Nominally non-political

Art triumphs over Politics
... eventually


zerging in Dunst das heil'ge röm'sche Reich,
uns bliebe gleich die heil'ge deutsche Kunst!
-- Hans Sachs

Art and Elitism

George Will argues against Federal funding for the arts. He recognizes his cause as quixotic - low in objective significance to government budgeting, high in emotional significance to its constituency - but perhaps it's a good proxy for lots of government spending.

Indeed, where in the Constitution does it say that the Federal government has the power to fund arts and humanities and public broadcasting and national museums (Smithsonian) and art galleries and cemeteries and monuments for Jefferson and Lincoln and National Parks and space exploration and cancer research... ? Some of these might come to pass eventually by private efforts. Interestingly the Washington Monument was originally a private endeavor, but languished half-finished for 30 years until Congress funded its completion.

But these powers are mostly missing from the Constitution, nor do any of these seem essential to the exercise of any powers explicitly enumerated. Well, "needful Buildings" are allowed along the lines of "Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards."

My conclusion is that the answer to Will's specific point is that arts funding is in the category of pork barrel spending - and that's part of his point. It's smaller and less harmful than many other porky projects, though. Sweetening the deal is part of democratic sausage making. It's all guaranteed to contain a certain percentage of pork. A Nebraska senator couldn't bring himself to focus on the original ACA until the Obama administration assured him that the wasteful ethanol subsidy for corn growers would continue. Lincoln's aides had to bribe some legislators to support the Thirteenth Amendment, and when the movie was made it had to change some names to avoid embarrassing the descendants of those legislators.

However Will's opinion piece about NEA got me thinking about a much larger question: should governments be involved in creating cultural monuments that are not understood by or not interesting to most of the governed? I'm not thinking just of physical monuments like the pyramids or cathedrals, but also smaller works of art. King Ludwig II was patron to Richard Wagner during the time he finished the Ring, one of the pivotal achievements of Western culture; Ludwig also built the Festspielhaus for Wagner, and also built Neuschwanstein, which many people might recognize as the inspiration for the Disney Fantasyland castle. Was this a worse way to bankrupt his kingdom than the more traditional route of endless pointless wars?

Although modern technology allows anybody to view the Ring in the comfort of their own home or smartphone, and get a better view than any seat in the Festspielhaus, most people have never heard of the Ring and probably wouldn't want to watch it even if they had. Nor are they likely to read the Iliad in translation, much less in the original Greek as was the norm for the educated elite (men) of centuries past. But the writing down of the oral Homeric tradition was an Athenian government project, as I recall. Preserving a landmark of western civilization - bad use of taxpayer funds?

How about the King James translation, which along with Shakespeare defines modern English language and culture, archaic as they seem at first glance, yet everybody is quoting them all the time without knowing it. Translating the Bible into the vernacular was a political revolution enabled by technology - the printing press - with profound social ramifications - the possibility of a priesthood of all believers required that all believers be literate, at least in the vernacular.

That's not to say that all government arts projects are worthwhile. In fact, most arts projects are not very worthwhile and are soon justifiably forgotten. Same as basic science, advanced engineering, and advanced drug development. But it's very hard to tell which are which in advance. Bizet died thinking Carmen was a failure, and now it's the world's most popular opera, and everybody knows at least one tune from it, whether they know it or not. Likewise van Gogh would be astonished at the posthumous success of his work. Columbus was funded by a central government. Contrariwise, Antonio Salieri and Victor Herbert were very popular in their day but are mostly curiosities now; immediate popular appeal is not a reliable predictor of ultimate value.

So how much art (or basic science/engineering/medicine) should intellectual elites dictate that general taxpayers should fund? None at all, according to some ideologies: not interesting if the masses don't want it; should be developed by private enterprise and would be if there were any profit in it. That's a formula for incremental evolutional development of existing knowledge; it won't provide fundamental breakthroughs. Commercial space exploration is only beginning to look possibly feasible now, 50 years after the moon landing, and only because of Federal investment in developing basic technologies.

So I return to my starting point: a certain amount of government investment in art is as appropriate as investment in anything else fundamental. Perhaps it's easiest to think of it as pork in the democratic sausage that will occasionally pay unexpected dividends.

Does it need to be Federal? Many state and local governments are hard pressed to meet very basic needs, but some do support local artistic efforts typically out of funding like hotel occupancy taxes; most local governments are willing to spend orders of magnitude more to subsidize major league sports teams with their millionaire players and billionaire owners.

