The Arts: Who Needs ’Em?

Detail of portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820 (Wikimedia)
Asking and answering some basic questions

Editor’s Note: The below is an expanded version of a piece published in the February 11 issue of National Review.

Now and then, William F. Buckley Jr. used the phrase “infield practice,” which was strange, because he did not really care for sports — except sailing. I asked my brother-in-law, who is a sailor, “Is sailing a sport?” He answered, “Simple rule for me: It’s a sport if you know you’ve won when you cross the finish line. Sorry to all the ice-dancers in the world.”

Back to WFB — who attended his first Major League Baseball game in 1994, when he was nearly 70. Ira Glasser, the head of the ACLU, took him to Opening Day at Shea Stadium (where the New York Mets played). The two rode out to the park together via subway. WFB had not been on a subway train since 1965, when he ran for mayor. In that campaign, he made a ceremonial appearance on a train.

How did he get home from Shea, by the way? The usual: limo.

A few years later, Glasser took him to his second baseball game: a Yankee game. That would prove the final one. I know only one story about that evening. WFB told it to us. After an inning or so, he went to get a beer. The young woman behind the counter asked for ID. Dumbfounded, blinking, WFB said, “I’m 74 years old.”

He hated officiousness, or blind rule-following.

WFB may not have been much for baseball, or sports in general, but he loved language, and “infield practice” tickled his fancy. He would use it to indicate the fielding of basic questions (or the posing of them, I suppose). He might say, for example, “The BBC called this morning. I had a little infield practice on American conservatism.”

Well, I had a little infield practice myself a while ago, with a bright and engaging fellow from the Smithsonian Institution. He was asking about the arts, and his opening question was …

What makes a work of art truly great? Durability, most people would say. A great work lasts — lives on and on — rather than sparkling and then fizzling out. Also, a great work should touch the heart or stir the mind. And maybe point to something higher, or deeper.

When is it safe to call a work of art great? Sometimes never. But if you are confident of your judgment, safety is not a consideration. WFB liked to quote Stravinsky, who said that it takes 50 years, after a work’s creation, to assess that work properly. I don’t know. With some of them, you know quickly (one way or the other). But Stravinsky and Buckley had a point nonetheless.

What role does great art play in society? Some societies prize it more than others. The same is true of individuals. Not everything appeals to everybody. WFB was not much for sports. Some are not much for the Great Outdoors. Woody Allen said, “I am two with nature.” I know people in classical music who are always trying to make classical music popular. “Don’t waste your time,” I say. “There’s a reason they call pop music ‘pop music,’ you know: It’s popular.” Classical music will never be popular. But that’s all right: There will always be a minority who cherish it, and keep it going.

So, in your view, the arts are something that people can take or leave? There is not a societal need for art? Look, I think society would be poorer without art, because art enriches the soul. It breathes beauty into life. It can take us above the muck (or not). But this is a matter of individual choice, or leanings. There will always be art-lovers in society — always — and others who are indifferent. The others will probably be in the majority.

You can’t make everyone conform to your tastes. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand. I’m always quoting Homer — not the Greek poet, but Homer Simpson. When Apu was worried about impending fatherhood, Homer said, “Kids are the best. You can teach them to hate the things you hate. And they practically raise themselves, what with the Internet and all.”

People are always trying to get others to love what they love and hate what they hate. Well, good luck.

But everyone should have an appreciation of art, right? “Should” is an interesting word. In one sense, we should all have pretty prom dates and Corvettes. I think everyone should be exposed to art — and sports and science and everything else.

What would you require in schools? Many things, a variety of things — a smorgasbord. Again, exposure. I think of Marian the Librarian, describing her ideal man: “If occasionally he’d ponder what makes Shakespeare and Beethoven great …” That’s enough, I think. They need not be fanatics, like some of us. Lead a horse to water — many waters — and let him drink what he will.

