How do you make sense of New York?
There’s lots of intelligence, talent, and ambition here. There’s also a lot of insanity. When Barack Obama won his first presidential election people in my neighborhood partied in the streets all night. The world had evidently been made new. When Donald Trump won there were public meetings in churches in which well-intentioned, high-functioning people shared their fears—this is not an exaggeration—that vans would soon start arriving and carting people off to camps.
What’s going on? And why does the rest of the country have to be subjected to the fantasies of people in places like this? Many New Yorkers are kind, honest, wise, perceptive, public-spirited, amusing, and what not else. But without civilized order that comes out of spiritual order none of that goes anywhere. It dissipates and vanishes. What’s left is a mass of people trying to make their way in a world without civilization and without any idea of what civilization might be. What passes for public life becomes a mass of impulses, desires, hatreds, excuses, maneuvers, frauds, power-grabs, misdirections, and delusions that oscillate between conflict and temporary equilibrium. The latter usually involves payoffs—it helps that New York is a financial center—and unifying illusions, such as the fantasy that, because Trump is Hitler, New Yorkers have to stick together.
The city’s a big cultural center. It’s loaded with theaters, concert halls, museums, and art galleries. Lots of artists, writers, musicians, actors, and dancers make their livings here. It has well-known universities. And it’s a world center of journalism, publishing, and broadcasting.
So there’s lots going on, some of very high quality. But none of it really matters. It’s a global city that favors speed, variety, and power over quality, and it’s hooked into the same commercial and electronic networks that connect everyplace else. The result is that New York produces little that is distinct from what’s done else- where, and what it produces doesn’t matter much in the lives of its people. It’s not a part or expression of how they live; it’s an add-on.
New York has never been a center of civilization. At its peak it had a certain romance, but it was the romance of energy and enterprise rather than of culture, style, tradition, faith, or solidity. People were impressed by the skyscrapers, the Great White Way, the bustle of commerce, the appearance of sophistication. The city had Wall Street and Park Avenue. It also had Brooklyn, Harlem, the Bowery, and ethnic neighborhoods. There were beatniks and bohemians in Greenwich Village, old-line WASPs on the Upper East Side, Jewish intellectuals on the Upper West Side, and millions of middle- and working-class people.
So it was a mixture of everything, and everyone found it fascinating. The Ashcan School captured its sights, O. Henry told its stories, and movie directors filmed its grittiness and glamor. There were neighborhoods and bars where artists, intellectuals, and poets hung out and new movements started. The results weren’t great art, great thought, or great literature, and they didn’t improve as time went by. But they were something.
All that is gone. The Wikipedia article on New York culture doesn’t mention any new artistic movements emerging here since punk rock, hip-hop, and graffitti in the 1970’s. That, apparently, was the last gasp of oppositional culture before the disappearance of anything for cultural vandals to oppose made it all pointless. So all the excitement today is about food, pop culture, and high-end consumption choices.
Failure has a thousand fathers, however reluctant they are to admit paternity. Without money, things don’t happen here today, and in cultural matters there’s the problem of grants. You can do Shakespeare if you want, but foundations don’t pay you to reinforce old stereotypes. So we recently saw a production of Julius Caesar that portrays Cassius as a woman, Casca (“a blunt fellow,” Brutus calls him) as a finicky homosexual, and the other characters and extras as a multicultural crew half-male and half-female.
“Nontraditional casting” is pretty much compulsory now, and the same sort of thing applies in other settings. If you want to see Gloria Steinem’s thoughts blazoned on the wall of the Egyptian collection or view The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago’s huge installation in honor of famous women’s genitalia, you can visit the Brooklyn Museum a few blocks from where I live. The last time I went there they also had a painting in the lobby by Kehinde Wiley, Obama’s portraitist, depicting the artist as Napoleon crossing the Alps.
“Outreach” also gets you funding, and so does modish design. The thing itself doesn’t matter today, as long as it’s diverse, it’s stylishly presented, and it gets spread around a lot. So they’re now spending mil- lions to grub up the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and turn much of it over to landscape designers’ conceptions of how to persuade bored schoolchildren that plants are fun and interesting. Like everyone else, they’ve also enlarged their gift shop and event space.
Some institutions—the Metropolitan Museum under Philippe de Montebello, for example—have tried to resist the growing modishness, but it’s uphill work when basically nobody cares about artistic culture as such.
The New York Times—the Old Grey Lady—is a worthy symbol of what’s been happening. They just passed the manage- rial torch to the latest Sulzberger, son of the man who pushed the paper ever deeper into soft news and ideological advocacy, and marked the transition by hiring a “gender editor.” According to the new hire, the paper is “committed to approaching [gender] issues . . . from an intersectional lens,” and realizes that “this type of content needs to exist throughout every section of the paper.”
So the Times doesn’t think it’s ideological enough as it is, and we can expect the new editor’s baneful influence everywhere. How much longer will anyone want to read such a publication?
Life goes on, and the New York Times and its editors will not have the last word. Horace tells us that you can drive out nature with a fork, but she still comes back. Even Ilya Ehrenburg, a man more familiar than Horace with modern conditions, noted that you can cover the whole earth with asphalt, but sooner or later green grass breaks through.
So even now grass is breaking through here and there. That’s literally true. The state of high culture has meant an emphasis on minor arts. In spite of the vandalism of bureaucrats, real-estate developers, and landscape architects, New York’s parks and plantings, for the most part, are more beautiful and interesting than ever before.
Humanity remains human. People continue to live their everyday lives, some well, and some badly. And there are always people engaged by the good, beautiful, and true, and they make up thousands of groups, gatherings, and practitioners in the city. Some of them—theater companies, music groups, artists—do very good work. Others—churches, social clubs, and such—help carry on ordinary life in an admirable way.
But it seems unlikely that any of it will change much that matters. Art, beauty, and culture won’t save us. Neither will the common man and his concerns, important though they are. When Roman civilization fell apart it was neither playwrights and epic poets nor peasants, artisans, and housewives who ended up showing the way. Instead, it was saints, monks, and eventually kings. Life starts with what is most basic, and it is on those who deal with fundamental realities in the most direct ways that we all eventually have to rely. That remains true even in a place that offers infinite ways to avoid such issues.