"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

The Washington Symphony Orchestra recently 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.

The well-heeled audience filed in, took their seats, ruffled through the program, fidgeted, and turned to the orchestra.  There is always a moment of anticipation, even excitement, when the orchestra tunes up – a tapping of violin bows, sounds of tympani, a mix of horns – all a pleasant anticipatory moment; and the evening’s Washingtonians were 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)
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.  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 finale, most of the audience was sound asleep.

This, like other performances at the Kennedy Center was principally for their wives of the Washington who's who for whom the capital’s cultural events were social credentials. The first movement was profound”, noted the next morning over coffee, “but the interpretation of the second and especially the fourth was pedestrian to say the least.” 

The Kennedy Center is not the only must-attend venue of the Washington elite.  The National Gallery is another, and every afternoon the same Schumann drama is played out in the Dutch galleries.  Georgetown is simply enamored of Vermeer, and Van Eyck is not far behind.  “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 - a museum under siege, badly managed, and about to merge and disappear as one of Washington’s premier private museums - “is marvelous. Just look at the back-lighting, 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, nodded knowingly at her remarks.

Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors is a roustabout, playful comedy known 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.  Many in the audience of K Street lawyers turned to their equally perplexed wives and asked, “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 turned to blockbusters to fill the galleries – 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 historical 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 culture.

Each Wednesday the Capital Arts Club hosts a visit to the National Gallery mediated by one of the museum’s docents,  graduate students from Washington's major universities. 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.

On one tour – Modern Art and the Human Form – was facilitated by a guide from Catholic University, and provided her very particular and doctrinaire version of Francis Bacon. “You will notice” she said, “the overtly homosexual themes of 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 never hid his sexuality but 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 Bacon, all they could think of was inverted sex.

The Capital Arts Club experience with Catholic University and Francis Bacon was a Barnum & Bailey compared to most obligatory pilgrimages to the Mall museums. Shared experience concerning the mystifying and perplexing is always comforting if not consoling; and two matrons from Great Falls were heard discussing 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 affected.

Two Great Falls women stood silently before the Kiefer canvas, a frightening, dark, chilling work of angst, social conscience, and metaphysics. One said, “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 go 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, is 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 Theater are 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 is enough to exhaust a young woman from the Midwest; but the glamour and promise of Washington is invigorating and exciting.  Anything is possible.

However, these women from Middle America are on to something.  Schumann and Schubert are boring.  Shakespeare’s Comedies are contrived and glib. 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 quickly becoming passé.  The action is on the street, in virtuality, in interactive social media, in Hollywood. Life has sped 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/)

Not a lot has changed in 60 years.  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 posture.  The art patron looking thoughtfully at the Seurat 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 dreams of sex.   The French grew up with high art.  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 tepee 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.

One should not regret the demise of classical music.  Let Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms rest quietly in their graves. Let Beyoncé, Madonna, and Justin Bieber have their day.  Forget the solemn, austere, cathedrals of culture turn to the modern temples of Las Vegas, Times Square, and South Beach.  Time to accept Fire hall weddings, brats and beer, pup tents and RVs, video games and Fenway Park as truly ours and forget the rest.

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