Monday, January 26, 2009

The Arts Tsar

One can only imagine the first week of any President's administration as the opening scene of The Godfather. Last week, I could see President Obama sitting in the Oval Office with cotton stuffed in his cheeks with consigliere Rahm Emmanuel off in the corner giving his creepily silent "Yea" or "Nay" as supplicants approach asking for everything from the legalization of marijuana to boosting the DoD's budget.

Of course, Don Corleone, being a fictional Mafia boss, did not have to deal with the court of public opinion nor his interlocutors courting said court. Last week, with Obama barely able to warm his new seat, Quincy Jones became head jester for what I consider one of the most ridiculous causes I've heard so far (after all, don't we have two wars and an economy in the shitter?): that of Secretary of the Arts.

Apparently, Sir Quincy has been outraged over our present-day teenagers' inability to tell him who Duke Ellington and John Coltrane were. His ruffles ruffled, Jones started an on-line campaign for a federal Department of the Arts. He then took himself and his collected 150,000 electronic signatures and came to Washington buzzing his new brainchild into the ears of any who would listen.

As a novelist, I wholeheartedly support the encouraging of American arts. Hell, I'd even take a Republican-led tax-cut initiative to help us artists. (Seriously, do the Republicans think tax cuts are the remedy for everything? Like would they treat a gunshot wound with a 30 percent reduction in capital gains taxes?) I feel this corporatized drive to maximize profits within the arts has left our country's culture somewhat lacking. In popular music, we haven't had a scene-shifting new genre since grunge almost 20 years ago; house is about 25-years-old; and hip-hop is looking at 35. Hollywood, in a constant search for bankable hits, will remake anything--old TV shows, comic books, old Hollywood hits and flops, amusement park rides, you name it. Broadway has turned so many movies into musicals I'm waiting for them to stage Dude, Where's My Car? We black authors have been ghettoized into producing "ghetto lit" almost exclusively. And I'm still waiting for us Gen X'ers to produce our own Morrison or Hemingway or Scorsese, for that matter.

But I don't see how a Secretary of the Arts would remedy any of that. What exactly would SoA, if created, actually accomplish? Would her/his weekly briefings to the President ignite an international crisis within the University of Iowa's MFA program? Would it lead to the strategic bombing of the Indian subcontinent and its diaspora so they stop producing Booker Prize winners? Would federal agents flood the Mississippi delta and the Appalachian Mountains with guitars and banjos to insure that the blues and old-timey live on? Would there be molding clay in every pot? A piano in every parlor? Would Serranoan agents give each child coffee, a jar, and a crucifix to enliven the controversial artist's legacy?

I think Jones tipped his hand with his intentions for the Cabinet position with his invoking the names of the Duke and Trane. What he and the Ken Burnses and Wynton Marsalises of the world wish to do is elevate jazz as "America's Classical music." It's an annoying trend--if well-intentioned. Just because these men know that "serious," white cultural connoisseurs with their serious, white money laud Classical music, they chase after that moniker for the music they love best. But jazz--and all its subgenres--is jazz. Classical--and all its subgenres--is Classical. Jazz is great in its own right. Why try to mix the two? They have very little in common, and I feel this shotgun, dialectical "Me, too" marriage only diminishes jazz's greatness.

My diatribe aside, it shows that Jones doesn't really want to promote American art to this country or the world. He really wants to promote his art. After all, why isn't it equally disheartening that these kids don't know who Bill Monroe and Kool Herc are? If Jones were to get his Cabinet Secretary position or even a lesser "Arts Tsar," he would more than likely give state sanction to the art he loves. Jazz would definitely be elevated to what he feels is its rightful place, "America's Classical music." Perhaps he would branch out and give blessings and federal funds to the Harlem Renaissance's elevation. His replacement may be a modern art lover, and we would have nationwide celebrations of Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell. Maybe the next one will celebrate the life and art of Sam Bush. Either way you slice it, the SoA or Arts Tsar would sooner or later codify an official "American Art" to be celebrated and imitated nationwide in order to gain legitimacy and/or federal financing. The end result could be just as suffocating as the corporate-controlled media we have today (television being the sole bright light where corporate competition is actually improving the art). Either remedy turns into a malady in the eyes of truly innovative artists--no matter the genre.

