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In So Many Words, Ken Burns Backs the Arts

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 15, 2005; Page C01

Ken Burns, who made a 19-hour film about jazz that reintroduced the flagging art form to PBS viewers four years ago, speaks in a light, articulate, conservative jazz style. In his films, and in the speech he gave last night to the annual gathering of Americans for the Arts, he starts with a few big themes, presents them clearly, allows soloists to enliven them with a few riffs and repeats his basic material with hypnotic, and sometimes mind-numbing, frequency. He entertains. He inspires.

In the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, he gave the annual Nancy Hanks Lecture, speaking to the arts enthusiasts and activists who come to Washington to lobby the government for more funding and arts-friendly policies. They descend here to celebrate the political and spiritual wings of the suffering minority of Great Art Lovers, a quasi-religious party which has become politely militant in the face of its fear of slow annihilation.

Ken Burns shows off photos of his newborn daughter to his aunt and uncle Sarah and John Burns after speaking at the Americans for the Arts gathering. (Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

The group's president and CEO, Robert L. Lynch, warmed up the crowd with talk of recruiting 100,000 arts activists, of organizational growth, of a merger (with the Arts and Business Council). Then Burns took over, raised the tone and ensorcelled the audience into a state of reverential awe.

Burns announced his theme would be the contradictions between the lives of three great architects and their work, and that these contradictions would help us understand "the remarkable republic that shaped, and was in turn, shaped by them." His method, he said, would be storytelling.

And so he told the story of a man who once met Thomas Jefferson (who was an architect, among other things) without knowing he was in the presence of the great man. He thought Jefferson, first, an engineer, then a farmer, then a clergyman. Burns told the story of Frank Lloyd Wright, who mulled his ideas for the great modern house, Fallingwater, so long that he had to do the drafting in only three hours or risk losing the commission. The Jefferson anecdote introduced the idea that Jefferson was a man of contradictions (see Burns's 1997 series "Thomas Jefferson"). The Frank Lloyd Wright story was part of a long riff on the sad fact that genius is often bestowed on deeply flawed individuals (see Burns's 1998 "Frank Lloyd Wright").

Then Burns moved on to Mark Twain -- who wasn't an architect, but no matter, he was "an architect of words" (see Burns's 2001 "Mark Twain").

An architect of words? This isn't just glib transitional material. It's a fairly shameless acknowledgment that this speech, like so many Washington big speeches preached to the choir, was basically a lot of very smoothly recycled material. Burns is a good talker -- soft but clearly spoken, modest, always willing to use and acknowledge the words of others who said things better and more inspiringly. But really great speakers (like great composers and poets and painters) recycle without you quite noticing, drawing yet more inspirational blood from the same old stones, turning familiar material to new ends. Burns didn't go there.

He did, however, give what may be studied in years to come as an almost faultless rhetorical exercise in the dying language of Art, Greatness and Inspiration. Burns, the avatar of PBS, speaks beautifully about nothing, using a set of tropes and gentle fictions that, when placed together in almost any order (like refrigerator magnet poetry), seem to take you to Parnassus. This language, spoken ad nauseam in too many documentaries, but also in the halls of this country's large arts and cultural organizations, is a delicious pablum of associative thinking. It's worth, for a moment, looking into its basic grammar.

It is based on a set of basic assumptions: That contradictions yield deeper insights; that storytelling is the simplest route to truth; that humans strive and fail and it's the striving that matters; that we are all flawed but should seek to be better; that genius points the way; that art is transcendent; and that there's something called the human spirit, which is indomitable. Mark Twain, in a delightfully sacrilegious story called "Letters From Earth," once mocked the endlessly repetitious hymns the inhabitants of Heaven sing to God: "The words are always the same," he wrote, "Hosannah, hosannah, hosannah, Lord God of Sabaoth, 'rah, 'rah, 'rah! -- ssht! -- boom! . . . a-a-ah!" Burns didn't use that line (he presented Twain as a slightly disappointed Believer) but it works as well to deflate the pious language of Art Praise.

All of these bromides are marshaled in service of a basic sense of "we," an us-ness that posits one human (or often just American) family, leaving to posterity the fruits of all its endeavor. Burns is a big user of the We trope, striving in his films and in last night's speech to define America, Americans, the American spirit. He deals, typically, with stories that have broad appeal, drawn from "our shared past," which illuminate "a vast and complicated American family, the powerful sense of home . . . the great gift of accumulated memory" and so on (rah, rah, rah!).

If these stories involve unpleasantness, like racism or misogyny, it is usually safely in the past, safely enough that We can feel a solacing collective shame.

The We posited by mainstream cultural voices, of course, doesn't include everybody (the PBS We isn't comfortable with gay people, if the "Postcards From Buster" incident is any evidence). And it's not simply a form of inspiring rhetorical etiquette, a way of avoiding giving offense to anyone. No. It's a basic survival strategy. PBS, Burns and many arts organizations are dependent on maintaining a scrupulous political emptiness, a studious avoidance of real controversy, if they want to continue receiving funding from the broad public and private sources that keep them alive.

The We of Burns's speech last night was inspiring, sometimes moving and basically conservative. Perhaps it's worth quoting someone, a not so lone voice among the great artists and thinkers who have resisted being co-opted by and into the We. The Romanian writer and philosopher Emile Cioran once wrote: "It is enough for me to hear someone talk sincerely about ideals, about the future, about philosophy, to hear him say 'we' with a certain inflection of assurance, to hear him invoke 'others' and regard himself as their interpreter -- for me to consider him my enemy."

Ken Burns isn't anyone's enemy, but he sure has that tone of assurance, and sometimes, despite or perhaps because of all its earnestness, it rankles.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company