Some people think that arts are necessary, societally, as a protection against tyranny. I think that’s a nice idea — but way off. There are lots of artists who are SOBs. That includes great artists. They are not automatically liberal democrats, far from it. Think of all those Nazis, and all those Communists! For that matter, think of Hitler and Stalin, personally! There have seldom been two greater art-lovers. Everyone knows about Hitler’s devotion to Wagner. But he really loved The Merry Widow, that fizzy, adorable thing. He saw it over and over, and bestowed awards on the composer, Lehár.

In order to be appreciated, does art need to be relevant to a person’s life? I don’t know what that means. I think “relevant” is one of the great nonsense words of our time. Is Bach’s B Minor Mass relevant? Relevant to what? It’s great. Is greatness relevant? As I see it, art can be liked and loved. It can instruct us, console us, thrill us, elevate us. But this mania, this fashion, this craze for relevance (whatever that means) is bizarre.

It is also a perversion of art, possibly. I suspect it goes hand in hand with attempts to politicize art. A lot of people think that if something isn’t political, it does not really matter. These are shallow people. By “relevant,” they may well mean “political.”

What’s the relevance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? The last movement features a hymn to brotherhood, true. But the Ninth is also … you know: a symphony in D minor. Music. Such art has a power beyond words, beyond human concepts.

You are talking about old art, though — art created centuries ago. What about today? Does art have a special responsibility today? I don’t know. Art is art, it seems to me. Good and bad (and in between). Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is fresh as a daisy. It speaks loud and clear to me, and millions of others. This music is unstaling. So is Bach’s B Minor Mass, which is even older than that symphony.

But, in reality, both of those works are ageless. They are beyond time and place, like great art in general. In China, people are on fire with music — classical music, Western classical music. This music is more popular, surely, in China and the rest of the East Asia than it is in the West, where it was composed.

Years ago, I asked Lorin Maazel, the great conductor, about the future of classical music. The first words out of his mouth were, “Thank God for China.”

You will concede that politics has a place in art, right? Many artists think it is incumbent on them to deal with the politics of their day. To make directly political art. Is there such a thing as political art? There’s art with politics in it. Most of the time, I think it’s pretty boring, because, somehow, the art takes a backseat to politics. And the politics is of a hectoring quality.

Politics is often a spoiler of art, because of that very quality: “Eat your peas.” It may well be that political art is yet another excuse for people to lecture. (Lecturing has its time and place, needless to say.) Better, I think, is to do things subtly. I like a movie that way, for example. A movie may convey a message — a great many of them do. But you don’t have to do it in a honkingly obvious way. Weave it in, you know?

I think of Shakespeare, which is cheating, because he is the greatest of all artists, but let’s do it anyway. Many of his plays are political — or rather, they have politics in them. But the art of them transcends the politics. The politics means practically nothing to us today. Same with Verdi’s operas, some of them. Un ballo in maschera is stuffed with politics — but we don’t give a damn about that, and rightly so. The music and the human drama are what counts.

A major topic when it comes to the arts today is representation. When museums or Hollywood studios or other gatekeepers of art present works by underprivileged groups — I don’t think groups make art. Individuals do. Fine. When gatekeepers present artists from underprivileged groups, doesn’t that help new audiences to engage? Possibly, yes. But I think that, as a rule, art is independent of race, ethnicity, and sex. If you have extra appreciation of a symphony, let’s say, because it’s by a woman, that’s you. This is an individual matter, a matter of perception. But, in my view, music ought to rise and fall on its own. The notes don’t know who composed them.

Or, as Duke Ellington said, if it sounds good, it is good.

Sure, but what about the visual arts? Don’t you think people like to look at pictures of people who look like them? Doesn’t that make them feel connected to the art? I can see that, of course. A person gets the sense that this stuff is for him, not just other people. And yet: If you think a Rembrandt self-portrait is nothing but a picture of an old, white Dutchman, that’s pathetic.