Private patrons put up some money in some places for art; performing arts organizations have a much harder time in San Jose than in San Francisco, despite that San Jose has a larger population and more wealth creation going on. The difference, I'm told, is that San Francisco has more old money; the nouveau-riche of Silicon Valley tend to think of charitable donations as investments to support the business and technology interests that created their wealth. Inherited wealth might have wider interests and thus a broader charitable outlook; I suppose that a hereditary nobility justified itself with such noblesse-oblige arguments. Beaumarchais, Da Ponte, and Mozart had the last word on such arguments. .p Da Ponte - now there's a life that deserves to be the subject of an opera.

What about art and history?

Artists always have the last word 
 -- Garrison Keillor.

I should have realized the truth of Keillor's comment when I took freshman English Literature and learned that in English Literature, Juan is pronounced like Joo-un. I was outraged, but the professor insisted. And if you read even the first page of Byron's poem, you see why:

I want a hero: an uncommon want, When every year and month sends forth a new one, Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant, The age discovers he is not the true one; Of such as these I should not care to vaunt, I'll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan.
Note how Byron seems to have foreseen the Trump era. But the point here is that he decided that "Juan" would rhyme with "new one" and "true one". And so it has been in English Literature ever since, even to Shaw and Don Juan in Hell, an extended rant on politics, economics, sociology, and theology - starting at line 148 on the linked page - of wider scope yet better organized than the rant you're reading now.

The commentaries on this website contain many explicit and implicit references to historical theatre, usually opera, because I spend more time in opera houses than in history museums. Perhaps Shaw did too. In later years Shaw developed an unjustified admiration for Stalin. We all have our blind spots.

And Trump is very operatic in the sense that the truth his tells to his base is an emotional truth about how they feel, rather than anything that could be called scientific or historical truth or objective truth about his policies and their effects.

Recently I saw performances of Nabucco and Samson et Dalila - both stories of a small state struggling to survive in a world dominated by strong leaders intent on making their empires great again. In these stories, Estonia, I mean Israel, briefly triumphed against its oppressors, but knew that more and worse would show up soon enough.

The part of Samson was sung, appropriately enough, by a Latvian. Interestingly his intermission-time interview at the Paris Opera Bastille featured questions in French and his answers in English. How the world has changed - due to American technology and political leadership, with a little help from our friends, the Beatles.
The problems of three little people don't amount to 
a hill of beans in this crazy world

 -- Rick

But art, particularly theatre, is not history. Historical theatre and historical fiction typically reflect the impact of great public events on the private lives of individuals. So when one hears a good story in a specific historical setting, it can be an inspiration to look up the real history, which is often much more complicated. I mention this because many students find history boring and remote from everyday experience. Operas like Andrea Chenier, Anna Bolena - Maria Stuarda - Roberto Devereux, Appomattox, Ballad of Baby Doe, Boris Godunov, Harvey Milk, Heart of a Soldier, Prince Igor, Silent Night, Tosca... Musical theatre like Allegiance, Amadeus, Assassins, Hamilton, 1776... Novels like Darkness at Noon and Radetzky March...

Likewise the synoptic gospels tell what happened, as remembered by those who were there, while the gospel of John tells what the events meant to the next generation, and its truth is spiritual rather than historic. Interestingly, the versatile Jefferson tried to create a unified gospel story from the canonical gospels.

Then there is other art which is explicitly mythic, rather than tied to any particular time or place - Wagner's Ring and Mozart's Magic Flute being prime operatic examples. Like all great art, it reflects back what the viewer needs to see in the viewer's particular time and place.

And speaking of the Magic Flute, if you look at the currency in your wallet, all the portraits are men very much influenced by the Enlightenment of the 18th century and in particular by its manifestation in Freemasonry. Not surprisingly there was an Anti-Masonic Party which was surprisingly influential in establishing partisan American politics as we know it now. Conspiracy theories are easy to imagine, but hard to prove and harder to disprove - so lots of politicians exploit them to explain why they should be elected and then why they were then unable to fulfill any of their promises. The paranoid conspiracy-theorist fault line runs from the Anti-Masons to the Whigs to the Know-Nothings to the Bimetallist Democrats to Joe McCarthy to Stephen Bannon to Donald Trump.

What about art and revolution?

