Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc., is a monument to the public cultural world of the late 1950s and the early 1960s. That world was marked by an urge to build great structures—preferably several great structures—devoted to different art forms linked together, so that the arts might in some way “cross-fertilize” one another. In addition, the very phrase “performing arts” signified a new and more rigid separation between artistic creation, still presumably to be carried on in a loft or garret, and artistic performance, a genre requiring deluxe and glittering surroundings.
And so Lincoln Center, completed in the 1960s, now houses the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, the New York City Opera, the Juilliard School, the Lincoln Center Theater, the Film Society, the Chamber Music Society, an embryonic jazz program, and the Library for the Performing Arts. The scale of operations of these constituents is mostly vast, the bustle and the hype are great, and the cross-fertilization, it seems, is nil. But there is something more to Lincoln Center than its constituents, namely its own production activities, which include the long-lived Mostly Mozart Festival, the Great Performers concert series, and Serious Fun, an attempt to tap a new, young audience for avant-garde presentations. Now Lincoln Center, in its producing capacity, is evermore worried about, and working on, its relevance to what it perceives as changed cultural circumstances. On this reading, culture is now multicultural, art is—or should be—diverse, audiences are aging, the young aren’t coming, and government support is drying up. A new Director of Programming, Jane Moss, has been appointed to bring Lincoln Center into the new age, and, by implication, to shake up Lincoln Center’s staid, dead white European male image rather more than a bit. It is significant that Moss’s experience, according to an interview she gave The New York Times’s Edward Rothstein at the beginning of December, is not in music; “[S]he has never worked as head of programming for any institution and has never booked an artist … her experience is not primarily in music either.” What the interview tells us of her intentions in programming is not terribly informative: she is “interested in the kind of programming created by the World Music Institute: the presentation of accomplished folk- and art-music performances from different countries.” In line with the trend in music presentation to substitute talks for sounds, she is also interested “in sponsoring lectures and seminars in which issues are debated.”
But two other quotations, though they are of the most generalized character, do sound a warning note for those who remember that Lincoln Center was in the main founded to present high art, even if that presentation was to be in glitzy surroundings. In the first quotation, Moss seems to have given up any faith in the existence of a reasonably large, educated audience for great music: “The days of 2,500 people,” she remarks, “coming to Avery Fisher Hall, all with a similar level of knowledge, passion, and commitment—I think those days are over.” And then, slightly later in the interview, she goes on to question what one had thought was the ultimate reason for Lincoln Center’s existence—art itself: “The notion,” she says, “that art and truth and beauty in and of themselves are of inherent value and need to be supported—I think those days are gone.”
It is difficult not to read these self-confident words as a verdict not just on Lincoln Center but on what we think of as some of the greatest achievements of Western civilization. Moss’s words about the inherent value of art and truth and beauty both echo and stand in direct contradiction to Keats’s in the closing lines of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Doubtless the twentieth century has been unkind to Keats’s noble vision. Still, it is chilling to realize that what were for Keats the culminating values of art are now to be so blithely jettisoned by those in charge of our great cultural institutions. In the place of such values we find such expediencies as audience interest, financial viability, and relevance to some airy notion of a more egalitarian world. That Moss should be so quick to dispense with the idea that art and beauty are “in and of themselves of inherent value and need to be supported” is bad enough: it bespeaks a troubling commercial philistinism. That she includes truth in her pantheon of dispensable values is genuinely appalling, and suggests that where truth is discounted, politics will fill the void.
The questions raised by Moss’s reflections go far beyond the fortunes of Lincoln Center. They are the more fundamental questions: why art, why beauty, and, above all, why truth? One does not know as yet just what Moss will do in her new post; one fervently hopes that she will dismiss her own words as the unwelcome fruit of inexperience, and promptly forget them. Civilization, after all, was not born in order to be killed at Lincoln Center.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 5, on page 3
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