Americans are drunk on race, ethnicity, and sex — gender, people say today. They wear race-ethnicity-gender goggles. We’re taught that way in school. We are taught to see everything through this prism of race-ethnicity-gender. This is almost the American religion — and a tragedy, I think.

A few years ago, a high-school English teacher in Sacramento made some news. She complained that Common Core required her to teach Shakespeare, and this was not fair, she said, to her “very ethnically diverse and wonderfully curious modern-day students.” Shakespeare, she explained, “lived in a pretty small world.” Has anyone, in the long history of man, ever lived in a bigger world?

I thought of Maya Angelou, who, when she was very young, figured Shakespeare must have been a black girl. “How else could he know so well how I feel?” Think, too, of W. E. B. Du Bois, in his Souls of Black Folk (1903):

I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas. . . . I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously. . . . So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil.

Can art reach everybody? High art, that is? Is anyone exempt from its touch, its powers? I doubt it. But some people wall themselves off, I think, even if unwittingly. Let me tell you a story. For me it was jarring, and disturbing.

Last December 16, I jotted a little tweet: “Today is Beethoven’s birthday. Rarely has one man contributed so much to the world. As Lorin Maazel said, he is your best friend, with you through thick and thin. A great, great gift to mankind. ‘Simply a gift from God,’ as a teacher of mine used to say.”

There were various responses to this tweet. Many agreed. Many said things like “Mozart is better.” And then there were tweets like this: “We get it, you’re high-brow. We get it.” And, “Ooh, you’re just so smart, aren’t you?”

This kind of reaction is full of contempt, but it also may reflect some pain, resentment, and even shame. And you know who is a great antidote to these things? To pain, resentment, and related ills? Beethoven. He fought against them himself, his whole life long.

Let’s talk government. You’re not for government funding of the arts or other governmental involvement, right? Correct. Generally speaking, I don’t think that our central government should be a funder or arbiter of the arts, handing out goodies, including money and honors. I am wary of official art. Frankly, I don’t like the idea of a poet laureate in America, even when I like the poet who holds the job.

There’s an old line: “He who pays the piper, calls the tune.” Who should be calling the tune? The feds?

As for governmental awards in the arts, I find them a little creepy. I think they belong to monarchies and dictatorships, not to us. Not to our American republic. Let Napoleon hand out awards! I don’t think that we should have “official artists” or anything that smells of them.

Years ago, an important figure in the government called me to ask for advice on whom to give certain music awards to. Clearing my throat, I said, “Well, you know, I’m a little uneasy about these awards.” “Yeah, yeah,” he said, “I know what you mean, but they’re going to be given out anyway, so they might as well go to good and deserving people. That’s why I’m calling you.”

All right. But still …

Wealthy communities get to experience art all the time. What about poor communities? Well, to begin with, there has never been so much art available, in all human history. YouTube alone is swimming in it. Aristocrats of the past — the Esterházys, for example (Haydn’s patrons) — would faint with joy. On beholding the Internet, the librarians at Alexandria would expire.

Okay, but you would agree that there’s nothing like experiencing art firsthand: a gallery, a ballet, a concert. I agree 100 percent. The main problem, I think, is lack of interest, not lack of money. Could I tell you a story?

Many years ago, I was interviewing a great singer, who was repeating the usual line that our public schools are starved of money. There’s just not enough money for the arts, he said. I knew this was nonsense, because per-pupil spending is through the roof, but I seldom argue with an interviewee. I said, “Tell me about your own music education, early on.” “Oh, it was great!” he said. “The principal of our school was a wonderful woman who doubled as the music teacher. We went down into the basement for music hour. We didn’t even have a piano, just a pitch pipe. But, boy, did we learn.”

That didn’t take any money, did it? No — just someone who cared. Someone who gave a damn, someone who was willing and able to impart some music to the next generation.

I am no despiser of money. Money is good, poverty is bad. But what is most needed, I think –needed in the arts — is parents, teachers, and others who simply care. That’s what will keep the arts burning, for those who want it.

And thank you for the infield practice.

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