Sunday, December 23, 2012

Our Identity Is In Our Arts

In February of last year, Wynton Marsalis appeared on Tavis Smiley's PBS show, and had a number of extremely insightful things to say about the place of the arts in American life -- beginning in the schools particularly. In our era of unprecedented national and moral confusion, civic decay, and fraying cultural life, Marsalis's inspiring exhortations are well worth 23 minutes of one's time.

Some choice excerpts:

Tavis: What is the price that we are paying as a country for the abandonment of music education in our schools?

Marsalis: Well, first, let’s not even say just music education. Let’s say just arts. The fact that we are culturally ignorant. We don’t know what our heritage is. The price that we pay is that we act outside of ourselves almost all the time. We make very bad decisions how we deal with other people in their cultures. We no longer want to be a melting pot, because we don’t understand what is already melted. We’re fighting for territory. We see it in our Congress, we see it in our political systems. We see it in our ways of life, how separated we are. ... But our culture is what we did together. What did Walt Whitman represent? What was his message to us? That is an inheritance. And when we squander that inheritance, we act outside—we don’t know who we are. We don’t know where we are. ... It’s like we have a deep—we’re suffering from an identity crisis. And that identity is in our arts. The fact that we don’t find it chief amongst our agendas to teach our kids who we are as a nation, and the battles we’ve had on this ground, and how they’ve been successfully resolved—we can’t enjoy the fruits of the labor of our ancestors. ... That our kids don’t know that achievement, there’s no way in the world that could be good for them. ... And when your political systems and your economic systems start to fail, it’s only a cultural understanding that allows you to reconstruct them and to get back to who you are. And for some reason it hasn’t dawned on us yet.

And Marsalis has much more to say...