Jane Chu Steps Down

Jane Chu, the current chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is stepping down next week at the end of her first term.  She was appointed in 2014 by President Barack Obama after his first Endowment chair, Rocco Landesman, abruptly resigned at the end of 2012, eight months before his term expired.  But then for well over a year, Obama declined to name a successor, leaving the agency to function under an interim head and disappointing those who’d expected the President to pay closer attention to programs like the Endowment.

Now, however, one is tempted to say that the wait was worth it, because Chu proved to be a very good leader for an agency that often feels it has a target on its back.  She came to the Endowment from being President and CEO of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, then one of the newest such facilities in the country, and home to the city’s symphony, ballet company, and opera company.  Her personal background is even more deeply rooted in the arts, particularly music.  She has undergraduate degrees in music education and piano performance, along with graduate degrees in piano pedagogy.  (She also has an MBA and a doctorate in philanthropic management.)

I thought that her experience running the Kauffman Center, and, even more, her deep interest in music in would serve her well, and it did. In listening to her talk about the NEA one always had the sense that this was an agency whose mission she took personally.  Some previous Endowment heads had been in the art world before—Landesman and earlier, Roger Stevens had been successful Broadway producers, Dana Gioia a celebrated poet, Jane Alexander an actress, and Bill Ivey the director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum—but such experience was no guarantee of smooth sailing.  Jane Alexander had trouble moving the Endowment forward after the culture wars of the early 1990s in which it had been embroiled, and Landesman’s status as an insider in the theater world was more than offset by his tenure being strewn with controversy ranging from his disparaging remarks toward small and mid-level arts organizations to his determination to slash Endowment programs that enjoyed deep support in Congress.

In the four years she’s been at the helm, Chu has made no such missteps as she’s travelled all over the country to see NEA dollars in action and appeared before Congress as the face of the Endowment. I recently learned that not only is she an accomplished pianist, she’s also a very good visual artist and after every community visit, she made sketches of people and places that in her eye made them memorable.

The past two years have been particularly difficult as President Trump has made no secret of his desire to do away with the agency.  His antagonism probably played into the decision by William Adams, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, to announce his retirement a year ago just as the President released his budget zeroing out both endowments.  I think some people suspected Chu would follow Adams out the door in protest—some even hoped that she would to make a point—but I was particularly relieved when she remained at the helm, providing a needed measure of stability to the embattled agency in a tough time.  (In a rebuke to the president a short time later, Congress not only declined to cut the NEA’s budget, it boosted it.)

Chu also oversaw the creation of new programs designed to make the arts more accessible to more people throughout the country.  Others, like the new “NEA Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge for High School Students,” about which I wrote a couple of weeks ago, seek to nurture artistic creativity in young people.  “We didn’t create these activities just to check something off of our list,” she explained just a few days ago.  “We launched and expanded programs to create heartfelt meaning in the lives of others through the arts.”

“The National Endowment for the Arts is doing effective and meaningful work to help the arts thrive and connect to individuals and in communities large and small,” Chu said when she announced her plans to retire.  Let’s hope that whomever the President nominates to take her place has a similarly serious view of the Endowment’s potential.

Remembering Tom Wolfe

One of the most powerful capacities of the best art is that it allows us to see ourselves more clearly:  to get a better understanding of who we are, how we act, and how we appear.  Andy Warhol once said that his role as an artist was to be a mirror in which society could see itself.  In the same years Warhol was pioneering Pop art, a journalist named Tom Wolfe burst on the scene with a style of writing that was immediate, impressionistic, vivid, and like nothing anyone had ever read before.

Wolfe was born in Richmond, Virginia and graduated from Washington & Lee University in 1951, writing his honors thesis on anti-intellectualism in America.  From there he entered Yale University, earning a Ph.D. in American studies.  His first job after graduation was at a newspaper in Springfield, Massachusetts and he went on to the Washington Post in 1959.  Three years later he moved to New York and began working as a reporter and feature writer for the New York Herald Tribune.  In 1962, he trekked west to write an article for Esquire magazine on the custom car culture in Southern California which, when it was published the following year, revolutionized feature writing.  The style quickly became labelled the “New Journalism” and his reputation was made.

Like other great writers, Wolfe coined phrases that entered into the public consciousness by perfectly grasping something that everyone else had perceived but that no one had distilled into words.  Two of those phrases became titles of his essays:  1970’s “Radical Chic,” about Leonard Bernstein hosting a fund-raiser in his Park Avenue apartment for the Black Panthers; and 1976’s “The Me Decade,” focusing on the rampant individualism coursing through American culture in the 1970s.  In them, he turned a mirror to some of the most prevalent trends that shaped how Americans interacted with each other and labelled them in ways that still circulate today.

