Pop Goes the Culture
One man’s quest to preserve and defend the good, the true, and the beautiful
Jan 14, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 17 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
Ken Myers grew up in a conservative Christian household in Beltsville, Maryland, during the 1960s. When he was in tenth grade, two important things happened to him.
His high school music teacher introduced him to the music of Bach, taking eight months to teach Myers and the rest of the boys’ choir how to sing the motet Jesu, meine Freude. And he fell upon a copy of the Saturday Review.
Saturday Review is pretty much forgotten today. (A number of people still remember Bach.) The magazine began in the 1920s and flourished in the postwar years. Its writers ranged widely over the arts, from music and literature to painting and drama, cultivating a readership of strivers—professional and college educated, if not brainy by nature—who were eager for self-improvement and a kind of intellectual diversion that was sophisticated and accessible. The magazine was edited by a windy polymath named Norman Cousins, a model of the kind of well-meaning and high-minded public intellectual they don’t seem to make anymore.
“Everyone else in high school was discovering recreational drugs,” Myers told me not long ago. “I was discovering Norman Cousins.”
He has no regrets, apparently. Those two early revelations—Bach and Norman Cousins—go a long way toward explaining Myers’s life work: the Mars Hill Audio Journal, which he writes, edits, and records at his home and studio in rural Virginia. The Journal celebrates its twentieth birthday this year. It’s become indispensable to an audience of the kind that Cousins sought and encouraged and that often goes ignored nowadays. The Journal isn’t identical to Saturday Review, of course. It arrives every two months, not every week, and it arrives not on paper but on a pair of handsomely packaged CDs—nearly two hours of essays and interviews to be listened to at leisure. (MP3 downloads are available too.) Another difference is that Myers is an orthodox Christian, and it shows.
The Journal demonstrates how closely the interests and worries of a conservative Christian intellectual overlap those of any curious traditionalist or cultural conservative, believing or non. Myers’s own curiosity is inexhaustible. On the website’s topic index—choosing a letter at random—you’ll find under “M” segments on Mondrian (Piet) and Moore (Michael), memory and money, Mendelssohn and Marsalis, masculinity and materialism. I popped in Issue 102 the other day and heard Myers’s pleasant tenor saying, by way of preface: “Is creation meaningful, and if it is, is its meaning perceptible?” This rousing intro opened a series of ruminations and interviews with a variety of scholars and writers. A brief explanation of the split between nominalism and realism in the Middle Ages led to a discussion of Jacques Maritain’s relationship with avant garde painters and musicians in 1920s Paris, then moved through the Fibonacci sequence and the mathematical value of Bach fugues as examples of inherent order, topped off with a tribute to the paintings of Makoto Fujimura by the philosopher Thomas Hibbs. The pace is unhurried, the discussions pretty easily comprehensible. Imagine NPR if NPR were as intelligent as NPR programmers think it is.
Or better: Imagine NPR as it once was, from its founding in the early seventies into the early eighties, when the fateful decision was made to transform an eclectic and discursive ragbag of cultural programming into the fabulously wealthy, grimly professional all-news-almost-all-the-time media colossus we know today. Myers worked at NPR off and on for nearly a decade, spending several years as arts editor for Morning Edition before layoffs from the new regime gutted arts coverage in 1983.
In its original conception, Myers reminded me, “NPR really was an institution devoted to preserving cultural treasures. By the time I left, that vision had vanished, a victim of multiculturalism, postculturalism, autoculturalism, and other fancies.” Myers fondly recalls bygone NPR series like “A Sense of Place: Sound Portraits of Twentieth Century Humanists”—a dozen documentaries on longhairs like James Joyce, Igor Stravinsky, and W.E.B. Du Bois.
