What Culture? What Boom?

Henry S. Resnik is twenty-six, a native New Yorker, and a graduate of Yale.

by Henry S. Resnik

While the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center was busy putting on one of the most dazzling shows New York has seen in years, opening-nighters seemed oblivious to the shaggy, angular presence of cinema-lovers attending the New York Film Festival at Philharmonic Hall. But here was a juxtaposition of velvet and vinyl that graphically illustrated the fact that we are in the midst of a cultural revolution.

Indeed, the cultural revolution already has its own engagingly manipulative press, so bouncy with humor that one often forgets the seriousness of its purpose. The love ‘n’ anger of the East Village Other is an example, replete with psychedelic prose. Anti-daddy, arteriosclerotic Tom Wolfe is another, with class. One article in the Village Voice even went so far as to imply, in a daringly offhanded conclusion, that Marshall McLuhan is too square to know what really should be happening. There is bound to be anger on all sides, particularly from the “older” generation, in whose territory I am resigned to having one foot forever (I was not weaned on TV; I am literate) and some of whose anger I share. They (we) will eventually go out of style completely, and this makes them (us) pretty uncomfortable.

Thus, although the opening of the Metropolitan was a pageant (rather, a vulgar spectacle), it seemed in its self-conscious gaudiness to celebrate an ending more than a peak. It could not have intended to celebrate the end of the “culture explosion” it represents, however; by now that explosion is a multimillion-dollar business. It even has the Esquire seal of approval.

Yet one of the most interesting developments in the so-called explosion is the possibility that it does not exist. Until the Twentieth Century Fund commissioned two economists to prepare a report on the economics of the performing arts, evidence for the culture “boom” consisted largely of the enormous sums of money that consumers have been spending in recent years on the arts. Evidence against it came from skeptics like Harold C. Schonberg, music critic of the Times, who asserted, for example, that while more music may be available than ever before, “audiences do not seem particularly interested.” But arguing against the culture explosion is something like trying to reason with a glacier; one simply can’t deny the existence of all those new civic cultural centers.

In assembling the Fund’s report, William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen discovered that of ninetythree culture centers reported to be planned or already in existence in ninety-one cities, fifty-three had been completed by December, 1964, and twenty-six of these had opened since 1950.

But figures supporting the culture boom are subject to a number of systematic distortions which have magnified the real rise in spending. After making adjustments for the inflation of the dollar, the rise in population, and the expenditure in terms of personal disposable income after taxes, Baumol and Bowen conclude that if the post-war years have exhibited a culture explosion, “it appears to have been an education boom much more than an expansion in relative demand for the performing arts.” The only branches of the performing arts that have shown a substantial increase in rate of growth, according to the report, are the dance and regional theater.

Whether or not there is a culture boom, the Twentieth Century Fund report lends substance to the claim that much of what has been passed off as a flowering of creativity in America is bogus. The culture boom always looked bogus, but no one until Baumol and Bowen had offered convincing evidence (as contrasted with educated opinion) that it is. The best culture centers promote the loving care of good antiques — operas, plays, symphonies — and at these times the concept of a “center” seems worthwhile. Too often, however, they do more harm than good to the antiques they preserve.

Granted that regional theater is flourishing, what is actually going on in all the gleaming new buildings? Monotonous productions of Shakespeare; occasionally worthy representations of Shaw, Chekhov, Williams, Miller — the “standards” of theater repertory that tradition-soaked audiences want and will get as long as the almighty Ford Foundation insists that repertory theaters work toward being self-supporting, thus forcing them to operate as much on the box-office principle as any Broadway house.

As for the symphonies, audiences “dress up” (concert clothes have, in a sense, replaced Sunday best) and listen politely to the music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Strauss, Ravel, Stravinsky (still somewhat bold for most audiences, though Le Sacre du printemps was completed in 1913), and other “popular” composers, almost all of whom have no place in the creating of contemporary music.

These culture centers fairly reck of virtue. They are industrial America’s retarded gesture toward humanism and the liberal arts. Their intentions are unquestionably good, but their efforts always seem to lack conviction. The deadness of these efforts, plus the question about their widely hailed prevalence, suggests that the culture explosion is more a piece of expert public relations work, an affluent nation’s bow to sophisticated tradition, than an honest attempt to modify materialistic values.

