IT REMAINED for our century to blur the distinction between the hot dog and the trumpet; that is, between the slush of mustard and the high baroque music from the towers.
All things are one, nowadays, without distinction as long as they are somewhat the same shape, or have some quality in common, such as being the result of human effort.
And at the highest level, no harm is done. People have horse sense, after all, and no matter how much balderdash is tossed out, people persist in seeing substantial difference between the top and the bottom, between Mozart and the friendly tavern juke box.
Both are dandy in their way, but people do not think them equivalent or identical, for all that. So no harm is done, in a sense, by the general American pretense that there is no such thing as scale. Scale is the quality that keeps a design of pleasant spots on a necktie from ranking with the design of Christopher Wren for the rebuilding of London. Both are ingenious designs, but only one is great.
There was that man who once chopped tails off mice for many generations, looking for a breed to be born tailless. But year after year the little varmints entered the world with tails. He was forced to say:
"There's a divinity doth hedge our ends, rough hew them how we may."
In precisely the same way, a divinity doth hedge human judgments on very great works, no matter how great the pressure is to say everything is art, or else nothing is.
In supreme art we have always seen, and will continue to see, the difference.
But here is the trouble:
Most human work is not of immortal magnitude. And yet there is a tremendous difference between art that is produced to make a buck and art that is produced to illuminate darkness. Not that there is anything wrong with making a buck (I have heard it said) and not that good intentions are enough to produce the winged word.
But our culture, as anybody can see who picks up any paper, appears to consist largely of such gee-whiz items as computers that play chess with each other, or anthologies of snapshots, preferably self-portraits sufficiently bizarre to make anyone say Jesus.
We often learn that the production of this hot-dog culture, as we may call it, is painful in the extreme. "Like throwing up," as one creator put it recently.
Sometimes throwing up is the best possible thing to do, for prompt relief.
And yet there is a lot of art produced now that is neither Mozart, on the one hand, nor crass exploitation on the other.
Which brings us to three women who have affected me recently and whose work, in painting, poetry, and autobiography, may illustrate this.
All three are black and all had humble social positions, and all three thought at one point "I could turn," as you might say, and be beautiful.
Alberta Horton is a painter who began "before I was born, I guess" and has continued to think of her art and to produce it up to now. She certainly is not young and her age, I quickly gathered, is none of my business.
"When I was a little girl in Dunn, N.C., I had to make pictures. Every time they gave me a tablet to write on, I'd start drawing.
"They said, 'We gonna have to send you home. The other children are slipping back, watching you paint.'"
An enlightened principal solved it by giving her time every day to draw, and "My, I was happy then."
There were schools, assistance with her art, but nothing much ever happened. Bernard Baruch's wife once bought a picture for $15, Horton said. She did sewing for them.
She lived in various places, and here in Washington once worked at the Bureau of Engraving where she checked to see that the bonds pouring off the presses were up to snuff.
She never had a gallery show of her art.
Now Agnes Mangan, long an important tiger of the Fogg Museum, agreed to look at Horton's work, a rather terrifying experience for any painter, I would think, but Horton said it was a fine day. Mangan said the work was good. Not Titian, but good, and good enough for a respectable gallery to show it. Still lifes and sometimes portraits.
Without going into all the details or mentioning some of the splendid Washington arts types who gave help, the upshot is to be a January show at Washington World Gallery in Georgetown.
Titian or not, Horton's work is as deeply felt and as beautifully executed as she can manage it.
She has never yet tried to rip off anybody, or promote herself into a hot-shot marvel. Paint, paint, paint, eh Horton? She does it the way it seems best to her, and perhaps this seriousness and this modesty attracted both Mangan and the local gallery.
Another woman I spent some time with, to my endless profit, was Kath Walker, an aboriginal poet of Australia. (Aborigine is a word that is a trifle offensive to these people; say aboriginal instead).
She was a servant, she was poor, and one day something changed in her and made her think that life, can be a created and wonderful thing, not just a weary path to be plodded down. She turned herself into a poet, writing verse about aboriginal themes -- not so different from the most sophisticated ones -- and becoming a leader in movements for rights for her people.
We discussed this at length, but everyone knows the old theme: the advance form legal discrimination, the resistance to partronizing good wishes (as if the aboriginals were an amusing new breed of dog at the kennel show) and the search for dignity and self-esteem.
She deals with the ominous curlew, the bird that portends death, and with the tribal dawn wail for the dead and Bwalla, who hunts with the boomerang.
Again, as with Horton, it is not a question of supreme power in art, but of long thought and labor. When she read verses to students at Georgetown, they responded as the young commonly do to work that is offered as a gift, without ulterior motive. They thought her the finest thing since graph paper.
Finally there is Chaney Allen's book, "I'm Black and I'm Sober," an impressive account (with some glorious funny things in it) of her recovery from alcoholism. There is not so much literature of this sort for blacks on the way up from booze.
Allen could have saved herself some embarrassment by drawing a more flattering picture of herself -- few drunks are ornamental or inspiring -- but she tackled her story head on, sparing nothing. She had already made sense of her life. She had already come out on the other side. But she undertook this painful work to help blacks who, she thought, might find her book more help than something written by a martini-struck housewife of Chevy Chase.
I respect the three women too much to effuse over their work as if they were new comets coming into view, but I think our culture is the better for the work of all of them.
There is the gee-whiz hot-dog world and there is the world of the immortal trumpets, but there is also the world of the choir, made up of many who sing their complicated parts and sing on pitch.
If the world is a great temple, with vendors outside, selling to the pilgrims, well nothing wrong in that.
Inside, the choir, sometimes overwhelming in volume, sometimes less loud, with endless choristers who are not there to dazzle us with unearthly stuff, but merely to advance the power of the music in which they have a part. And they can revive you when you are plumb wore out.
Handel, a man of wit, used to say:
"The trumpet shall sound and these dead shall arise. Incorruptible."
I do not think the hot dogs and popcorn revivify the dead, or infuse breath when the lungs are gone. It is not the function of hot dogs to restore the soul.
The clarion to life, however, speaks not only from the trumpet, but the choir.