Instead, if Jones, who has more money than God, really wants to promote American arts and culture, why doesn't he take some of that moolah and create private/public ventures in our nation's schools to do just that? If he's really worried about the state of American music, why doesn't he fund primary- and secondary-school music programs? After all, if it hadn't been for such programs in the past, with those poor children learning the art of the European marching band, would we have ever had jazz or funk? Not only would his maligned teenagers learn of the genius of Duke and Trane, but think of the new music they will ultimately create.

Jones and his Hollywood horde could fund extracurricular drama programs. They could hire local, starving actors come in and train aspiring or simply curious students in week-long, quarterly drama workshops. They could do the same for the visual and material arts. Local writers could also chip in to promote their craft. Other philanthropic media moguls could open up middle-school "news stations" to teach kids what that takes to produce.

Writers could also lobby to come up with better literature syllabi for high school readers. I've wanted to be a writer since I was nine-years-old, and yet, even I found high school literature classes a bore at best and mostly torture. High schoolers become totally divorced from literature as entertainment or self-edification while being tortured with works from Hardy and the like--which are completely irrelevant to their own situation. Of coure, finding more relevant reading for teens is fraught with disaster in a land where parents want to burn Harry Potter for teaching witchcraft. I would love to give every teenager Sapphire's Push, but I'm sure the story of a pregnant, molested, AIDS-infected teenager would cause a putsch in any local high school. However, I feel the effort to find such material would be worth it and pay dividends well into the future.

While I am generally not a fan of such "private-public" ventures, it seems to me that Jones and his ilk could better serve our arts and culture by doing something like this (since our own schools seem to have mostly given up) as opposed to erecting a federally-sanctioned "American Art." Not only would it promote a more proper respect for our culture's past, but it would also bolster a future, more vibrant art than we find ourselves with today.

The Arts Tsar--much as her/his corporate cousin does currently--would only create an American, Stalinized, "Capitalist-Realist" art that would codify conformity and thwart innovation. We need a more "bottom-up" approach to revitalize the culture. Jazz was born in brothels; hip-hop in Bronx projects; country in the Scots-Irish hills of Appalachia. That is American art. That is our culture. Not some government official telling us what is "Art" from on-high.


Effaridi said...

FDR as part of his groundbreaking social and infrastructure projects, did create the WPA which supported visual artists. Most work languished in relative obscurity until recent years with the work and ethic based murals being unearthed and cherished in schools, train stations and post offices nationwide.
Any arts project would need focus. I understand QJ's passion for jazz but is Rock no less relevant to American society. I think more folks are in awe of Jimi than Miles, not that they could or should be compared. Would the 70's turntablist street parties in New York that spawned Hip-Hop and House music (roots of 70 percent of the worlds party music now) be celebrated alongside the Renaissance of Classical Music in the 17th and 18th Century?
QJ could do much to deliver music on a more grassroots level than anything The Man (I like the term now that he is Black) could do nationally.

grant said...

Are you just trying to get some of your old political swagger back?

But seriously, I heard about Quincy's petition. Your piece convinces me that it could be a frightful prospect.

There are some similarities between jazz and "classical" music. One obvious similarity is in the harmonic / modal structures. Jazz uses the same 7 modes, 12 notes and varieties of chords and clusters that are available in "classical" music. Another, is the walking bass of jazz is somewhat similar to the figured bass of the Baroque era. That is most likely coincidence. "Classical" music, while written, had elements where the performer was expected to improvise. Often, this might just be an ornamental note but it could include a fully improvised cadenza or even piece. I think this only went out of common practice in the Romantic era. Jazz also went through a series of progressions from the 1920s through the 1960s (Has there been anything truly new since then?) where the use of dissonance became more and more acceptable. This progression took over 300 years in "classical" music. The most influential jazz musicians were familiar with that lineage.

Enough. Just thought it was worth noting.