About his visit to the Bernstein’s fund-raiser, he stressed that at no time was he clandestine regarding his intentions.  “I came in very openly, with a National Brand stenographic notebook and a Bic ball point pen,” he told Rolling Stone in 1980.  He introduced himself to the hosts and settled in to give full sway to his powers of observation.  “At the time, they figured anybody who was there was riding the same wave they were. The idea that there might be anything funny about it, or amusing, was unthinkable.”  The piece generated no small amount of hostility from the Left.  “If you mock the prevailing fashion in the world of the arts or journalism, you’re called a conservative,” he later observed.  “Which is just another term for a heretic.”

Each fall I have my Modernism class read The Painted Word, Wolfe’s 1975 essay on the contemporary art world, not because he shows any particular insight into the art but because he turns his mocking pen on the social connection that was being pursued by a particular segment of the upper middle class.  The “peculiarly modern reward that the avant-garde artist can give his benefactor,” he explained, was the feeling that “he, like his mate the artist, is separate from and aloof from the bourgeoisie,” and that supporters of the avant-garde are right alongside the artist “in the vanguard march through the land of the philistines.”  Wolfe called the compulsion “a peculiarly modern need and a peculiarly modern kind of salvation (from the sin of Too Much Money).”  Like his observations in “Radical Chic,” it’s a diagnosis that hits uncomfortably close to home for a lot of people, and one that even today ought to cause every arts backer to reflect on his or her reasons for “supporting the arts.”

By the late ’70s he was criticizing American fiction writers for ignoring social problems and so began work on a novel. After years of observation and research, the result was the best-selling Bonfire of the Vanities, which came out in 1987.  He followed it up with three more—A Man in Full(1998), set in the boomtown of Atlanta in the 1990s and a little like what The Great Gatsby would have been if Tom Buchanan were the main character; I Am Charlotte Simmons(2004), which turned an eye toward the state of American higher education at the end of the twentieth century; and Back to Blood(2012), set in the multicultural world of today’s Miami.

Over the course of his lengthy career as a reporter, essayist, and novelist, Wolfe became one of the keenest social critics to dissect the American scene. His writing captured elements of America that no one else grasped quite so tightly.  He let us see ourselves clearly, for all the good and bad that entailed, and he was, in the truest sense of the phrase, a gifted artist. He died Tuesday at a hospital in New York.

Tom Wolfe was 88 years old.

Democracy Dies in Materialism

Shortly after the inauguration of Donald Trump, in what amounted to an ongoing editorial about his administration, The Washington Post situated the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness” right below the paper’s masthead. It’s a bold pronouncement:  not entirely inaccurate, but one that falls far short of encompassing the broader threat to the democratic order in the United States.

It’s more accurate to say that democracy dies in materialism, by which I mean our utilitarian attitude today that knowledge is rooted only in marketable skills. It changes our perception of democracy from being a way to secure abstract rights and liberties into a means by which we can have fewer limits on what we obtain, measure each other by what we have and block those who disagree with us.

A materialistic view doesn’t equip us to think deeply about human rights, civil rights, the role of government or human flourishing.  It cripples our ability to think historically and critically, and so reinforces the tribalism that’s already transforming our politics into isolated echo chambers of certainty and hostility.

As a teacher I see this constantly. “I love history and I would major in it, but my parents won’t let me,” is one of the saddest things a student has ever said to me. What she meant was that she loved it and wanted to study it but her parents insisted she get a degree that would get her a job.

I’ve heard it more than once and it’s emblematic of our current approach to education:  Skills — not the development of rational thought — are what students are after. There’s nothing wrong with making a good living, but it’s not the same as being educated. Wisdom and perspective, not skills, are the antidote for what ails us.

Unlike accounting, marketing or computer programming, which are skills, human rights, a free press and democratic government are ideas.  Consequently, if those who believe in democracy don’t stay conversant with ideas and how they should influence us, an appreciation of the subtleties that allow democracy to work will dissolve. We’re already seeing it every time we turn on the news.

Abraham Lincoln watched it dissolve in the early years of his presidency, but he understood that the real foundation of the U.S. was an ideological enterprise, not a material nuts-and-bolts one. For him, the Declaration of Independence was a more important founding document than the Constitution, even though that’s what the inconclusive political fights leading up to the Civil War had all been about.

