You've successfully subscribed to American Purpose
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to American Purpose
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your newsletter subscriptions is updated.
Newsletter subscriptions update failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Billing info update failed.
The Unifying Appeal of the Arts

The Unifying Appeal of the Arts

In the conversation about reviving social cohesion, we continue to overlook the arts.

Joseph Horowitz
The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do it Again
by Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett (Simon & Schuster, 480 pp., $32.50)

Subtitled The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone was a bestseller in 2000. It was of course the “collapse” that sounded a loud alarm: Americans already knew that social cohesion had somehow been erased—that the national fabric was shredded. Putnam’s new “twentieth anniversary edition,” with a fresh preface and Afterword, attempts to add comfort and advice. And so, more emphatically, does his concurrent The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, co-authored by Shaylyn Romney Garrett.

Like Bowling Alone, The Upswing is a social science tome bristling with graphs devised to empirically measure social, political, and cultural malaise or well-being. The results are sometimes dry, sometimes provocatively unpredictable. There are two essential claims. The first is that the polarization and fragmentation that afflict Americans today comprise a cyclic phenomenon reproducing what ailed America a little over a century ago, amidst the turmoil of the late Gilded Age. In between came the “Great Convergence”—a period, aligning with the Progressive movement, when Americans came together and said “we” instead of “I.”

The authors’ second claim is that the turning point toward collapse—which some are inclined to associate with millennials and social media, vicarious relationships and short attention spans—came earlier: the sixties. Putnam and Garrett here itemize: Vietnam protests, urban unrest, Black Panthers, and “the convulsions of 1968”—“something like a national nervous breakdown.” Calibrating the consequences, they summarize: “We have paid a high price for the Sixties pivot”—“indefensible economic inequality,” “political polarization that is enfeebling and endangering our democracy, the social fragmentation and isolation that ignore the basic human need for fellowship.”

The weakest part of The Upswing is an optimistically sketched second upswing—how to “do it again.” Fundamentally, this is an exhortation to recapture “a galvanizing belief in the power of ordinary citizens” to power a moral awakening—as individual Progressive reformers once did beginning in the early 20th century. Just as Jane Addams, Ray Stannard Baker, Frances Perkins, Teddy Roosevelt, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarvell, Upton Sinclair, and Ida B. Wells were young when they inspired change, Putnam and Garrett call on young Americans to crusade for “we,” appealing to “a full range of American values.”

Being myself a child of the sixties (b. 1948), I can testify to the fury ignited by Vietnam and Nixon; it never wholly died. It’s no surprise that Putnam and Garrett discover social collapse before the age of the internet. Not long ago, I had occasion to re-read Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987)—a book once as influential as Bowling Alone. I resented Bloom’s imperious attack on the sixties’ counterculture when I first encountered it. And yet today he seems prophetic, at least in his broadest strokes. Decades before Google and Amazon, Facebook and Twitter, Bloom observed an epidemic of closed minds and impoverished souls: an epic failure of American democracy.

Bloom’s perspective is not that of a social scientist—and neither is mine. I join him in privileging the arts as an indispensable “we” component—a source of communal expression and self-understanding, of profound personal and interpersonal engagement. In fact, to me the most salient feature of The Upswing, the most surprising and disappointing aspect, is incidental. In their consideration of how Americans bond or don’t, Putnam and Garrett fail to consider novels and poems, concerts and plays, paintings and sculpture. Beethoven preached universal brotherhood with overwhelming eloquence. Cold War cultural diplomacy discovered the healing commonality of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. But there are no symphonies or concertos in The Upswing. Even though a central theme is the challenge of balancing respect for the individual with concern for the common good, America’s iconic poet is not once invoked. Walt Whitman preached a “teeming nation of nations” and wrote, “The American compact is altogether with individuals.” “Leaves of grass” that are both individuated and conjoined impart Whitman’s very credo.

And Whitman endures. An American poet who does not, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was nonetheless an essential part of the Gilded Age about which Putnam and Garrett write. His ubiquitous poems were read aloud around the fireplace. Half a century later, Norman Corwin’s patriotic dramas were heard by tens of millions of Americans sitting around their radios. These artworks were vital sources of “American community.”

