On the Outside

I’ve been grazing through last year’s A New Literary History of America (Belknap/Harvard, 1095 p., edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors). This fascinating, informative, and sometimes moving book is a history of the United States told in essays about the cultural artifacts produced by Americans and, in a few cases, about America or Americans.

This broad definition of the “literary” is fleshed out in an Introduction:

Thus this broadly cultural history—a history of America in which literary means not only what is written but also what is voiced, what is expressed, what is invented, in whatever form. (p. xxiv)
“[I]n whatever form”? Strong words. Did Messers Marcus and Sollars write a rhetorical check their editing asses can’t cash?

The focus is on the whole range of all those things that have been created in America, or for it, or because of it: poems, novels, plays, and essays, but also maps, histories, and travel diaries, sermons and religious tracts, public speeches and private letters, political polemics, addresses, and debates, Supreme Court decisions, literary histories and criticism, folk songs, magazines, dramatic performances, the blues, philosophy, paintings and monuments, jazz, war memorials, museums, book clubs, photographs, comic strips and comic books, country music, films, radio, rock and roll, cartoons, musicals, and hip-hop: “Made in America.” (p. xxiv)

This list is pretty comprehensive—the essay on porn star Linda Lovelace can be included under “film”, for example, so let’s see if there are any form of literary artifacts “that have been created in America, or for it, or because of it” that are left out. (Hold on, I’m reading.) OK, no concert music or concert dance (ballet or modern), either. A reading of the Index shows only fleeting references to composers like John Cage, Charles Ives, and La Monte Young. And no choreographers, or at least none whose names I recognized.

There was no explanation of the omissions. Was it an oversight? I really don’t know. They could have covered both with a discussion of Appalachian Spring or with the work of Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan or with the epic Cage/Cunningham collaboration. This not to mention what could have been contributed on either concert music or dance alone. I don’t know why they were not included.

Greg Sandow wrote this weekend about people who claim that classical music is inherently superior to other musics. Sandow need not worry about such claims, except to the extent that they are horrible marketing devices. It’s clear from this book as well as countless other cultural conversations taking place on and off the web, that concert music and its equally-unloved artistic sibling may be the least-important artforms going.

If concert music is on the outside looking in, and there’s plenty of evidence that it is, the ongoing conversation about the issue is extremely important. What I haven’t seen is a great deal of thought about what it means to be on the outside; to be, as Alex Ross has correctly put it, counter-cultural. Are there advantages to being on the outside? The disadvantages are clear, but aren’t there good things about it, too? Can part of our art be inside and part out? These are questions that should be asked, and suggestions tossed around. And now’s a good time to do it, since nobody’s paying attention.