The Declaration of Independence by contrast was rooted in abstract ideas about rights, government authority, power and liberties, and it provided the measure of what we ought to do. As he stood at Gettysburg distilling for the crowd the reason they had to keep fighting, Lincoln drew on this. “Four score and seven years ago,” he began, taking his listeners back to 1776, not 1787.

Lincoln knew the only thing that could bind the nation together was its “mystic chords of memory,” as he later put it, not any material well-being or the Constitutional interpretation of the interstate commerce clause. But if I tried to justify my history courses by invoking mystic chords of memory, I’d be laughed out of most administrators’ offices. I can’t imagine the reaction of that one students’ parents if she were to inform them she wanted to spend her four years at the university studying mystic chords of memory.

It’s not that everyone back in Lincoln’s time went around talking about ideas seven days a week.  But for a nation with its roots in ideas, understanding both our history and our present requires the ability to engage substantively with them.  To see rightly where we are now and to understand the consequences of the choices we make requires us to measure our actions in light of the ideas on which our country is based.

That seems like a simple task. But our materialism makes it more difficult.

This column originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News on Friday, May 11, 2018


The importance of influences

The late novelist Shelby Foote often told the story of an exchange he once had with his friend and fellow author William Faulkner.  They were driving somewhere together in Mississippi one day and Foote suddenly turned to his companion and said “You know, I have every reason to believe that I’ll be a better writer than you.”  Faulkner raised an eyebrow and replied “Oh?  That may well be.  Why?”  Foote answered “Well, your influences are Flaubert and Conrad, and my influences are Proust and you, and my writers are better than your writers.”

I don’t know of many anecdotes that do a better job than that of making the point that in the art world, influences are important.  Indeed, they’re formative whether one is a novelist, poet, painter, actor, comedian, or musician. An individual’s art is at least half about influences.   It’s true that in many ways art is a world in and of itself, one that requires some getting to know before you can really understand what you’re looking at or listening to.  Understanding the presence of influences and how artists interact with them is one of the most fundamental and effective ways of doing this.

Clifford Brown was born in 1930 in Wilmington, Delaware.  When he was about fifteen, he started playing trumpet and before he was 20 was a regular in the Philadelphia jazz scene.  He started recording in 1952 and was soon playing with the biggest names in the business and leading combos of his own.

Three years later his career was cut short when he was killed in a car wreck, but by that point he himself had become one of the hottest players around and his tone and style a profound influence on younger players.  Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan, both 8 years his junior, were two of them.  In 1963 Morgan recorded one of the most popular jazz albums ever, called “The Sidewinder,” and Hubbard went on to be a central player in the jazz world for decades, receiving an NEA Jazz Master award in 2006.  You can hear Brown in how they play.

Art is a chain of influences, and to trace that chain backward in time and then follow it forward again is to gain fundamental perspective on any artist.  Knowing the influences can even bring artist and viewer closer together.

The advent of Modernism in the second half of the 19thcentury made influences into an even more vivid component of art, as it introduced the strong compulsion for artists to set themselves apart from what had come before.  Influences suddenly could be negative, for lack of a better term: something that artists reacted against and from which they separated themselves.  This change, however, did nothing to reduce the basic importance of influences for the viewer or listener.  Quite the contrary:  Someone who sought to understand a Modernist painter or a composer could gain as much insight from knowing what the artist in question did not want to be like.  Suddenly, all those odd harmonies and rhythmic discontinuities, or those garish unnatural colors and disjointed perspectives let the viewer know what the artist was thinking.

It’s well known, for instance, that in the 1930s American painter Jackson Pollock studied at the Art Students League in New York City under Thomas Hart Benton, a man 23 years his senior and a pioneer of what came to be called Regionalism.  Pollock’s early canvases too were landscapes with swirling shapes, clearly influenced by his mentor.  A viewer can make more sense of Pollock’s later move to abstraction by knowing what he’s distancing himself from.

Jackson Pollock, Cotton Pickers, c. 1935

The chain of influence in art can span years, decades, and even centuries.  You don’t have to study directly under an artist to be influenced by him or her.  When I started playing bass I honed in on two or three bass players I really wanted to play like, but I never came close to meeting any of them.  But it didn’t matter.  Knowing that they were my influences would help you make sense of the way I played and how I constructed bass lines.  They still influence me.

Art is, among other things, a chain of influences that explains where we are at any one time and how we got there.  It explains bebop just as much as it explains abstract expressionism.  And our knowing it helps art become a richer experience for all of us.