The Value of Arts

For video, see below.  This approx. 60 minute speech (with music at the end) is an investment in time but well worth it and works as a supplement to our last book, Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America.

Wynton Marsalis ties together our Constitution’s founding fathers with bebop’s pioneers, Emerson & Thoreau with Thelonious Monk & Louis Armstrong, 1850’s minstrel music with 1992 rap.  He teases out the emergence of “rock and roll” and the debt it owes to its predecessors while demonstrating how much of what we know today is part of a cultural legacy we forget too easily or don’t bother to understand.

Nobody remembered that the American arts were integrated before baseball, but by the time the dust of the rock revolution had cleared, some kind of way, rock ended up being white, and the definitive “national music” and the blacks ended up with the minstrel show again. But this new minstrelsy was complex too – as suburban whites imitate the inner city blacks who embrace the bourgeois disaffection expressed in heavy metal nihilism fueled by the white misconception that black people are freer with their emotions and sexuality.

When I met Benny Goodman, there was absolutely no feeling of any mutual experience between the two of us. I knew his name and had heard a few of his recordings, but I didn’t know who he was. With all my education I was the perfect product of a disrespectful American youth culture…I didn’t understand what it took for Winslow Homer to paint black people with dignity in the 19th Century. I had never heard of him. And I definitely didn’t understand why any of this could be important to me.

The best of the American arts and the way they’ve been sung and swung provided human meaning to the questions posed by the Founding Fathers more than 150 years earlier…It told you we have a history, a depth, a tradition that requires skill and study but demands you apply those skills to search the frontiers of your soul. It told you that innovation and creativity hold hands with the tried and true.

The primary justification for the value of education is not some competition with other countries for technological jobs, or to win the so-called science race, or to beat anyone. Our arts demand and deserve that we recognize the life we have lived together.

From WE Dubois, “Education must not simply teach work, it must teach life.”

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