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

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Museums, Concerts, And Theatre–Boring, Boring, Boring….We Are A Low-Brow Nation

I recently went to a performance of the Washington Symphony Orchestra which played a program of Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms.  The selection of orchestral pieces was in itself noteworthy, because most orchestras, conscious of the increasing average age of patrons and their desire to attract younger listeners, usually include some fireworks – the 1812 Overture, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (abridged in many cases to include only the last movement, Ode to Joy), anything by Lizst, and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

I watched the well-heeled audience file in, take their seats, ruffle through the program, fidget, and turn to the orchestra.  There is always a moment of anticipation, even excitement, when the orchestra tunes up – a rattling of violin bows, tapping of tympana, honking of horns – all a pleasant anticipatory cacophony; and the evening’s Washingtonians were clearly eager and ready.

Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D Minor is a classic romantic piece with subtle variations and intriguing complexity. It’s movements are as follows:

  1. Ziemlich langsam - Lebhaft (D minor)
  2. Romanze: Ziemlich langsam (A minor)
  3. Scherzo: Lebhaft (D minor)
  4. Langsam; Lebhaft (D major)

As can be seen, the symphony moves rather slowly, especially in the first two, deliberate movements in which the composer experiments with modern musical forms while still hewing to a romantic format:

The Fourth is noteworthy for its experimental approach to symphonic form. Although cast in the usual four movements, following the usual fast-slow-dance-fast pattern, the work draws on many of the same melodic ideas throughout. The effect is more of a "symphonic fantasy" (as Schumann originally labeled the piece) than a classical symphony, with tensions set up early in the first movement not resolved until the end, half an hour later.  (PomonaMusic.org)

By the middle of the second movement, half the audience was nodding off – a gnarly, choked snore here, a bucking stay-awake head jerk there, and a narcoleptic, comatose chin-on-chest sleep everywhere.  Regardless of what Schumann intended or how revolutionary his musical ideas were, most people found the symphony profoundly boring.  The hall was half what is was after intermission, and before the rousing finale (if anything by Schumann can be considered rousing), most of the audience was sound asleep.

I was dragged to the Kennedy Center, as I suspect most men were by dutiful wives who needed to be seen at the capital’s cultural events to keep up their social bona fides. “The first movement was profound”, they might say the next morning at coffee, “but the interpretation of the second and especially the fourth was prosaic to say the least.” Post-mortems of symphonies are usually like this – self-serving and uninformed but couched in enough musical phrasing to fool most listeners – and poor Schumann, who really does occupy a place of importance in the evolution of modern music, must turn over in his grave with each ignorant compliment and ill-informed criticism of his works.

The Kennedy Center is not the only must-attend venue of the Washington literati.  The National Gallery is another, and every afternoon the same Schumann charade is played out in the Dutch galleries.  Georgetown is simply enamored of Vermeer, and Van Eyck is no slouch either.  “The luminosity”, said Margaret Prentice, wife of Herbert Prentice, scion of the Kellogg family, recently installed as a member of the Board of Directors of the Corcoran under siege, badly managed, and about to merge and disappear as one of Washington’s premier private museums, “is marvelous. Just look at the backlighting, the subtle play of light and shadow, the mystery and allure of her look”.

Mrs. Prentice was referring to both The Girl with the Pearl Earring and various interior, family scenes of Delft, conflating them into one; but her fellow matrons of the Capital Arts Club, all well-heeled but unschooled wealthy wives of politicians from the Midwest, knew no better and nodded knowingly at her remarks.

I won a lobbyist’s lottery and went to the opening night of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors.  Now, as anyone familiar with the Bard knows, it is a roustabout, playful comedy renowned for its poetic gymnastics and three-ring circus of matched and mismatched pairs.  It is about as far from Hamlet, Lear, or Macbeth as anyone can imagine. Shakespeare’s comedies are not for novices.  Macbeth is simple, straightforward, bloody, and guilt-ridden – easy to understand by modern audiences.  King Lear resonates with every parent who has a thankless child; and Hamlet conveys the angst and indecision of everyman. 

The Comedies, however, are linguistic tours de forces – double entendres, plays on words, self-referential allusions, Elizabethan puns, and verbal jousting a la Prime Minister’s Question Hour.  The audience of K Street lawyers – my colleagues mas o menos and their well-coiffured and –attired wives had no clue as to what was going on.  To my left, right, in front, and behind, Washington’s most powerful lawyers hissed into their wives’ ears, “What did he say? Where are they going? Did she sleep with him?”.

The National Gallery of Art is Washington’s cultural temple – the locus of high art.  In recent years it has resorted to blockbusters – free tickets were being scalped for up to $100 for a recent retrospective of Vermeer – but it houses an impressive permanent collection of the best representations of art from the Greeks to Jackson Pollock.  Every serious art lover visits the National Gallery even before the Metropolitan in New York thanks to its selective taste, sense of iconography, and purveyor of culture to the nation.

Each Wednesday the Capital Arts Club hosts a visit to the National Gallery mediated by one of the museum’s docents, usually a graduate student in Fine Arts at Catholic University.  The same well-bred but unschooled Republican matrons get to visit the country’s finest collections of art and benefit from the critical appraisal of their young guides. The only downside to the tours is that the apprentice docents from Catholic take a rather doctrinaire view of painting and are by no means objective.

On one tour – Modern Art and the Human Form – the guide made up her own religiously-oriented version of Bacon and Hockney. “You will notice” she said, “the overtly homosexual themes of Francis Bacon in his triptychs.  His disassembling of the human form takes on a distinctly homoerotic nature, and despite Bacon’s insistence on the spiritual nature of his ‘disaggregated individual’, he is painting gay men”.  Nonsense, of course.  Bacon, as queer as a three-dollar bill, never hid his sexuality and was angered at critics’ attempts to see his inversion in his works.  “Tennessee Williams was a faggot like me”, he said, “and both of us resent your (critics) conclusion that we can only depict homosexual attitudes”.

