A couple of weeks ago, singer Tony Bennett hopped on the bash-the-U.S. bandwagon, though not in a directly political fashion, but rather in a nose-in-the-air snobby “caviar wishes and champagne dreams” elitist sort of way.
I thought Labor Day, the occasion when we Americans celebrate how hard we work by going fishing or to a movie, would be an appropriate time to address Mr. Bennett’s claim.
The 80-year-old crooner said the United States has contributed nothing but jazz music to the world of art and culture. Bennett called America “culturally void,” an accusation that was greeted by some Americans with the traditional response to its cultural critics, which is some variation of “hey, bite me pal!”
”I have traveled around the world to Asia and Europe. They show you what they have contributed to the world. The British show you theatre, the Italians show you music and art, the French show you cooking and painting, and the Germans show you science.”
Maybe the U.S. would have more time to develop culturally if it weren’t engaged a couple times per century in sending potential culture-enhancers overseas to die in the process of protecting the theater, music, art, cooking and painting from the science.
Yes, Tony, we Americans may not have fifteen theaters in every town and don’t drink tea with our pinky extended. Sure some of us can name the Three Stooges but not the three branches of government (pardon our confusion, but the two are often indistinguishable), and when we hear ”Homer” we may think ”Simpson” and not ”Iliad,” but we have made one gigantic contribution to the world: freedom. But it goes beyond that, because Bennett’s claim that America is culturally void is just plain wrong.
Recently there was another poll concerning how Americans can’t name this or don’t know that. Sometimes the results are stunning indeed, but it’s time to start doing this with other countries. You never read a story with the headline, “Italians can name more contestants on Grande Fratello than members of the Court of Cassation.” Of course, as a culturally void American, if there are such polls in foreign magazines and newspapers, I would be unaware of it out of inherent cultural ignorance.
Bennett may wish that America was as bright and cultured as, say, France, but ironically it was a French traveler in the 1830’s named Alexis de Tocqueville who wrote in his book, ”Democracy in America,” that democracy ”can only exist until a majority of voters discover that they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury.”
It took a Frenchmen to warn the United States about the possibility of ending up like … well, France, and we’re not listening. To that end, Mr. Bennett, we could indeed be turning into your beloved Europe.
Culturally, however, we’re uniquely American, and America is comprised in no small part of immigrants who were apparently looking to escape European and Asian theater, music, art, cooking, painting, science or prosecution, and looking for one thing: opportunity. Immigrants to America found that opportunity, and they came up with their own brand of theater, music, art, cooking, painting and science.
Robert Goddard, Jonas Salk, George Washington Carver, Alexander Graham Bell, Eli Whitney, Samuel Morse, Dr. Jarvik, the Wright brothers and countless others would be fascinated to learn that America has contributed nothing to the world of science. Those Frenchmen standing on the moon in the summer of 1969 brought a tear to my eye.
Robert Johnson would be surprised to hear that Delta blues isn’t considered a cultural contribution to the planet, perhaps because its origins can be traced back to west Africa, a nation that didn’t make Bennett’s “most cultured” list (“Reverend Jackson, white courtesy phone …”). In addition, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein, John Philip Sousa, Aaron Copland and Bob Dylan may be flipping their treble clefs when they discover they brought nothing to the global table in the field of music.
Norman Rockwell, Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol, John Singer Sargent, Augustus Saint Gaudens, Jackson Pollack, and Mary Cassatt have obviously contributed nothing to the world of art. If you look hard enough, there’s a lot more to the American art scene than just Cassius Coolidge’s “Dogs Playing Poker.”
Let’s not forget the poets and writers who added zero to world culture, such as Emily Dickinson, Ernest Hemingway, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alex Haley, Robert Frost, Edgar Allan Poe, Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and even Dr. Seuss and other meaningless American scribes.
The list goes on and on.
Actually, in the arena of culture, America rocks, which is perhaps why it’s so annoying to an easy-listening singer. You know what they say, Tony: If it’s too loud, you’re too old.