In every major rust belt metropolis, in Baltimore, in Detroit, in Cleveland, in Cincinnati, in St. Louis, in Minneapolis, in Buffalo, in Newark, in Rochester, in Syracuse, there are a whole bevy of arts organizations that are giving the performances of a lifetime, orchestras, theaters, museums and galleries, performing as though their lives depend upon it, because they absolutely do.
When I was a teenager, theater and classical music performances could still sell out in Baltimore, but everywhere I turned was an ocean of grey heads. Today, those gray heads have been replaced by empty chairs. Today was yet another transcendent experience from the BSO played to a third-full house, not even a thousand people in a 2400 seat theater. To anybody who went, even or perhaps especially a beginner, it would have been an experience of a lifetime, an experience you can just as easily find at Everyman Theater, or at the Walters and the BMA, and yet nobody goes.
There are theaters, museums, and orchestras everywhere in the United States that are fighting for their very lives - monuments to mid-20th century prosperity and aspiration that currently operate like priceless antiques in an era that lets them collect dust, organizations that are on the precipice of destruction because nobody is willing to take care of them, and nobody thinks they can get anything out of the experience of having them anymore.
It's just barely not too late yet, but the time to save these organizations is drawing to a close. You have no idea what you have until you lose it, and I guarantee, if, as seems likely now, these organizations are allowed to descend into the fecal morass of history en masse, it will be the very same moment American republic ceases to be. Art is the world's seismograph, helping us interpret what has been, and what is to come. We have new arts today, glorious ones, electronic music, cinema, television, video art, standup comedy (my favorite...). But if we allow the monuments of old civilizations to crumble, then we lose those lessons of history, and we lose our best very best link with the forces of history - which are so incredibly powerful that they almost seem occult, and history will demand our sacrifice, and turn us into the old civilization that another civilization will have to preserve after we lose our most priceless treasures, not just works of art, but the lives of the people who should have appreciated them. It's not a coincidence that a generation after hundreds of thousands of intellectuals subscribed to Marx and Nietzsche, one of whom reduced history to simple material forces, the other reduced it to the simple machinations of 'supermen', the world was hit with a World War and an even worse one a generation after that.
Left or Right, everyone in today's America says that people should be free to like whatever they want to like and avoid the seriousness of anything that demands delayed gratification - be it in art, or work, or friendship, or love, or family. Plato predicted, 2500 years ago, that this is the kind of excess of democracy that leads to the breakdown of rule of law. Democracy is no different from authoritarianism in impact unless the rule of law is ironclad.
We may not like many things about the stodgy world of our grandparents; their frugality, their repression, their intolerance of difference. But for the entirety of their lives, they survived. They took a bellicose, warlike world, and through hard work and delayed gratification, they turned it into a mostly peaceful one. Today, instead of improving upon their achievement - instead of lifting the impoverished out of their despair, instead of doing the hard work of welcoming minorities into the more prosperous world they only began to create, instead of the hard work welcoming people to live freely as they like be they gay or trans or polyamorous, so many of us want to blow up their achievement and start over. You cannot expect for the world to continue as it did without the hard work of moral seriousness: you cannot expect to live lives free of heartbreaking sacrifice and melancholic contemplation - without sixteen hour work days six days a week, without continual fights with partners and children and parents over how life has (not ought, but has) to be lived, without the continual surrender of ambitions and dreams and personal fulfillment, without the continual insecurity and belief that our stupidity and arrogance are things that we always have to remedy, without losing this prosperity for generations hence. Our personal fulfillment inevitably comes at the expense of someone else's in another place or another time. The only way to create a better world is to sacrifice our personal better worlds for the greater good, because the objective of life is not happiness, the objective of life is to create more life.
If we live these lives of the generous in which we give unstintingly of ourselves to life rather than take from life, then this is the art that we crave to consume. I'm convinced of it - because nothing else could possibly speak as eloquently to the complexity of our emotional lives. Living this sort of life not only makes us better people (and I'm as guilty as anyone of not living this kind of life), but it makes us more interesting people with more worthwhile and complex life-experiences to contemplate and share, and therefore crave something that not only entertains us, but purges the agonies out of us that are necessary to accumulate in a meaningful life.
There was a long period when I did not believe in the distinction between high and low art. That period is over. Living in the major and thriving metropolii: New York, London, LA, San Francisco, Chicago, Paris, Berlin, even DC as I did for so long, is its own kind of incredibly sheltered existence. Living among so many like-minded progressive people, you can so easily convince yourself that the entire world can listen to reason and that your world will be the same for generations hence, and even if the world doesn't listen to reason, you can operate within that bubble of privilege and only hate the people who would take it away from you in the abstract. And therefore, you set your sites lower, a kind of intellectual decadence to set aside the anti-intellectual decadence of the provinces.
This high seriousness does not have to come from the traditional arts: it can, or at least should, just as easily come from movies, from TV, from more contemporary forms of music. And the seriousness needn't preclude silliness within it, but seriousness has to be the foundation upon which frivolity operates.
