Monday, October 12, 2015

"Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Western Civ Has Got To Go!" at the Kennedy Center

Kennedy Center Deborah Rutter speaks to donors at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater last week.
When Jesse Jackson led a chanting mob of students determined to end the Western Civ requirement in 1988 at Stanford University--which Stanford subsequently abolished--many otherwise reasonable Americans mistakenly thought such lunacy might be limited to prestigious American universities, therefore not affect them, once they were off-campus and out of range of those Roger Kimball dubbed "Tenured Radicals".

They could be forgiven for believing that their cultural betters were committed to defending civilization. For example, the Kennedy Center in Washington features inspirational quotes from JFK himself, carved in stone on the River Terrace, such as:

There is a connection, hard to explain logically but easy to feel, between achievement in public life and progress in the arts. The age of Pericles was also the age of Phidias. The age of Lorenzo de Medici was also the age of Leonardo da Vinci, the age of Elizabeth also the age of Shakespeare, and the new frontier for which I campaign in public life, can also be a new frontier for American art. 

However, a recent donor presentation by Deborah Rutter, new president of the Kennedy Center, suggests that Sixties-generation style cultural vandalism did not stop at the university faculty lounge, rather has metastasized into the dominant paradigm at the leading performing arts institution in the Capital. Rutter is one of the most successful arts administrators in the country, having served as president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Seattle Symphony. Yet there was little great music heard from the stage of the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater at the presentation this writer (and donor) attended.

For example, while listing conventional concert fare, plugging so-called "thought leaders" like David Brooks and Bill Irwin, ballet troupes and an upcoming Irish festival, as well as lauding contemporary composers and Wagner operas in passing, Rutter's talk highlighted a temporary Skateboard park constructed at the cultural complex, entitled "Finding a Line," sponsored by the Converse sneaker company.

From her PowerPoint, it looked much like what anyone might see (or try to avoid) any day of the week in playgrounds, plazas, parks and parking lots across America--not Phidias, not Leonardo, and certainly not Shakespeare. Not JFK, either, to judge from another carved inscription on the walls:

I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.

It seemed that rather than raising standards and commanding respect for American civilization, the main takeaway from the first hour (this reporter had to leave before President Rutter could explain an  ugly multi-million dollar expansion project) was that dystopian and dispiriting imperatives for "access" and "equity" have replaced any commitment to artistic excellence, creativity or inspiration.

To illustrate this  bureaucratic decline and fall of civilization, President Rutter apparently contacted out a portion of her talk to Mario Rossero, the complex's "Education" VP, formerly Chicago Public Schools Chief of Core Curriculum.

While Rossero's "Super-Mario" cartoons and folksy demeanor might work at a National Education Association convention, they were a slap in the face to anyone seeking uplift through the arts. What can one say about his PowerPoint slides? Amazingly, he showed complete contempt for the English language, by redefining "Quality," like Alice's Red Queen, to mean whatever he wanted it to mean. 

Rossero announced, without citing a single source, that "Quality" meant "Access + Equity." This was very surprising to at least this correspondent, who had done his Ph.D. dissertation on "Quality," yet never run across that formula anywhere. 

Needless to say, Rossero's definition doesn't sound much like John F. Kennedy. 

Likewise, it does not match the that in any English-language dictionary with which I am acquainted. To cite just one example, the online Oxford Dictionaries defines "Quality" as: 

NOUN (plural qualities)

The standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind;

The degree of excellence of something: an improvement in product quality; the hospital ranks in the top tier in quality of care;

General excellence of standard or level: a masterpiece for connoisseurs of quality;

[AS MODIFIER] a wide choice of quality beers...(etc.)

There were also some very sad-looking photos of National Symphony Orchestra musicians in nightclubs and high school auditoria. When I was growing up in New York City, students went to Philharmonic Hall to hear Leonard Bernstein conduct in the inspiring surroundings of Lincoln Center. 

Somehow, in the presentation, it appeared that things were moving backwards. Why go to a shabby high school auditorium...couldn't students come to the Kennedy Center instead? There's a free shuttle bus to the Metro at Foggy Bottom. 

Perhaps Mr. Rossero had been sampling some quality craft beers while putting his talk together, but in any case. the chief educational officer of the nation's foremost cultural institution demonstrated to an audience of donors that he literally did not know the meaning of the word "Quality."

This defective definition, which would earn an "F" in any respectable English class, was presented as the basis of the Kennedy Center's educational "outreach" to schools and the community. A sad day for "Quality," and a sad day for the Kennedy Center.

Apparently, Kennedy Center donors like the Carlyle Group's David M. Rubinstein, who gave $50 million towards Rutter's $125 million expansion project, aren't embarrassed that their money goes to parade ignorance, perhaps illiteracy, among their beneficiaries.

If one truly wants to promote "Quality," skateboards and "petting zoos" won't do the trick.  For President Kennedy's vision to be fulfilled, the Kennedy Center must return to its original mandate to raise standards of artistic accomplishment in order to restore an America which commands respect around the world for its civilization.