In “The Crisis in Culture” (1961), the philosopher Hannah Arendt warned about
a special kind of intellectual . . . whose sole function is to organize, disseminate, and change cultural objects in order to persuade the masses that Hamlet can be as entertaining as My Fair Lady, and perhaps educational as well.
Arendt goes on to observe that
There are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say.
It is obvious that the process of adulteration Arendt described in the middle of the last century has greatly accelerated in succeeding decades. And it may go without saying that the phenomenon affects not only literature but all the arts.
We were reminded of this by some recent news stories from the worlds of music and the visual arts.
A few months back, The New York Times, a reliable cheerleader for anything that can be aggregated under the desideratum “diversity”—i.e., favoring blacks, women, and/or the sexually exotic—ran a gushing story about Jonathon Heyward, the thirty-year-old conductor who not only had just become “the first Black music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra” but also “has been tapped to lead Lincoln Center’s summer ensemble, a reimagined version of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra.”
Two points. First, what does it matter that Heyward is black? Shouldn’t the pertinent concern be whether he is a competent and inspiring conductor? Second, note the word “reimagined.” What that means is that “Mostly Mozart” will be replaced by “Missing Mozart.” Shanta Thake, the chief artistic officer of Lincoln Center, said that the old name felt “a little myopic right now.” Why? Because it paid homage to a dead white guy? She didn’t expatiate on that looming nearsightedness except to say that the “reimagining” of the Mostly Mozart Festival is aimed at “opening this up and really saying that this is music that belongs to everyone.”
But isn’t the music of Mozart and the other composers who have traditionally featured in the festival already the common property of mankind? The answer is yes, but Thake’s unstated agenda is to change, and cheapen, the sort of thing that the phrase “this music” refers to.
And so it goes. The last concert attached to the name “Mostly Mozart” occurred this August under the baton of Louis Langrée, the longtime maestro of the festival. “The Mostly Mozart Festival,” he said afterwards, “is no more.”
What will take its place? We still don’t know the new name. But we do know that Lincoln Center will continue to feature its new “Summer for the City” series, though it is not, not quite, a replacement for Mostly Mozart. This past April, a press release enthused that “The Ultimate New York Festival” would offer “something exciting for everyone.” Among other attractions were stand-up comics, “a week-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of Hip-Hop with performances by j. period, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, a trap choir, and more.” Much, much more! “National Queer Theater’s Criminal Queerness Festival,” for example, and the “queer pop duo The Illustrious Blacks’ silent disco.”
That’s not all. The series also featured Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Angeles, “the world’s first lgbtqia+ mariachi group.” A separate press release explained that the Mariachi Arcoiris presented “the infectious sounds and rhythms of Mexico interpreted through the queer Mexican-American lens in this family-friendly event.” Not only is its act “family friendly,” but the group “features Natalia Melendez, the first transgender woman in the history of mariachi,” a detail that doubtless makes it even more “family friendly.”
You cannot make it up, but then you don’t have to. Lincoln Center, once a prominent home of serious cultural endeavor, has become a self-satirizing machine, a nauseating confection of grinning hucksterism and demotic psychopathology masquerading as art.
What will Jonathon Heyward bring to this circus? We don’t really know, though the Times says that he will be “embracing a wider variety of genres and bringing more racial, ethnic and gender diversity to the stage.” In other words, “Goodbye Mozart, Hello Moonshine.”
Meanwhile, up the street and across the park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is engaged in its own exercise in institutional self-caricature. The New Criterion has several times commented on the Met’s decline since the departure of Philippe de Montebello as director in 2008. As at most cultural institutions these days, the watchword at the Met is “diversity,” not “excellence.” The acrid aroma of pandering to dei commissars wafts off the pages of every press release and wall label.
At the same time, the Met, again like most other cultural institutions, seems to have invested as lavishly in its concessions as in its artistic program. The wit who said that the Victoria & Albert Museum in London was a café with art on the side was not far wrong. The same could be said of most American museums. “Amenity,” not “Art,” is the name of their desire. The Met’s priorities are hinted at throughout its marketing materials. The museum’s Instagram feed, for example, assures potential visitors that
you don’t have to know anything about art to come to the Met
in fact—you don’t even have to like art! you can stop by to just chill and eat snacks, we actually love that for you.
We have attempted to regularize the punctuation as far as possible, but do note that the museum, in the original post, insisted on rendering its name “the met.” The Met also offered this helpful directive on Instagram: “Find us on @threads for more reassuring messages and plenty of cheerful, chaotic art history curiosity.”
There is also a certain amount of sleight of hand in operation. A recent story declared that the museum was about “to transform its largest retail space into a gallery.” More space for Rembrandt and Rubens, Titian and Tintoretto? Not quite. While the big retail space of the great hall was being relocated, that spacious bit of prime real estate was being handed over to “hugely popular Costume Institute exhibitions.” In other words, the Met had contrived to provide more space for fashion, not art, even as it pretended to do the opposite.
As Hannah Arendt noted, there is nothing wrong with entertainment. We all need and enjoy it. But what we are witnessing everywhere in our culture is the transformation of art into entertainment, entertainment edged with snob appeal and bolstered by that precious goad to snobbery, money. Lincoln Center and the Met are not outliers but standard-bearers for the status quo. What makes their descent so depressing is the heights from which they have fallen in their embrace of the trivial, trashy, and ephemeral. The process is made all the more rebarbative by the injection of racial animus and identity politics. Here as elsewhere in the economy of human endeavor, corruptio optimi pessima: the corruption of the best fosters the worst.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 3, on page 1
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