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The Rising Tide

There is an ominous gap between the instant and plethoric accessibility to current events provided by the Internet, iPods, Androids, et al, and significant sources from which the meaning of those events might be better understood.

Having lived a very long time, I’ve witnessed the resurgence of failed ideologies time after time. The concept of history repeating itself is one thing; actually witnessing it through the better part of a century is quite another. There is something about living a long time, day-by-day, year-by-year, decade-by-decade, that illuminates the major aspects of political thought and action.

I remember the absurd ‘goose step’ of men marching through the streets of Berlin, the ugly Soviet military parades brandishing weapons during the Cold War. And now, I see Iranian soldiers prancing through the streets of Tehran. Apart from their uniforms, they are indistinguishable from their counterparts in the 20th century.

Worse yet, the ideologies for which they march and die are also indistinguishable. For example, there was no substantive difference at the root of the titanic conflict between Germany and Russia in World War Two. Communism and Nazism are essentially interchangeable, with emphasis on redistribution of wealth under one system and total control of production under the other.

Tragically, ideologies are not necessarily understood by their adherents. That lack of understanding is eloquently exemplified by the compatibility of professors and students engaged in political demonstrations that are anti-capitalism and pro-socialism. Before my generation, political attitudes reflected the appeal of socialism. The ‘working class’ favored labor unions and more or less grumbled about their employers, all the more vociferously against millionaires, and made little or no distinctions between industrialists and Robber Barons.

Those attitudes were passed onto my generation. In my high school days, the political ‘slant’ (now, better known as ‘spin’) was emphatically in favor of socialism although it was not called that. ‘Colonialism,’ on the other hand, was distinctly labeled and given extensive attention in textbooks. Universities taught that colonialism and capitalism were synonymous. History books and social study classes invariably included condemnation of the United States. That has not changed. If anything, bashing the United States has been enhanced in academia by inviting domestic celebrities and foreign ‘dignitaries’ to speak at prestigious universities.

During Hollywood’s Golden Age, movie stars concealed their political views from the public for obvious reasons, and we liked it that way. But many screenwriters were virtually anonymous to most moviegoers. They wrote screenplays with thinly veiled socialist messages. Today’s movie stars are not only open about their ‘liberal’ political views but use their celebrity off-screen to advance those views. Almost all ‘conservative’ actors are still in the closet. Some of them wait until they have retired before revealing political views that are not in step with the Hollywood mainstream. A few reveal their conservative politics. They are encouraged to do so because they think the adoration of their fans will protect them from losing part of their audience. They are wrong about that. Prejudices trump loyalty.

On screen, a considerable number of the ‘biggest’ stars enjoy playing stereotype conservatives, greedy capitalists, and rogue military leaders. (This assertion on my part is not speculative; those actors often explicitly confirm their role preferences when they are interviewed.) Playing those roles gives them an opportunity to please most of their audiences and score political points with their unsuspecting audiences. This practice is a far cry from the film, Advise and Consent, the only totally objective high-level political film I’ve ever seen. If I were an educator, I would strongly urge my students to see that film. That is one of those sources I refer to above. As an actor/director, I also recommend viewing it for its artistic excellence. If you haven’t seen it, please make an effort to do so. (Incidentally, as you may have noticed, capitalists and republicans have always been depicted in a negative light in movie scripts, even if only in ’ jest.’ Yet, to the credit of several liberal actors, they are often fond of their republican colleagues in real life.)

For me, the ‘60s were ‘the best of times and the worst of times,’ as I’m sure Charles Dickens would call them. It was a time when young people swept away repressive attitudes of the 50s, but were also attracted to blotting out reality through the use of drugs. I am among those of whom it is said, “If you remember the 60s, you missed them.” Well, not the best part of them. I was inspired by the second Golden Age of Opera at the Metropolitan Opera House while most of my contemporaries were wallowing in the mud of Woodstock and other gatherings that resembled today’s ‘flash mobs.’

I suppose I’ve always been something of a misfit. I enjoyed most of the Broadway musical, Hair, for its penetrating social insight, and at the same time was swept away by the opera, Electra, a little further uptown.

I was fortunate to have lived during the sunset of Western Civilization. Now, in the dusk of our civilization, I find it tragic to see a generation that has access to a virtual universe in the form of a pod in the palms of its hands and yet is so terribly uninformed about the world in which it lives. Academia continues to foster collectivism. Most professors and college students think like my generation’s grandfathers did! They still talk of colonialism and the evils of capitalism. The same is true of congressmen, senators, columnists, the authors of documentaries, and TV commentators.

I hear a cacophonic choir of mobs: corporate mobs, labor union mobs, political mobs. Ironically, Americans, a people who rejected European politics, are now seeking to follow in the collectivist footsteps of a collapsing Europe! This phenomenon is epitomized by the terrifying mindlessness of flash mobs as well as by organized ideological groups- – -often, a combination of both, here and abroad. Beneath their exterior forms, mobs are motivated by the same instinct as that of jungle marabunta.

There is a profoundly unhealthy symbiotic relationship among corrupt corporations, labor unions, politicians, and millions of ‘little guys.’ Their complicity in global chaos is characterized by their pointing to one another as the root of the global fiscal crisis. As I listen to their shrill and incoherent accusations, I cannot help but think that Marxist theory patently states that collectivism doesn’t seek to destroy civilization: its goal is to take it over. He explicitly stated that the way to a socialist society is to let capitalists create an industrialized civilization, and then take it over.

An eternal optimist, I hope the current generation will stem the tide of collectivism by closing the gap between out-of-date ideologies and the Information Age. Humanity cannot afford another Dark Age.    

