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The Problem with Multiculturalism

A contemporary buzzword is "multiculturalism," the idea that pluralistic societies like ours owe it to themselves to explore the ethnic, artistic, and historical heritages of all the significant components of their make-ups. It has come to be one of the hot philosophical issues of our time since it may be applied to so many aspects of our civilization, beginning with our most fundamental educational assumptions. The one area on which it has not had an impact has been the scientific realm, for the obvious reason that atomic physics and microsurgery have no ethnicities. But in the more subjective fields such as the fine and liberal arts and the humanities, it is virtually impossible to pick up a recent issue of a periodical or to hear scholarly reports at professional meetings without being battered with polemics, pro or con, on multiculturalism.

Just as "multiculturalism" has become as much a staple to the intellectual jargon of our time as the curve ball is to the pitcher's arsenal, so has its arch opponent, "Eurocentricism," won acceptance in our parlor lingo. The "Eurocentrist," detested foe and prime target of the "multiculturalist," posits that ours is essentially a western society and that, as such, our primary responsibility is to teach, foster, and promote the canon of achievements in the diverse dimensions of western man's activities. Because the seat of these achievements, for a sizable span of time, was Europe, and since so many of its core concepts — philological and philosophical, artistic and historical — were originally developed in the various locales of the European continent, our awareness has up to now been focused on that realm, not necessarily to the exclusion of others, but certainly as the area of principal concern.

The arts have been particularly prone to the controversy raging between the two armed camps. (In general, it may be observed that the proponents of multiculturalism are affiliated with the political left while the Eurocentrists seem to identify with more conservative ideas.) And music, the most abstract of the arts, has not escaped being churned by the swirling currents of the debate.

One of the problems of the debate itself is that it seems to us to be so static in its perception. It sees civilization to be immutable and inviolate, not subject to the stresses, strains, and motions of time. But surely any good historian will dwell again and again on the effect that time has had on man's postures and understandings. (Just think of how Copernicus affected nearly every aspect of human life.) That music as an art form is undergoing major changes and inevitable transformations is evidenced by the objective demographics and the studies of all except the hype issued by self-serving trade organizations. Among the most instructive insights to appear recently is a series of five articles in Musical America: "The Trouble with New Music" by David Leisner (May 1989), "Trouble in the Music World" by William Bolcom (March 1990, as an abridgement of the earlier study in the Michigan Quarterly Review), "Music in Transition" by Denis Stevens (January 1991), "High Art, Low Art-The Fatal Split" by John Mauceri (July 1991), and "Can Serious Music Survive?" by John Warthen Struble (July 1991). As is clear from the titles of these essays, all the writers recognize that the concert music of our time is encountering critical problems, and that its very survival (in the sense that music has been defined in our century) is open to grave question. Moreover, the authors — three composer/performers, a conductor, and a musicologist — see these questions from different vantage points. All are incisive and illuminating in describing their observations, and perforce much more tentative in proposing solutions.

Leisner sees encouraging signs in the new concert audiences being brought in by such minimalists as Philip Glass and others, summing up by saying that "what is urgently needed is the reintegration of composition with performance."

Bolcom's thrust is in a similar vein. Both, of course, are well-known performers as well as composers, Bolcom having won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Music. His article is a rhapsodic and impassioned plea for active participation in the making of music. Pointing out that it is ultimately vacuous to have music simply as a passive, almost subliminal form of entertainment, he writes: "Perhaps one reason people have stopped coming to concerts is that the novelty of hearing background music played `live' simply wears off."

In this day of economic austerity and renewed criticism of governmental participation in the economics of art, Denis Stevens's yearning for a more active role for such electronic media as National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service seems somewhat unrealistic. Even were we to accept unchallenged his assertion that "an estimated 4 percent of Americans opt for non-pop music," it is doubtful that ten million of us would willingly man the barricades in response to his injunction: "Now, you American revolutionaries, demand a national radio system that employs in vast numbers live musicians, living composers, and lively commentators!" And yet, how Stevens's invocation of Sir Edward Marsh does touch our western sensibilities: "...for the ear changes with the generations, and what is cacophony to me may well draw iron tears down the cheeks of my nephews and nieces; so I will confine myself to affirming that poetry which renounces the singing quality plucks its own wings."

Conductor John Mauceri's article is subtitled "Has elitism emptied our concert halls?" and the sometimes apparently unbridgeable dichotomy between what he calls "low" and "high" art is lamented. Mauceri reminds us that there is no historical precedent for this "fatal split," inviting us to "imagine Beethoven and Mozart without country dances, Chopin without waltzes and mazurkas."

John Warthen Struble's Jungian expose is as persuasive as his conclusion is problematic. "It is my belief," he writes, "that the discussion must not begin with the question of how to save classical music. It must begin with the question of finding the mission of music itself in our world, the one we actually live in." After he quotes the late Joseph Campbell in sketching music's historic world role, he states: "What irrefutably exists, and becomes increasingly inescapable each year, is a multicultural, technologically interconnected 'community' of human beings on earth: Marshall McLuhan's global village."

There. It is not too long before we stub our toe on the clarion call to multiculture.

The real rub is that aspect of the human condition which awards all of us only 24 hours in the day. There is no doubt that there is more to know today than ever before, and that we also have more means to learn it than our forefathers ever dared dream. Isn't it a pity, therefore, to have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we cannot count on a single daily hour more than could the caveman? Put in this way, it then becomes a question of priorities: shall we learn less about more, or more about an agreed upon circumscribed segment of the totality of human endeavor?

No one suggests that we should not make knowledge about other cultures available on request. (The performing arts events offered at The New York International Festival of the Arts described in this issue's lead story are proof of what can be and has been done. Note that each such event has been the product of a truly indigenous culture.) But culture is an ongoing and comprehensive thing, and the price of admission is more than the selective survey course, a half-hour newscast over network television, or a CD played over the radio while doing your homework. In this narcissistic age where nothing matters more than "the me," it has never been so easy to grow up to be nothing at all. For being something means knowing something, and knowing is, was, and will always be time-consuming. Sooner or later, it will again become clear to our philosophers, educators, and artists that it's fine to "be me" if you really mean finding out what goes into that identity, how it is alike and how it differs from the identity of others, what values and ideas have been revered and abhorred by those who came before, and what you would wish to pass on to those who will come after.

Time, therefore, is the magic and often missing ingredient. And since we're stuck with our paltry 24 hours, we'll have to choose between the meaningful knowledge of ourselves within the continuum of our personal heritage, and the immediately tasty but ultimately unnutritious smorgasbord called multiculturalism.

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