Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Vanishing Artist

[posted by Callimachus]

Graduation speech:

Fifty years ago, I suspect that along with Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Sandy Koufax, most Americans could have named, at the very least, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, Georgia O'Keeffe, Leonard Bernstein, Leontyne Price, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Not to mention scientists and thinkers like Linus Pauling, Jonas Salk, Rachel Carson, Margaret Mead, and especially Dr. Alfred Kinsey.

I don't think that Americans were smarter then, but American culture was. Even the mass media placed a greater emphasis on presenting a broad range of human achievement.

I grew up mostly among immigrants, many of whom never learned to speak English. But at night watching TV variety programs like the Ed Sullivan Show or the Perry Como Music Hall, I saw—along with comedians, popular singers, and movie stars—classical musicians like Jascha Heifetz and Arthur Rubinstein, opera singers like Robert Merrill and Anna Moffo, and jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong captivate an audience of millions with their art.

The same was even true of literature. I first encountered Robert Frost, John Steinbeck, Lillian Hellman, and James Baldwin on general interest TV shows. All of these people were famous to the average American—because the culture considered them important.

Today no working-class or immigrant kid would encounter that range of arts and ideas in the popular culture. Almost everything in our national culture, even the news, has been reduced to entertainment, or altogether eliminated.

I've been thinking about this passage for days and still am not sure -- not whether I agree or not; I think he's right -- but why, exactly, it changed.

One idea, and not necessarily the most important, is that 50 years ago we were still a newly minted world power, still more than half thinking of ourselves with the inferiority complex stamped on us by generations of British and French snobbery. We still half suspected we were the stunted, illiterate yahoos they told us we were.

So an American being good at something was worth newsprint, was worth celebrating -- the root of "celebrity." Even if -- especially if -- it was a foreigner who had chosen to come here or fled here. Because most of us were, then, closer to having an immigrant ancestor (the 1900-1910 period was, I believe, the peak of immigration). That was part of America: "We may be stunted, illiterate yahoos, but we will embrace every genius who's tired of living in your little country."

Now, we expect all the prizes, all the medals, all the Nobels and Pulitzers. It's almost a scandal when we don't sweep the board. Yeah, our kids don't test out as well as the Singaporeans, but we have an excuse for that.

Another feature is the relative monopoly of the media back then in a few hands. Monopoly is supposed to be a bad thing, but I laugh when modern anti-capitalists decry the contemporary media as monopolized. You can tell they're under 40. Back then, Ed Sullivan could literally put an opera singer into every American neighborhood. Perhaps it was one man's taste, or his sense of responsibility, or just the sponsors' wishes, but it gave us something we lack, and miss.

That doesn't explain the loss of poets and opera stars, which probably is more due to those art forms being swept into irrelevance by new ones we invented, which are as tasteless as paper and no substitute for the bread of life that was in old poems.

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