Many people on my campus, most of all the fine-arts faculty, have been reduced to a state of numb horror as year after year, fewer and fewer students take any interest at all in the fine arts. There are no dance programs on campus, and most students have absolutely no rhythm or coordination. Almost nobody plays any instrument besides electric guitar, and most of those people are terrible. (Living across the hall from several guitarists is no fun.) Almost nobody can sing with any skill. Writing and poetry classes routinely have fewer than ten students, perhaps half of whom have a tin ear for language.
Granted, there is a degree of selection going on. Anyone who wants to actually develop his talent will not go to this college. But even among the general student body, there is less and less interest in watching the fine arts. Our theater productions have thinner and thinner audiences every semester, and the college jazz ensemble (which is mostly made up of faculty now) can barely fill a small room. A night of poetry and short fiction that I attended a while ago had maybe two people in the audience of ten who were not presenting their own work (and this was even with the free pizza!).
This stems partly from a sick attitude that has taken root in some communities, that "non-religious" art and music are a waste of time that could better be spent learning Torah. I wonder, according to this twisted worldview, what an ideal society would look like. It would probably be extremely boring; most of the "Jewish" music I have heard is awful. I can say with confidence that most of these "musicians" have never heard a piece by Bach or Mozart in their lives.
Aside from the loss to art that this represents, I worry that this trend indicates a larger lack of any sort of intellectual creativity. A serious criticism of the traditional Jewish education system is that it produces well-educated drones, not leaders. I see this in action all the time. A small core of students are actually engaging in intellectual discourse; the rest are simply "grinding" their studies, and they shut down in befuddlement when confronted by a challenging idea.
I think a significant cause might be the difference between associative learning and formalistic learning. Art is primarily associative, while most of these students have been trained their whole lives in a sort of mechanical rote learning, or if they are lucky, in a rigorous logical process. Associative learning has very little place in the typical Talmud class (which is a mistake, I think). Unfortunately, a critical trait of the most original thinkers has always been the ability to associate seemingly unconnected ideas and create new concepts. This process is in large part missing among Orthodox Jewish youth, and it is worrying.
Granted, an associative mind is an exceptional trait. But these sorts of traits can be cultivated, and art and music have historically been the most profound ways to cultivate societies. We are cutting ourselves off from that influence. Now, I can understand rejecting modern music, much of which is crude, unoriginal, and just not very good. But Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy? The great works of the past, that have withstood the test of time, what of them?
On the other hand, this could be the means by which the pathologies of Jewish life get starved out of the intellectual gene pool. One can hope.
(I'm getting a little depressed, blogging about Jewish communal issues. I'm going back to blogging about people killing each other, that oughta cheer me up...)