In fact, I have the uncomfortable feeling that The Upswing may partly be a symptom of the shortcomings it observes. And it is not alone. Another recent study of the American experience of wide importance is Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States. It’s a marvelous read, entertaining, informative, provocative, elegantly turned—and yet wholly omits the arts. Could an eight-hundred-page, one-volume history of Germany do without Goethe or Beethoven? Could the history of Italy be told without Michelangelo and Verdi? Britain without Shakespeare? Spain without Cervantes? And yet Lepore’s emphasis on the black experience, so welcome and overdue, omits any reference to black music; jazz and the Harlem Renaissance, Ellington and Armstrong, Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson are all silent. Absent, as well, are Whitman and Longfellow, Moby Dick and The Sound and the Fury, Huck Finn and Rhapsody in Blue, Hollywood and Broadway.

Is this perhaps a phenomenon of the Left, rejecting “patriarchal” high culture? Apparently not. Ben Sasse’s Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal (2018), by a Republican senator with an impressive intellectual bent, plausibly opines, “The problem is that our ever more ferocious political tribalism and mutual hatred don’t originate in politics, so politics isn’t going to heal them.” Adducing the same torn fabric as Putnam and Garrett, he blames the digital age. He laments the diminishing pertinence of friends, church, and community. But I happen to be a stranger to Senator Sasse’s world of church and picnics. I worry that religion may be as much a divisive as a binding factor in America’s map of red versus blue. When I think about fostering a lost “sense of place,” I think about shared American identity via shared history and culture (as did Willa Cather, whose formative frontier experiences in Senator Sasse’s Nebraska included the Lieder and operas of German immigrants).

And now there is the pandemic to drive it all home. In European nations, “save our cultural institutions” is widely regarded as a necessary cause. In the United States, the same cry is not heard. What is going on? Were the arts always a negligible component of the New World experience, insufficiently cultivated? Or did they become negligible? Are we as a nation simply too young to dig deep expressive roots? Too diverse? Too much crippled by our original sins of slavery and the Indian Wars? Is any of that pertinent to bowling alone?

I don’t wish to simplify the argument of The Upswing. The authors incorporate dozens of variables in their painstaking analysis. These range from home ownership, education, and religiosity to infant mortality, life expectancy, and “deaths of despair;” from club membership, voting patterns, and cross-party collaboration in Congress to tax rates and distribution of wealth.

The net result is an inverted U-curve, an “arc of the twentieth century” measuring economic, political, social, and cultural trends. The upswing is dated 1895 to 1960, the downswing from 1960 to 2020. During the upswing, steady progress was registered: enhanced economic equality, greater cooperation in the public sphere, a stronger social fabric, a growing “culture of solidarity.” The subsequent downswing is marked by polarization, pessimism, and extreme self-reliance—all of which purportedly mirror Gilded Age maladies. That economic inequality has increased during the current downswing is well-known. That—according to quantifiable data—racism and gender discrimination have also gone up is a notable finding.

Scattered references to literature and music embellish this tale, but beginning only after World War I. Culling an empirical finding of my own, I calculate that fewer than 2 out of 350 pages of The Upswing address the arts. Neither part of the problem nor of the solution, they’re an inconspicuous bystander. They also, I would say, do not trace an inverted U-curve—or any curve at all. This is because the picture drawn of the late Gilded Age in The Upswing does not really fit what I think I know as a cultural historian. Before World War I, James Gibbons Huneker was America’s most prominent, most charismatic arts journalist. In 1915 he looked back at Union Square (once the city’s hub for music), German theater, and—Huneker’s truest habitat—German beer saloons and rhapsodized of the bygone Gilded Age, “There gathered . . . the very cream of the musical aristocracy. . . . a genuine atmosphere of Teutonic ‘Gemütlichkeit’ existed in those times that are no more.”

Huneker’s account of Gilded Age “social capital,” of human community based in the experience of the arts, is buttressed many times over by the evidence of newspapers and magazines, concerts and plays during the nadir adduced in The Upswing. A relatively cohesive artistic and intellectual life was a national phenomenon. But it was not a mass phenomenon. The circulation of magazines like The Century, Harper’s, and The Atlantic was nothing like those of Life and Time to come. New York’s most elite daily newspaper, the Tribune, was high-toned and rarified compared to James Gordon Bennett’s high-circulation Herald.

During the subsequent “upswing” decades the arts were popularized for a new democratic audience. Crucially, radio became the first mass medium. The early years of commercial broadcasting featured a plethora of “cultural” and “educational” fare, including “The University of Chicago Round Table” and “The American School of the Air.” A conscious strategy of popularization was vigorously pursued, hosted by such radio personalities as Alexander Woollcott, Clifton Fadiman, H.G. Wells, and Yale’s William “Billy” Lyon Phelps. When all four major networks carried Norman Corwin’s 1941 radio play, “We Hold These Truths,” celebrating the sesquicentennial of the Bill of Rights, its sixty-three million listeners comprised nearly half the U.S. population. Radio Saturdays and Sundays included four classical music showcases—the Metropolitan Opera, NBC Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and The Ford Sunday Evening Hour—said to reach more than ten million families a week. The weekday schedule might include more than a dozen live broadcasts of hinterlands orchestras. In 1938 Fortune Magazine ascertained that 62.5 percent of all Americans liked to listen to classical music on the radio.