Action is the key

With or without shoulder-length hair, the youthful crowds who jam the “total” discotheques, one of the fastest growing of the new art forms, are the image of the new revolution. Their enormous energy — the constant movement, the frenetic dances — is an expression of defiance and life. Their uniform asserts independence and a flair for spontaneity. At its best their music possesses throbbing vitality, and more often than not it murders intelligence — it is designed for liberation, not thought. At its worst their music is horrible, worse even than the horrible music of their parents’ generation.

In this age of satiety, one sensual experience, sustained for any length of time, is no longer enough. The senses must be drenched in order for them to respond at all. The key word of this age is “action”; passivity is anathema. The ten-to-twentyfive-year-olds seem to have taken over the new culture cn masse (this accounts for that vaguely threatening term “teen culture”). McLuhan attributes much of the phenomenon to television, but all the media are responsible.

The most alarming quality of this new culture is what appears to be its obliteration of thought. “Content” has become a pejorative word; ostensibly the new culture has nothing to say. This may account for the enormous popularity of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings among high school and college students. Tolkien’s Christian morality is so obvious and uninteresting that the only possible reason for wading through the trilogy’s thirteen hundred pages is to discover the various inventions with which he has filled his imaginary world.

Thought is not in such serious danger of disappearing, however, as some forms of the revolution might suggest. Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation is a collection of essays whose main thesis is clearly stated in the title; yet in its presentation of the “new sensibility,” it is as interpretive as any Ph.D. paper. Moreover, what Son tag and the whole crowd of new sensibles oppose is the search for meaning, particularly the search for morality, that, according to them, has preoccupied intellectuals and literary critics in past decades. The new culture emphasizes ethics and the importance of questioning rather than the more passive, thou-shalt-not forms of traditional morality, which merely provide answers. Perhaps through boredom, or the search for newness, it tends to reject Freudianism in favor of technological theories.

“Happenings,” one of the most viable alternatives to traditional theater, frequently rely on chance, as their name implies, but behind their superficial mindlessness is a philosophy considerably more complex and sophisticated than the doctrine of realism that has dominated the twentieth-century American stage. The Stone, an “environment” that will soon be permanently established near St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan, is designed, with Zen principles in mind, to elicit contemplation as well as to stimulate the senses with sound, light, and tactile experiences.

Murderers of Broadway

The recent production of Marat/ Sade offered an overwhelming affirmative for the theater. There was a continually excited quality to the audiences who filled the Martin Beck Theater for every performance of the limited run. They were there for more than just the excitement of seeing the “in” hit of the season. A good half of the audiences appeared to be under thirty; many of them were dressed so casually that they either didn’t know what conventional audiences wear to the theater or they did know and decided against it. During intermission, the lobbies seemed to explode with conversation. Sensationalism and rave reviews cannot be the only reasons for the play’s amazing success.

Marat/Sade was different from the usual Broadway fare in a number of ways, aside from its subject. The most important, I think, is that Peter Brook’s production made it more a circus than a play. From the entrance of the first inmate of Charenton to the thoroughly annoying curtain call, the cast offered a range of actions and gestures that was impossible to absorb at one sitting; one could easily have seen the play several times without seeing all of it. The proscenium, traditionally a “frame” that separates actors and audience, creating a nice picture of the stage, virtually disappeared as the audience was drawn into the play.

Marat /Sade offered a complex and carefully planned version of chaos; it was a challenge to all of the audience’s faculties, intellectual and sensory. Boredom threatened only when the actors lapsed into long philosophical speeches.

This is the opposite of the theater of realism, which has declined into people consuming entire meals on stage and going through the most mundane moments of life in such a way that they become mundane theater — ultimate distortions of the brilliant use of realism in Chekhov and Ibsen. Tyrone Guthrie said years ago that realism and the proscenium stage were the real murderers of Broadway when he insisted on the involving qualities of the thrust stage. Non-proscenium designs of many new theaters, including Guthrie’s in Minneapolis, are among the few promising aspects of the regional theater boom. Happenings, events, environments, and the like, which have been created more by painters than by playwrights, may be the answer to the dilemma of our theater, but in several years they have failed to attract more than a large in-group.

If production costs and ticket prices were lower, Broadway might be as vital a cultural force as London’s West End, where one can see a play for seventy cents. But American producers are naturally reluctant these days to take chances; the economy of our theater demands hits, and unfortunately this now applies to off-Broadway as well. The Merrick Foundation, which has imported such plays as Marat/ Sade and Philadelphia, Here I Come!, has given Broadway a shove in the right direction. Robert Brustein may make things lively at Yale. The off-off-Broadway Open Theater group has livened the season considerably with America Hurrah, and most critics look on this unimposing company and on the Café La Mama as rich resources. As long as our theater remains a luxury, however, it will merely soothe.

