Civility, Politics, Art, and Language

I was watching a DVD of “South Pacific” last night, and on disc two there was a special feature: in 1954, there was a live TV broadcast that was a tribute to Rodgers and Hammerstein, and this was so popular that it played live on all three networks at the same time.

That really struck me. Other than presidential addresses, I had never head of such a thing. It took me a while to comprehend that there was a program on television in 1954 that was going to be so widely watched that it made sense for the networks to all broadcast it at the same time, presumably so that the costs of advertising could be split up and not be astronomical to individual sponsors.

Now, that said, the following is not a non sequitur: There is much discussion these days about the issue of civility in politics. In my opinion, this is more than just a moral issue. It’s also one of language and art.

Regular readers of my blog know that I’m not a big fan of modern art. Apart from the fact that it is mostly ugly, and fails to understand or respect issues of form, when you start to create art that has little in the way of broad cultural understanding, this contributes to both factionalism and emotional isolation. For example, if you only listen to golden oldies, and I only listen to Elliott Carter, we have precious little shared artistic experience. Verbal language (and the words it contains) are all just labels we attach to experience. As those experiences diverge, the language diverges as well. Good art contains universal truth, and therefore “relates” to all people, not just to “niche markets.” As bad art creates exclusion by not being universal, and as perceived differences increase, polarization increases in direct proportion. I just thought it was interesting that we once had art in Broadway shows that was so universally popular.

We talk a lot about “arts education,” but all too often that is really about “crafts education.” The most important element of art is being a tool of communication. If the majority of people don’t understand a piece of modern music or modern art, or it is so vague that it has to be explained, and much has to be assumed about the artist’s intention, we lose a certain amount of concrete common experience and reference. When people start to feel disconnected, nothing good ever comes of that.

It’s not enough to just hype up and sell a painting, or sell tickets to the concert. The arts are not some nice little aesthetic add-on to the culture. Builders of past empires always understood the importance of establishing and maintaining common language. Honest and skilled artistic expression is language, it is one of the most important cohesive elements of society, and in the massive incivility of our time we are seeing the effects of losing it.

© Justin Locke


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