Members of the arts staff of the Style section met last week for an informal roundtable discussion of the arts in 1976. Participating in the session were: Gary Arnold, film critic; Richard L. Coe, drama critic; Paul Hume, music critic; Alan M. Kriegsman, dance critic; Paul Richard, art critic; Larry Rother, popular music correspondent; and Sander Vanocur, television columnist. The discussion was moderated and edited by Christian Williams, culture assignment editor .
Williams: A Harris poll showed that a substantial majority of Americans feel the arts are very important to the quality of life in this country, and the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities is now up to about $160 million in tax dollars. How have the arts been affected by these high expectations?
Hume: I think maybe adversely. There is a tendency to spread it around very thin because there are so many people who ought to be serviced. A little adjunct of this has been the attitude throughout the Bicentennial year. People thought, wow, a big eruption of the arts, but there's been some disappointment, some question about what was achieved.
Vanocur: What worries me is not the appetite in this country for the arts, and it's an incredible appetite. I'm just worried whether, if this economic pinch continues, people will have the kind of money to spend to got to a theater, or even a movie house. Fred Allen said that when television began, bar owners put it in the bars. And then it was driving everybody back out in the streets, so they took the TV sets out of the bars. I'm not sure television doesn't create an appetite for seeing theater. I remember the first time I took my young boys down to the National to see "Annie Get Your Gun." I'll never forget the look on their faces when the curtain went up. I'm sure other parents have had that experience.
Williams: And you don't see that look on their face when they watch television?
Coe: Well, then, too, there's the other aspect, to be cynical about it, of these people who leap on this cultural bandwagon. And they try to promote their work as high art, whereas it's absolutely amateur junk. It's really ridiculous the way people get away with that.
Arnold: But isn't this sort of amateurism necessary, really. I mean, it's my feeling that for any sort of art to flourish, you have to have this kind of enthusiasm, amateur enthusiasm.
Coe: But I always think that it's surprising how many of the amateur theater groups of Washington don't really go to the professional theater, they're so involved in what they're doing.
Williams: Where do such groups fit in? Does this raise the high-art, low-art question?
Richard: No, I don't think so. Duchamp, the French painter and artist, said that good art and bad art are both art, the way good emotions and bad emotions are both emotions. You can't predict the high points, no artist can determine to be a genius or to hit what, in retrospect, posterity believes to be high art. The whole pop has to bubble.
Hume: I think that was one of the best things that happened in Washington during the Bicentennial. From every state, groups of musicians came and performed at the Kennedy Center in the series of free concerts. Some of them thought they ought to be reviewed, and some of them said they were delighted to bring their musicians, their composers and performers from each state, some of whom were excellent, and some of whom were dreadful. Every state's congressman knew that was going, and most of them were there when their programs were being played. I don't know what it had to do with art, but I heard some excellent music, which I had really thought at the time would be sort of peripheral.
Vanocur: Television is supposed to be low art - well, George C. Scott doing "Beauty and the Beast" was high art. If somebody would get the idea and get it underwritten, to say take over a whole evening of television, go down to the National Gallery and do the Tut show with Kenneth Clark leading you through the way, suddenly you would have very high art and excitement of an extraordinary kind. I would guess that when "Roots" finally comes on ABC - Alex Haley's book - that's going to be a profoundly important experience.
Rohter: I think the same thing is true of popular music. On the one hand you have the heavy metal shows and the large arenas which you can call low art; but the case be made that what is being played in jazz, or as a lot of musicians call it now, Afro-American classical music, is itself contemporary form of high art. I think that's a good point about the distinction being artificial.
Williams: The distinction arises in quips like "high art is broke, low arts pays for itself." Isaac Stern, addressing the National Press Club last month, characterized rock music as an industry, not an art form.
Rohter: I would agree with him on that point. Let's say it's first an industry, secodarily an art form.
Williams: Is that true of ballet?
Kriegsman: Sure, I was going to say that I think Paul Richard was right about always having had the arts, but I think what is characteristic of our era is that everything has become an industry. Everything has to go through cost accounting and everything has to seek funds and everything has to be conscious of its market appeal.
