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The arts scene has always been defined in political as well as aesthetic terms


A VISIT to "Bernardo Strozzi: Master Painter of the Italian Baroque" at the Walters Art Gallery last week produced an odd sense of deja vu. It reminded me that ours is not the first era to be troubled by what the critics call "the shock of the new."

Strozzi (1581/82-1644) lived and worked in an age whose institutions were in crisis and thus maddeningly insecure about their role as patrons of the arts. He reacted much as many modern artists have reacted -- incessantly questioning, testing, pushing the limits of what is acceptable. To stand before Strozzi's intensely devotional yet lusty portrait of Mary Magdalene is to experience what might be called the "shock of the old."

I can imagine some 16th-century cleric expressing the same pious misgivings over Strozzi's Magdalene as Dan Quayle did over Murphy Brown in 1992 -- and being motivated by similarly cynical agendas. To paraphrase the military theorist Karl von Clausewitz, some art, at least, may be merely the continuation of politics by other means.

Which is why to attempt any sort of commentary on the arts, as I shall do in this space each week, necessarily involves an element of political calculation. Ours is an age of troubled institutions, and thus of art that is often troubling, even outright shocking. The loss of faith many Americans are experiencing in traditional institutions -- the courts, Congress and the White House, the news and entertainment media -- threaten the long-term collapse of civic life itself. Contemporary art, whether "high" or "low," reflects the fact that our most intractable societal problems and conflicts no longer seem capable of being resolved in the traditional arenas. Vietnam and Watergate made us distrust the government and the military. Public education is failing millions of youngsters, who are this country's future. O. J. Simpson's trial is corroding confidence in the criminal-justice system. The excesses of Hollywood, Madison Avenue, talk radio and tabloid journalism sour us on the media. No wonder we are willing to accept the notoriety of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano as proof of the depravity of public arts funding.

That so much of today's "serious" or "high" culture -- not to mention the ubiquitous "pop" culture -- seems vapid, boring or irrelevant is an indication the fault lies as much in our troubled institutions as in our creative artists.

Despite the 19th century's romantic conceit of the artist as free spirit, unbound by convention and beholden to nothing except his or her creative vision, most of the art we see in museums today was created to serve well-defined, rigidly enforced institutional needs.

The church, the palace and, later, the labyrinthine bureaucracies of the modern nation state have shaped both the content and the meaning of what artists produce. Michelangelo and Palestrina, like Strozzi, earned their daily bread in service of the Catholic church. John Huston and George Gerswhin earned theirs in Hollywood and on Broadway.

You can argue whether some institutions are more spiritually uplifting than others, but the fact is artists and writers must eat, and he who pays the piper calls the tune. Thus has it ever been.

Still, that is why talking about art and culture today is a peculiarly loaded enterprise. Like post-modern art itself, the arena is one in which seemingly anything goes. For example, the distinction between "high" and "low" culture appears as much a political judgment as an aesthetic one when the difference is defined in terms of the relative power of competing institutions.

Is Mel Gibson's movie version of "Hamlet" less "serious" than Stacy Keach's "Macbeth" at the Shakespeare Theatre? Is Yo-Yo Ma's Bach more "serious" than Bobby McFerrin's? Is jazz still "low," or has it been performed at New York's Lincoln Center often enough to qualify as "high"?

Everybody has an opinion about whether rap music is ruining the country, whether Murphy Brown mocked "the importance of fatherhood," and when the O. J. Simpson trial will be made into a movie. Also, whether the National Endowment for the Arts should be cut, whether Miss America contestants ought to compete in swimsuits, and how to avoid porn on the Internet.

This column is admittedly an experiment that I hope will evolve and deepen as time goes on. Meanwhile, I don't intend to neglect the local scene by any means. I look forward to exploring the dozens of fine old pipe organs in Baltimore's historic churches and reporting on the city's great gospel choirs. I'll peek in on the opera, the symphony and Center Stage as well as on the coffee-club poetry slams.

Baltimore is home to a multitude of arts organizations, large and small, formal and informal, that nourish our spirits and bind the ties of community across our region and state. Many of them are thriving. However much we may lament the troubled state of our guiding institutions, we need to honor that legacy.

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