The Cutting Edge
The age-old question of whether man makes the time or time the man may never be resolved. True, each era has its movers and shakers whom later ages equate with an epoch: Napoleon, Beethoven, Picasso come to mind. But equally persuasive is Tolstoy's message that the time must be ripe for such Titans, that the society in which they lived must have been ready to absorb their energies.
To be "on the cutting edge," invoking the contemporary idiom, is not necessarily to embody the mover and shaker. Rather it is to have an early sense earlier than most others for what one's society is about to accept, to use, to esteem, or to regard as valid. This prescient sensibility may be applied to anything that man has wrought, to politics and philosophy, to technology and art. Those with the gift of sensing the currents of tomorrow may or may not have the passionate ideals and convictions associated with the ideas of an era. They may or may not be themselves involved in causes or movements. But they are tuned in to the dynamics of the world, and they instinctively make connections. They have an uncanny feel for what is mere passing fad or fashion, an isolated happening, or even when all seems quiet and motionless they may detect groundswells of receptivity that will erupt, galvanizing millions to change the world.
Think how our globe has changed in our lifetime, in an instant from the vantage point of philosophers and historians. Who, standing in the streets of Budapest or Berlin, Leipzig or Prague, Vilnius or Bucharest, would have foretold only a calendar of months ago what was to come? Who, milling in Tiananmen Square in the spring and summer of 1989, could have foreseen the coming of the Goddess of Democracy? Or her toppling? Who by now does not recognize that only plaster has crumbled and turned to dust, but that the idea and energy for which it stood cannot be destroyed? And who, having been around a mere generation ago, has forgotten how the involvement of students
and amateurs brought an end to an unjust war perpetuated by cynical professional politicians? Ask the youth, ask those of all ages who generate energy, tune in to their world, hone the cutting edge.
Sometimes it seems as if that societal blade were sharper, sometimes duller. It's hard to say what brings about these changes in acuity. Oppression may have something to do with it. Not necessarily political oppression either. The oppression of voluntary conformity will dull the consciousness as much as the dictates of the most autocratic state. The compulsion to succeed materially, no matter what it takes. Latter-day dealing with the devil in the sale of a soul.
Composer John Harbison may have been having similar thoughts when he spoke to the Humanities Visiting Committee at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall of 1988. The Pulitzer Prize winner, always articulate and penetrating in his humanism, referred to M.I.T. students as "an advance model for the university of the next generation ... in their ability to deal with the mechanics of the 21st century." He spoke, sometimes in anger, sometimes in sadness, about modern merchandising, about packaging and huckstering anything and everything, including ideas and values that should be so internalized as to preclude "the marketing techniques derived from rock, soap, or alcohol." He noted the "vast number of M.I.T. faculty and students [who] continue[d] to regard work in the arts and humanities as second class, unuseful, and merely ornamental. And if M.I.T. is a laboratory for the future ... we must take the attitudes we encounter at M.I.T. very seriously." Acknowledging that those students were "the future planners and decision makers," he noted that they already showed signs
of the "tired businessman syndrome," adding that if those students "are not also our novel readers and concert goers, our cultural survival is in question."
We do live in frenetic times and the pressures on us are bewildering. Ironically, one source of these pressures are the seemingly limitless options we have-enhanced by affluence and technology versus the finite hours in the day. After the intensity (or boredom) of our working day, the punishment of commuting, the inevitable imperatives of logistics, how much of us is left? How do we deploy our leisure? How can we evolve and nourish our inner lives?
Our capacity for individual initiative, our resolve to reserve segments of our lives for silence and solitude are continually assaulted by the unending siren song of those wishing a slice of our selves and a portion of our pocketbooks. Even the great arts institutions, fearing for their own survival, engage professional hucksters in an effort to bring in new and younger paying audiences. And how do these advertising experts go about their work? They soothe, they flatter, they promise. They set appealing tables and coin catchy slogans, some as vulgar as bumper stickers.
One of these-propagated by none other than the New York Philharmonic's marketeers-raised the ire of Mr. Harbison. "Let Us Shamelessly Pamper Your Soul" read the 1988-89 prospectus and Harbison's speech set about analyzing the message with the verbal scalpel of a New Critic. "The Philharmonic pamperers support the yuppy fantasy of a day spent making money and an evening spent being gently congratulated for it," he said. Devastatingly disposing of "shamelessness" and "pampering," Harbison went on to "the most distressing part of the text, because `the soul' is a concept so powerful, so seldom invoked in our time that its use here is particularly vacuous and cavalier. If only we really were aware of the hunger in our souls, if only we really did live in the constant awareness of our souls' longing, loneliness, need for something stranger and deeper. But the soul invoked here is not that immortal soul of the great inquiries of religion, art, and philosophy. It is a kind of yuppy itch, one more transient need to be handsomely addressed by the correct product."
Harbison is not alone in his distaste for arts sloganeering. Critic Richard Dyer of The
Boston Globe cites other offending examples: "The Masterworks Chorale Invites You to have an affair with Schubert and Brahms," "It Took a Man Named Bernstein to Write a Catholic Mass This Popular" [Opera Company of Boston's production of Mass], and [the Boston Lyric Opera's Dialogues of the Carmelites] "An Opera To Lose Your Head Over." Setting the factual record straight, Dyer concludes: "The world of art depends on the world of business, but the alliance is always uneasy because the values of one are in direct opposition to the values of the other. Advertising and marketing people are in trouble when they must purvey art, which is not a consumer product like any other, but a voice that is communicating its own unmistakable message about the way we live now."
Two elements underlie the tableaux described and decried by Messrs. Harbison and Dyer: money and discernment. That it requires increasing funding to keep great arts organizations, with their multimillion dollar budgets, afloat is self-evident. The fact that they have diminishing reservoirs of private support is as worrisome as the statistic that funding for the National Endowment for the Arts is less than the Pentagon spends to finance military bands is sobering. And yet there is something repulsive about inducing support by promoting intellectual paralysis, like rubbing the bellies of frogs.
The other side of the picture is the apparent willingness of publics to have their bellies rubbed so long as their requirements are met. The "yuppy fantasy" to which Harbison refers may be among their needs, but their chief wish seems to be an absolution from judgmental responsibility, a dispensation from having to concentrate. How often have you heard concert goers grumble about contemporary composers? "They don't make `em like they used to" is the refrain. But it may not be composers that lack the stuff their predecessors had. It may be the lay publics that make up their audience. People today have more options than they did at any prior time, and God knows, they have more money to exercise those options. And yet they are the least qualified and least discerning audience for concert music that we have had in generations. Not only the "tired businessmen," even the younger folks seem to seek solely entertainment, and there are all too many who settle for music you don't really have to listen to, minimalist sound patterns subliminally perceived, background music that invites opiate dreams of la-la-land.
Not that there is anything wrong with the arts being entertaining. But as is so well summarized in the second and final booklet, "Entertainment, Education, and Music" published by the erstwhile Foundation for the Advancement of Education in Music: "Clearly entertainment, while vitally important, is not enough to sustain the human spirit. To forget this truth which applies to music as much as to other pursuits is to lose balance, to stumble and fall into a trap from which there is no easy escape."
In art, as in everything else, the irreducible component now too often called "the bottom line" lies in the willingness of individuals to make judgments, while granting others the unequivocal right of making differing judgments. But judgments, be they artistic or political, must be based on knowledge if they are to have meaning. And it is only those who will brave the rigors and discomforts of seeking knowledge of their world that can hope, in being on the cutting edge, to chisel the world of tomorrow.