The decline overall in respect for all performing arts is ever more apparent in the arts themselves.
If you do not educate children to understand and appreciate the performing and fine arts, including the classics, you end up with people who have not had a chance to develop discrimination and what has to be called “good taste”. The deconstruction of all the operas, turning them into ridiculous travesties, and the proliferation of fine art into glorified junk with a very high price tag, has been accelerated by two (now almost three) generations of people who were not given an arts education in school, sometimes not even in expensive private schools, and who therefore cannot discern the profound from the profane.
The death of humanities courses in schools and colleges reflects the death of the enduring values of any society, most particularly one that is interested in those experiences that illuminate our humanity. Pop art is fun and can be refreshing. It can cut through stodginess and pompous excess but it is not and should never be a substitute for the kind of art that has endured through centuries and even thousands of years. Art that transcends time and place, reaching out across the barriers of peoples and cultures, illuminates us to our common heritage as sentient beings living on one planet and also to our profound uniqueness as we grapple with the joys and struggles of everyday life.
If you are part of the so-called “middle class” in this present age you may indeed have had no exposure to art in any form while growing up. I have encountered students who have had not one course in music or art through their K-12 years, and not in college either. This is hard to accept for one who was raised in the 50s in a public school system that had excellent music and art courses. I would not be a professional vocal musician and actress had it not been for my public school courses which opened both my eyes and ears to what music and performing was. It grieves me to think that young people do not have this opportunity but many do not. It isn’t likely that this situation will change in the near future.
The arts are not “extra”. They are not “for elitists”. They are not for “snobs”. If, however, it becomes the norm that those who enjoy the arts are labeled in this manner, that alone makes it even harder for enthusiasts to share what they love with those who do not understand why that would be the case. And, if we allow individuals with little background to rise to a place of leadership in both the arts and in our socio-political system, we are inviting further decay and destruction of the arts in general and society overall.
A society that loses sight of its own enduring values has no legs to stand on in times of crisis. A society that praises crassness and lewdness, that elevates criminals and thugs to become “entertainers” and tolerates the constant depiction of violence in myriad forms as a way to “pass the time,” is very troubled. It is generating the seeds of its own destruction and it does not have the foresight to make the connection between the proliferation of such events and attitudes and its own future well-being.
If we cannot find individuals who have the education, experience and life exposure to the arts in their highest and most enduring forms to be in positions of leadership, we will all pay a serious price. Indeed, this loss is already apparent to those who are observant and it is all the more tragic that speaking up about this issue often incites rebuke. Mocking those who step up to say, “How dare you?” to stupidity and ignorance about this artistic demise (and there are few who have the opportunity who take it), creates an environment of fear and rejection which only those who are brave directly address.
I, for one, have had enough of operas in which the male chorus is made to wear bumblebee costumes (Trovatore in Europe) or where Despina runs a diner (The Met in NYC). I have had enough of opera singers “classicalizing” music theater shows (see previous post). I have had enough of music directors of Broadway shows choosing actors for roles WRITTEN FOR GREAT VOICES AND SINGERS being given to those who can barely do either because they are “famous” on TV or in the movies (see previous post.) I have no interest in and no tolerance for those who would “update” and “make more relevent” the works which were successful in the first place because they were brilliant. (Ditto) I am not ashamed to call a spade a spade and say ENOUGH!
New, yes. Fresh, different, yes. Current, of course! But not instead of knowing what constitutes greatness and what is just cheap show. I am sure there will be a day when someone will decide that the Mona Lisa should be “updated” and for that decision to be greeted by the populace as being a “great idea”.
I am a traditionalist but I am also someone who is a revolutionary. I want to change the present but KEEP the past. I want to know what was, so that I can respect it and learn from it, even as I re-create what is. I do not want to trash that which has a respected tradition in order to go forward to something new that breaks with tradition. If you cannot produce an opera, a musical or any other long-standing work in the performing arts as it was meant to be done, that is a reflection not on the work but on you. If you want to create something “new”, create your own piece and see, then, if you are as good as the person whose work you would dare to “improve”. See if your new work would stand the test of time or whether, in fact, it would be just a passing light breeze, as forgotten as you will be, in just the blink of an eye.
If we who are in the arts do not fight and fight powerfully to keep our traditions intact, who will? If we do not pass on the next generation the spark of life that lives in every great work, how will they know its greatness? If we do not take responsibility to protest that which is demeaning and senseless, that which is done out of ignorance and arrogance, who will? If we are to enrich our heritage as a people, and honor our roots as a country where education and the arts (both fine and performing) are always regarded as being vital to our lives, then we must speak up and speak out whenever and wherever we have the opportunity to do so. Not taking this responsibility is to abdicate, shrug our shoulders and give in, and then, we will have only ourselves, not those outside our arts community, to chastise.