All this is to say that upswing social cohesion went hand in hand with proliferating cultural cohesion. But the fate of this phenomenon during the downswing decades, beginning with the sixties, was evaporative. If by “culture” we refer to the arts as a repository of enriched memory and tradition, it suffered a remarkably rapid decay. Hamilton notwithstanding, the arts are today a subsidiary and inchoate presence in the national experience.

This story fortifies the interwar upswing adduced in Upswing, but superficially. A pair of problematic trade-offs comprise a less visible interwar downswing. The first was that the popularization of the arts after World War I did not notably promote active engagement. These were decades in which piano sales, peaking around 1910, plummeted; the practice of singing in the home, of parlor piano and chamber music, was not part of the “music appreciation” movement. The “monster” choral festivals and competitions of the Gilded Age were no more. The second trade-off was one of content. Gilded Age practitioners of the arts assumed that Americans would continue to stretch the umbilical cord connecting to the European parent culture and eventually foster traditions more their own. But, especially in classical music, the popularization of culture during the interwar decades in fact over-privileged dead European masters.

In 1941, Aaron Copland responded on behalf of America’s own composers: “Very often I get the impression that audiences seem to think that the endless repetition of a small body of entrenched masterworks is all that is required for a ripe musical culture.” A comparable complaint was eventually voiced by the preeminent Black novelist Ralph Ellison, impatient that important American fiction was not more specifically “American.” The American creative artist, Ellison wrote, should be possessed of “an imagination perennially engaged by the problem of national type.”

The cultural upswing was tangible but shallow.

A closer look at Gilded Age arts and “American community” reveals a complex topic not readily susceptible to summary or judgement.

It is logical to begin with The Song of Hiawatha (1855) because, however forgotten or derided today, Longfellow’s epic poem was for half a century the most read, most widely known work of American literature. Longfellow succeeded in temporarily producing a bardic national saga intended to be recited aloud. Compared to Beowolf, Hiawatha is notably sanitized and sanguine. It ends with the coming of the white man. If its provenance is European, its tone and message project an American reality. It bears stressing that it was intended to be read aloud—and was.

During the same half century, the most popular American painter was Frederic Church, whose heroically scaled canvases are today not quite as eclipsed as Longfellow’s verses. Such gigantic Church productions as “Niagara” (1857) and “Heart of the Andes” (1859) toured nationally. In St. Louis, Mark Twain visited the former canvas (measuring 3 ½ by 7 ½ feet) and wrote, “I have just returned from a visit to the most wonderfully beautiful painting which this city has ever seen . . . I have seen it several times, but it is always a new picture—totally new—you seem to see nothing the second time which you saw the first.”

This heady admixture of mass appeal, technical mastery, and fastidious observation remains credible. The messages Church so potently imparted were of Christian uplift, Manifest Destiny, and detailed scientific observation. Their lineage is traceable via Church’s immigrant teacher Thomas Cole to the canvases of Lorrain and Poussin. At the same time, they embody what became a distinctly American pictorial genre: landscape. No less than The Song of Hiawatha, they notably projected—bonded and fortified—national sentiment and mood.

Meanwhile, classical music was for Americans “the queen of the arts.” Here the American achievement focused on an institutional innovation: the concert orchestra, in contradistinction to the pit orchestras of Europe. The prime mover was an immigrant conductor, Theodore Thomas, whose credo read, “A symphony orchestra shows the culture of a community, not opera.” And, by World War I, so it did, in cities large and small.

The Gilded Age artistic tide culminated in the final decades of the 19th century with a nationwide Wagnerism movement that saturated not only music, but literature, drama, and the visual arts. Though Putnam and Garrett locate Social Gospel and women’s clubs as Progressive phenomena, they were equally late Gilded Age phenomena. The individual Progressive leaders identified in Upswing as agents of civic morality were preceded by such fin-de-siecle reformers as Laura Langford, who as Brooklyn’s leading impresario presented concerts at the Academy of Music. In summer, she produced Wagnerite symphonic programs fourteen times a week at Coney Island’s Brighton Beach resort. She also presented lectures on women’s rights and social philanthropy. She targeted orphans and working women. She furnished special railroad cars for unescorted female concertgoers. She priced tickets for as little as fifteen cents. The Gilded Age anomie and confusion adduced by Putnam and Garrett were real enough—but so was a morally inflamed response, not least in the arts.