Richard: The gilded statues in the Tutankhamun exhibition weren't made by artists working alone in garrets to satisfy themselves. One can be quite sure by looking at any one of them that there was quite an accomplished industry.
Coe: The deeper roots of the country really go back to the Revolution. We got rid of kings, dukes, princes, and therefore we got rid of their emoluments and we have expected in our national history for the arts to maintain or pay for themselves. This is something unheard of in the old world. People come in Europe and they say where is your national theater, your national ballet, your national opera? Well we have created quite a different world. Look at things that went into the Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center. This was private money, it was state money, federal money, ain unheard of combination of support for the arts.
Richard: Because America is a revolutionary country, we really have no shared past. The arts were given a boost by the Bicentennial because it was one of the few times we were shown a continuing ancient tradition. And now that the teen-age bulge, or baby boom, has passed through the society, you've found in the last few years that the arts seem older, more mature, in this country, if less exciting and enthusiastic than they were in the '60s. You get the sense of the past being made part of the present, with an enormous excitment genrated by that.
Williams: You mentioned revolution - where does this leave the revolutionary fervor of the arts? Have we regained a tradition only to lose the avant garde?
Hume: The avant garde today, I think is having a certain repose, at least in new music. But the electronic music development, which has been goung on at a tremendous rate in this country, is a startling new wing of the musical art, and at the moment I don't think anyone knows where it's going. It hasn't produced any works that are generally recognized as great, although one of them won a Pulitzer prize, and others have had recognition. I think there's still a certain amount of experimental work going on, but it is not being accepted by the public today, with any noticeable degree at all.
Williams: Is it significant that a composer like George Rockberg would carry on a tradition of serial music for a long time, and then come out the other end, so to speak, and return to tonality?
Hume: His latest works are extremely conservative.
Kriegsman: I think it's very significant because it's part of the whole looking-back.
Richard: It's not just looking back. For many people who have been going to the galleries on P Street for years, the Tut show is something wholly new. It's the presense of the past. The arts have always fed on the past. The Renaissance fed on Greece. The 19th century fed on the Renaissance.
Kreigsman: But the same thing they built something new, and I for one have the feeling that today there isn't this sense of going forward, but only a kind of mulling over the seeds of the past. And extracting the retroactive dregs without any sense of moving ahead.
Rohter: I go along with that completely in terms of popular music, where there was an enormous vitality in the '60s, the British explosion in '64 and the San Francisco thing in '67, another wave of British bands in '69, and in 1971 the jazz rock thing. In the last three or four years the only thing we've seen that's "new" is disco, which as you say is retroactive dregs.
Kriegsman: Gary, would you say that in movies 10 years ago or whenever it was we had the New Wave, now what we've got is the Old Wave - in the sense of everybody trying to recreate the '20s, the '30s, the '40s, the '50s.
Arnold: Well, it's true to an extent, but I think maybe it's necessary after a period of upheaval to have maybe a decade of consolidation. Some people who were nourished in the New Wave have come to be very stable and creative artists, people who are going to have long careers, like Truffaut. Other people, like Godard, who perhaps will burn themselves out, who are at a dead end.At the same time you've got new people who are I think building on some of those experiments. there's a Swiss director named Alain Tanner whose new movie is "Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000." I think that diverges in an original direction from the kinds of things that Godard was doing in the middle of the '60s.
Kriegsman: At the same time he's talking about it, he's looking back with almost nostalgia at the '60s period of ferment and revolution.
ARNOLD: No, I don't think he's really nostalgic about a revolutionary period.I think he's faced the fact that those revolutionaries are going to have to become political evolutionaries if they hope to survive over the next few years. That the revolution they thought might have to fight simply wasn't there.
Vanocur: I don't think the country wants it.
