It never fails. I’m reading in public. Another person wants to know what I’ve got. (It can be hard to tell as I take the dust covers off my hardback books so that they don’t get mangled.) I show them. Comes the inevitable response, “Are you reading that for school/an assignment/homework?”
It never seems to occur to so many people that I may be reading de Tocqueville, Yates, Montaigne, Thoreau, Frederic, or even Fitzgerald for pleasure. “Oh, I get it, but you also read fun stuff, right?” Fun stuff means Harry Potter and the Twilight books. Well, um, no, I don’t. Honestly, because they just don’t interest me, but the stuff that made them possible does (Tolkien, Frankenstein, Dracula). Neither does James Fenimore Cooper or Margaret Mitchell interest me. Or whoever wrote Beowulf. (Well, I’m a lot older; maybe I should grit my teeth and give Beowulf, like brussels sprouts, another try.)
If I’m going to spend hours with a book, it had better deliver. Not just empty-headed entertainment. It had better change the way I look at the world in some small way. Some big way is nice too. This is not optional. It’s why I read, why I watch movies, why I listen to music. “But don’t you like to just have fun?” I get asked. That is fun. Watching or reading about space battles, warlords, journeys to retrieve the magic whatever from the infernal king whoever…just doesn’t interest me, unless the text somewhat subverts the expectations of the genre and teaches us something because of it, almost in spite of it. Someone, and I forget who, said the greatness of art can be gauged by how it presses up against and stresses out accepted convention; the resulting friction is the art. So I’m looking for a lot of friction.
I’ve long wondered why Americans don’t have a taste for this sort of thing as much as Europeans. And they don’t. Despite the popularity of American pop culture in Continental Europe, it is still largely that, pop culture. Sure they have their versions of American Idol, but they don’t quite take it as seriously as we do. It’s a guilty pleasure, not their cultural glue. In the large urban areas, at least, Beethoven, Bach, Goethe, Kant and pals still command a tremendous amount of respect and attention, to a degree an American who has never traveled abroad (85 percent, incidentally) would find hard to understand, though the old school admittedly is fighting for dominance more and more. Still, I suspect it’ll long be around after posterity has forgotten Madonna, Simon Cowell and Puff Diddy, or whatever his name is this month.
In Democracy In America, which I consider the greatest book ever written about the U.S.A. (by a visiting Frenchman in the 1830s!), Alexis de Tocqueville says people in a country of a workaday economy do not want subtlety or depth in their art and literature–in their thinking. Party this is because of a very good thing: the decision-makers in a democracy, the movers and shakers, are the ordinary, pragmatic folk, not the fancy-pants elites. In America, the “common” people are in control of their destinies, and they’re in control of their leisure as well. That’s part of it. But there’s also a less egalitarian and idealistic reason for this lowering of the common denominator: forced to toil away for sustenance, members of a democracy, ie, a non-monarchical society, do not have time to form rarefied tastes and expertise in any thing except one: how to make the next dollar. (Hold your vitriol. Tocqueville said it; I’m just the messenger.) Instead for their precious free time they want fantasy, shock, abrupt stimulation, always new, always changing, always promising, like some drug dealer, that the greatest, most satisfying “hit” is just around the corner. This is exactly what we see today in everything from mass market fiction to mass market music to mass market movies. What’s so impressive is that Tocqueville observed this, and predicted its effects on American intellectual development and national character, back in 1835, in a nation still in its infancy, and it holds up.
For all the faults we Americans have been conditioned to seeing in an aristocratic society, we haven’t been conditioned to seeing any of its virtues. Such a society has a leisure class that America, even in this age of technology and convenience, has never known and likely will never know. In the past that meant a class capable of appreciating, and of taking the time to appreciate, the refinement and aesthetics of a Beethoven quartet or a Mozart piano concerto. What that means to any American (or member of any other society in which free markets plays such a major part–that’s the one slight inaccuracy with Tocqueville: he blurs free markets with Democracy, a mistake for which he can hardly be blamed back then; recently China has shown us you can have a free market-driven culture without Democratic principles, and Scandinavia and others have shown us you can have Democratic principles without total adherence to the free market) is that he must aim low to thrive–shock and thrill, with the awareness that your shelf life is short and you are creating material for a culture that seeks fast-moving novelty and not enduring substance. Sometimes one can be present inside the other, of course, but that’s a gift, not a regular feature. Of course aristocracies have had and continue to have their fads too, but they are thusly relegated–those “European Idol” shows. Contrary to what many of you will take away from this article, I am not suggesting that Europe has no lowbrow culture or that everything they do is deep, serious and game-changing. But they *do* have a sense of perspective as to when they are dealing with something that is game-changing and when they are engaged in “mental karaoke.” Independently of writing this essay, I decided the other night that Charles Ives was most probably America’s greatest composer, and don’t forget that he labored throughout his life as an insurance salesman and saw his music as mostly a personal creative outlet, and not a way to make money, reach his fellow American or be remembered. And probably far fewer Americans have heard of Charles Ives–not even heard his music, just heard of–than have traveled abroad.
There are of course serious artists in America, yet the country has produced profoundly few, compared to the number of superstar athletes, pop icons, movie stars, businesspeople, technological innovators (though we’re losing ground there at an alarming rate) and other stand-outs. This says something as to where America truly, when all the lip-flapping is done, values art. I don’t mean “art” as a commody–expensive paintings and other status symbols–but art as a cultural artifact, whose job is to change the way you think. Work-a-day laborers, which is what America consists of even if some of them (an ever-dwindling class) are well-paid and able to live to some extent like their aristocratic counterparts of yore, don’t have the time to master languages of story-telling and don’t want their perspectives challenged and changed in a novel or movie. If there is such content it had better be buried deep and sugar-coated, and even this has become in the last 30 years of up-and-doing marketplace Republicanism, a niche-market, so true “art-for-art’s-sake” art is a niche within a niche market, a pimple on a flea on the back of a careerist worker who spends even his scant leisure time reading books that will make him a more efficient capitalist and a more avid consumer. And people question my definition of fun.
Of course “the marketplace” is nothing new–it goes back at least to ancient Athens, and probably then it was old–but this narrowness of its expression is. This is the sentence, the reality, the fact of anyone trying to make art today in America and countries that model their social-economic engines on America. Recently, for reasons I don’t fully understand, the French voted in a president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who had the same idea for his people. Since then, many of his policies–based on making France more imitative of America–haven’t gone over well. I wonder what the voters were expecting…
America enjoyed a sort of spiritual infusion during the 1930s and 40s, as refugees from Europe fled fascism and made their homes either in the U.S. or Western Europe and then the United States. They brought much of Europe’s greatness with them–Marlene Dietrich and Bruno Walter and Josef von Sternberg and Igor Stravinsky and Wernher von Braun and Billy Wilder and Sergei Rachmaninoff and Albert Einstein and George Balanchine. We “natives” have largely taken this Götterfunken for granted. As the effects of these people wear off, we will see, in this new century, that much of what we took to be American exceptionalism came from elsewhere.