“The logic of Michelangelo’s David, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Einstein’s Physics [has] been replaced but that of the Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.” Eric Ambler, A Coffin for Dimitros.
The naked guy was a student who used to walk onto the Berkeley campus wearing only shoes and a day pack. He went to class. I saw him once or twice. He wasn’t bothering anyone, but he eventually was disciplined and left the campus.
Thereafter, the University of California at Berkeley had nothing cultural or artistic to offer the world. Nothing was engagingly odd, alluring entertaining or unique. The campus needed something to contribute to American culture. One day in the mid-1990s a black guy named Larry showed up with his drums and a stool. Larry sat in the middle of Sproul Plaza from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and pounded his drums. Some passer-bus claimed that Larry varied his beats and rhythms, but most knew Larry had one routine and it was very annoying and loud. University employees in the west facing offices of Sproul Hall, in the Student Union and in the nearby cafeteria were crushed: Pounding every academic day of the semester, day after day, hour after hour, second after second.
Larry would talk to people and acknowledge others as the parade went by. He claimed to be a drum teacher and was in Sproul Plaza drumming up business. The pun was intended. From the campus police station in the basement of Sproul Hall came authority, after about a year. An arrangement was reached. Larry would move 150 feet sound to the intersection of Bancroft and Telegraph. He could pound his drums all he wanted on City of Berkeley property.
If the University of California had known and correctly realized where City of Berkeley property started in 1964, there would have been no Free Speech Movement.
Larry moved south and changed his hours, 11:30 a.m. into the evening. Same drumming, same parade and a different audience hearing the pounding, heart rendering thunder now across the street from second story apartments. Larry could be heard two blocks away, over traffic, voices and the business of the city.
Larry was there a long time, a new students wondered why the noisemaker was tolerated and allowed to disrupt the peace near the campus. There were complaints, but the University cops laughed, and the City police had more important matters than objectionable art to fuzz.
I had my car near the University a few years later. I was driving a friend from Boalt on the east side of campus to BART near the west side of campus. It was a warm and pleasant fall evening as we drove west on Bancroft Avenue. As usual I had to stop at the traffic light at Telegraph.
To our right about 30 yards ahead on the sidewalk was Larry pounding his drums. My friend has a voice that can carry a quarter mile. I said, “Tell Larry he sucks.” Down came with window.
As I peeled out, my friend boomed, “LARRY, YOU SUCK!”
We had driven a half block when we heard the drumming stop.
Shortly thereafter Larry stopped drumming at Telegraph and Bancroft, period. It was the end of any contribution from the University of California at Berkeley to American culture. Imagine an artist stopping all effort because a complete stranger yells, “YOU SUCK! It happened, and that is the only possible result when the artistic effort and cultural contribution is ephemeral, for the moment, temporary and offensive. It’s foundation was based on public indifference backed by the worst of all human attitudes: Let him do his thing.
Americans are unwilling to draw distinctions; they don’t want to be judgmental. But all art and surviving culture is judgmental; What exists and survives is excellence, not something that people have ignored it. Yet Americans usually will pay to witness mediocrity. The choreography by cheerleading squads at most high school football games exceeds that of dancing by song-singing rock stars. Yet people pay big bucks to see the two-stepping lip-syncing robots on stage. There is one feature not available from the high school units. If the dancing and songs are not catchy in music performance, perhaps removing clothes, using drugs or being arrested for beating up someone will attract fans..
And what of the great talent from the music world. Some of it isn’t much better than Larry’s drumming. In a writing by a blogger this month, he wrote that classic music should just die. He correctly pointed out that concert halls were expensive and musicians were always asking for money. He omitted a egregious, parallel comparison: The money spent to build stadiums for professional athletics to benefit owners and athletes. The money spent there dwarfs the money spent on concert halls and symphony orchestras, and no one, if ever, tears down or stop using a music hall. Whether professional athletics is a worthwhile cultural activity is an issue I will not deal with here.
But to the doubting blogger, does he know how long it takes today’s musicians to put together an album of 75-90 minutes? It took George Frederick Handel 25 days to compose Messiah, including the orchestration, about 150 minutes of the arguably best choral music ever composed. Or try being blind and old and compose arguably the best choral music ever composed: Bach did it in the B Minor Mass. Or be DEAF for eight years and compose music that became the best symphony, and perhaps the best music ever conceived and composed: Beethoven did that in the Ninth Symphony. PLUS Beethoven may have been unhappy with the fourth movement of that symphony and considered writing a movement without a chorus. Listen to the whole symphony and wonder why Beethoven may have been unhappy.
In the field of human achievement Messiah, the B Minor Mass and the Ninth Symphony surpass artist achievements in most media. Americans could learn and appreciate much if they knew these works – if Americans replaced and oriented themselves to them rather than let themselves languish and linger, YOU SUCK in the bogs of professional sports and their rock concert fore-times, half-times and after-times.
I would rather spend money on fitful classical musicians than waste money on fitless professional athletes.