Music and the galleries

“Serious” music is considerably less promising than theater, having shown scarcely a trace of experimentation. In the Poème Électronique of Edgar Varèse astonished audiences at the Brussels Fair, but nine years later it cannot even make people angry. Babbitt and Stockhausen are peripheral; Stravinsky is titan-in-residence; Leonard Bernstein wrote a gala new book for Christmas distribution. The healthiest thing that could happen in the music world would be the elimination of the term “serious music.”

The richest, most vital music of the past has served a function of some kind—most of the music of Bach was written for the church; Prince Esterhazy employed Haydn to serve up regular courtly helpings of bubbling music; some of Stravinsky’s best work was written for the ballet.

The functional music of our own half century is rock ‘n’ roll. Although its main function is to accompany dancing, its constant blare everywhere indicates that for many people it is a necessary part of the environment — music to live by, exploding with the rhythm of this frenetic, liberated age. This is the first time in history that there has been popular music on such a scale. Folk rock is a logical step in the evolution of American music, and Bob Dylan has elevated the genre to the highest level of art.

The most significant creative activity, in New York at least, can be seen in the art galleries; here the new culture has almost completely taken over, to a point, in fact, where traditional methods of panning have succumbed to all sorts of mixed forms and new, technological materials.

Modern painting (which often includes sculpture, sound, and other media) has become the central expression of our mechanized, automated, impersonal society. Pop art, which rebelled against the introspective and personal quality of abstract expressionism, has given way to an even more impersonal mode of expression: the most important show of the New York season in terms of formal evolution was the display of “systemic” art at the Guggenheim Museum, Each of the paintings was, theoretically, the development of a system, something in the manner of the equally cerebral serial music, a development which could be finished by anyone once the artist had invented the original system. Moreover, the materials one sees in the most progressive galleries — stainless steel, aluminum, acrylics, plastics, vinyl — represent even more vividly the cold anonymity of our society. The element of Camp, so frequently part of the modern painter’s attitude, is the ultimate removal of the creator from his work. Condescending humor is the basis of Camp, and it is also the best defense against a world in which one is constantly faced with doom. Laughter is the new culture’s answer to modern civilization.

In an important sense, then, there is a certain kind of unintelligence in the new culture. It is not what we usually mean by “unintelligent,” however, for the makers of the new culture are fiercely brainy, constantly inventive. Rather, it is a deliberate, chosen blindness to the apparently hopeless moral issues of the day, a sophisticated form of moral obtuseness. The new culture is unremittingly “cool.” Passion is gauche: sex is a fun thing, rarely meaningful, a joyous biological dividend in return for living.

Sense and sensibility

Even as I discover the vitality of new forms, however, the prc-electronic generation in me rebels. I will continue to see plays and to hope for the future of the theater; I have a good collection of records, and I’ll stay with Brahms until I can find more than sentimental reasons for going to concerts; I learned to love reading so early in life that I will read as long as people write. And I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop trying to see beneath the surface of things.

The “new sensibility” focuses on form, glittering the surfaces. When one looks for character, one finds only layers of stereotype. The new art educates the senses, and the education of the soul is considered gauche.

Yet a work of art like Hamlet or Macbeth is powerful because of its content— the ideas, the questions, the answers —as well as its form. The enduring works of art survive because they speak to mankind of what touches man deeply.

I cling to my belief in the power of the mind, and I think this power is being assaulted, not by Susan Sontag or Marshall McLuhan, both of whom have minds, but by the obsessive neophytes who are finding in this revolution an opportunity to murder their fathers. I do not think that they will ever rule the world, however, even though they may make a good deal of noise before they leave it.

The most serious problem both generations face is the result of a misunderstanding. The revolution has freed us from Victorian moralizing — the interpretation and making of art as if it were a sermon. But the rediscovery of exuberant sensuality has given too many people the false idea that the senses are all. Perhaps these ill-informed Gamp followers are merely like the occasional “bad reaction” to a health-giving shot; or perhaps they are an actual disease.

The best minds of the new generation are encouragingly alive, however. They are toiling in Appalachia and the slums; they are trying to make some sense of Vietnam; they are questionng, thinking, speaking out. Of course, they are also filling the movie theaters and discotheques; they probably watch TV every now and then; and they seem to be having an enormous amount of fun. That is, after all, what’s happening.