Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Artistic Decline of America

Last week, Angelle wrote about our morally decaying society, and said that “entertainment needs to be upgraded.” She’s right. One of the most interesting facts about John Cage, to me, is the fact that in his time, he was relatively well-known; ordinary people knew who he was and were at least somewhat interested in his work. People debated the merits of his music—some loved him, others hated him. Given Cage’s acceptance (today, he is regarded as more or less a legitimate musician), it’s fair to say the “lovers” won out. I can’t say I agree with that decision, but at least the people of Cage’s time cared enough to debate such matters. Today, I can’t imagine many people even taking the time to find out who Cage was. We don’t just live in a morally decaying society, we also live in an intellectually decaying society.

This can be seen in areas other than music. In 1963 (I think), the big bestseller was The Caine Mutiny, by Herman Wouk, a brilliant book that won a Pulitzer Prize. The big bestseller of the last few years was The Da Vinci Code, which was a poorly researched pseudo historical screed (at least by all accounts; I haven’t read it) which lets people with flunked high school history the chance to trade historical conspiracy theories.

Or take pop music—in the sixties and seventies, we had Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, and Johnny Cash; now, we have Mariah Carey, Avril, and Toby Keith. Nothing against these later artists (in fact, I really like Toby Keith), but they really don’t measure up to their forebears.

A final example can be found in political debate. In 1968, ABC wanted two top political pundits, so they selected Bill Buckley and Gore Vidal. Both were accomplished authors (both wrote bestselling novels, as well as writing significant nonfiction) and smart, sophisticated debaters. If a network was to attempt such a thing now, who would they come up with—Sean Hannity and Keith Olbermann? I rest my case—since Cage’s time, we have devolved intellectually as a nation.

Not, of course, that the sixties and seventies were an artists’ Utopia—they gave the world plenty of awful stuff, such as Mrya Breckenridge. But then, the artistic highs were higher too. People cared about art, at least a little bit, and people like John Cage were considered interesting. Perhaps, somewhere, there is a modern day John Cage living somewhere—but instead of being a controversial celebrity, he only plays Tuesday nights for members of Berkley’s faculty.

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