February 16, 2007

State of the Arts

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I don’t blame Elvis for shooting his TV. The boob tube represents the most powerful evidence that our culture is sliding headlong down the greasy slope of cretinous degradation. If I owned a revolver, I would reach for it every time I was subjected to the vacant bimbos of reality TV or the semi-articulate products of journalism school announcing the latest kidnapping, child-fondling or puerile celebrity freak-out. The evidence from television alone suggests that our culture has become a putrid sludge of intellectual degeneracy and moral squalor. But is our culture really that bad?

I think not, though I question this when I read headlines like “Ashley Olsen Dances in Panties for Mystery Man.” Because our culture is extremely diverse and complicated, crotchety generalizations don’t quite do justice to the many positive forces operating in the media, literature and the arts. For one thing, the United States is a great preserver of culture created by other people. No matter what filthy depths our own pop culture may sink to, we will always have the high culture of Europe and other civilizations, displayed in our opulent museums, performed in our crowded concert halls and ensconced in our vast and multitudinous libraries.

Moreover, the sheer amount of culture generated by the United States is staggering, and this is a virtue unto itself. We produce, for example, more than 500 films per year (and we boast over 37,000 movie screens). American publishers released 172,000 new books in 2005. The United States contains about 17,500 museums, more than 200 symphony orchestras and over 2,600 four-year colleges and universities, including 200 liberal arts colleges. Over seven percent of Americans are professional visual artists. That is lot of culture, or at least potential for culture.

As a result of this, we are virtually drowning in information. All of the great books, films, recordings and images ever made are available to practically everyone at low or no cost. And with the proliferation of cheap communications technology, anyone can become a self-proclaimed artist with ease. Americans are, in a sense, steeped in culture like no other society before. Even if the overwhelming majority of that culture is worthless, there still should be a sizeable amount of reasonably good culture left over.

Reality, however, tends to disappoint. When I consider what is good in contemporary American culture, a few things come to mind — a book here, a movie there and even, when I am in a generous mood, one or two TV shows. It is, admittedly, a paltry list. It proves that Americans are able to produce good culture when they really try. On the other hand, Americans are not really trying these days.

Making genuinely high quality, thought-provoking art is a devilishly difficult thing, requiring enormous reserves of self-discipline and at least the pretense of being serious and cultured. And we are just too narcissistic and distracted for that — we of the millisecond attention spans, the bleary-eyed, enervated masses of the Information Age. Nope, no Michelangelos here.

Moreover, the quality of our education system has been in free fall for a while now, so intelligent students are not receiving the tough training that might enable them to become great artists. The East Asian nations are inheriting Western classical music because we’ve lost interest in teaching the rudiments of music to our young. There is little chance of a Mozart or Shakespeare emerging from our moron-friendly public schools.

Mind you, American culture has rarely been great. But in recent years, it seems to have taken somewhat of a plunge. Hollywood was capable of producing one haunting masterpiece after another in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. It was able to recruit artists like Max Steiner, the Austrian-born composer who wrote the sweeping, eternally memorable scores of films like Gone with the Wind and Casablanca. The transition from there to Brokeback Mountain and Christina Aguilera strikes me as a bit of a devolution.

Accompanying the intellectual and artistic decline is the moral decline of our culture: its loud celebration of radical individualism and narcissistic self-affirmation and the mad competition between entertainers to penetrate to the nether regions of perversity and horror. All in all, it is not a very inviting picture. However, I stand by what I first said. American culture is a complex, protean thing, and one must be careful making broad statements about it. We have had great moments before — the oratory of Lincoln comes to mind, and the Golden Age of Hollywood — and so we may again. But until then, I will keep a revolver near my sofa, just in case.