4/17/2005

Artistic Atrophy?

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...)

4 comments:

Mike Maller said...

Before I get going on this one, let me just say how much I love that you snuck Debussy in there.(made me smile)

This is an issue close to my heart. As an aspiring author, I'm depending on the idea that there is and will continue to be an audience for my work. That aside, I live in the humanities. I don't shun math and scinece, on the contrary, I'm thankful for them. I just prefer to be thankful for them from a different neighborhood.

I don't know that the problem lies only in Orthodox Jewiish communities. There has been a chronic worry that various arts are dying for almost as long as I can remember in society as a whole. A lot of this I attribute to the "Apple is beleagured and dying," doom-prophesying habit so many people(at least on the internet) seem to have. Nevertheless, I smell an opportunity to jump on the lower-education system, and I'm going to take it.

It may just be that I have a tin ear for poetry(nice phrase of yours, by the way), but I can't remember ever getting a good education in it. Standards of what is good change, if they exist at all. When standards do exist, they're often for poetry that I dislike, hate, or, at best, am ambivalent to. Try to find ten people who know anything substantive about meter. Try five.

Good poetry, serious poetry seems to have a requirement for being serious. Good poetry isn't humerous, and great poetry is doom death and loss... or so my observations go. In a poetry reading associated with one of my classes, there was a depressing number of endings, and very few beginnings and middles.

Elementary school is where the problem lies. When it comes time to make room in the budget, the arts are always the first to be cut. When the curricula do exist, they are more often formed by necessity than any shred of passion for the subject. Creative writing often disappears by the fourth grade, and English classes are competitions where teachers vie to better kill their pupils' love of language.

High school, coming later, has somewhat of a scapegoat, but does not improve on the above failings. No doubt you remember how much music, and art were offered at our high school, not to speak of the creative writing and dance(oh the dance!).


"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."

That's scary... seems a short step away from the old stereotypical devout christian complaint about jazz being "the devil's music."

"Now, I can understand rejecting modern music, much of which is crude, unoriginal, and just not very good."

This bit I have to take issue with. It implies that at any other time none of those three conditions were true. This falls into the popular falacy that there are no good movies coming out anymore. Both statements ignore the fact that we are alive at the present moment, and able to observe not only the good productions that will survive the test of time, but also everything else: all of the mediocre and the crap that is constantly being produced. Not just able, actually, but almost forced to. We can look back and say "hey, look at how great the music was when Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Debussy were making it," but none of those men were contemporaries. Furthermore, we don't have the kind of familiarity with yankle schmendrick musician 1770's work as we do with yankle schmendrick musicion 2005's.

Ugh. I think I need a blog. Sorry for polluting your comment section. :¬)

Mastiff said...

No problem, it's always good to hear from you.

"Elementary school is where the problem lies."

I completely agree. You know my thoughts on the educational system today (and if you don't, just ask me when I'm over there. I'll be sure to talk your ear off).

"This bit I have to take issue with. It implies that at any other time none of those three conditions were true. This falls into the popular falacy that there are no good movies coming out anymore."

I'm not saying that. It's just that most of the bad stuff from long ago has fallen into deserved obscurity, leaving us with the true gems. Generally, therefore, you are better off sticking to older work for the most part.

Asher Litwin said...

You must pay some attention to the modern works, otherwise the "true gems" that are created today, the kind of which will survive the test of time, will be overlooked due to a snobbish attitude of disdain for anything non-classical.
SCORE!!!
dingdingding :P
yay...
*cough*
Cya soon, hehe.

Mike Maller said...

"This bit I have to take issue with. It implies that at any other time none of those three conditions were true. This falls into the popular falacy that there are no good movies coming out anymore."

"You must pay some attention to the modern works, otherwise the "true gems" that are created today, the kind of which will survive the test of time, will be overlooked due to a snobbish attitude of disdain for anything non-classical."

Aside from Asher's slightly brusque way of putting it, he hit the nail of the other part of my idea on the subject on the head. :¬) Well, on second thought, close enough. Well, on third thought, not necessarily all that close, but I agree with him. :¬)

My other feeling on the subject actually is somewhat rooted in egocenticity: since I want to produce new works now, why should I ask anyone else to read something modern if I do not myself? I want to produce some of those true gems, and yet, I know that however successful I become in that aim, there will be plenty of pure gems from this time produced by other people. The one hang I haven't been able to iron out yet, is how to narrow the selection of modern works sufficiently so that I can stand a chance of finding them, with time left over both for the classics and my own work.