Don’t Be Afraid of the Art

The reader will not be surprised to learn that I take a very dim view of the state of cultural education in this country.  The American educational establishment tends to use the worlds of art, music, and literature as a kind of winnowing fan, designed to separate young people of good will and common sense from the disaffected or anti-social, discouraging the former from pursuing interests in these areas, and co-opting the latter into swallowing the moral relativist, cultural warrior agenda.  The selection of artists, composers, and authors whom most American young people are forced to study, many of whom have little or no real merit in their work, effectively “turn off” most students for the rest of their lives from learning about painting, sculpture, classical literature, opera, and so on.

For example, yesterday a young friend from the Twitterverse mentioned that he had to read J.D. Salinger’s tiresome “The Catcher in the Rye” for school, and write a report about it.  When I was in school and the inevitable time came to read that incredibly overrated volume about teen angst, I refused on the grounds that it was both trashy and intellectually beneath me.  I insisted that instead, I read the complete Victor Hugo “Les Miserables”, which was both more my speed and more challenging, and was granted permission to do so.

However, it must be admitted that I am rather stubborn, whereas not all young people are of like mind.  So while I would sit in art appreciation class and tell the teacher that Jackson Pollock was a mental defective and a charlatan, or raise my hand in music appreciation class and ask why in the world would anyone with any sense voluntarily choose to listen to the work of Arnold Schoenberg, I had a basis for asking these questions.  My parents had introduced me to the world of art, music, and literature long before my peers, not assuming that it was solely the responsibility of the educational institutions I attended to do so, and so as a result I was already forming my own opinions and tastes in these areas long before my contemporaries.  Not everyone is so fortunate, of course, but this point is where the cultural breakdown of Western society truly begins.

If we look back to our grandparents’ day and earlier, when and where children were fortunate enough to have a decent education and learned about art, music, literature, and so on, they were taught to look at the foundational and seminal works of Western Civilization in these areas.  They were also taught that to be considered well-educated, they would have to make an effort to learn about these things now, and to continue to learn about them and appreciate/patronize them to some degree at least for the rest of their lives.  It was an aspirational kind of cultural education. Small towns considered it their duty to promote a civic society, about which I have written previously, and this was reinforced through the educational system.

For the past few decades however, the idea of teaching the Western “canon” – a list of artists, musicians, and authors considered the leading lights in the development of Western Civilization – has turned off a great many modern educators as being too Christian, or too European, or too male-dominated for their personal tastes.  With all due respect to non-Christians, non-Europeans, and of course to the ladies, this is nonsense. One must acknowledge the contributions of those who do not fit the “dead white men” description, but denigrating the reality of the foundations of Western Civilization or ignoring it completely is, frankly, intellectually dishonest.  It is no wonder that young people today, who have suffered at the hands of the Baby Boomers for the past 30-40 years, are so culturally illiterate that they know who Toni Morrison is, but have never heard of Anthony Trollope.

Unfortunately, such is the state of much of the cultural community today that the arts and literature can only be understood by those who have spoken the creed that there is no god but the self, and Germaine Greer is its prophet.  This is what has become a substitute, in the arts and literature, for a real appreciation of our cultural riches, and the greatness of Western Civilization: a parroting back of the views of bitter, ageing Baby Boomers, who set out to change the world back in 1968, but achieved little other than to ruin most of what they touched.  It leaves it to us to pick up the pieces of their myriad failures, and try to rebuild with the incredibly rich but overlooked resources at our disposal.

Let us therefore approach the project with hope, being selective in our choices of art, music, and literature for ourselves and for children, turning to those whose opinions we know and respect and asking things like, “You’re well-read, tell me whose work I ought to try?”, or “What good, solid art/music resources are available for me to educate myself?”  For this must start with you, gentle reader, on your own: the world of academia and cultural commentary is, generally, going to be hostile to your attempting to do so. And like the Early Christians or the White Russians, we may need to learn to communicate with each other through other means so as to avoid detection by the culture stasi.

That being said, my suggestion to you is, simply ignore the other side. You may be called a philistine, or a provincial, or even worse, for daring to disagree with the cultural powers that be, with regards to the arts, music, and literature, by expressing a preference for the marvels of a classical education and Western Civilization to the offal served to most of us in school.  If you even care to give a reply to such denigration as may come your way, which of course is not really necessary any more than one must throw stones at a barking dog chained behind a fence, you may wish to adopt the level of argument recommended by psychiatrist Eric Berne in his seminal book “Games People Play”. All one must do is temporarily come down to the opponent’s childish level, and bring out that equally childish, but debate-ending response to their fits and screaming about conservatives not understanding art, music, literature, or oppressing others in some way: “Sticks and Stones”.

“The Boy Cicero, Reading” by Vincenzo Foppa (c. 1464)
Wallace Collection, London

2 thoughts on “Don’t Be Afraid of the Art

  1. Well said and much needed. Our cultural landscape is horribly barren, poisoned, as you write, mostly by politics and muddy thinking. However, beating the aesthetic drum often leads to charges of being a reactionary, a provincial (believe it or not), a snob, and worse. We have cast aside a mighty tradition in order to make some of us ‘feel better’ about ourselves, and diminishing us all…..


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