The New York Times, 3/19/2017.
The president’s budget plan, released on Thursday, proposed eliminating federal programs for the arts and humanities.
Recent political events have caused fear and righteous indignation among many of America’s enlightened souls. Our country’s folk, it seems, has always had, in its majority, a suspicion of the higher things: of intelligence, science, painting and sculpture, theater, architecture, literature, rational thought, and quests beyond one’s limited self. We snobs call it “philistinism,” which can be defined as murders of humanity’s potentials. It’s as though the only thing we’ve gained in millions of years of evolution is opposable thumbs.
Whether through pure greed or ignorance, a political factor in our land has always abhorred the sciences, arts, and humanities, and has wanted to cut all of our wealthy country’s miniscule funding for these, thereby terminally injuring those federal programs. (Yes, I know the charge that Big Bird and some others of his ilk have a Liberal bias.) This, now, is the pernicious intent of those at the highest level of our federal government. I and many others are very worried about the brutish thrust of some current actions.
It’s my belief that, as humans have progressed beyond their brute forebears, all peoples have enjoyed and gained perspective about themselves and their world through knowledge and appreciation of those humanities that some fight against. None of us escape the benevolent influence of these higher arts, either directly or through intermediary influence.
Those seeking to protect these humanities from assault rightly claim that civilized activities such as theater, museums, etc. bring back more than their cost through tourist dollars spent. These advocates usually fail to site the most important value that the arts bring us all. It is the inspiration we experience, the thrill, the uplift, the encouragement these humanities provide us at the cusp of our never-ending evolution upward toward the heights of our potentials as human beings.
(Those who see most of these arts as only entertaining the cultural elite, are wrong. My major argument comes from my personal experience growing up with television. As a kid, watching and enjoying the relatively primitive theatrical productions with their almost non-existent esthetic and intellectual content, we early TV viewers absorbed so much of this stuff that we eventually gravitated toward the better fare being offered—we were self-educated through experience. The better stuff seeps into the atmosphere and improves the entire field—it’s a kind of trickle-down effect that actually works, at least for a percentage of us with eyes to see, ears to hear, and sensibilities to absorbed good sustenance.)
The above is all prolog to the following,
which is a replay of two related essays from July, 2014.
Jean Shepherd’s radio “art” is not for everybody. In fact, his radio genius is probably, as Donald Fagan put it, an art of “inherent marginality.” Is this good? Is this acceptable in a world of “majority rules”? What is the advantage of the existence of marginal ideas and styles and arts in any society—even–or especially– in one of mass-tastes such as those that dominate our culture and its media?
Such arts as opera, ballet, classical music, and poetry, and avant-garde formats of many kinds survive, it seems, only because they are supported by the wealth of a few and the largess of the state. Even the more popular arts such as the novel, have a more rare and unread form that involves style and/or content that is considered avant-garde and that most people don’t like—they avoid it. Maybe such elite tastes have no place in the world and should not even receive the miniscule amount of support they now get—why protect the elite tastes of a minority if the art cannot support itself through the Darwinian mandates of majority rule? Without necessarily implying that Shepherd’s work is part of the highest equivalent in the highest arts we know, or that I am the ultimate arbiter, here’s why, with two hard- to-explain, yet simple reasons.
! ! !
1. THE FARTHER REACHES OF HUMAN NATURE
Psychologist Abraham H. Maslow, who chose to study, not the emotionally disturbed, but the highest functioning people, used the term “self-actualization” to express that which individual humans at their highest potential can attain. His posthumously published volume is titled The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. Maslow pointed out that there is a hierarchy, a series of levels of human needs, from the lowest level: we all need air, food, and a few other basics; a bit higher, we “need” a certain degree of comfort; higher yet we desire some freedoms; and ultimately highest, where humans may attain the ultimate—a full humanness, where there is the potential to think, explore, create on a much higher level than lower life-forms can.
Evolution has put humans on this road to higher things, and over millennia we have moved upward to need and desire far more than air and food. So the baby evolves to the child, to the adult, moving from simple needs and thoughts to higher ones. So also does the human appreciation of “arts” evolve from a baby rattle upward to more elaborate/sophisticated vision, sounds, ideas.
Most people stop short of the highest levels, even though these levels are around us, mostly just for the choosing. (If they can’t afford tickets to the opera or ballet, they can enjoy such through DVDs and television broadcasts; for poetry and other “higher” forms of writing there are libraries.) Note that no one expects everybody to consume only the “highest” all the time. We all enjoy a binge of lower pleasures. My favorite junk food is strawberry Twizzlers and I seldom indulge in the highest, upper crust sorts of stuff.
