ARTIST’S NOTE: Each year, an influential figure delivers a lecture on the social policy and powers of the arts, as presented by Americans for the Arts. And last week, one of the most influential figures of my own TV/media-steeped childhood (and that of countless other viewers) delivered the organization’s Nancy Hanks Lecture at the Kennedy Center. Here are some of the most moving themes and moments from that event.
AS HIS NAME hangs in the air, the 92-year-old TV legend ambles out to an ovation. Almost as one, we rise.
Mister Norman Lear, that master at mining human behavior for the humor of truth. He smiles. Almost as one, we applaud louder.
As any good showman knows, the audience is susceptible to subtle cues. So when he steps into the adoring spotlight, this creator of so many trailblazing TV shows (including “All in the Family” and its spinoffs “Maude” and “The Jeffersons”) jokes that there’s a little extra juice to all our standing applause.
Almost as one, we laugh. He’s on to us, and our emotional buttons (“nonagenarian status” among them), as he has been for decades.
Lear is eager to illustrate the social power of the arts, here in this packed house at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, where he is delivering the Nancy Hanks lecture, as presented by Americans for the Arts. And for all this talk of art, there’s a vital reveal: Norman Lear, Hollywood groundbreaker and TV Academy Hall of Famer, never considered himself an artist. Yet the showman holds one key plot twist.
But first: Our protagonist cuts to his back-story…
Lear tells the audience how, when he was about 9, his dad went to prison, and a fellow within the family’s circle called young Norman “the man of the house now.” The boy saw this remark for what it was: laughably absurd.
Now, on this night in Washington, Norman does not speak as “a wise old man,” from on high. He is merely observer, he says, albeit a keen one. And this is what he sees:
The man who has been branded a “Hollywood liberal” says he honestly considers himself a “bleeding-heart conservative.” This World War II hero flashes a fierce passion for Eisenhower, his ol’ five-star general who led them to victory. And Lear wonders from the Kennedy stage why more people don’t appreciate the prescience of the president who came before. Why don’t more people today like and heed the words of Ike?
Ike, the two-term ’50s president who, Lear emphasizes, warned of the rise of the “military-industrial-congressional complex.”
Lear fears for the symptoms of Eisenhower’s farewell-address caveat come true. He believes we’ve lost our way: sociopolitically, economically, judicially, technologically, spiritually — and artistically.
Lear sees a culture that has grown “numbers-driven” and “spiritually sterile.” He sees a “coarsening of the culture” that leads and lures us “away from the Arts.”
Lear sees aspects of government and religion functioning as warring tribes. Yet the truest hope for unity, he says, rests with the arts — even as Ike’s governmental complex-come-true guts funding for the arts.
Arts opens doors, Lear says — and technology, particularly the Internet, “has increased the power of the arts exponentially.”
Lear can’t think of a time when our culture has drifted so far from the arts, becoming “so estranged from this essential part of itself.”
Every day, we are ever less citizens, he says, and ever more consumers.
As we tune in to our cell towers, do we tune out the sacred? Has our art become more about consumption than connection? Even as arts funding dries up like one of Lear’s favored Havana leaves in the noonday sun?
And the belly, of course, is an apt symbol for humanity’s deeper appetite.
With our heads lowered and buried into our technology, do we become blind to a higher order and awareness?
(In the 1970s, Lear brought to air a run of such socially conscious shows as “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Good Times,” “Sanford and Son,” “The Jeffersons,” even “One Day at a Time.” Were Lear and his co-producers editorializing, as they were accused? “We — writers, producers, directors and actors — were simply mirroring life in our time as we saw it,” he says.)
Yet despite this epic run, Lear was too near to the shows to fully appreciate their social impact.
When the Oscar- and Grammy-winning artist Common introduced Lear on this night, he — as a child of the ’70s — cited the impact that a particular episode of “The Jeffersons” once had on him.
And Common was among a handful of hip-hop artists who recently paid tribute to Lear at a Television Academy event in California. Tonight, Lear reflects on how the tears of sweetness from that love-in event had a secondary effect: They also opened his eyes.
On that evening, the hip-hop performers shared their stories of how Lear’s shows had enriched and illuminated their lives, and that emotion spread, as the effect of connective art can, to the audience. Lear was led to the trough of his own Artistry. And this time, after decades of resistance, he drank.
THE CLOSING TAG:
Minutes after his talk, I seek out and sit with Mr. Lear. I urge him to further illuminate the depth of his lecture’s last reveal. For he, naturally, had set up his climactic plot twist so deftly.
In a largely sobering tone, Lear’s lecture had delved into not only the state of arts in America, but also about the state of the world — and why, in 2015, we so desperately need the arts. Amid his grim messages, I was curious: Is he optimistic about the world, and the role of art to help elevate that world?
As we talk about arts and politics of the past, Norman Lear is hopeful about the arts of the future — because he is hopeful about the human need for connection. Arts is a form of spiritual connective tissue, and all artistic disciplines, he says, are “those things to cause us to see and hear as One.”
Art, in other words, is all in the human family.
After our talk, as he and I rise, Norman Lear warmly lets me know he has enjoyed this harmonic vibe between artists. Because talking about the arts is a form of connection that can have true impact. But he also lets me know this conversation needs to be fanned like a flame.
[Note: My special thanks to the Americans for the Arts.]