Richard: If the mix is strong enough, the avant-garde, which seemed in the '60s to really have a corner on the action, is going to take its correct proportional place in the scheme of things. Saul Bellow, in his Nobel Prize address, said that he feels a great longing for what he called a return from the periphery, a kind of filling out of the center: In the last few years, particularly this year, the action in the arts has been supportive of a conservative position - conserving of the past. If you were to look around what is available for a museum-goer today in Washington, you have Tut and Titian at the National Gallery. You also have Morris Louis there. Five years ago the Louis show would have seemed an astonishing step in favor of the avant garde. Now it seems again part of the tradition. I'm not so worried about a lack of something to replace conceptual art. Let that sort of yearning for the new work itself out.
Vanocur: I think the country is in kind of staging area right now. Orwell said in the end everthing is political - well, it is political. Art, whatever manifestation it takes, comes out of political environment, and I think the country is regrouping.
Kriegsman: I agree with you very strongly on the reflection in the arts of the political situation. Society is in a kind of changing of gears situation now, and the arts are reflecting that.
Vanocur: I remember as a young student - postgraduate student - going to London School of Economics in 1950, and '51 was the Festival of Britain. And I was just astonished at the vibrant exuberance. A new group of artists had come along, and they didn't have paint because it was rationed during the war and after. And suddenly you gave them paint and materials and, wow, it just exploded all over the south bank of the Thames. It had been waiting and the time had come. You don't create the time, the time comes when it wants to.
Coe: And then there's the geographical aspect. Britain is comparatively small, whereas this country is huge. A lot of the ideas come from New York, and I've begun to think there are now two American theaters - one is New York's and the other is the rest of the countrys. And the New Yorkers are always in great zest for new things. This affects the rest of the country, for instance the texas Trilogy failure in New York.
Richard: Not that New York isn't full of energy, but many other places are full of energy . . . Texas, Chicago, New Orleans, Washington, too. The people in the museums will tell you that the shuttles are stuffed with people coming to see the show here. I think it's rather interesting that while the National Gallery was putting on a not very interesting Louis show, the Met in New York was putting on Wyeth. It contradicts that sense of this affection for the new in New York. 'Not Too Difficult'
Hume: Virgil Thomson saw it more clearly than I would have believed. He said we're going to go through this experimental period in the '50s and '60s, which we certainly did when electronic music was new and serial music was just being tried out extensively in this country, and music of chance was the hot phrase. And he said we're going to see such a period of synthesizing, and after that a renaissance of Romantic styles. I think about synthesizing because the big new piece this season in music is called "Final Alice," by David Del Tredicci, and it is the third episode in which he is just writing about Alice in Wonderland, in one aspect after another. And George Crumb is writing about Lorca, and those are the things that are catching on with the public. They are not difficult, they don't drive people out of the halls. Whereas John Cage, who is a name of enormous significance, has cut himself off, I think, from a public response.
Vanocur: Paul has put his finger on the operative phrase, "not too difficult." In television, I don't really understand "Laverne and Shirley and "Happy Days," but they are successful and the other networks are going to be imitative.
Hume: I don't think this is in any way a drop in quality. When you had Wagner as a revolutionary you had Brahms as synthesizer, and I think that we may very well have both factors we may very well have both factors now operating, though not of the same prominence. But I don't for a minute think that we're at any dead end.
Coe: Look at the college theater. This is to me one of the most exciting things in the world, Here are young people who are not only beginning to produce their own plays but to write them as well. And the theater needs playwrights more than anything. The American College Theater Festival this wear will have about 77 new plays, created by young writers. And much will be in this curious form that's been affected by television, the short scene. I miss the sustained scene, the great big buildups we used to have . . . in some movies you get wonderful scenes in 18 minutes, but not much anymore. Television has effected the other arts. We want a quick flash, and we can put the pieces together. It's very curious effect.
Richard: It's acceleration that you sneak of. And if you take a longer view, that acceleration I think has changed all the arts in our lifetime in a way that's going to take centuries to snake out.
Kriegsman: A very pertinent experience is "Einstein on the Beach," which may be a kind of counter current to the acceleration. Here's something that's supposed to be at the leading edge of the avant garde and goes on for five hours, and it moves at an exceedingly adagissimo pace, and its whole atmosphere is one of a kind of almost Eastern meditative slowness.