I just recently learned that Washington Crossing the Delaware was painted by a German in order to inspire German audiences at the time of the liberal European revolutions of 1848.

Likewise the Deutschlandlied, often referred to as "Deutschland über alles," was adopted as an anthem of the same 1848 revolutionaries. The music was written by Haydn earlier, for Emperor Franz II. Haydn is much better known and loved than Franz, demonstrating once again how art trumps politics eventually.

The revolutionary movements of 1848 failed and a great many Germans became political refugees - and many were welcomed to America.

science fiction and fantasy

Just as historical fiction should not contravene any certain known historical fact, it always seemed to me that science fiction should not contravene any certain known scientific principle. So the difference between science fiction and fantasy is that fantasy could never happen, while science fiction hasn't happened yet.

So science fiction needs to be grounded in actual science, just as historical fiction needs to be grounded in actual history. Historical fiction fills in the no-longer-known details of the past, while science fiction fills in the not-yet-known details of the future. Therefore traveling backwards in time and traveling faster than the speed of light in vacuum are in the same category as fire-breathing flying dragons. But with real historical monsters to draw on - tyrannosaurs, mosasaurs, pterosaurs, who needs dragons?

Moving matter arbitrarily close to the speed of light requires arbitrarily large amounts of energy. Infinite energy only gets you to the speed of light, no faster.

Traveling forwards in time is easy - it's at least plausible that cryogenics might eventually be perfected. But it's a one-way trip. Even measuring, much less visiting, any aspect of the universe in past time would change the universe and disrupt causality.

Tristan chord and modern music

What do HMS Pinafore, Golliwogg's Cakewalk, Verklärte Nacht, Albert Herring, and Peter Schickele have in common? They all quote the Tristan Chord, from the opening of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, because it's the boundary line between classical and modern music.

There was always room for dissonances in classical music, but they always resolved to consonances, in an orderly traditional Catholic sort of way or in a rational Enlightenment sort of way. The Tristan chord is different - it just progresses to other dissonances and is not resolved until the end of the opera... in the Liebestod.

Embodying the Liebstod of Romanticism in music, Tristan pointed the way forward toward atonality, and this reflected a larger change in the world beyond music. The Enlightenment and of Romanticism achieved their Liebstod in World War I, with its utter destruction of the world Wagner lived in, yet perhaps foreseen in his Ring. After that, the world of "balance of power" of which Bannon and his followers are retrospectively fond, resolved into an endless unbalanced non-resolution of one dissonance to another - Communist revolutions, Fascist revolutions, Anti-colonial revolutions, Islamic fundamentalist revolutions... which perhaps will not resolve until nuclear technology presents us with the final Liebestod of earthly politics.

Not a bad night's work for one little chord. Tristan had its premiere in June, 1865, thanks to the patronage of Ludwig II of Bavaria, though the prelude to Act I, with the chord, had been performed publicly some years earlier. Stephen Fry discusses it and performs it on Wagner's piano. Large audiences have heard the Tristan chord over and over without knowing it in the film Melancholia.

art and beer - fresh and local

And now for something really controversial; you can't have a Beer Hall Putsch without the Beer:

One hundred years ago, all beer was fresh and local: locally owned, locally brewed, locally distributed. Then a great consolidation occurred as refrigeration and fast transportation and mass media created the possibility and then the reality of national brands.

But more recently there's been a renaissance of craft beer. I still define craft beer as fresh and local: locally owned, locally brewed, locally distributed. Though "locally distributed" might mean a larger locale than in times past - encompassing the West Coast, for instance, where craft beers from San Diego to Portland freely cooperate and compete.

Though an ideal craft brewery has an attached brewpub with an interesting menu and a family atmosphere, some craft brewers do manage to escape to the next level without being acquired by Anheuser Busch or Miller-Coors. Other "craft" brewers are something else. Thus former California craft brewers Lagunitas, Sierra Nevada, and Stone have breweries in geographically and politically distant lands, as does New Belgium. Congratulations on making it to the big time, and the brewpubs in Petaluma and Chico and Ft Collins are wonderful, but they are no longer craft brewers. Fortunately there are plenty of others to fill their niche: 1850, 21st Amendment, 101 North, Auburn Ale House, Barrel Brothers, Barrel House, Beach Chalet, Bear Republic, Brewery at Lake Tahoe, Danville Brewery, Devils Canyon, Drakes, English Ales Brewery, Faultline, Firestone-Walker, Fort Point, Heretic, Indian Springs, Kern River, Mammoth, Mountain Rambler, Moylans, Napa Smith, Russian River, Speakeasy, St Florian's, are a few California institutions that come to my mind. I think they all still meet my definition - but it's a very fluid business. Coming from Silicon Valley, I well recognize the temptation to cash out when an attractive offer comes along. But startup employees, be careful what you wish for! And it's not just California - at Privatbrauerei Stiegl in Salzburg, I learned that 52% of Austrian brewers are now owned by Heineken (who also own Lagunitas). Anheuser Busch, prevented by antitrust considerations from swallowing more small craft brewers, now seeks other ways to expand its reach.

