What has become of substance? Without that precious mulch, there can be no enlightenment
or growth, no art that will withstand the test of time, no discernment among the people.
Pick up any magazine these days, even some of our most respected trade journals, and chances are that you will find a strange phenomenon. There will be a table of contents that lists the issue's offerings and their page numbers. As often as not, towards the beginning, just following the table of contents, a column is headed "editorial."
"Ah," the curious reader will say, having been sensitized from high school days on to the connotations and obligations of the word, "I wonder what the editor (or editorial board) thinks." After all, what graduate cannot recall having his knuckles rapped in English
class for errantly mixing fact with opinion? Webster's tells us that an editorial is "an article in a newspaper, magazine, etc. explicitly stating opinions of the editor or publisher." And, since readers are vitally interested in the opinions of informed authorities to help them in formulating their own judgments, they look forward to perusing such editorializing, often spilling over to the op ed page.
Imagine then their surprise and disappointment when these readers glance down this column only to discover that they are reading in full-sentence form exactly what they had already seen encapsulated in the table of contents, no more, no less. No opinion or conviction is expressed by the editor, save perhaps the opinion that the writer is an authority and well-qualified to appear in the periodical's pages. And no letter to the editor questions the odd editorial double-speak, the words without substance.
The redundancy has a familiar, if empty, ring. Take radio news, for example. Radio stations have evolved a quaint format for presenting news. "Here are the headlines," the broadcaster will say, or words to that effect, followed by a half-dozen or so snippets citing the day's happenings. Listeners are reconciled to what follows ("...and now these messages"), trusting that details will follow the imposing string of commercials. They settle back ("...and now the news:"), only to hear basically the same snippets all over again, perhaps embellished by an ornamentation or two, before the weather forecast signals that the news program or segment is about to end. But hardly anyone protests the paucity of substance.
Television formats fare no better. One wonders why people stick around to watch a TV movie after they've already seen the opening teasers that introduced virtually the whole dramatis personae and at least strongly suggested the scenario and denouement to come. And yet, print media have been supplanted by electronic media in terms of audience numbers. It takes less effort, less concentration to watch and listen casually than to pore over the printed page.
What has happened to us? Have we really become the Brave New World that Aldous Huxley envisioned in which our very technology has obviated our ability to abstract and short-circuited our attention span? Have we really arrived at that stage of nirvana where all we seek is the most subliminal distraction, where nothing is asked of us by way of discernment or concentration, where even life's most irreducible fundamentals must be translated to mere entertainment? Do those who would manipulate us believe that ours has become a world so opiate and passive that any pleasant, non-taxing drivel can pass as suitable entertainment while serious concern with ideas, with man's very development, be rejected as boring or irrelevant? Have we become a minimalist society?
Neil Postman, one of the most imaginative and insightful analysts of the contemporary scene, poses the Huxleyan question in his extraordinary 1984 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death (its subtitle is "Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business"). Postman's concise
little volume views typography as the cornerstone of civilization, claims that the "typographic mind" is dormant (if not extinct), and describes ours as "the age of show business." In well under 200 pages, the author traces our intellectual history his factual data on literacy levels of yesteryear will astonish some! and, by contrast, keenly observes our own time. Rather than resorting to highfalutin jargon, Postman uses highly recognizable figures by way of example: John J. O'Connor (before he became Cardinal), Ed Koch, Ronald Reagan, and a veritable gallery of show biz folks. In closing, he writes: "What I suggest here as a solution is what Aldous Huxley suggested, as well. And I can do no better than he. He believed with H. G. Wells that we are in a race between education and disaster, and he wrote continuously about the necessity of our understanding the politics and epistemology of media. For in the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New
World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking."
Closer to our own music community is Charles Fowler, education editor of Musical America,
professor and practitioner of the arts, whose Can We Rescue the Arts for America's Children? has just been published. It is a follow-up, ten years later, to Coming
to Our Senses: The Significance of the Arts for American Education, a landmark study by a distinguished panel of citizens chaired by David Rockefeller, Jr. In the new volume, Fowler states: "We do not need more and better arts education to develop more and better artists. We need more and better arts education to produce better educated human beings, citizens who will
value and evolve a worthy American civilization." Is Fowler not appealing for greater substance in the education not of artists but of those who would be their benefactors and beneficiaries?
Fowler's sentiment is given even greater impetus in the report Toward Civilization
compiled under NEA auspices which begins: "Basic arts education aims to provide all
students, not only the gifted and talented, with knowledge of, and skills in, the arts. Basic
arts education must give students the essence of our civilization, the civilizations which have contributed to ours, and the more distant civilizations which enrich world civilization as. a whole. It must also give students tools for creating, for communication, and understanding others' communications, and for making informed and critical choices."
The operative word in this powerful opening is civilization. Civilization is never
a concept of the moment, always involving a totality. Webster insists not only on quantity but on quality as well: "social organization of a high order, marked by advances in the arts, sciences, etc., the total culture of a people, nation, period, etc." If we are to survive as a civilization, it simply will not do to fall asleep, to become passive, or to capitulate to those who would negate the values and standards of those who came before us.
Our involvement with the arts must be as active and dynamic as our involvement with life itself. Throughout the ages, it has been the unique role of artists to comment on the timelessness of the human condition. Moreover, artists have, in the main, been more successful than historians in passing man's legacy from generation to generation. It is time to heed George Santayana's admonition that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Higher standards and loftier goals can only be achieved by looking at the past, keenly observing the present, and making informed judgments with a view to the future. If we are to reap the fruits of our world, we must participate in it actively.
The intellect, forged in a democratic society by inquiry and learning, must ultimately demand truth, excellence and substance, and not be tranquilized by show biz, gibberish, and mediocrity.