American culture is brilliant. It’s our guardians who failed
AAmerican culture is as bright, stimulating and creative as it has ever been.
This assertion goes against the grain of the discourse of decline that we regularly hear among journalists and philosophers, especially on the right. Yet it is not American culture that has failed. It’s our
America had people who acted as intermediaries between the masses and the culture. In a fascinating 2016 article, James Rosen
that conservative founding father William F. Buckley appeared on The show tonight more than a dozen times. Rosen observed that “today the regular presence on major late-night television shows of someone like Buckley, an aristocratic intellectual accustomed to speaking in paragraphs, even in other languages - he started an appearance from ‘Tonight’ with several phrases in Spanish – would seem, in a lineup dominated by actors and pop stars, blatantly out of place. At the time, however, Buckley fit right in, and we were , as a nation, richer for it.
Rosen celebrates the America that was “a Warholian confusion of high and low that placed artists, athletes, politicians, novelists, intellectuals, psychics and eccentrics on the same couch TV”.
That America is gone, but just because the couches now have Kardashians instead of conductors doesn’t mean American culture has faded.
One of my favorite artists is the
Kurt Elling, whose album Nocturnal movements is a moving American masterpiece inspired by everyone from John Coltrane to Walt Whitman. Next week I’m going to the theater to see
Fourth Turning Hero,
an acclaimed play about Catholic conservatives trying to negotiate the modern world.
abound, including Marlon James, whose work A brief history of seven murders about the attempted assassination of singer Bob Marley, is staggering. Tom King’s comic book writer The human target is one of the best series for years. Composer Philip Glass is 85 and continues to produce amazing music. American television, game of thrones at hellraiser, has been the best in years. I mean, compare 1970s TV shows to what we have now. stranger things is slightly better than, say, Starsky and Hutch.
America has always had a thirst for art. In a bright room for
, social historian Fred Siegel explored how the American masses embraced intellectuals in the 1950s. Americans of the time were “sampling for the first time the greatest works of Western civilization”. The book Mass culture: popular arts in America revealed that “twenty years ago you couldn’t sell Beethoven outside of New York. Today we sell Palestrina, Monteverdi, Gabrieli, and Renaissance and Baroque music in large quantities.” There was a 250% growth in the number of local symphony orchestras between 1940 and 1955.
In 1955, writes Siegel, “15 million people paid to attend major league baseball games and 35 million paid to attend classical music concerts. The Metropolitan’s Saturday afternoon radio broadcast New York Opera attracted 15 million listeners out of a total population of 165 million.”
Siegel notes that there were gatekeepers to bringing this great art to the public: “NBC spent $500,000 in 1956 to present a three-hour version of Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’. with Laurence Olivier. The show drew 50 million viewers; no less than 25 million watched the three hours.” Siegel observes that “on March 16, 1956, a randomly chosen Sunday, the viewer might have seen a discussion of the life and times of Toulouse-Lautrec by three prominent critics of art, an interview with theologian Paul Tillich, adapted from Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s To hang upa documentary on mental illness with Dr. William Menninger and a 90-minute performance of The Taming of the Shrew. The Adventures of Augie March, winner of the National Book Award, sold one million copies in paperback by the early 1950s.
John F. Kennedy supported the arts. “The life of the arts,” he said, “far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose.” American culture is not in decline. It’s obvious to anyone who goes outside for a few hours. We just need another Johnny Carson.
Mark Judge is an award-winning journalist and the author of the book The Devil’s Triangle: Mark Judge vs. America’s New Stasi. He is also the author of God and Man at Georgetown Prep, Cursed senators, and A tremor of happiness.