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Cultural ignorance

“Who was Marcel Duchamp, and why did his painting ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ provoke so much outrage at the Armory Show in 1913? What does George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ have to do with both the Jewish and African-American experience in the United States? Why was Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The Sun Also Rises’ so influential for modern fiction and journalism? How did Alfred Hitchcock, Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder, among many other emigre film directors, bring European cinematic styles and ideas to Hollywood? Why was Marlon Brando’s performance as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ so revolutionary on stage and ultimately in the movies?

“If you are an undergraduate or a graduate student taking a course in 20th-century American history, you are unlikely to find the answers to those questions. They won’t even be posed. Nor will the names or the works of the artists, composers, novelists, filmmakers and actors appear in the lectures or in the books assigned on the reading list. The vast majority of American historians no longer regard American culture — whether high culture or mainstream popular culture — as an essential area of study. …

“We’re teaching the subjects we want to teach and talking about the people — mostly the exploited and the victimized — we sympathize with. Never mind if we’re also passing on a substantial amount of cultural ignorance from one generation to the next.”

University of Texas history professor Richard Pells, writing on “History Descending a Staircase,” in the Aug. 3 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education

Double standard

“The University of Colorado Board of Regents voted 8-1 to dismiss [Ward] Churchill for trading in ‘falsified … and fabricated history.’ … It was, he explained, the attack dog ‘corporate media,’ led by people like [Fox News personality Bill] O’Reilly, that forced his ouster. …

“To Churchill, his professorship clearly functioned as a state-funded pulpit from which he could loudly denounce the evils of capitalism and expose the tawdry history of empire. …

Churchill himself has decidedly mixed feelings on free speech. When attempting to get a Columbus Day celebration banned from the streets of Denver, he implausibly argued that the Ninth Amendment of the Constitution superseded the First Amendment, thus protecting Native Americans from ‘incitement to genocide’ by those celebrating the holiday.”

Michael C. Moynihan, writing on “Ward of the State,” Wednesday at Reason.com

‘Spiritual center’

“For the fine arts to revive, they must recover their spiritual center. … The New Age movement, to which I belong, was a distillation of the 1960s’ multicultural attraction to world religions, but it has failed thus far to produce important work in the visual arts. The search for spiritual meaning has been registering in popular culture instead through science fiction, as in George Lucas’ six-film Star Wars saga, with its evocative master myth of the ‘Force.’ But technology for its own sake is never enough. It will always require supplementation through cultivation in the arts. …

“Progressives must start recognizing the spiritual poverty of contemporary secular humanism and re-examine the way that liberalism too often now automatically defines human aspiration and human happiness in reductively economic terms.”

Camille Paglia, writing on “Religion and the Arts in America,” in the spring/summer issue of Arion

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