Politicians could take lessons on bipartisanship from craft brewers. They cooperate more than compete; they recognize the enemy is not other craft brewers but mindless economic concentration and homogenization of blandness.

loyalty rewards programs - selling yourself
revised 13 April 2018

Justin Bachman reports on how much personal data airlines keep on their passengers. But every business that offers you some kind of special deal for signing up is collecting data. They might use it in ways you weren't expecting or sell it to somebody else to use as they see fit. If they don't now, the next owners might. All public companies are for sale every day of the week. If you are not comfortable with that, maybe you shouldn't sign up. And even if the company is mostly ethical, it might not be skilled in protecting sensitive data.

In the specific case of airlines, I find air travel to be so unpleasant that I would never sign up for a program designed to get me to fly more!

let us now praise famous men
and our fathers that begat us
revised 27 November 2017

"Let us now praise famous men" is a verse from the Wisdom of Sirach, recognized as canonical scripture by some and not others. The phrase has been associated with a choral work by Ralph Vaughan Williams and a book by Agee and Evans. I first heard the phrase in a church service about 1970 when the congregation was supposed to sing a hymn by that name - with music by Vaughan Williams. It was chromatic and challenging and by the end of the second line the congregation has given up and the choir had to carry on to the end with faint praise.

Famous men have not been doing so well lately, even to the extent of faint praise, as the shortcomings of living men, particularly in relationship to women, have become much more common knowledge, and the shortcomings of those long gone have become more widely examined, particularly in relationship to slavery. How should we evaluate them?

The Army can revoke your medals if it wouldn't have awarded them knowing what it now knows. But it seems to me that just as somebody's good accomplishments do not negate bad ones, it follows that bad accomplishments do not negate good ones.

Thus LBJ had lots of faults, but he was the southerner who finally broke the back of segregation by getting the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts passed. His political muscle nicely complemented Martin Luther King's moral muscle to accomplish what neither could do alone - and television journalism came along at just the right time to provide an essential technological boost.

Thus Theodore Roosevelt was a racist imperialist, but he was also the first president to understand that monopoly power was anti-democratic, and that natural and historic resources should be preserved even when Congress won't act, and more than that, he took action to both those ends.

And so on - with King David of Israel, the apostle Paul, Martin Luther, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Lindbergh, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, John Kennedy, even Warren Harding - even Garrison Keillor, Bill Cosby, O.J. Simpson - great and good things accomplished by people who also believed and did other things that embarrass us today.

It seems that good and bad have to be borne in mind together. Mindless beatification and mindless demonization are both destructive. In particular, idolatry of great people, to the extent of denying their flaws, sets them apart from ordinary people, and gives ordinary people an excuse: "I'll never be as good as them so why bother?"

But every good accomplishment was accomplished by a sinner. For some the sins were commensurate with the good, and for others not, but all are under the same sentences of original sin/evolutionary competition, and eventually death, so there is always a fearful and greedy motivation to accomplish whatever one intends, for good or ill, while one still can.

Christians at least are called to forgiveness, particularly if the offender repents. Thus a crippled George Wallace repented near the end of his life, sought forgiveness from black Alabamans, and received it: "joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance."

That does not mean that sex offenders get access to children at church, nor embezzlers to money at church. But maybe one can relax a bit about embezzlers coaching sports and sex offenders keeping the books. Trust, and verify.

In a way, it's not unlike other kinds of discrimination: reducing the applicant pool for a particular job, for reasons that have no bearing on the job, is just putting the employer at a disadvantage relative to his competitors. Including applicants in the pool for a particular job, for reasons that have no bearing on the job - and ignoring reasons that do have bearing on the job - is even worse.

