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Greek Crisis Nothing New The Liberal Trilemma

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Can Women Return Us to Beauty?

by Christopher Chantrill
May 19, 2010 at 9:05 pm


IF ANYONE wants to know why theater is dead in the United States the reason is simple. It is trapped in a time-warp of liberal pieties. When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival sent out a call for plays celebrating “American Revolutions” it didn’t get one play written from a conservative perspective. Not one.

But there is hope. And it is coming from women. Not from the usual feminist robots, but from playwrights like Mary Zimmerman who write from an unashamedly feminine perspective. It’s part of the Girls Gone Mild movement that celebrates a woman’s life in its own terms rather than the women-can-do-anything-a-man-can-do madness of liberal women’s studies, diversity and Title IX.

Now, of all things, a woman has written the libretto for an opera from a story by Stephen Wadsworth, and it is good. Premiering at Seattle Opera this earlier this month under its indefatigable general director Speight Jenkins, Amelia is the story of a woman whose naval aviator father was killed in action in the Vietnam War. Librettist Gardner McFall’s naval aviator father was killed in the war, but in a training accident.

Oh no! Not that. Conservatives have learned from hard experience to stay away from anything to do with Vietnam. But McFall’s effort works. It works because it stays away from the liberal shibboleths and sticks to the girl stuff: love, risk, loss, relationships, babies, natural childbirth(!), death. In an opera about flying, we get a dose of magical realism with Daedalus and Icarus, those early accident-prone fly-boys, and Amelia Earhart lost over the Pacific in her Lockheed Electra.

There’s only one problem, and that’s the music, written by Daron Aric Hagen. It provides color and mood, as any movie would, but it leaves opera-goers in the limbo they have lived ever since Puccini died 86 years ago. No melody. No songs. What a pity. The libretto deserved better.

We all know the problem. Modern art music just doesn’t do beauty. It’s all very well for your Andrew Lloyd Webbers to lash their audiences with melody, but for art music, darling, it’s just not done.

It’s telling that in this age of license, when ordinary pleasure-seeking is trumpeted as a basic human right, the search for higher things in the form of asceticism still gets smuggled in the back door. We produce and consume at unimaginable levels, yet we force everyone to perform the CorvĂ©e of unpaid garbage sorting. We fill the world with lascivious female curves, but we strip poetry of the pleasure of meter and rhyme. We fill every ear with music, but we strip out the melody.

Arnold Schoenberg thought that he could cure us of the delusion that art’s aim is to create beauty, according to Robert R. Reilly in Surprised by Beauty. Schoenberg predicted that in the future, schoolchildren would be singing twelve-tone melodies.

On the contrary, modern schoolchildren barely get to sing any melody, let alone twelve-tone rows.

In turning from beauty we are stripping ourselves of our humanity, argued Frederick Turner in 1991 in Beauty: The Value of Values. The problem is, he wrote, that the huge demographic waves of adolescents in the 19th and 20th century produced “an ideal of artistic originality modeled on male adolescent ideas of freedom: hypercritical, sexually demanding, aggressive, and egocentric.”

A poet and English professor, Turner argues not for an aesthetics but a biology of beauty. Our appreciation of the arts, language and music does not just start out from a blank slate or a social construction. It starts, on the contrary, with a brain pre-programmed with age-old responses to language and music. Did you know, for instance, that: “all over the world human beings compose and recite poetry in poetic meter; all over the world the meter has a line-length of about three seconds” and that this three-second line is “tuned to the three-second information processing cycle in the human brain”?

The war against beauty cannot last. It is fighting against nature itself.

Conservative women are already leading politics back to sanity. Is it too much to ask women also to lead the west back to beauty, in art and in music? It makes sense, for women have more skin in the game: for them, life and love are the real thing.

For men, it’s all just practice.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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