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Beethoven trumps Britney…every time.

January 9th, 2008 · No Comments

I came home today to find the new issue of American Record Guide in my mailbox.  It was a welcome arrival.

Much as some people go first to the sports section of the newspaper, or to the technical credits of a CD booklet, I race to the Critical Convictions column of this bi-monthly classical music journal as soon as I tear off the plastic pouch protecting it.  The editor-in-chief of ARG, Donald Vroon, puts heart, soul, reason and no small amount of venom into his regular essay on the state of culture, in general, and the classical music world, by default.  I have frequently gasped out loud at some of the brash – and sometimes abrasive – statements he has made regarding the downward spiral that the arts in our country has taken during the last few decades – it is most often a brilliantly-constructed melodrama of horror and truth.  This evening I gasped for a different reason: someone else had written Vroon’s column!

As it turns out, Vroon’s absence was filled quite adequately by Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.  Mr. Gioia’s ARG column, entitled “The Impoverishment of American Culture,” is a condensed version of his June commencement address at Stanford University.  Here are some key points, from an article with key points peppered within it like so many minefields:

The loss of recognition for artists, thinkers, and scientists has impoverished our culture in innumerable ways, but let me mention one.  When virtually all of a culture’s celebrated figures are in sports or entertainment, how few possible role models we offer the young.  There are so many other ways to lead a successful and meaningful life that are not denominated by money or fame.  Adult life begins in a child’s imagination, and we’ve relinquished that imagination to the marketplace.

Dana Gioia Stanford commencement
(photo: L.A. Cicero)

At 56 I am old enough to remember a time when every public high school in this country had a music program with choir and band – usually a jazz band, too, and sometimes even an orchestra. … I am sorry to say that these programs are no longer widely available.  This once visionary and democratic system has been almost entirely dismantled by well-meaning but myopic school boards, county commissioners, and state officials, with the federal government largely indifferent to the issue.  Art became an expendable luxury, and 50 million students have paid the price.  Today a child’s access to arts education is largely a function of his or her parents’ income.

The real purpose of arts education is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society.  This is not happening now in American schools.  What are we to make of a public education system whose highest goal seems to be producing minimally competent entry-level workers?

A melodrama of horror and truth, indeed!  While reading Gioia’s column, I could not shake the image of hundreds of mortar-boarded Stanford grads, sitting in distracted attention, texting one another during this spoken address with details of that evening’s festivities.

I have nothing against Stanford, even though both of my siblings went to USC (which had the superior football team at the time).  Indeed, the recollection of my own commencement includes our Class Day speaker Mother Teresa, whose message of service and love was a hard sell to a class who were more focused on meeting July’s rent on their new apartment or shuttling visiting family members around Cambridge than on the lasting impact of charitable acts.  The rewards of heaven were much less tangible at that time than the consolation of an adequate paycheck.

Nonetheless, in the 25 years since that day, the state of popular culture has fallen to such a lamentable level that there is not much for an individual to do about it other than, well, lament.  A glance at the best-seller charts for music and books give us CDs filled with vapid pelvis-swinging beats and formulaic thrillers with unchallenging chapters designed to do little more than occupy the reader on a bus ride to work.  No poetry, no lyricism, and a barely distinguishable heartbeat.  Sure, there are exceptions, but they are standouts because they are rare.  I have no argument at all with Mr. Gioia’s thesis.

The full text of Dana Gioia’s address can be found here.

I strongly encourage you, if you are interested in keeping up with the happenings in the very rich world of classical music and opera, to investigate the American Record Guide – you can subscribe to receive their publication in your mailbox, and gain access to the magazine’s online archives, by visiting their website.  Read it, share it with someone you know, then take a student to the symphony, to your community theater, to the museum, to a book or poetry reading…

Tags: ideas · music

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