"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Death of High Culture

Much has been made recently about the decline of the humanities.  Fewer and fewer students are studying literature in college, the English major is in free-fall as is Art History or Philosophy, and pressure is being put on public universities to become more relevant to the practical needs of both students and nation. The United States has always been anti-intellectual, suspicious of highfalutin, pointy-headed academics and politicians who use big words; and seems to be getting even more so.  One of the questions now asked in political polling is “Who would you rather go to a barbecue with?”; or drink a beer, or go rafting, or just hang out?

If American politicians spoke like their British counterparts, they would be laughed off the podium and consigned to political limbo.  The trick is to avoid three-syllable words, not search for le mot juste regardless of its length. George W. Bush is a good example. He went to Andover, then Yale, and finally to Harvard for an MBA.  He is from a patrician New England family and son of a president and WASP cultural icon of breeding and service. Yet Bush cultivated the frat boy image, the Texas cowboy, the Lone Ranger striding into the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the macho man real American. He knew one thing for sure, high culture does not win elections.

It seems like eons ago that Robert Frost read his poetry at JFK’s inaugural; but the image of that frail, 87 year-old icon of American letters and culture reciting one of his own poems from memory is classic.

Robert Frost at JFK inauguration.jpg

The President and The First Lady brought high culture to the White House for three brief years, and there was an explosion of interest in art, music, dance, and literature.  The guest lists at formal White House occasions were always heavy with artists, Jackie took us on historical/artistic tours of official Washington, and Pablo Casals played for the President:

Pablo Casal at Kennedy Center

With the ascension of LBJ we returned to our rural, simple, rustic roots.

We Americans come to this anti-intellectualism honestly. We rejected the idea of privilege, kings and queens, and the wigged foppery of the English aristocracy in 1776; and then, in building our nation, took democracy to the extreme. All men were created equal, we concluded. Sod-busters, pig farmers, and bankers were all cut from God’s cloth. While rank, privilege and chamber music still were enjoyed in the salons of Charleston, Philadelphia, and New York, the rest of America was clog-dancing, doing the do-se-do, or yelping out some hillbilly refrain to hear it echo in the hollers.

Our politicians, particularly those in the House of Representatives, were no different from their constituents.  Most of them were farmers, ranchers, businessmen from out on the Prairie, small mountain towns, or cracker enclaves in the South. How could anyone expect that the tenor of the discourse in the House or the oratory of its members be any different from hog-calling?  In fact, we have always been proud of these natives of the soil.

Ninety-nine percent of Americans have never been to a symphony, a chamber concert, a Shakespeare play, or a ballet.  Few if any have ever read any poetry more complex than Hallmark birthday rhymes.  The NY Times bestseller list is crammed with books on how to fix things, get a man, survive an abusive marriage, make a million in two weeks, and cook a killer flank steak. Serious contemporary authors like Richard Ford, Richard Russo, and Phillip Roth have their followings; but they are not Faulkner or James Joyce.  They tell great stories with lots of sex, political shenanigans, and boyish hijinks and do touch on the human condition if you really look hard. They are a cut above Stephen King, J.C. Rowling, or Dan Brown, but not too far up. 

‘Art’ movies come and go, but the great cult films of the early Werner Herzog are even hard to get on video. The French can always be counted on for something dark, weary, and meaningful.  In these days of world-everything, there are frequent offerings from Israel, Iran, and Hungary that get to the heart of the matter; but America is even more wedded to Hollywood blockbusters, American culture’s stock-in-trade. . 

Joel Breuklander, writing in The Atlantic (7.19.13) summarizes the epitaphs and Doomsday predictions of popular and academic notables:

No less a luminary than Philip Roth made a splash when he said in 2009 that it was "optimistic" to think that anybody would be left reading novels in 25 years; in 2003, David Foster Wallace claimed that "every year the culture gets more and more hostile . . . it gets more and more difficult to ask people to read," which he blamed on the speed of Internet culture, lagging educational standards, and weak demand for "serious books" relative to Europe. Before all of these it was Jonathan Franzen, a novelist known for riffing on the theme of literature's failings—its inability to change anything, its over-intellectualization, and its experimentalism.

