Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Is This The Culture We Deserve?

Yesterday’s piece on Arts Advocates left me thinking about the recent controversy of the Obama White House inviting Chicago ‘rap’ poet, Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr. (“Common”) to “perform” at a poetry event.

Politics is not the purview of The Jade Sphinx, and my private political convictions are simply that – private.  However, culture is our main focus and attention must be paid when the President and First Lady point towards a current cultural icon.

Less than fifty years ago, the White House of John Fitzgerald Kennedy was celebrated for its support of the arts.  The Kennedys focused on culture in all its aspects from the culinary arts to the performing arts. Mrs. Kennedy gave encouragement to budding artists and focused attention on those who had already achieved distinction.

The roster of guests and performers during the Camelot years is a litany of some of the most accomplished, brilliant artists of the 20th Century.  George Balanchine, Sir John Gielgud, Pablo Casals, the National Symphony Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky, Robert Frost, Rudolf Serkin, Marian Anderson … well, you get the idea.

Here is a brief excerpt from Entertaining at the White House, by Marie Smith (1967):

At a dinner on April 29, 1962, honoring Nobel Prize winners in the Western Hemisphere, the White House staged a "coup" for the blue-ribbon audience.

It was three readings by actor Frederic March. One was an excerpt from one of the late Ernest Hemingway's unpublished works dug out of the vaults by his widow; the others were the preface to "Main Street," the novel for which Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize in 1930; and four paragraphs from the speech in which General George Catlett Marshall launched his plan for helping Western European nations recover from the devastation of World War II, and won his Nobel Prize in 1953.

There were forty-nine Nobel Prize winners among the 175 guests and it was the largest number at a White House dinner in recent years. They overflowed from the fourteen round tables in the State Dining Room to five tables in the Blue Room.

Here is another dinner described by Marie Smith:

The all-American western ballet, "Billy the Kid," was presented on a portable velvet-mounted stage in the East Room by the American Ballet Theater of New York, as the entertaining climax to the dinner in honor of the President of the Republic of the Ivory Coast and Madame Felix Houphouet-Boigny. And when the Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg was entertained at the White House, Mrs. Kennedy added a special reading dedicated to President Kennedy to the program of Elizabethan poetry and music presented by actor Basil Rathbone and the Consort Players, a scholarly group of musicians who played sixteenth and seventeenth century instruments.

The special reading by Rathbone was Henry V's famed "St. Crispin's Day Speech" spoken on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, and was added because President Kennedy was so fond of quoting those lines by Shakespeare himself.

Now, 50 years later, “Common” comes to entertain the American President at the White House.  I confess with all candor and humility that I had never heard of this individual until the story of his White House performance became common currency (no pun intended).  However, a brief Internet search provided the cream of his oeuvre in all its vulgarity.  For example, here is the text of his “poem,” Letter to the Law:

Dem boy wanna talk…
Whatcha gon do if ya got one gun?
I sing a song for the hero unsung
With faces on the mural of the revolution
No looking back cos’ in back is what’s done
Tell the preacher, god got more than one son
Tell the law, my Uzi weighs a ton
I walk like a warrior,
From them I won’t run
On the streets, they try to beat us like a drum
In Cincinnati, another brother hung
A guinea won’t see the sun
With his family stung
They want us to hold justice
But you handed me none
The same they did to Kobe and Michael Jackson
Make them the main attraction
Turn around and attack them
Black gem in the rough
You’re rugged enough
Use your mind and nine-power, get the government touch
Them boys chat-chat on how him pop gun
I got the black strap to make the cops run
They watching me, I’m watching them
Them dick boys got a lock of cock in them
My people on the block got a lot of Pac in them
And when we roll together
We be rocking them to sleep
No time for that, because there’s things to be done
Stay true to what I do so the youth dream come
From project building
Seeing a fiend being hung
With that happening, why they messing with Saddam?
Burn a Bush cos’ for peace he no push no button
Killing over oil and grease
No weapons of destruction
How can we follow a leader when this a corrupt one
The government’s a g-unit and they might buck young black people
Black people in the urban area one
I hold up a peace sign, but I carry a gun.
Peace, ya’ll.

This is a staggering, soul-crushing demonstration of America’s overall artistic and cultural decay.  In less than 50 years, the White House has gone from Shakespeare, great American writers and top drawer classical actors to the argot of the gutter.  Again – politics aside, as the sentiments of Letter to the Law are whatever they are – where is the beauty of language, the delicacy of grace, the aspiration of our shared human ideals?  Is this the best we, as Americans, can do?  Is this the culture to be highlighted and celebrated in our nation’s White House?

No artist of any stripe with any conscience whatsoever can find this acceptable.  The American people deserve better, the artistic community deserves better, and the debt to our cultural legacy certainly deserves better.  Shame on everyone involved.

1 comment:

nickwallacesmith said...

hey bob

really liked this piece - thanks for pointing the way to it - appreciated

as a kid i used to see with fair regularity photographs, probably in 'Life' magazine, of the arts promotion of the Kennedy White House - fonteyn and nureyev, the cellist pablo cassels and so on

i was reminded of these images again only lately when someone sent me video of a Carter White House performance by mikhail baryishnikova and patricia mcbride in the pas de deux 'harlequinade' - i think not officially filmed with it's grainy and jerky quality

now whether Carter was just seeing the good politics of arts promotion for certain sectors of the electorate or was in fact interested is in debate - though at the end there's footage of him and his wife enthusiastically applauding

be in touch