Vanocur: The country wants to linger a while.
Hume: I don't think there's any other answer to the fact the nowadays Mahler and Brucker are being played regularly by orchestras that couldn't have thought of them awhile ago. They last an hour or an hour and a half, and you sit and contemplate while they're going on.
Williams: Well this sounds like, gentleman, you see a relative millpond in the arts - nevetheless, excitement.
Richard: A deepening millpond. Secretary of the Fine Arts?
Hume: Out of this are we going to have a secretary of fine arts in the new administration?
Vanocur: I hope not.
Coe: There are uncertainties about how the Carters will treat the arts in Washington. Well, I happen to know that Mrs. Carter, in several of the cities she gone to, has been a great supporter of the orchestras. She was in Cleveland recently, and she went out to make speeches on behalf of the Cleveland Orchestra.
Vanocur: this town has been treating the Carters and their administration as if we're going to teach them how to use a finger bowl. The fact is, that they are very interested in the arts.
Hume: They should have heard Mrs. Carter coliaborating with Leonard Bernstein in that concert in Constitution Hall in October: that was something quite beautiful.
Vanocur: The talk about the Carters supposedly being Philistines was reflected in Barbare Walters' question in her interview: Are you going to have square dancing in the White House? Terrible form of condescension in that question.
Coe: The Roosevelts had square dancing. Eleanor was big on it.
Kriegsman: I don't see anything wrong with square dancing . . . The Growing Audience
Richard: The Kennedy Center has changed things a great deal in Washington. One thing it has done is to take the primacy away from the visual arts, from painting in particular. Before there was a Kennedy Center . . .
Hume: Now watch it . . .
Arnold: Yeah, some people go way back . . .
Richard: Well, you could see a foundation being built for the visual arts by the Phillips Collection, by the National Gallery, the Corcoran, that grew very slowly . . .
Coe: But so did the Kennedy Center. I wrote about it in 1946, and it took 25 years to open.
Richard: But haven't theater and music had a sudden sort of splurge?
Coe: Not sudden.
Hume: The reputation of the Opera Society was made in Lisner Auditorium, and better then than it is now. But yes, the Kennedy Center has changed the whole picture.
Richard: Well, Larry Rohter, I want to ask you, why hasn't Washington ever had a good rock group?
Rohter: I think that one of the reasons is that the good people have either gone to New York or Los Angeles. You raised the point of centralized support and I think we see more and more of that in popular music. Everybody goes from New York to Los Angeles. Regional areas, Memphis, Detroit, Chicago, were very strong in the '50s and '60s, but it's not happening there like it used to. It never really happened a lot here.
Williams: Well, this brings us to audiences. We have an audience here for fine arts, but the country as a whole has a much more vast audience served by records, which is where most popular music is desseminated, and by television and by movies. How do those three specifically fit this picture that's been drawn of the arts in a period of retrenchment, but also an exciting one.
Richard: I think television has really dropped the ball on the visual arts. The newspapers, the magazines, the book industry deal with art. But save for Kenneth Cark, you saw almost nothing on TV about art in the last 10 years . . . and television is perfectly capable of dealing with complex subjects. Julia Child teaching French cooking, for example. And it has taught us to recognize the Dallas Cowboys' flex defense, something rather difficult to see.
Vanocur: I don't think television has done very well by people who like classical music, either, compared to the way radio used to serve us on Saturday night with Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, or on Sunday afternoon with the New York Philharmonic that CBS used to bring us. PBS has an opportunity as more and more large corporations find that the kind of advertising they want to do can best be done in the form of promotional advertising. There's an audience out there.If OBS ever gets itself sorted out, that is the place where I think you can see some of this coming in the next five years.
Williams: Things like the new "Live From lincoln Center," which uses simulcasting to get around the limited nature of sound from most people's TV sets. Any favorable points for television right now?
Kriegsman: We're certainly seeing more dance. It's a whole new development.
Hume: You suggested that even with the limitations of the screen a lot of Baryshnikov came through - you still lack a dimension, but you see some things you don't see in a hall.
