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On the Arts: Mere entertainment doesn't constitute a cultural boom

Sunday, December 19, 1999

By Peter Kountz

Some weeks ago, there appeared in major newspapers -- including this one -- a story about a survey from the National Arts program at the Columbia University School of Journalism. The survey, titled "Reporting the Arts," suggests that arts coverage in local newspapers has failed to keep pace with a new level of activity in the arts, a level of activity fueled by a strong and still surprisingly eager national economy.

  Peter Kountz is president of Shady Side Academy and a frequent contributor to the Post-Gazette.


The story caught my eye, and I saved it for future ruminations. The ruminations have come and gone, and while I don't now have any special insights or inside information, I do have some ideas about the contrast between what the survey seems to suggest and the way things in the arts might actually be.

One of the headlines about the survey read "Arts Coverage Falls Behind a Cultural Boom, Study Says" (New York Times, Nov. 16). I think it is very difficult to determine that there is a "cultural boom," even with more reliable data.

While it is true some major arts organizations have seen a rise in single ticket and subscription sales (e.g. the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra recently announced a significant increase in ticket revenue), this is not enough to confirm that these are "cultural boom" times. The Times story and others suggest that the arts should "include entertainment offerings, such as sports." There also was specific mention of movies and the "dominance of movie coverage" in the newspapers, while "visual arts, architecture, dance and radio get only cursory coverage." Further, the reports on the survey suggest that "television, music and books anchor arts pages."

Well, if there is a "cultural boom" in the arts, it may very well be a boom in something other than what we have come to know as "the arts" -- namely a boom in the popular arts and what editors call "entertainment," a category which now includes television, film, books and sometimes even sports.

This possibility changes the whole equation. The popular arts and entertainment are the "now" arts, while classical music, opera, dance, jazz, architecture, the visual arts and even "classical radio" are the "then" arts. The dominance of movies, television, popular music and professional and collegiate sports -- all part of the entertainment fabric -- is not to be denied. And this contrast makes me think of the idea of "cultural literacy." Remember that book by E.D. Hirsch?

In a recent piece in The New Yorker, critic Alex Ross wrote about The New York Philharmonic's "Messages for the Millennium" series. Ross mentions filmmaker and critic Robert Hilferty and his documentary about American composer Milton Babbitt. At one point, Hilferty apparently talked to shoppers in a Tower Records store, asking whether they had heard of Babbitt and his music. Few did, and at least two people confused Milton Babbitt, the composer, with John Bobbitt, the "celebrity eunuch." Why should anyone need to know Milton Babbitt and his music anyway?, one might ask. After all, you say, this is the end of the '90s -- the 1990s and not the 1890s. One may not need to know Milton Babbitt and his music, but I believe one needs to "know" in a larger sense. And this is where the idea of "cultural literacy" or, said another way, "cultural illiteracy" comes into focus.

"Reporting the Arts" may very well be accurate in its assessment that there are many more new performances of new groups, new television shows and movies -- allowing here for the blurring between "popular arts" and "serious arts" -- new art exhibits, etc. The question is whether more people are attending these new offerings or whether it is the same basic audience attending more events. And one must ask how much the audience (either new or old) actually knows about what it is hearing and seeing.

There are other questions as well: If there is a "new audience," what did the performing arts groups and museums have to do to get them in the door (consider the new marketing and initiatives undertaken by classical music groups around the country)? And what are the arts groups and museums doing to keep their new audience? Is there education as well as entertainment at the heart of their mission?

When I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago, I managed the university radio station for a period. Back then, we were very much a "noncommercial, educational" radio station, both by virtue of our FCC license and our mission. We were deeply committed to educating people as we entertained them. With music, for example, we spent air time talking about composers, reviewing their works and then playing their music. We believed very strongly in an "educationally interactive arts profile," and at least to some degree we achieved our goal. (Locally, WRCT-FM, the Carnegie Mellon University station at 88.3 on the dial, tries to keep this vision alive. The station is worth listening to.)

As a school person, I am amazed by how much students do not know about the past -- the "then" in the arts. And the more work I do with professional musicians, the more I am amazed by how much they don't know about their own heritage. This is what I mean by "cultural illiteracy" -- the "not-knowing" of one's heritage, the "not-knowing" of what has been and what could be. This, by the way, is not something that is exclusive to students and professional musicians. It is really about all of us and what we have missed and continue to miss in our lives.

Here is a lighthearted illustration of what I mean, as unimportant as it might seem: Every day I drive our three children to school, and we listen to the "WDVE Morning Show with Scott and Jim." The other day, Scott Paulson and Jim Krenn were doing some kind of voice-over/conversation, and I am almost certain the background music was jazz legend Chet Baker playing a Christmas song. I said to my children, "Hey, can you believe Scott and Jim are playing Chet Baker?" And they asked, "Who is Chet Baker?"

No, I'm not some retro guy yelling and screaming about the fact that our kids should know who Chet Baker was and don't. But I am arguing that in the arts, especially, we should know more about those who came before us. For example, here's my music "list": Franz Joseph Haydn, Duke Ellington, Nadia Boulanger, Charles Ives, Billy Strayhorn, Billie Holiday, Igor Stravinsky, Charlie Parker, George Russell, Johannes Brahms, Michael Praetorius, Hildegard of Bingen, J.S. Bach, Aaron Copland, Bill Haley, Robert Johnson, Dizzy Gillespie, Alec Wilder and Franz Schubert. It is not that these figures are the composers and performers who are the "most significant" in Western music, but rather that they are a group of composers and performers from the past who have contemporary relevance. So if we are going to talk about a "cultural boom," let's pay attention to the long haul -- economy or no economy. To do this we need to talk about the soul and what really means something.

It's likely that few of us know who John Cage was. Even fewer remember what he wrote in one of his books, "Silence": "Music is edifying, for from time to time it sets the soul in operation. The soul is the great gatherer-together of the disparate elements ... and its work fills one with peace and love."

Taking my cues from John Cage, I would say that there could only be a "cultural boom" if in truly learning about and being educated in -- as well as being entertained by -- the arts (both "popular" and "serious"), we learn something about life. Or at least something to help us make more sense of life. If that's not the case, than it's merely entertainment, and "mere entertainment" is no "cultural boom."

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