The point is that most Americans don’t care about high culture.  They have had neither the breeding, background, education, or experience to move out of Mayberry. High culture remains in the same urban salons that nurtured it in the early days of the Republic; and if it disappears, few people will notice.

But will it disappear altogether?  The age profiles at symphonies, ballets, and theatre seem to attest to the fact that it well might. Many producers are not giving up without a fight.  I have been to Shakespearean productions that have tried to be more ‘accessible’ and ‘relevant’.  Shylock as Jew from the Garment District.  Antonio, Bassanio, and Gratiano low-lifes from Little Italy. And Portia and her crowd from the North Shore of Long Island.

I have seen Hamlet read “To be or not to be” like a street punk (“Hey! To be or not to be? Now that, bro’ is the real question”).  I have seen King Lear turned into family melodrama. and the Comedies transported from Venice to spicy Latin America.

If these keeps up, Shakespeare will certainly finally be buried after 450 years.  Neither Canon guys like me nor young audiences with very different modern perspectives are fooled by this nonsense.

Symphonies are thuddingly boring affairs.  Although many are trying to get audiences to come by playing the Symphony Fantastique, The 1812 Overture, and The Four Seasons, and Beethoven’s Ninth; others stick with the old, somnolent classics of Schumann and Schubert.

The many valid criticisms of poetry are too numerous to cite, but Breuklander sums them up nicely here:

Mark Edmundson (Harpers) declaims modern poetry as "weak," written by "courtiers" lacking "ambition" or "fire".  Poets today, Edmundson writes, "struggle" to not be "Thinkers." They are not ambitious enough: too "[reticent] about speaking in large terms, swinging for the fence," too timid "to attempt an Essay on Humanity" or to ever dare to hope, like Shelley, that their words could "change the world." At the heart of this claim is Edmundson's belief that poets are currently shackled by a political correctness that prevents them from writing as though they could speak for all humanity—and thus, keeps their poetry from becoming truly universal.

Anyone who glances through a volume of contemporary poetry will find the contents either treacly, “opaque and inscrutable’, dripping with “pathological empathy” or forays into familiar pop PC issues of race, gender, and ethnicity.

What visitor from the Midwest who visits any Museum of Contemporary art will not zip through the insanely self-referential, narrow, and meaningless installations there? This is a photograph of an installation that was up for the prestigious Turner Prize (2008).

Even former bastions of high culture, the Ivy League, have long-ago transformed themselves into ‘relevant’ institutions. A young friend of mine studying at Brown a few years ago said that she wanted study literature and asked me for suggestions.  I quickly answered Modern American Theatre, remembering my own happy experiences with Albee, Tennessee Williams, James Agee, Eugene O’Neill, and Arthur Miller. After a few days she called back and said there were no such courses.  Such survey courses no longer existed, and the only offerings were “American Slave Journals: Queer Studies in Tar Paper Shacks”; or “The Drama of the Oppressed – Street Poetry from San Francisco”.

For the last four years or so I have become re-immersed in the high culture of my academic youth.  I have been reading Shakespeare, Faulkner, Joyce, and Milton; and carving out my neo-intellectual niche with written takes on their major themes and ideas.  I share my own reflections and insights with fellow alter kocker journeymen from the old days of the Canon, but have long ago realized that most people’s eyes glaze over with just the words Paradise Lost.

It is easy to predict the end of ‘high culture’; but almost impossible to predict what will replace it. Will Harvard graduates leave Cambridge armed only with economics, political philosophy, and engineering ignore everything else?  I would like to think that these students are too smart to ignore the artistic expressions of the last 17,000 years since Lascaux; too insightful to pass over the lessons of Aeschylus, Villon, Auden, and Eliot.  But popular culture – whether lowbrow Hollywood schlock or the culture of economic enterprise – is unstoppable.  It finds cracks in the best-fortified intellectual redoubts and fills them with goo.

In the best-case scenario, the intelligentsia will devise new high culture, one constructed in a virtual world, and reflecting the new realism.  Its art will cut its references short and will have no need for the Greeks or the Renaissance.  It will be as exciting, demanding, innovative, and enlightening as anything past. Brains will not disappear.  Smart people will always ask the same questions about being and nothingness.  Artists will always be in the vast minority, but will never disappear.  They will be the same prophets, observers, and guides as they always have been.  High culture will never disappear.  It just will simply be different,

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