So in the end, maybe the name of the hymn needs to be "Let us now praise famous good deeds." Hate the bad deed, but still love the sinner and the good deed.

Bookends for the Romantic Lieder Tradition
revised 28 March 2017

There's another monument of Western civilization emanating from German-speaking lands that doesn't involve Wagner, and that's the Lieder tradition - great composers setting to music poetry from poets ranging from Goethe to some distinctly less great. Usually just one singer with piano accompaniment, the genre expanded toward the end under Mahler and Strauss to include orchestral accompaniment. However in its original form, a Lieder recital shines a merciless light on any technical or interpretive imperfections in the singer or the pianist or the pair as a duet. There is no place for either to hide. Particularly in Schubert, the "accompanist" is an equal partner to the singer.

The most difficult singing I can imagine is a performance of Winterreise, a song cycle (what we'd call a "concept album" now) containing Schubert's settings of 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller. What's particularly difficult about Winterreise is that all the songs are in shades of grey despair - some lighter, and some darker - as the narrator wends his weary winter way. And making that interesting is a real challenge for the performers. Schubert's other great cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin, is easier to the extent that its story of a bipolar miller alternates more colorfully between manic and depressive.

The bookends of the Romantic Lieder tradition are interesting in their own right. As far as I am concerned, it all started with Schubert's Gretchen am Spinnrade with text from Goethe's Faust. Here the piano describes the motion of the spinning wheel as Gretchen sings about her passion for Faust. Schubert composed this music when he was only 17 - how did he know so much about women?

And it all ended with Richard Strauss' Im Abendrot composed for full orchestra to accompany text by Eichendorff. Strauss composed it less than a year before I was born, and he died eight months after that. So that's my overlap with the Romantic tradition. That tradition was surely in sunset after the disaster of World War II, and the song is about old age and death, but not in a negative way.

Performances of all these songs can be found on Youtube. Look around and you might find some with subtitles translating the text into English.

fiftieth reunion
revised 3 August 2019

If "the last shall be first, and the first last" then who's at the head of the class?

The 50th college reunion is the big one. Development officers know this and pull out all the stops to provide a memorable experience for the alums and a memorable class gift for the college. After the 50th, as alumni and alumnae progress into senescence, long journeys become more and more burdensome - attendance is increasingly limited to local people - and development focuses on planned giving.

The reward for making that long or short journey is less and less attractive - seeing people that are increasingly just shadows of their former selves. Although extraordinary individuals continue and even increase their contribution through late life - Verdi composed his greatest masterpieces in his 70's - most have peaked by the 50th reunion and accomplishments are something to look back on and medical procedures are something to look forward to - "bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang." Something about the recent 70th birthday - we know we are slowing down, but it seems like the reaper following us is picking up the pace as well. "The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow."

So who are the lucky ones - those that went first before most had had a chance to accomplish anything great?

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
They never had to watch themselves grow old, in their mirrors or in the mirrors of their classmates' faces. Consider poor
Salieri, who lived long - long enough to see himself completely forgotten.

Or are the lucky ones those that persevere to the end? This year's 75th reunion class survivors graduated within a couple of weeks of D-Day, in classes that were predominantly women. Is this then luck, to outlive everybody who had any direct knowledge of the great events or popular culture that were significant in your youth - now just retro curiosities from history books and antique stores?

 In me thou seest the twilight of such day
 As after sunset fadeth in the west,
 Which by and by black night doth take away, 

The end is not yet here for most of us, but neither is it just a distant hypothetical possibility. It might not be so bad -

 
 Wir sind durch Not und Freude
 gegangen Hand in Hand;
 vom Wandern ruhen wir beide
 nun überm stillen Land.
or maybe
 
 I will walk alone by the Black Muddy River
We should all sing - a song of our own - so well a month before the end. We might as well assume that it's a beginning as well as an end. Strauss composed Im Abendrot, I was born eight months later, and he died eight months after that. I am no reincarnation of any musician, but I do admire a poem well set to music. At Strauss's own funeral, "Hab mir's gelobt" was sung, about letting go and moving on, the emotional climax of Der Rosenkavalier, an opera whose synopsis suggests young love, but it's really about aging, gracefully or gracelessly.
Having trouble with the text? These might help.

four last songs
revised 27 November 2017

In church the other day I was thinking about what music I would like people to hear at my memorial service. Though it wouldn't matter to me at that point, this is what I came up with:

That adds up to more than four!


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