North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

“Trade easy pleasures”

with 3 comments

Excellent Commencement speech at Stanford this year.

Gioia to graduates: ‘Trade easy pleasures for more complex and challenging ones’:

There is an experiment I’d love to conduct. I’d like to survey a cross-section of Americans and ask them how many active NBA players, Major League Baseball players, and American Idol finalists they can name.

Then I’d ask them how many living American poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, architects, classical musicians, conductors, and composers they can name.

I’d even like to ask how many living American scientists or social thinkers they can name.

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.

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.

Source: Stanford News

Partly this is a technological problem. There simply is no longer anything like the unified “mass” media of times past. A 70’s child, I can recall finally getting a cable “converter” and picking up – I don’t know – three more channels in the early eighties. Pay TV came along a few years later.

That doesn’t mask the deeper issue, the one Dana Goia is speaking about. The kind of recognition that he remembers – that I got a glimpse of as a child – requires things we no longer hold ourselves to. Almost nobody today is willing to defend High Culture, and nobody is willing to defend it at a cost to themselves.

Our new technologies might allow for speciality channels if we ask for them, and are willing to pay for them.

There is something very European and modern about what is mourned here, however, and I’m not sure we are willing at this point to call crap crap, and not simply a “different choice.” Traditional European culture was all to willing to do this; it took modernism to try and bring this high culture to the common man.

Sadly, we’ve given up. We could try and widen the scope of High Culture to make it less White, but we have instead taken the easy and timid course and decided that culture is culture in the same way that widgets are widgets.

I don’t think Goia takes the issue far enough when he chooses public education as the place where we can turn the tide. Firstly, we have to want to turn the tide, to even recognize that it can be different. When we’re talking about the value of things outside the market, I think we’re talking about religion. Not a specific religion, but it comes down to thinking about what a human being is, and what kind of a social construct is best suited to the fulfillment of a human life.

You know where I stand on that one.

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Written by Curt

June 26, 2007 at 2:29 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Just what “high culture” is not so simple.

    I number myself amongst those who would include Charles Bukowski as the best North American poet of the last century. You would think a library system as big as our Fraser Valley Regional Library would have room for such a literary giant – not the last time I looked. Buk would be pleased to see a little Al Purdy made it past the censors.

    Same goes for William Burroughs, one of the most influential novelists in history. By acknowledging and worshipping unreal, mediated images such as that of Mickey Mantle, whose real image was better portrayed by Jim Bouton than Sports Illustrated, we make it difficult to fit into our lives the often unusual characters that create high culture in the first place.

    At a high school reunion I attended some time back a lawyer was pointed out as being the most successful of us all. I just about puked. Sitting at the table next to mine was an accomplished musician who had tingled more spines with his artistry in a single performance than the lawyer would fatten client’s wallets in her entire lifeltime.

    When I asked the musician about this later in the evening he just shrugged his shoulders and told me, “Just like when we were in school Beer, most people don’t know their asshole from a hole in the ground.” As Todd Bertuzzi was fond of saying, “It is what it is.”

    High culture includes a very broad spectrum of artists. They tell us more about our selves and our times than all but a few of our sports heroes do. (Barry Bonds being an exception.) Let us support them all, without exceptions, for they give more of themselves than just about anybody.

    Mr. Beer N. Hockey

    June 26, 2007 at 6:38 pm

  2. High Culture doesn’t need to be one thing; it could even be defined negatively. Ie. It isn’t simple, indistinguishable or nihilistic or degrading. It’s ok to point out than man can be terribly cruel, but it’s not ok to be indifferent about it.

    Put another way, positively, we could say it’s complex, challenging, unique to the one to made it but accessible to just about any adult at some level. More: it should stand the test of time; things that are of interest many years after they are produced ought to be of special interest.


    June 26, 2007 at 7:07 pm

  3. Well put.

    Mr. Beer N. Hockey

    June 26, 2007 at 8:53 pm

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