Kriegsman: You lose some thins but you gain others. You lose fidelity to the stage experience, just as you lose the concert hall flavoring on a recording, but you gain an audience in number that no theater could encompass.
Hume: Larry wanted to say something about a decline in records.
Rohter: Not a decline, but retrenchment, I think is the word we used. And we're seeing more and more records sold but we're seeing the records sold by fewer and fewer artists, Record companies are cutting back on the number of people they're signing, and you're finding that where five years ago a really successful album would sell 500,000 copies or a million copies, now we're at the 2-and 3-million market. There's even an album which since February has sold 6 million copies . . . Peter Frampton - "Frampton Comes Alive." Who ever heard of Peter Frampton before? That's at $6.98 an album; Stevie Wonder's album has sold 3 million at $13.98.
Richard: And worth every penny.
Kriegsman: It might be relevant here that this is supposed to be the year of the video disc. Of course, ther's many a shade of opinion about whether it will actually happen.
Rohter: The record companies are gearing up for it.
Vonocur: And people apparently bought up the Sony Betamax to tape "Gone With the Wind." This has enormous ramifications for television in the future, the whole copyright issue.
Kriegsman: Well, it's not involved in the vidoe disc side of things, because there are no copying capabilities in the outfits RCA and MCA are going to market. They can't make home recordings. You can only buy a prerecorded disc.
Rohter: You know, for a year and a half, almost every act that's come to the Capital Centre has been taping their shows there with the telscreen facilities and recording their show in stereo for future use on video disc. They're all gearing up for it.
Coe: Well look at the money already invested. Oliver Smith, eight or 10 years ago, went to Vienna and did three things for this, and of course there they sit, they haven't gotten a dime out of it yet.
Hume: Von Karajan, on Empire, has been doing everything, and Leonard Bernstein has been doing it on this side of the ocean. But it's been very slow. I went up to New York five, or was it six, years ago to see the video disc - and it's not here yet. The Star System
Williams: Larry Rohter seems to describe a star system in the popular music field. Is there a parallel with movies?
Arnold: Well a star system survives, and I think there will always be a star system simply because people who have magnetism, better looks, extraordinary kinds of projection, are always interesting - they're interesting in real life. I think the problem with the movies, now, is that there are not enough stars to go around. One of the things inhibiting the business is that there are too few stars and their time is at a premium. The projects become backed up, because they wait upon certain people.
Kriegsman: Why are there no new stars emerging?
Arnold: Well, because there's no incentive anymore for the distributing companies to promote them. In the period of the studio system, the business was rationalized from top to bottom and when the companies made movies they had theaters in which they could play them. They tried, you know, if at all possible, to make 52 films a year - 52 "A" films, to go at the top of the bills, and 52 "B" films for the bottom of the bills.
Kriegsman: So the stars were their investment, in other words.
Arnold: Right. Now, I think, personalities have to be self-starters. They have to take the initiative in their own careers. But I think it's terribly important that more new personalities come into prominence. The best thing that might happen symbolically this year at the Academy Awards is if the two top acting awards were won by Sissy Spacek in "Carrie" and Sylvester Stallone in "Rocky." It's been a long time, I think, since two young performers in the first important roles of their careers won Academy awards in the same year. And the leveling off of the birthrate is going to have an incalculable effect on the movies. Traditionally the movies have always depended on a renewal of the audience from the birthrate, more than anything else,and it's one thing I think that kept movies on sort of repeating formulas that appeal basically to juvenile imaginations.
Kriegsman: Well, would a large dimension "home box office" situation change that? If you could just flip the switch on your TV set and get first-run movies? That might affect the audience picture, in the sense that Hollywood would have the older marrieds and the older people generally to aim at as a continuing audience.
Arnold: Well, that's true. I think in general that over the next decade people in the movie business are going to have to aim at an older audience.
Williams: Well, gentlemen, thank you, and let me ask a final question, and maybe it will be a tough one, and maybe not. What shouldwe look for in 1977 in the arts?
Rohter: More of the same.