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Of Wagging Tails and Things that Break

In Leonard Bernstein's strikingly powerful call to conscience entitled Mass, a musical and ideological motif recurs to the words "How easily things get broken." Bernstein's insight dramatically highlights an underlying problem of our time: the vulnerability of the individual.

Bernstein's 1971 theatre piece traces the journey of a young, gifted and compassionate man who is progressively kicked upstairs by the community he serves. With each new "promotion" or stratum of "success," this person becomes more institutionalized, less himself, and increasingly ineffective in developing either his professional or his inner life. Society, seeking to divest itself of its judgmental responsibilities, vests power in one if its own. The result is disaster to all, an appalling unraveling of individual and institution alike. It is the end of the world, or so it seems until, in a touching epilogue, a tender, fresh renewal is sprouted. In art, but not necessarily in life, balance may be restored and new life force born.

In no society has man as the "noble savage" been less practicable than in ours. We look with disbelief at the Emersons, Thoreaus, and later Utopians, incredulous that they should have lived a mere century or so ago. Our time is too complex, too expensive, too urbanized to sustain us without the protection of governments, corporations, and all manner of societal structure. Only through institutions have we been able to keep the unwieldy ship of the 20th-century world afloat. But at what price! Our desperate efforts to construct bigger and better organizations has all too often led to the proverbial tail wagging the dog. So much attention is paid to the edifice that the germinal cell for which it was erected is ignored, sometimes scorned as a superannuated nuisance, or even totally forgotten. Consider the following vignettes:

¶ A man whittles beautiful wooden figures. He gives them to his friends on their birthdays. One friend suggests that he sell them and offers to merchandise them. The venture succeeds and the wooden figures become objects often seen in art shops and leading department stores. A huge corporation buys out the company and tools the figures for mass production in plastic. There is a sudden spurt of sales and, the market soon saturated, the figures disappear. Trace the connection between the whittler and what has become of his unique energy and creativity.

¶ Another man loves books. While at school, he thinks he will become a writer or poet, but when he takes stock of his talents and compares them to those of others, he deduces that he has the gifts of only a very minor writer. On leaving school, he continues to love books and admire those who write them, and he wants to do something that will be useful to the people he believes in and prizes. So he becomes a publisher, at first editing manuscripts himself, later engaging some helpers so that he may devote himself to the needs of his writers and a literary market. Owing to his vision, honesty and expertise, his company succeeds and is, in turn, acquired by a much larger company. Efficiency experts with degrees in business administration are empowered to make decisions and determine the policies of the corporation. What are the implications for the writers? For the market? And what has become of the energies and passions of the founder?

¶ On graduating from college, a young man enters divinity school. He — like Bernstein's Celebrant in Mass — has an unbounded love of God and man, a knack for teaching, and a need to share himself with people in need. His ordination is followed by a series of professional elevations. Gradually, almost subliminally, he becomes aware of spending his energies less on ministration than on administration. As the demands on him from his church superiors and from his congregational trustees become ever greater, he becomes doubtful and even despondent. Where can he go?

Charlie Peters of the Washington Monthly was talking on NBC's "Today" Show about reporters, people who had gone to first-rate schools, had established unimpeachable credentials, worked for leading newspapers and networks. "But," he said, "too many journalists are having lunch with the big guys." By "big guys" he meant people with power who were affiliated with powerful institutions. That he was inviting moral inference was selfevident.

Power, of course, is a relative quantity. The clout of the head of a superstate cannot be compared to that of the chairman of some corporate board which, in turn, is not comparable to that of the president of a small liberals arts college in the midwest. But even a relatively small dollop of power might be staggering within a small area or discipline.

Look at the tiny area of concert music, for example. You will soon discover a certain convocation of politically-minded composers and critics who constitute the "big guys" and who, owing to their effectiveness as public persons, have amassed surprising degrees of power in the control of commissions, awards, academic appointments, staffing governmental panels, and generally presuming to set the standards of their trade. Their success is aided and abetted by the astonishing ignorance and indifference of a lay public which, knowing and caring little about the art itself, gladly supposes that its established practitioners are better qualified than they to make any necessary judgments or decisions.

We have witnessed in this century's second half a shattering erosion of creative energy. In one sector, commercial interests — often surprisingly effective at image-making and double-talking — sniff out the promise of a quick buck, the item of mass appeal which might turn a satisfactory profit in an acceptable timeframe. Titles that fail to produce adequate sales within a short period are discontinued or lost in a limbo of unavailability and implied disgrace. In another dimension, creative and interpretive artists sequester themselves "far from the madding crowd," in safe academic havens that permit them to develop theories and self-images without ever having either tested in a broader market place.

As the year 2000 nears, we would do well to set moments aside to reflect on the many dualities of our lives. One such duality — the individual within a society — has always existed, determining both the uniqueness of individual and the quality of the world around him. The artist and those attuned to him have always been most keenly aware of this duality. Judgmental responsibility is everyone's imperative and cannot be assigned or transferred to others, certainly not to "experts," "specialists," "spokespersons" or "great" corporations and their merchandisers. We must, each to the best of his ability, create our own values by which to live and which to pass on to future generations. If we fail in this primary human obligation, if we do not respect the delicate balance between individual and institution, we must soon ponder on "how easily things get broken."

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