|Gustave Moreau, Hesiod and the Muse, 1891.|
Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Wikipedia gallery / public domain
The world is a Silk Road--we have been adopting and adapting bits of other people's culture from the start. Culture is no more a static thing than is language. It's a living, growing thing, and we should hope that it is in good health for all our sakes. What many froth over--cultural influence--is the condition of the planet for many thousands of years. Cultural contact meant and still means change and growth and a way of re-imagining one's own arts. At the moment, I don't think the culture is in especially fit health, in large part because we've cheerfully let in the Trojan horse of entertainment (enjoyable and fun and occasionally rising to heights, yes, but not usually the height of human achievement) to defeat the high works of culture and leave only tiny audiences for many of our most important arts. Precious traditions dwindle and die away.
Take poetry as an example. We find ourselves--at least in this country--with a vision of poetry that is extremely small these days. As readers and as writers, we have forgotten our Western classical roots, seldom study the great works of the past in our own language (we oust Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton from the English major in many schools), and have abandoned our knowledge of a range of forms, prosody, syntax, modes, tropes, figures, and auricular pleasures. And that means we have kicked a good deal of variety and surprise and liveliness out of the poetry tent.
A great many writers have come through the Romantic period and into Modernism and Post-Modernism with a conviction that poetry can only begin with our own (sometimes itty-bitty) feelings and end in an epiphany of some sort, and that stance cripples us. We have been devoted to the small lyric for too many years, and we have ignored the other possibilities. When such things happen, we fall into the world of diminishing returns.
I like this (already somewhat old) trumpet call from Mary Kinzie:
...the poet aims to restore to poetry the universality and aboriginally that over time has mistakenly been reassigned to prose. Poetry is the preconditional state of language, not its late and shiftless offspring... Poetry was once the queen of literature, not its poor cousin. At various junctures drama was written in it; so were letters. Once the medium of songs as of satire, of philosophical meditations and allegory, of civic as well as private praise and lament, poetic verse periodically could do anything a thoughtful or unruly bard wished it to do. It was the very expanse of possibility in which literary structure was secured. I subscribe to the notion that, if language can be thought of as a pyramid, its base is poetry, not prose. Poetry is the ground--the ground of resemblance, controlled in time--from which literature of all kinds takes shape.Isn't it time for a revolt of the Muses? My hope is that we are entering a period of unruly bards who will take new territory and unruly readers, who will look far beyond the limits of entertainment. We ourselves are, after all, the ones who can change our world. The past and tradition don't just make us look backward but are the nourishment that helps us look forward.
Here are some thoughts about the state of poetry and the arts from writer and poet Jeff Sypeck, drawn from a series of comments on the previous post, "The Fool in his fish skin cloak," that I thought deserved to be in greater light and not tucked away in the comments section.
And it's not just at universities. I spent two years attending major conferences in the museum world, and everyone was fretting about how to meet the demands of young people, with almost nobody willing to claim that their field should be promoting slow-paced contemplation and beauty as an alternative to the culture. I've seen museums use their exhibition spaces as dance clubs, and some symphonies now make a big deal out of programs devoted to movie soundtracks or video-game music.
I don't necessarily object to any of those things, but you can smell the nervous sweat of arts professionals desperate to be liked by the culture at large, even though the culture has overwhelmingly opted to embrace corporate entertainment instead. Museums, art centers, indy publishers, orchestras--they should all be starting with the premise that for at least some people out there, alternatives exist to a $410 million piece of crap like "Batman vs. Superman," and I don't mean "Batman vs. Superman II."
What can we do? I, for one, am trying to promote and spend more money on art and entertainment that's weird, independent, unaffiliated--but I think it would help if we had stronger rebuttals to cries of "elitism!" and "snobbery!," the most common smears against fine-art and high-arts advocates. People who like crap aren't open to hearing someone scold them to like better things--but how to persuade them is something I've been thinking a great deal about lately.
What we need are good arguments—not lofty statements that we ourselves already believe, but claims that persuade. To my mind, one of the best is an honest expansion of the argument used when music and theater programs in schools are threatened: that these things are lifesavers for kids who desperately need outlets. There's no reason that thinking should apply only to kids or only to school programs; I've seen middle-aged people find new purpose in their lives by learning oil painting or becoming mosaicists, and I once saw a 60-year-old student, a construction foreman, discover that he loved opera (to the bemusement of his patient wife). We should greatly expand the thinking behind the cry that sensitive kids need the drama club; all kinds of people need this stuff in all phases of their lives.
Lately I've been thinking that another viable argument involves a bit of gentle shame aimed at the more liberal-minded: if you so distrust and dislike corporations, why do you give them 100 percent of your art and entertainment budget? Diversify!
I should note that I write this as someone who used to be a popular-culture junkie. I still like a good superhero movie, danceable music, ambitious comics...but I'm grateful to have had bigger things to grow into. I foolishly assumed that this more high-minded culture would always be there; I never imagined that popular culture would so overwhelm it.
I'm still thinking about how to promulgate the arguments and use not only the shame but also the hope and the curiosity and even the fear of people who opt for corporate entertainment by default. I don't expect to start a cultural revolution, but every person who takes a little more non-corporate art and entertainment into their lives is a victory as far as I'm concerned. I want to come up with arguments that are as scrupulously honest as they are persuasive, but to be persuasive, those arguments can't be disdainful or insulting. It's an interesting rhetorical challenge. (One of the strongest tactics may be to appeal to an ongoing countercultural impulse. Is there anything more establishment, more pro-corporation, more consumerist than marching off to the latest superhero movie?)
I also think it has to be a face-to-face process: getting people into artists' studios, art centers, theaters, literary events, and so forth. I'll go so far as to say that even video-game night or sci-fi theme-song night at the orchestra could be good starts, as "pops concerts" once were, if these events were presented not apologetically, but as the first promising glimpse of a much larger creative world.So what do you think of all that? I expect there are plenty of people who have interesting ideas about how to deal with the conquest of entertainment and the need for unruly bards! If you are one, leave a note. How to care for culture is a issue that sings out to us all.
Update: Lots of views, no comments! Maybe I'd better promise not to put any comments on the front page! I also ought to say that a great deal of what we once regarded as entertainment has lasted, and lasted well--Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Fielding, etc. Evidently the meaning of this word entertainment has changed over time, though, and perhaps I need to figure out what it meant and what it means now.