I love a lot of more contemporary genres of music, god knows I love TV and a lot of shows on it and respect a number of them as equivalent works of novelistic literature, there are lots of cinematic auteurs that are fully the equivalent of the great playwrights. And standup comics are, for me at least, just about the greatest thing about living in our age rather than any other. But my love of all this is leavened by the knowledge, the fact, that in so many cases, it's immature art. With a few exceptions, I don't place them on an equivalent pedestal, and I don't think you should either. We view our art little differently from the way children view it, because our expectations of what life demands from us are little different than the expectations of children, who have never yet learned to delay gratification, and neither have many of their parents.
Just in the case of music, I would be much more charitable to non-classical music if there were more forms of absolute music to which most people listened. The whole idea that music begins where words end is almost over, how many people even listen to jazz anymore? Are people's emotional lives so uncomplicated in our day that we simply require words or dancing as a precondition to enjoy music? Is the idea of sitting in a seat in silence for forty-five minutes at a time an experience no different from spending that time staring at wallpaper?
I think there's enormous value in popular songs, but it's the value of beautiful flowers and cultural artifacts. They're precious in part because the shelf life of even the best of it might be severely limited. When the culture that birthed The Beatles and Dylan and Chuck Berry and James Brown and Public Enemy and Nirvana ceases to be, will there be any interest in it that is that is not grounded in history rather than aesthetic appreciation? How many people our age even listen to Sinatra and Pops and Duke anymore for pleasure? How many even listen to Scott Joplin?
I have no idea what the answer to that is, but I worry that the music and many of the genre fictions we love will be worthless to even our grandchildren, who will not make the effort to understand because they see it as just another indicator of how we let a good thing go to shreds for them because of our frivolity and our belief that personal fulfillment was more important than personal sacrifice.
Meanwhile, a whole new culture is arising in East Asia. Just as with former generations of Americans, this new middle class may be repressed and boring and intolerant, but they will survive, and in mid-October 2016, I'm not sure we will. and what is the telltale sign of this ascendent middle class? The same as ours once was. It is their love of classical music and high literature. It is their sponge-like assimilation of the best which other cultures have to offer. Yes, they certainly have their own thriving pop music scene, and god knows they have their own movies; there's also an accompanying love of American rock and jazz and blues, but it is something which they love as though it's a classical music, what they seem to appreciate in it is the eternal qualities of it, and most of the more inadequate bands that we still fetishize are tossed to the wayside - we've 'moved on' to Taylor Swift, but they're still stuck on Elvis and Chuck Berry. But even the preeminent rock clubs in Japan and South Korea are not selling tickets in the numbers which orchestral concerts are routinely selling out. Tokyo has 10 professional orchestras, not even London or Berlin can compete with that. They savor this music in precisely the way our grandparents and great-grandparents did. They may not know as much about high culture as eccentric nuts like me, but they hear in it the music and the literature of middle class aspiration and sacrifice, because their inner lives are too complicated to be reflected in anything simpler than the ambiguities of musical harmony. It is the music in which the tonic chord is the beginning from where we depart, and often takes us a full hour's journey to return. It is the music not of religion, and not of consumerism, but the music of metaphysics, the music in which a composer communes transcendentally with the listener, human to human, allowing an audience a space to enter not just a composer's thoughts, but a composer's entire mental and emotional and most vulnerable consciousness - because it's not the artist's gift that matters, but the artist's objective. The objective has to be to banish frivolity, except as a means to demonstrate greater seriousness. If posterity matters, then what is important is to communicate person to person on the most fundamental level about the most pressing, persistent, pertinent questions of existence, existences which are hard and hard-won, but humbly accept the tragedy which it is to be alive, and embraces life for whatever it is, with all the bad, but the hope alive for all sorts of blessings within it.
I'm sure there are people who read this (if they read it at all) who think to themselves that this is pure snobbery. Let them think it. Can popular genres address questions of existence? Of course they can. Do they? Not as often and not as well. People point to endless amounts of pop and genre fiction as a way of showing that it's just as or more substantial than any art that comes before it, but I've consumed well past enough of it to know that the intellectual content that passes through usually filtered in simplified form. And because the intellectual content is simplified, so is the emotional content. The idea that all forms of the arts are equal is a clear as day signal that the arts don't have enough importance in our lives anymore to gauge its quality. Can classical music be trivial? Yes, much too often, and every revival of bel canto and reams of stupid Baroque music and lots of others is time we could spend finding new meaningful cultural experiences. I've played a lot on both sides of the music ledger, both popular and classical - but in more popular genres, there was so little meaning left for me when the party stopped. After I got tired of bands and bands got tired of me, I couldn't see the value in the music anymore and I reverted to everything that is currently not even in fashion in the classical music world, which is now (understandably) reacting against the ascetic serialism of late-century academic composition by saying there is no way to judge the value of different kinds of music so long as people like what they like. i. I've listened to more types of music than 99.9999 percent of the world population, I've seen more B-movie crap and bad TV than most people, and have enjoyed the hell out of most of it. You can love both sides of entertainment and art while realizing that there are places where it's almost impossible within the constraints of popular entertainment to reach. And therefore, the achievement is all the more miraculous when it does.