I recently had the pleasure of reading A Sense of the Future, a collection of essays on science, by the late Jacob Bronowski. While diving into this fine book, I recalled with equal pleasure the experience of watching the remarkable documentary, The Ascent of Man, which he created for television in the 1970s. One thing led to another in my mind, and before long, I was reminiscing about the incredible array of intellectually and culturally rich programming on television from roughly the mid-50s to about 1980. And – spoiler alert – after I describe it a bit, I’m here to tell you I’m damned worried we’ve lost it, and the loss is no good.
Who can forget Kenneth Clark’s jewel, Civilisation, which covered art and cultural history in a fashion similar to Bronowski’s treatment of the history of science?
In music, Leonard Bernstein made fifty-three episodes of Young People’s Concerts for CBS. I remember watching these programs as a young person trying to understand what this music was about and whether and why I might like it. Without doubt, it enriched my life culturally, as it did the lives of so many other young and not-so-young people.
Though I have only a vague recollection of the Hallmark Hall of Fame, I absolutely marvel in retrospect at its productions. Debuts of new operas by significant composers, exciting productions of Shakespeare’s plays featuring the best actors of the day, and important new plays – all were produced on a major network for the general public to watch, learn, and enjoy.
Now, before I provoke you with my main hypothesis and questions, let me lay out some caveats. First, I realize that most of what was put on TV in the early days was mediocre, just as it is today.
Second, I know that fine programming has continued to be produced in the decades that followed 1980. Further, it is true that there has been a proliferation of venues all across the country where art and culture can be and are experienced. This is not insignificant, though one wonders whether the best of it is quite expensive and principally accessible mostly to elites.
Third, there are new forms of art, such as high quality television series, that have in some ways replaced fine film, etc. I do a little binge watching myself and won’t argue with the fact that we have genres of expression today that are well made and fit the times.
But, notwithstanding these caveats, I do want to present a hypothesis that alarms me and challenge you to test it out, and, if it bears truth, begin to think out possible explanations and perhaps solutions.
Here’s the hypothesis: though the types and numbers of media generally and publicly available have multiplied many times over, the aesthetic and cultural quality of all their offerings, as a whole, has diminished. In fact, for the most part, they have made us coarser and less attuned to the best ideas and values we’ve inherited from the past.
Make no mistake: I’m quite well aware, as a consumer, of the BBC and PBS. But, notwithstanding their occasional good offerings, I would say two things: 1) the times we see giants of thought and performance are fewer and less sustained, and 2) the overall quality of the programming has particularly and noticeably declined in the last 5-10 years.
Why has this happened?
First, money was important to early era TV producers, but nowhere near as important as it is today. I suspect there was a sense in those days that high culture was good for people and that it ought to be provided, however much profit it produced. I doubt that such an ethic is generally operational today.
Second, the public today generally values classic thought, art, and performance less than it did just decades ago. By the way, when I say “classic,” I mean both old and new. It could be Shakespeare, or it could be August Wilson. It could be Beethoven, or it could be Coltrane. It could be Turner, or it could be O’Keefe.
Third, the net effect has been that public intellectuals and the great artists are no longer drawn out into the public square as they once were. And in their place, mostly, we get underwhelming pundits and “journalists” and merely popular entertainers.
Call me effete, hopelessly out of date, or what you will. But I’ll die standing by the view that it would be good for all citizens to read and understand what Jacob Bronowski wrote in A Sense of the Future. Those producers who cared enough about promoting these and other best values of our culture made a huge difference in the life of this kid growing up on Meadow Lake Avenue in Dallas, Texas. Shouldn’t we expect the same for my kids and yours?