In the Gilbert and Sullivan series running currently on PBS, many American television viewers were treated for the first time to a performance of Patience, a masterful satire on the pretensions of aesthetes-the crowd George I described as “boets and bainters.” When the heroine decides to humble herself by trying to love the high priest of culture, Mr. Bunthorne, the poet exclaims: 

Nature, for restraint too mighty far
has burst the bonds of art—and here we are.

Here we are, indeed! The arts, we are told over and over, are dying, while nature—in the forms of science and liberated manners—is everywhere triumphant. The empire of the arts, once so vast and powerful, is now reduced to the narrow confines of museums and classrooms. The old Latin saw about ars longa, vita brevis (art is long, life is short) is now reversed, as gerontologists work to prolong life and important books are remaindered or even pulped almost before they reach the bookstores. Without the assistance of professional philanthropists, the arts would cease to exist. 

It may be so. On the other hand, the American people are more devoted to art and various forms of aesthetic recreation than any nation in history. While other cultures have had to devote a large part of their energies to making a living, we are the consumers par excellence of drama, pictures, and contests of wit. The drama may be Police Academy or Dynasty; the pictures, photographs of Miss America in Penthouse or cheerful prints of starving Latin American children; while the contests of wit usually take place on Jeopardy and Johnny Carson. Much of it may be bad art—no, it is bad art, inexcusably bad—but art it is, nonetheless. 

Then why is there all this outcry over the decline of art in America? If you can believe the various state and Federal agencies created to nurture the arts and humanities, it takes a massive investment of resources to enable the arts to maintain a beachhead on the hostile territory of the United States. Where do these people live? Americans must spend a large part of every day on essentially intellectual and aesthetic entertainment: watching TV or looking at magazines (although not reading them: reading Time for the news would be like buying Playboy for the interview). We are second only to the Greeks in our love of music—even the Greeks didn’t have music in the elevator. As Aaron Copland used to complain, it is impossible to enter a bank without being subjected to Brahms. Today, he might add that you cannot walk down a quiet street without being assaulted by Twisted Sister or Tina Turner, the audio equivalent of mugging. 

Obviously, what upsets the arts establishment is the fact that Culture Club is not performing Italian madrigals, and Mr. T is not reciting Shakespeare as he throws a pair of union racketeers through a plate-glass window. They also complain about the violenCe in movies and television shows, which means they have never seen Titus Andronicus or read the Iliad. They assure us that real poetry, as opposed to commercial jingles or Rod McKuen, has lost its audience. A survey done on college campuses a few years back revealed that hardly anybody could quote a line of contemporary verse—not even those who professed to admire it. They must not have asked the right people. I am always running into people who can quote yards of poetry from the modern classics of Bob Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, and Dan Fogelberg—

Just for a moment I was back at school
And felt that old familiar pain,
And as I turned to make my way back home
The snow turned into rain.

What makes Dan Fogelberg not a poet? There are several reasons. For one thing, his verses have rhyme and rhythm (strike one); for another, they make sense (strike two); and finally, they are addressed to the experiences of ordinary Americans (three strikes and you’re out). There is an easy rule of thumb in these matters: art and poetry are either foreign or at least, like john Ashbery, unintelligible.

If there is a popular audience for music and poetry, you will not find them watching stale productions of Verdi on Live at the Met (PBS), where the camera zooms in so close that even Placido Domingo looks like a bloated frog. No, the true lovers of music and poetry are probably drinking beer in a stadium somewhere, watching Merle Haggard sing “I’ll just sit here and drink” or his anti-utopian masterpiece, “Rainbow Stew”—

When a President walks through the White House door
And does what he says he’ll do
We’ll all be drinking that free bubble-up
And eating that rainbow stew.

It’s not exactly Richard Strauss or even Thomas Campion. On the other hand, it’s not Ned Rorem either-or whatever other prissy little composer of”art songs” happens to be in these days.

In a discussion of contemporary art, we have to eliminate the “classics” and stick to what is being written today—or at least in recent memory. A quick look at the scene is enough to convince almost anyone that we are headed for a sort of cultural showdown between the culture snobs, who are pushing the heirs of Arnold Schoenberg and Ezra Pound, and the culture slobs, who would rather see Hank Williams Jr. take off his shirt and sing “All my rowdy friends have settled down.”

The snobs do have a point. There is a complexity, a solemnity, a spirituality about Bach and Milton that is largely absent from American popular culture. (But where do we find it in high culture?) Even granting a certain cleverness—or even artfulness—to songwriters like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and Bocephus, their compositions are not characteristic of the commercial trash usually played on the radio. Besides, at their best, popular songs rarely rise above the level of a folk art: they are more on the level of crewelwork than painting or sculpture.

All that is true. But note the distinction that is usually made between “authentic” songwriters like Hank Williams (Sr.) or Bob Dylan and the commercial hacks who grind out songs for the record companies. A genuine artist, at least in the popular sphere, is someone who comes out of a certain community, a certain tradition. Dylan consciously set out to make himself the heir of Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, and a folk musician as inauthentic as himself, Ram bling jack Elliot. Although that doesn’t make Dylan “the real thing”—any more than Woody Guthrie, a middle class DJ, was the real thing—it does show that his heart’s in the right place. If popular artists, to be authentic, are expected somehow to represent a community or a tradition, why not serious artists?