“ ‘A Sense of Place’ would be unimaginable at NPR today,” Myers says. Today at NPR, as elsewhere, culture means pop culture. With occasional gestures toward jazz, NPR music is the rock music of aging children; the visual arts begin and end with movies and TV, though stage plays will sometimes rouse attention if their themes are sufficiently progressive. This falling off isn’t the fault of the programmers alone, needless to say. In its decline NPR has tumbled in tandem with the tastes of its target audience—affluent white people with meaningless college degrees who weren’t educated into an appreciation for richer music and art and who, accordingly, find the whole cultural-patrimony thing intimidating, hence vaguely off-putting, and finally a snooze.
One of Myers’s recurring themes is the ways in which the dumbing down of the general culture has infected American Christianity and conservatism. These are two spheres where we might expect the work of “preserving cultural treasures” to be taken up. Yet wander into a Mass or worship service in any suburban Catholic or Protestant church and you’ll hear “praise songs” that might have been lifted from Sesame Street or, if the service is High Church, the soundtrack of Phantom of the Opera. It’s hard to believe this is the same religion that inspired Bach and Palestrina, whose choral works are no more familiar to the average pastor or parishioner than the chants at a Kikuyu circumcision ceremony. The liturgy, what’s left of it, is either pedestrian or absurd. (The Shepherd who used to maketh you to lie down in green pastures will now, if you’re a Catholic, “in verdant pastures give you repose.”) Among clergy no less than the laity, a desire for beauty and reflection is deemed prissy and dull.
“I’ve always thought that beautiful art was a great apologetic resource,” Myers says. Beauty is the chief attribute of God, said Jonathan (not Bob) Edwards. “Beauty points to a Creator.” Yet the church, Myers says, “capitulates more and more to the culture of entertainment.”
“It’s a way of keeping market share. But they’re digging their own grave. There’s a short-term benefit, but in the long term the kinds of cultural resources they need to be faithful to the Gospel won’t be there.”
Things haven’t been much better in the conservative movement, to the extent that it still exists. The idea that conservatives should have a special interest in high culture—the best that has been thought and said, sung and played, carved and drawn—has been selectively applied. In speeches and in the Journal Myers has often raised the question of why political conservatives, who defended the literary canon, the Great Books, with such energy in the eighties and nineties, went limp when it came to defending other traditional forms of cultural expression.
A watershed may have been reached when Rush Limbaugh, who would replace William Buckley as conservatism’s chief publicist in the early ’90s, chose as his show’s theme music a Top 40 track by the Pretenders—a self-conscious contrast, Limbaugh has said, to the baroque trumpet concerto that opened Buckley’s TV show Firing Line. Buckley’s fanfare had signaled that he aspired to something lively but elevated, slightly at an angle to the surrounding popular culture. The Pretenders’ guitar riff was meant to signal that Limbaugh’s conservatism would have none of that stuffy stuff: He was fully at home with what had become of American culture and wasn’t terribly curious about what had come before.
The indifference among conservatives toward beauty and order—toward artistic aspiration itself—shows how deeply they have imbibed the relativism and subjectivism of the culture in which they live and move and have their being. Myers likes to use the term “emotivism,” taken from the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. Emotivism is a handy tag for the secular dogma that all judgments of value are merely expressions of private emotion and taste, telling us nothing about the world as it is and not defensible on objective grounds. Along with everyone else, conservatives and Christians are uncomfortable with a hierarchy of aesthetic judgments. They have come to believe that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder; it’s not a quality inherent in things themselves but a matter of opinion. Bach . . . Chrissie Hynde . . . who’s to say who’s lovelier?
The intellectual genealogy of this view and the implications it holds for the truths that right-wingers are said to prize are a special obsession of Myers and the Journal. It took him awhile to find the proper vehicle with which to press his case.
His first ambition, after he left NPR, was to start a magazine. Myers loves magazines. I put the point mildly. When he walked me through his large office-studio not long ago, I saw that every spare foot of wall space in nearly every room was lined with back issues of the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, the American Spectator, the Atlantic, Harper’s, and Commentary and the London Spectator and even—I shyly lowered my gaze—The Weekly Standard, dating back to this magazine’s founding. Every issue of every magazine is neatly labeled and catalogued. When he refers in conversation to an article he read, say, 20 years ago in the Wilson Quarterly—this happens often—he is likely to duck into the next room and produce the thing itself.