Enough Capital Arts Club members were offended by the guide’s thinly-veiled homophobia that they complained to the Events Organizer and got her dismissed; but the damage had been done.  Every time a Capital Arts Club member saw a David Hockney, all they could think of was perverted sex.

The Capital Arts Club experience with Catholic University and Francis Bacon was a Barnum & Bailey main event compared to the experience of most Washingtonians making their obligatory pilgrimage to the Mall. It is mainly women who visit the National Gallery, and they come in twos.  Shared experience concerning the mystifying and perplexing is always comforting if not consoling.  I overheard two matrons from Great Falls, dressed in tweed and accessorized with circle pins and pearl earrings, discuss a painting of Anselm Kiefer.

Kiefer is one of the most significant contemporary painters working today.  His oversized canvasses are stark, post-apocalyptic, and Biblical.  There is no way that anyone can stand before his wall-sized dark, black, and shadowy paintings without being frightened.

There are some exceptions, however, and two Capital Arts Club ladies in Washington for a tour of the East Wing, stood before one of Kiefer’s paintings and shared this exchange”":

“I wonder how they got the painting in here?”, one said. “It’s so big.”

“ They have a special ‘art crane’ they call it, that swings the big paintings in through the skylight”. 

She pointed to the high window in the ceiling of the gallery above.

“I don’t think so”, whispered her friend. “I think that the artist deliberately painted his canvas in three parts that could easily fit into the freight elevator”.

The two women stood silently before the Kiefer canvas, a frightening, dark, chilling work of angst, social conscience, and metaphysics.  “A bit like Jackson Pollock, don’t you think?”.

The parties in Georgetown, Potomac, Great Falls, and McLean are famous for their concentration of power.  The best and the brightest of Washington gad from home to home in the Fall after the long Congressional recess and reestablish social ties which have luffed in the hot summer and need attention.  Talk is mainly about home districts, upcoming bills, White House directives, and media coverage; but the chatter in the ladies’ sitting rooms is about art, music, and culture.  “”I hear The Treasures of Luxor is magnificent”, said one. “And let’s not forget the minor Flemish paintings from Antwerp”, reminded another.

Two years in Washington, the brief term of a Congressman, was very little; but enough to dip one’s toes in a high culture unknown in Rapid City, Greenwood, or Parker’s Junction. Front row center orchestra seats at the Kennedy Center and Washington Shakespeare Theatre were always available to the wives of Congressmen, and after-hours tours of the East Wing and National Portrait Gallery easily arranged.  The whirl of gallery openings, docent tours, and house parties was enough to exhaust a young woman from the Midwest; but the glamor and promise of Washington was invigorating and exciting.  Anything was possible.

Now, these women from the hinterlands were on to something.  Schumann and Schubert are thuddingly boring.  Shakespeare’s Comedies are contrived and cutely glib. Braque and Man Ray did what anyone could do. Who needs an apprenticeship at the Lycée des Arts Modernes in Bordeaux or at the Spanish Academy in Barcelona to disassemble the human body or be visually ironic?

There is a good reason why attendance at classical music concerts is way down, and why the age profile keeps going up.  Traditional art, music, dance, and theatre are passé.  The action is on the street, in virtuality, in interactive social media, in Hollywood. Life has speeded up geometrically since Schubert.  Who sings or listens to lieder anymore when there are fast-paced, sexy, fantastical worlds and hip-hop to explore?

Nine times out of ten the tired power couple returning home to McLean after an evening at the opera kick off their shoes, watch Jimmy Fallon, TiVo reruns of American Idol, and a little soft porn to get hot.  So do we all.

A lot has been made recently of the nation’s social inequality and the inability of low-brows to move up to high-brows; but as a 1949 chart indicating who belongs where suggests, nothing much has changed (go to this site to enlarge http://www.joeydevilla.com/2009/10/23/the-high-browlow-brow-chart/)

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Not a lot has changed in 60 years.  Low-brows still drink beer and eat coleslaw, and high-brows still go to museums and the ballet.  High-brows still drop off to sleep by the second movement of the Bolshoi folk ballet, and low-brows have a cavorting good time pub crawling and slipping between the sheets with Marlene from Accounting.

Let’s face it.  We Americans are a low-brow nation.  We love beer, brats, and baseball.  BBQ, inner tubes, and family picnics.  Reality TV, dirty jokes, and Rush Limbaugh.  B-movies, Christian Rock, and sequins. Anything else is pure posturing.  The art patron looking thoughtfully at the Seurat is a poseur who would rather be at home watching the Red Sox.  The nodding concert-goer in the front row at the premiere of Brahms Symphony No. 2 is dreaming of hot pussy.  The French grew up with this shit.  We inherited the tradition of high culture and it never took.

White Wolf was a Cherokee chief, a savage leader of the most savage tribe in America. He was a native American who slept in a teepee with four squaws, raided white settlements and took many scalps. He was a proto-American – strong, determined, of the land, ambitious, and bloody.  He had no time for culture. We come by our simple eagerness naturally.

I do not regret the demise of classical music.  Let Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms rest quietly in their graves. Give me Beyoncé, Madonna, and Justin Bieber.  Forget the solemn, austere, cathedrals of culture and give me Las Vegas, Times Square, and South Beach.  It is time that we give up our artsy-fartsy pretense and get real.  Fire hall weddings, brats and beer, pup tents and RVs, video games and Fenway Park. We are Americans!

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