self-evident truth among most members of the group that classical music—not just its practitioners or its institutions, but the very body of musical compositions itself—is racist and sexist and colonialist and heteronormative and cosmically poopy in every respect known to Woke sensibilities. For example, not long ago someone posted a link to an article on Daniel Barenboim, the headline of which quoted the conductor saying that “it’s rubbish to say that classical music is ‘colonialist’.” This headline was posted with a curtly mocking comment, as Barenboim’s statement was held, both by the poster and by the vast majority of those who commented, to be an absurdity so obvious as not even to require assertion, much less defense. There was one commenter (not I) who ventured to defend Barenboim’s statement. He must have been doing nothing else that day, as he had dozens or hundreds of attacks to reply to. These practitioners of the art of classical music are practically stepping on one another in a competition to show how deeply their consciences are outraged by the idea that classical music is something other than a monument to evil. I don’t see much of a future for classical music as long as this sort of madness is the fashion among its practitioners, especially the younger ones.

  2. Anne Farrell says

    I commend to you a book called “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain,” by Betty Edwards, as well as her new book, “Drawing on the Dominant Eye.” In both, the differences between the “right brain” and “left brain” are explained, and she posits that American education has, for many decades, focused on educating only half our children’s brains — the left half which is where the “STEM” curriculum derives. They have left the “A” out for “art” (music and visual art), which could be “STEAM;” and alas, that right side is where so much power of perception resides. The ability to think creatively, and SEE clearly what is right in front of your eyes — perhaps that is why almost half the country is in thrall to a leader who constantly lies to them, despite what they should be able to see as truth. Art in all its forms used to be a part of public education from the earliest grades. Now it is the first thing to be eliminated. What a shame that these new books have forgotten the importance of creativity and the arts in healing our country.

  3. I trace the erasure to two roots: the ending of the FCC’s ruling that “quality” content must be broadcast on television. Rather than extending to all cable channels, they removed it completely. That meant a nearly total disappearance of the classical arts, most noticeably from public television. And then from the few arts-oriented cable channels. Yes, Bravo was once all-arts.
    The second was the baby boomers embrace of rock-and-roll and erasure of adult music as a whole, which was greatly encouraged by the record industry and their brainwashing method of getting people to socially identify who they were by what they listened to. Pigeonholing the music and listeners simultaneously was very effective. Only radio continued on with classical stations, for a while.

  4. The people in the classical music world have themselves to blame, in great part, for being so passive. Britain has several national classical music magazines, tiny Britain, while we have NONE. Imagine the difference it would make if we had one such general interest magazine, with well beyond a million subscribers. It should be easy to achieve with quality content, as there are literally millions of people in this country, let alone the world, who are somehow involved with classical music. It creates a visible constituency. We had several of them, until the 1960s. What I believe sank Musical America was its emphasis on the money side of music and a lack of soul, as if it were a teammate of Columbia Artists, which it probably was. The other emphasis, on reviews, was just as soul-killing as most critics are. Their closure only left a couple of recording review publications with their basically amateur critics, obsessed with idiocies like comparing the durations of recordings.

  5. Finally, audiences have been abused by contemporary musc for so long, it alienates music lovers. Some of it attracts the trendy art crowd, but they don’t listen to any other classical music very much.

  6. Thank you for your reviews and poignant remarks. Having been involved in the arts and education for since the 1960s, it seems important to note that books like those of Putnam, Lepore and Sasse fail to discuss the arts because their type of sweeping historical argument does not account for “the arts” in relation to the lives of individuals and communities and the socio/economic flow of creativity in everyday life. To start with, every city and town as its music and dance schools, local bands and art galleries. Large cities maintain their quality and appeal with museums, arts districts, events. Less obvious, is the fact that popular culture is shaped by people who once were introduced and trained to be ‘artists’ but found their way into the art businesses, starting with advertising and including film, television and now digital technology. (Those animations, sound effects and graphics on sports shows were not made by the athletes.) Which is to say, as we live in a visual, sonic, technological and material culture, its forms of communication are ‘aesthetic’ even as they are designed to sell crap. America itself is, by the way, a performance and one way to understand and approach it is to have better grasp of how to engage the meaning of the arts and art forms in relation to culture and history (as in the examples Horowitz cites), which must be inclusive and able to recognize and affirm meaning and why and how ‘the arts’ are integral to local/national/global desire and human imagination.

  7. jon golddberg says

    “Dangerous Melodies” by Jonathan Rosenberg offers a fascinating and ultimately very sad history of the last time classical music held a position of prominence in American life. Can you imagine a ticker tape parade in New York today for any American classical musician? I believe YoYoMaMa is spot on with many of his observations, particularly with the diminishing of the arts in our public schools. Today’s Style section of the Washington Post (12/30/20) features an article “It has been a tough year. Here’s what we listened to, watched and read to get through it” featuring selections from 28 members of the Opinion staff. Not one of them mentioned a piece of classical music. Very telling as to the standing of classical music in contemporary America.

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