Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Night Before

Tomorrow the new president gets sworn in, a man no one thought would win and now, according to the polls, few think can do the job well.  A man whose early actions, in who he's surrounded himself with and what he says he'll do, are nothing short of terrifying.

I don't want to regurgitate what so many have said.  I'm terrified for the future, but also trying to be the best American I can in response; I'm giving more money to civic causes, I'm calling Senator Ed Markey's enough that I think I'll be on a first name basis with his staff soon, I'm trying to avoid the noise and follow the money.  But there's two things that have been at the front of my brain that I want to share:

- It's clear to me that the election of Trump is, among other things, an indictment of the American education system, or lack thereof.  That so many people were willing to elect someone who is clearly an ignoramus says to me that we are not, and haven't been, teaching the kind of critical thinking (among other things) that the 21st century requires.  (Which makes his know-little choice to head the Department of Education so much scarier)

I know that one of the battle cries coming out of this election is "get involved".  I think that absolutely includes in education.  Go to school committee meetings and town meetings where the school budget is on the table.  Demand funding for the arts, and media studies and robust civics education.  Demand that schools run well, and that citizens and businesses pay their fair share to fund them.  One of the reasons the right is disproportionately strong in this country is because they own so many local school boards, and from there dictate what our kids learn about science and history and civics.  (see here for an especially terrifying example) We have to change that.

- As an artist, perhaps the most maddening thing to me about President Trump (and believe me, there are many) is he a man of atrociously bad taste.  His suits are pedestrian and fit badly.  His buildings are outstanding only in how garish they are.  Several commentators have made the point that Trump's whole persona- his image, his buildings, his style- is a poor, illiterate person's idea of what they'd be if they were rich.  What little we know about his tastes in the arts is that they are pedestrian at best, and more likely he simply doesn't think much about art because it is too hard.  (The word today that his budget wants to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the NEH is maddening and outrageous, but not surprising)

Why does this matter?  For two reasons: first, the presidency is the ultimate bully pulpit, one that has been used to encourage people to revere and appreciate beauty.  Look at the concerts Kennedy and Obama put on, and Carter's Great Day in Washington.  Ronald Reagan had Miles Davis as a distinguished guest at a State dinner.  I shudder at what, if any, art the new president will place front and center.

Second, I turn to one of my heroes Charlie Haden for a more eloquent explanation than I can muster (thanks to Jay McCool for finding this quote, which is burned in my brain from 20 years ago):

"If the leaders of the governments of the world were able to hear – I know this is very idealistic – if they were able to hear the beauty of the slow movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, or Ravel, or Strauss’ “Four Last Songs,” or Billie Holiday, Django, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman…if they could really hear the beauty… Sometimes I think about hearing music through someone else’s ears and it frightens me – if someone wanted to torture me they could me to hear music through Ronald Reagan’s ears. He must be tone deaf! If the people who run the governments of the world could touch that brilliance inside themselves, and know that it’s in everyone else and everywhere else, the world just couldn’t go on the same way, the way it’s going now.”

I'm trying to imagine if a music critic sat down with Trump to talk about music, and played him a Bartok String Quartet, or a Miles/Gil Evans record, or Joni Mitchell or Kendrick Lamar.  He'd probably blast them on Twitter...  I'm not saying that good artistic taste will equal great policy decisions, but it demonstrates a capacity for empathy, and a participation in our shared humanity that any great leader needs.  

Tonight I was part of our annual All-Town Band concert at the high school that employs me.  Most towns with robust band programs do something like this- everyone in the program plays, starting with the fifth graders who have had instruments for all of three months, up the the top band (who killed on Leonard Bernstein's "Slava")  The quality of music ranges from gruesome to spectacular, but the energy, the life that so many of these kids bring to what they are doing, can't help but inspire you.  And that's every music, and art, and theater teacher's' job- to help kids appreciate the beauty of great music, and tap into that place in themselves.    

So I think one of the things we can, and must do, is create, and support, and encourage art at all levels in the days and years to come.  It won't effect tax policy or climate change legislation immediately (and believe me, I'm really concerned about that stuff too) but it creates the possibility of empathy, and joy, and transcendence.  And we're going to need those every place we can get them...