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The pianist Glenn Gould once began an interview with Leopold Stokowski by asking the then-87-year-old conductor to imagine a planet populated by "highly developed beings who . . . have achieved a state of peaceful coexistence-a state of civilization higher than our own-and [who] have done this . . . without reference to the notion we call 'art.'" "Would you," Gould continued, "want them to know about the 'artistic' manifestations of our world, and . . . if you did, how much would you want them to know?"
C.S. Lewis had already imagined a similar planet in his novel Out of the Silent Planet. Uncorrupted by Original Sin, the inhabitants of Malacandra coexist not only peacefully but also productively.
And unlike Gould's hypothetical aliens, Malacandrans both make and understand art. In one passage, Hyoi, the Malacandran guide of the novel's human protagonist Ransom, likens the stages of life to the parts of a poem: One may have a favorite part, Hyoi says, but it would mean little outside its context.
During the last half-century, mankind decided that youth was its favorite part of the poem and discarded the rest. Whereas growing old used to be considered good because it suggested the accumulation of wisdom and the approach of a rendezvous with eternity, it is now considered bad mainly because it means getting too weak and ugly to carry on as one did when eternity was the last thing on his mind.
What Gould meant by "art" probably didn't encompass pop music (Barbra Streisand and Petula Clark were his sole guilty pleasures), but these days pop musicians are among the few "artists" anyone knows. And while they may not deserve full blame for opening the floodgates of perpetual youth, they've certainly popularized going with the flow.
Examples abound. Rod Stewart and Madonna are as likely to make headlines for their latest 20-something "love interest" as they are for their music. Phil Spector seems to worry as much about his wigs as he does about life and justice. Rappers are shot so routinely that stories about the latest slain hip-hopper are now dog-bites-man stuff. And alternative rockers acquire tattoos as if they've never stopped to wonder what such "body art" will look like decades hence on expanding, sagging flesh.
Even Tony Bennett, who has long embodied class and maturity, recently revealed his susceptibility to youthful folly when he declared that every American should "give [President Obama] all-out support for anything he wants to do." One can only conclude that Bennett, like many an American public-school student, has never read the Constitution-or that he left his brain as well as his heart in San Francisco.
But Gould asked Stokowski about art, not artists. Don't songs take on a life apart from their creators? They used to, but, as Roger Scruton has pointed out, contemporary pop is largely an advertisement for its performers, who are themselves marketing-department creations. "The packaging," writes Scruton, "has taken over from [the music's] contents, so as to address itself to the great religious deficit in the lives of the young." The songs, in other words, perform an almost eucharistic function that makes separating them from the perpetually adolescent image from which they emerge difficult.
Stokowski's response to Gould's question lasted over eight uninterrupted minutes. In it, he repeatedly referred to art as that which is "orderly" and "beautiful." Not surprisingly, he relished the thought of an interplanetary cultural-exchange program. Then again, he had also come of age when nobody called 50 the "new 30."
If anything, as with too much that's now commonplace, it was the other way around.