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The Human Factor

When I was in my early twenties, androids and iPods were phantoms of the remote future depicted in Science Fiction movies or books. Swathed in fantasy, instruments of virtual omniscience were manipulated by advanced humans or aliens, for better or worse.

But computers were real. They were also relatively new. One of the popular rumors at the time was that computers would free us from the five-day workweek. Four days would suffice to do the work that previously required at least five, sometimes five-and-a-half or even six full workdays. As we now know, that utopian goal has never been accomplished. Instead of a reduction of the workweek, workloads have been increased. So, with the help of computers, firms that once handled 100 clients per week are now able to handle 100,000 in the same amount of time that they had taken to handle 100. I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that weekends are shorter than they were in the 50s.

Another popular rumor claimed that computers would be able to create art. Attempts to do so have done more to refute that claim than any other fact about art or computers. For example, today it may amuse us to explore an application designed to show us a famous painting as it would look in a variety of different styles. Androids can do that at the flick of a click. But that trick should not be confused with the creative process we call art. An individual can certainly appreciate art without being an artist himself but only an artist is capable of the creative process itself even if he does not fully understand it.

The creation and appreciation of art is often regarded as primarily subjective. That is true in part because art significantly deals with beauty. However, a beautiful sunset is not art unless it is depicted in one form of art or another. Form includes principles. Principles assist an artist in the realization of his vision. He reviews them as he creates art, using those that apply and omitting those that do not. When the realization of his vision has no existing ‘rule’ he adapts or creates a new one. An artist should be familiar with all the rules before breaking any of them or creating new ones.

Judging art also has its criteria. Taste is unreliable as a primary factor in judging whether or not a painting or a ballet performance qualifies as a work of art. A judge should consider the universality of a piece and not automatically equate new with good or fame with authenticity. For example, when someone randomly splatters paint on a canvas, he is engaged in an intense need to feel like an artist, even though he doesn’t have the talent to qualify as one. With or without the aid of a computer, the results of his random splash may be beautiful, but like a beautiful sunset, splatter doesn’t qualify as a work of art.

There are art critics who are skillful in pointing out details of a work of art. There are others who for various reasons claim that a can of tomato soup is a work of art. A good rule of thumb is that if a painting, or sculpture, or dance needs to be explained it is not a work of art. It is important to examine a critic’s personal qualifications for judging art apart from their fame as critics. Remember that when someone critiques art she is revealing much about herself as well. If she has the psyche and experience to honestly judge art, then it is wise for the artist to heed her critique. If she lacks those attributes, then an artist should ignore her.

Back in the 50s, I was mistaken about the reduction of the workweek- – -I have thousands of grunt-work hours to my credit that remind me of that error; but I never doubted that computers cannot compose music. It was easy for me to be prescient about that. When forecasting the future of computers, the prophets failed to factor-in the reality of minimum requirements for composing music: a human brain, and the genius to transmit human experience through sound. The potential for computers to shorten the workweek was there when it was predicted that they could do that, but it is impossible for computers to ever create music. The minimum requirements are absolute. Humans, like wheels, cannot (and need not) be reinvented: it’s so much easier to make a baby.

Music is an international language. The same is true of all the arts except literature. Ironically, that is true because literary art is founded on language itself. Unlike music, dance, sculpture, architecture, and painting, literature has linguistic barriers, especially in its poetic form. Despite this, there are occasions when literary art, like dramatic art, can impact readers and audiences that do not share the same language with the authors of novels, plays, or operatic lyrics. The catalyst through which literary art may be transmitted to foreigners is an artist with talent equal to that of the original artist. I’ve noted several extraordinary examples of that.

One of them relates to two artists: Giuseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boito. Boito wrote one magnificent opera, Verdi wrote many of them. Boito was also Verdi’s librettist for three of his operas based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Falstaff, and Othello (Italian: Otello).

As in Shakespeare’s Othello, Otello murders his wife moments before he learns that she was not unfaithful to him as he had been led to believe. In remorse, he mortally wounds himself. Boito’s libretto then provides Otello with final words borrowed from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

Poor creature born under a malignant star

(note: Boito replaced ‘poor’ with ‘pious,’ thereby highlighting Desdemona’s innocence)

So, we have a world-class operatic masterpiece enriched by a world-class libretto that includes several passages from Shakespeare’s Othello and one from his Romeo and Juliet, two world-class plays. Above the restrictions of cultural differences, Otello combines the genius of three poets, one of them posthumously.

None of this could have happened without the ineffable element of creative genius. Add to that the vocal art of performers, each of them unique, and you get emotional responses that cut above the limitations of ethnicities and foreign languages. I happen to know Italian and Shakespeare’s Othello, but I deeply appreciated Otello long before I paid attention to the libretto. Opera lovers need not know the language of an opera’s lyrics to be spellbound by it.

I’m told that the English lyrics for the review, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well in Paris, are as fine as the original French. That is a remarkable feat. Bilingual readers of world-class novels and audiences attending plays spoken in a language foreign to them report the same phenomenon.

There is an interesting legend about Helena Modjeska, a polish actress, who (despite her accent) was renowned for her Shakespearean roles. After a closing performance, she attended a celebratory party held in her honor. Having seen her perform Shakespeare in English, the guests requested that she recite something for them in Polish.

She delivered a brief speech without identifying its source. During her improvised performance, the guests were moved to laughter and tears. When she finished the piece, she was asked the source of her script. She responded, “That was the Polish alphabet.”

Legends are often suspect, but I believe this one because I had the same experience as those guests had when—before I learned Spanish—I reacted to a Spanish actress’s interpretation of a passage from Federico Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba.

Computers are of inestimable value to humanity. Their programmers continue to excel our greatest expectations. I am in awe of their kind of creative talent. But I can’t imagine why anyone ever thought that computers could be programmed to create art. 

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