Fran Lebowitz definitely believes in truth in advertising, at least in the way she presents herself in Martin Scorsese’s documentary Public Speaking, currently airing on HBO. If Paul Saffo likes to present himself as a purveyor of “strong opinions weakly held,” then Lebowitz clearly believes that, the stronger one’s opinions, the stronger one should hold them, even in the face of refutation. By adhering to this principle, she may have teased out a diagnosis behind Jennifer Homans’ pessimistic assessment of the current state of ballet.
Lebowitz voices the same pessimism in Scorsese’s film. However, she does not direct her attack at unimaginative choreography, which constituted the battleground for Claudia La Rocco’s attempt to challenge Homans. If anything, she seems more sympathetic to my position that the problem resides more in the quality of technique among performers; but even that requires an explanation. According to Lebowitz, the real problem is that audiences, particularly for the New York City Ballet, are not what they used to be.
Where things get controversial is in her explanation for why this is the case: The most discriminating connoisseurs who constituted the heart of the audience in the New York State Theater all died of AIDS. If we then proceed beyond Lebowitz’ hypothesis to the underlying explanation provided by Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, we can conclude that the core audience responsible for the high standards of the New York City Ballet was killed off by the combination of negligence and incompetence in our government’s initial response to the onset of the AIDS crisis.
The result is that ours is now a culture of middle-brow thinking, whether in a “culture center” like New York or “middle America.” Such thinking now dominates in the absence of any forces to make the case that there is anything better (and justifiable). The result is that all of the creative arts has now fallen victim to the “management class” of organizations such as the World Economic Forum, more interested in audience numbers than in the quality of what is presented to those audiences. As I observed last February, there are, of course, institutions of learning at which students (and their teachers) can find refuge from this debilitated mindset; but those institutions are as vulnerable as those for the creative and performing arts. In our last Gilded Age we had the benefit of those with the presence of mind to apply their ill-gotten gains to philanthropy for the arts. The current generation cannot see beyond economic growth as a motivation for any action, simply because those who used to see the value in “seeing beyond” are no longer part of our culture.