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A Plea for Littleness

One of the great paradoxes of our times is the ease of access we have evolved. Our wealth and technology have given us easy access to everything: information, rapid travel, instant communications — it goes on and on.

Contrast this to life a century ago, an age without computers, satellites, television, and all the media that have dizzily speeded up our pace of life.

Our world has become, at the same time, larger and smaller.

Think about the geopolitical world of 1900, let alone all prior times. It was an agrarian world, punctuated with greater and lesser urban centers that defined the cutting edge of commerce, the arts, sciences, and humanities. Travel and communications were more awkward. Cities and city-states developed their own autonomous societies — their own merchants, artists and artisans who saw themselves as fixtures of their community, rarely contemplating other options. And those using those merchants, artists and artisans rarely thought about obtaining goods or services from outside their own communities. Because of the rigidity of the times, there were few options available of location, class, profession, or supply. Yes, yesteryear had its share of upward mobility — composers moving from Eisenach to Mühlhausen to Weimar to Cöthen to Leipzig, or from almost anywhere to the Big Apple that Vienna once was but it was the exception, not the rule.

It made for a smaller, certainly a slower, world with horizons not nearly as distant as ours. In such a society, in which people had time for such civilities as correspondence and the type of home concertizing the Germans call musizieren (musicmaking), it was expected that persons with a modicum of education be active participants, on whatever level they were able to achieve, in all manner of cultural pursuits. Novels and poetry were both read and written; painting, drawing, and sculpture were admired, acquired, and attempted; ideas of all varieties, ranging from the political and philosophical to the practical and scientific were vented in countless parlors and salons. Human communication, in all its guises, was widespread, gradual, leisurely.

Ours, by comparison, has become a passive society. Rather than engaging, ourselves participating, we are content — wrong word? — to let the professional do it. With the exception of sports (in which our own, sometimes vicarious activity gives us enjoyment from early childhood at least into early parenthood), we have gone from amateur performers to worldly-wise spectators, frenzy-feeding our outer, while dwarfing our inner, lives. We surf the net in search of entertainment and consumables, we whiz to the four corners of the earth for the weekend, and by the time we're 18, we've been there and done that.

We've been carefully taught to let the most visible (and audible) professionals, the ones most charismatic and hotly promoted, become the spokespeople, the exemplars of their art. What do we need to know about vocal music that we haven't heard from The Three Tenors? What truly imaginative graphic concept of yesterday does not become today's mass-produced merchandise, knocked off and readily available at every discount emporium? Why bother with small-time conductors or provincial orchestras when we can easily and inexpensively have Bernstein and Karajan on audio and video and CD and CD Rom and media yet to be invented?

Isn't it great? Aren't we putting our affluence and technology to the task of creating the classless society, making things of beauty, once available only to the uppermost classes, accessible to everyone?

And yet...

We would do well to remind ourselves that totality is rarely one huge blurb of anything, but a conglomeration of a vast number of separate components, and that these components vary in size. While it may be commercially significant to observe that there is a greater numerical, footstomping, CD-buying audience for The Rolling Stones than for a Rilling rendition of a Bach cantata or for a string quartet or song cycle, this does not diminish the validity of the smaller audience. Even the small market deserves to be serviced and honored. Some say that the arts (and those who make and lavish in them) are elitist. Sure, the dictionary definition being "the choice or most carefully selected part of a group, as of a society or profession." And what makes us eligible for such designation? Education. And what is education's most essential ingredient? Participation. Not simply watching the greats do their thing, but having a hand at it, as once we did when the world was larger and smaller, both.

There's no turning back the clock, of course. No one proposes that we do away with any of the things that our wealth or our technology have wrought. But let us not forget that being big doesn't necessarily attest to excellence, and being small is no guaranty of unimportance.

Our national motto, e pluribus unum (one out of many), is given greater meaning when recalling that the many are made up of both the large and the small.

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