The fate of American Wagnerism, after World War I, is instructive. The new high priest was Arturo Toscanini, who offered not the operas but instrumental excerpts. Americans no longer produced Wagnerian novels and paintings, poems, and plays. Rather, Wagner became another great composer to set alongside Beethoven and Brahms in an aging European pantheon. In hindsight, the cultural upswing preceding the sixties was often exogenous.

Where any of this—fin-de-siecle ferment, Progressive “convergence,” the sixties pivot—may eventually lead the arts in our 21st century is a vexed question. Will we wholly squander history and inheritance? Was yesterday’s American culture, as some claim, a false representation of who we are? Can a refreshed American pantheon be fashioned—or even imagined? Is cultural community demonstrably cyclic, as Putnam and Garrett maintain? Their argument is based on a picture of the past I cannot recognize. Could a new upswing be powered by the young, as they suggest? In our schools, at every level, STEM has pushed aside the arts and humanities. Our brave new world of social media, of instant vicarious gratification, could equally foster dystopia or utopia. In the opinion of Putnam and Garrett, “The jury is still out.”

For ten years, it was my good fortune to direct “Music Unwound,” a national consortium of orchestras and educational institutions supported by the National Endowment of the Humanities. Two dozen cross-disciplinary festivals were mounted in all parts of the country. The goal was two-fold: to produce multi-media symphonic programs exploring the American experience; to integrate those concerts into classroom curricula.

The most dramatic successes were in Sioux Falls and El Paso. In South Dakota, we were able to fashion a program juxtaposing Dvořák’s New World Symphony with Native American drumming and song—and take it on the road to an Indian reservation. In west Texas, the outcome was a unique species of humanities instruction whose city-wide impact negated bowling alone.

El Paso is a city of nearly 700,000, about 80 percent Hispanic. The University of Texas/El Paso (UTEP) student body of 22,000 is also about 80 percent Hispanic; 60 percent are the first in their family to go to college. Dvorak’s ecumenical vision—of an American music founded upon the “Negro melodies” he adored as well as on Native American sources—resonates loudly in a city and campus invigorated by upwardly mobile Americans, many relatively new, powering change. Many hundreds of high school and UTEP students attended our El Paso Symphony programs, often with fathers, mothers, and siblings. Most had never before heard a symphonic concert.

“Copland and Mexico” celebrated Mexican music and visual art inspired by the Mexican Revolution. “Kurt Weill’s America” proved a dark horse. The topic was an exemplary immigrant who spoke English from the day he docked in New York in 1935, fleeing Hitler, and turned himself into a leading Broadway composer. At an undergraduate class in Afro-Mexican history, a UTEP student asked with a trembling voice, “How was Weill able to do it?” She missed Mexico. A Jewish El Paso resident publicly remembered her childhood in South Dakota, where her father sold automobiles and supported the NAACP. Her family had to house Harry Belafonte because no hotel would take him. Anti-Semitism was virulent. Her father’s favorite recordings included Weill’s anti-apartheid musical Lost in the Stars. He himself used to sing Weill’s “September Song.” Only now, she told us, did she understand why.

A singular event took place at Eastlake High School, in a semi-rural “colonia.” Five hundred students congregated in the auditorium for an hour-long Kurt Weill assembly. Afterward, the Eastlake Chorus asked to sing for me. They chose “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The author with students at Eastlake High School.

UTEP’s Lorenzo Candelaria, who had engineered the city-wide sweep of the festival, recalled, “One woman shared with me that following the death of her husband a few years ago, she just shut down. But after hearing ‘September Song’ she was moved to open up to new possibilities in her life.”

Cultural memory is an indispensable resource. As ballast, it may equally be personal, communal, or national. In the present endeavor to rediscover who we are as Americans, the arts must become part of the conversation.

Joseph Horowitz is author of ten books, several of which explore Gilded Age culture, including Classical Music in America: A History (2005) and Moral Fire: Musical Portraits from America’s Fin-de-Siecle (2012). He currently serves as executive producer of PostClassical Ensemble in Washington, D.C.—whose streamed “More than Music” films on Dvořák and Revueltas revisit the NEH-funded “Music Unwound” festivals here described.

Book ReviewsCultureDemocracyUnited StatesPolitical Philosophy