Delightful Junk Food
(BTW, I don’t go for opera, other than enjoying a couple of the more popular arias. Though I don’t indulge in it, I would not want a dictatorship of the proletariat—a tyranny of the majority—to ban the support of it. I’m for promoting it even through public subsidy.)
Through the artists’ innovative perceptions and their expressions, there can be an expansion in our ability to understand the world around us in previously un-thought-of ways. The usual ways that we have understood more prosaically can be altered and expanded—we can get a fuller perception of our reality. It’s because such higher levels are indeed at the top of humanity’s thoughts/feelings/expressions, and are goals that should be seen as shining grails up there ahead of us–these thoughts and feelings and expressions need to exist and be nurtured. Attaining ever higher levels of humanity than we now have can create nothing less than higher intensity and joy in life. Better than bubble gum and Twizzlers.
2. TRICKLE DOWN
These unexpected and higher insights/expressions are open to all of us, but mostly we are trapped in lower zones of our thinking and expectations. (One of my favorite comments, that might be used here, is that “They’ve found the missing link between lower primates and civilized man—it’s us!”) But sometimes other and higher expressions of reality are available through openness and a questing toward them. These heights represent an evolutionary potential—a greater, higher human level.
Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”
Van Gogh’s landscapes capture what seems to be all levels of appreciation. They express his feelings/thoughts that the visual world is a swirling, flaming, living entity—and his vision of it thus helps many others apprehend it. (I know that often, after experiencing an exhibit such as one of great paintings, as I walk out of that museum, seeing the prosaic world around me, I sense that surrounding world with some of those attributes the artist expressed.
Shrek and Fiona
Shrek 1 is quality trickle—especially with its directly imported class-act song, “Hallelujah,” composed by Leonard Cohen, with its elegant, metaphorical, arcane conundrums.
Leonard Cohen singing his “Hallelujah”
(On Youtube, Cohen’s is there in several renditions,
but the Shrek version is by others.)
The highest expressions in the arts are not just there for those who directly experience them. The entire field from best to worst gains from what’s highest. It’s clear in every art that perceptions and innovations at the top are absorbed by other lesser practitioners and put into effect in their own, more easily understood forms, and are appreciated on a less sophisticated level at the width and breath of art–from the junk-food bottom all the way up.
From Stan Brakage (Dog Star Man
or from another similar work by him, 1962)
–maybe a fifth-of-a-second frame
Example: I used to attend avant-garde (“underground”) films in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. A technique used to express and convey visual information and feeling in some of those films was exceedingly fast cutting from one image to another–maybe 5 or 6 images a second or more. The technique got around and affected millions who never saw Stan Brakage’s Dog Star Man, 1962, or anything else by him or others in little makeshift movie houses in the East Village in the 60s. Soon that technique (with all its speed-up of input and audience’s growing ability to absorb it and be emotionally enraptured by it) became a fad in television commercials. And subsequently it could be seen in mass-market commercial movies, such as in the finale of the Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway film, Bonnie And Clyde, 1967. The quick cuts work well to express the violence of bullets hitting bodies.
Warren Beatty and Faye Dunnaway, 1967
(or dead body-doubles)
! ! !
Don’t deny and kill the best we humans can potentially attain—let it remain as a sometimes-achieved enjoyment, and when we can’t understand or even believe in it or we turn our backs to it–leave it out there in the world. As Don Quixote quixotically sang in “Man of La Mancha”: we can strive for it—as THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM!
! ! !
George Balanchine as Don Quixote
in his ballet of that name.
He dreamed and achieved his dreams.
! ! !
Jean Shepherd’s radio work, for decades, achieved the level of Maslow’s “Self Actualization.” His portrayal of a mind exploring (“questing” maybe?), finding, suggesting, raises our level of humanness, and thus affects our psyches in a form that will not go away. Over the years we pass it on to others in our everyday interactions. Our “excelsiors,” our impossible dreams, sometimes encounter holy grails and advance our sensibilities.
(Iconic Shepherd photo
by Fred W. McDarrah, 11/30/1966)
Jean Shepherd at the heights.
Excelsiors and impossible dreams coming true
as he performs his artistic essence.
From his voice to our understanding.
Whether we realize it or not.
! ! !
THERE IT IS, I (RE)-STATE MY CASE.
Evolution is a moving onward/upward: creativity is
a metaphoric act of evolution moving humankind a bit closer
toward its potential.
The arts, the humanities, embody
the soul of a civilization.
For those not interested in my argument,
Please, just go out and fight like hell to prevent the
barbarians at the gates of our humanity from taking us backward
to our crude origins.