Magazine | February 11, 2019, Issue

Fielding a Few on the Arts

Duke Ellington: ‘If it sounds good, it is good.’ (Ed Clarity/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
‘So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil’

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). He 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 rode one briefly while running for mayor. From the ballgame, he limo’d home.

He may not have been much for baseball, but he loved language, and “infield practice” tickled his fancy. “I had a little infield practice with the BBC this morning,” he might have said. “They wanted to know about American conservatism.” In other words, “infield practice” was the taking of questions, usually of a basic nature.

Well, I had a little infield practice myself not long 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, rather than sparkling and 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.

But everyone should have an appreciation, 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. But I learned long ago that tastes vary, and that it’s foolish to expect, or even want, others to share yours.

What would you require in schools? I would require a lot of things — 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 all I know. When people say “relevant,” they may be saying “political,” sneakily.

But politics has its 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.

Think of Shakespeare — which is cheat­ing, because he is probably the greatest artist, 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.

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. On Beethoven’s birthday, December 16, I tweeted a little paean, or note of gratitude: What a gift he is. As Lorin Maazel (the late conductor) said, he’s the best friend you’ll ever have, with you through thick and thin.

There were many responses to this tweet. “Amen,” for example, and “Mozart is better!” One type of response surprised me, I must say: “We get it, you’re high-brow. We get it.” And, “Ooh, you’re just so smart, aren’t you?” There is contempt in those responses, but perhaps pain, resentment, and shame, too.

You know who is a great antidote to those things, and other 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.

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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