Steeped in journalism of this sort, Myers didn’t see why an orthodox religious believer couldn’t edit an intellectually wide-ranging magazine and attract a similarly minded readership.
“I had Christian friends on Capitol Hill,” he says, “and when they came home from work in the evening, they’d watch MacNeil/Lehrer,” the earlier incarnation of today’s hyphenlessNewsHour. “It would never occur to them to get their news from The 700 Club. They would read the Atlantic, never one of the Christian magazines. I thought, why does the secular culture have Harper’s and the Wilson Quarterly and MacNeil/Lehrer, and all that Christians have are these kinds of pop-entertainment, jokey, show-biz cultural outlets?”
In the mid-eighties he was offered the editorship of an evangelical magazine with the hard-to-live-up-to title Eternity. He brought out issues dedicated to primitivism in American art, Tocqueville’s understanding of religious freedom, androgyny in popular culture . . . and was fired by the board of directors within a year.
“It’s not that they thought what we were doing was evil,” he says. “Just frivolous. There wasn’t any preaching in it. What use was it?
“Here is where the religious right and the secular left are in complete agreement: They both think God doesn’t care about culture.” The secularists believe this because God doesn’t exist; the religious conservatives believe it because God is beyond such questions. Which is why religious culture nowadays bears such a close resemblance to the larger culture, where most talk of religion is considered in bad taste.
“Richard Weaver had this phrase, ‘our metaphysical dreams of the world.’ He meant the way we understand reality and our place in it. I think most practicing Christians have a metaphysical dream of the world that has more in common with their secular neighbors than it has with Augustine or Aquinas or Calvin or Edwards.”
After Eternity (so to speak) and a few years of freelancing, Myers hit on the idea of an audio magazine—partly for economic reasons (it costs less to record an article than to print one) and partly because sound is what he knows, from his training at the old NPR.
He has two full-time staff and a modest budget supplied by a grateful base of listeners, who respond with donations to his own direct-mail version of a pledge drive, though unlike public broadcasting he never uses aging and adipose doo-wop groups as donor bait. How he puts together an intellectual product of such variety and sophistication on such a schedule seems slightly mysterious to his loyal subscribers, including me; how he’s made a living at it is an even greater puzzle.
“We’ve never really had a strategic marketing plan for circulation,” he says. “It’s mostly word of mouth.” From what he can tell, most of his audience work in the professions. A typical subscriber, he says, “is somebody who says, ‘I wish I’d taken more arts and humanities in college.’ So a lot of what we do is remedial for them.”
He has big plans for the next few years, with a particular attention to music. He’s planning a series of podcasts on the standard classical repertoire—one piece per podcast—and another on sacred choral music, which he’s pursuing with a special ardor.
“I hear interviews with the singers and conductors who perform these works, and so many of them say they don’t really believe what they’re singing,” he says. “And meanwhile, the people who do believe it don’t know anything about it!” He has a wounded look. “It’s just a horrible, horrible thing.”
Journalism, and spoken-word journalism especially, may be a wobbly vehicle for Myers’s work of cultural restoration. And while it’s been enriched in the last few years by Touchstone and Books and Culture and a few other publications, the field is still wide open. Most of the middle-brow secular magazines that Myers consumed in mass quantities as a young reader have gone the way of public broadcasting, letting the obsession with pop culture crowd out any cultural expressions that are more demanding and rewarding than Bruuuuuce and the thumping oeuvre of Easy Mo Bee.
It’s strangely inspiring—and hearteningly American—that some of the task of “preserving cultural treasures” has fallen on a former NPR programmer in rural Virginia who fills his leisure time pondering old issues of the Wilson Quarterly. But then Ken Myers isn’t the only one who works in mysterious ways.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.
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