In fact, the reverse is true. What we actually observe is the tyranny of highbrow artists who have one hand in the taxpayers’ pocket, while the other hand is holding a knife ready to stick it in their backs. For some time now artists (I use the word in its generic sense) have exulted in their isolation and alienation from everything the rest of us perceive as normal, wholesome, or American. The best of them, like Henry James and T. S. Eliot, abandoned their country to become artificial Englishmen. More typical was Ezra Pound, who ended up in Italy defending the “real” America against the false version that happened to be engaged in a war against his adopted country.

Pound had his merits and in his own way loved his country, but his spiritual descendants do not even have the grace to leave. At the same time they are insulting us, almost in the same breath they tell us it is our duty to support them “for our own good.” As Patience explained to the poet, “No, Mr. Bunthome, you’re wrong again.” The State Department does a good enough job of subsidizing the enemies of America abroad; we don’t need the National Endowments and state arts councils to do the same thing at home.

There is no reason to be surprised at the attitude of artists. It is symptomatic of a widespread refusal to accept the consequences of our behavior. Did you break the law, desert the army, flee the draft, and go to Canada? Well, your motives were pure: come home, all is forgiven. For some reason, though, it works with criminals; it doesn’t with artists. Perhaps it is because we dimly realize that true art, including the greatest masterpieces, nearly always emerges from communities. Despite all the romantic myths, it is almost never the product of an isolated genius in rebellion against his people. The Iliad and Odyssey—like the great English and Scottish ballads—grew out of a folk tradition; and Shakespeare, who for all his faults is the best we have in English, turned his back on the alien pseudo classicism of the university wits (even then the colleges were destroying literary talent) and reached out to the ordinary Englishmen of his time. In more recent times more than one major writer has felt compelled to return to his roots in rural society—Thomas Hardy no less than William Faulkner.

But it is not just rural societies that have community identity. The great urban civilizations of Athens, Rome, and the Italian city-states of the Renaissance were provincial cultures in the sense that they were self-centered and xenophobic, doggedly anticosmopolitan. Of course they were international to some extent. They had to be. The Italians leaned heavily upon Latin (and French) literary traditions, the Romans upon the Greeks. But the greatest Roman writers—Livy, Juvenal, and especially Vergil—were thoroughly Roman and devoted their talents to celebrating “the long glories of majestic Rome.” When they criticized, it was from the inside, as a participating member of society.

Cosmopolitanism is the death of serious art. When English dramatists learned to turn their backs on Shakespeare and Jonson and to run after Racine and Molière, it meant a few brilliant (but degenerate) trifles—even rotting corpses glow in the dark—and then virtually nothing, a darkness illuminated occasionally by Irishmen like Sheri dan, Wilde, and Shaw. By the 20th century, the cosmopolitan principle had triumphed in all the arts. Writers that stick to their country and its traditions are the rare exception: Yeats in Ireland, Péguy in France, Faulkner in the U.S. Most of the rest have done their best to escape.

As writers and musicians and painters more and more sought out each other’s company in New York, London, and above all, Paris, they found they had less and less to say to ordinary readers, concert-goers, and Sunday painters. The amateur, insisted Ezra Pound, is the enemy of true art. The poet must be a professional. And so he is now. While Sophocles and Sir Philip Sidney were only gentlemen scribblers, Robert Greeley and Denise Levertov are professionals, which means no one buys their books or attends their readings, apart from other professionals—poets, critics, and teachers. There are still real poets, but it must be terribly discouraging for them to be lumped together with the poseurs who seem to be in charge.

Art, in the sense used by the culturati, is dead, because they killed it. They had help, of course, principally from the masters of a society infatuated with material progress. But rather than going through a “who killed cock robin” bill of indictments, we might just give the corpse a decent burial and wait for a general resurrection. We can still listen to old music—even an occasional bit of Prokofiev or Stravinsky—read old poets, dipping from time to time into a few contemporaries like Larkin, Conquest, Robert Penn Warren, or Geoffrey Hill. We can still expect a gifted novelist to come along once in a while, because the novel remains a partly popular form. But in general, most of us will find ourselves sticking to the old stuff, the tried-and-true, the classics.

It is a frightening thought. Less than 100 years ago, the recent compositions of Brahms and Wagner, Puccini and Debussy could fill a concert hall. Alfred Tennyson was mobbed-politely of course-on the street by fans who admired his poetry as much as people today admire, say, Bruce Springsteen. They had their classics then, but until recently people were most alive to the art of their generation, which is as it should be. Art is much more than “the best that has been thought and known,” as Arnold used to preach; it is a way of getting a grip on our experience. For good or ill, it is rooted in the clay of everyday life. It may soar to the eternal, but it rides (like Aristophanes’ Trygaeus) on a dung beetle. To give up on the art of the present is to give up on living in the present.

Nostalgia is a thin and bitter diet that can starve the sensibilities. Rather than suffer the fate of Robinson’s Minniver Cheevy, “child of scorn/who “cursed his fate and kept on drinking,” we will have to keep an eye out for signs of hope-the splendid Australian novelist Randolph Stow, poets like Frederick Turner, who are rediscovering meter. Even the “neo-Romantic” revival of chromaticism holds out some promise—although not much. But with the enemy still in possession of the citadel, most of us will be forced to tum to the only arts still capable of speaking to the living: movies, television, and popular music. They may never reach the heights of serious art, but they are what we have, and we must pay attention, because as one of our poets, Mr. Dylan, has warned us:

He who is not busy being born
is busy dying.