art and cultural shifts

When I was 8 or 9 years old and judged mature enough to see some adultish movies my mother and sister took me to see South Pacific (two years later they refused me admission to Psycho which was probably just as well) and I loved it. Some of the romance was bit mushy for a boy my age but the cynicism of Ray Walston’s character, the spunkiness of Mitzi Gaynor playing Nellie Forbush modeled from, I just knew, my idol of Mary Martin (think Peter Pan) who had performed the role on Broadway, and the matchmaker with the name of Bloody Mary made me wonder what that was all about, as did the young lieutenant’s night sojourn on Bali-hai, but I figured it had something to do with love, magic and spirit, and all that made the mush bearable. Plus it was about war, sacrifice and victory. I can remember being upset when Nellie Forbush rejects marriage with the rich widower, Emile, because of his children with a Polynesian woman and very relieved that in the end she embraced everyone’s humanity. A few years later I became aware that not everyone accepted the humanity of different races. I was a military brat and saw different races work together and went to school with everyone’s kids; that let me maintain my naivete for awhile but then, being dispositionally oriented to reality, I figured it out.

So it is 60 years later now and I read about Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein making of that movie in a fine article in Vanity Fair. The general theme is that their frank treatment of racial prejudice posed a challenge for them to render and for audiences to accept. One specific was that their song “You’ve got to be taught” was controversial and many critics rejected it:

 

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear

You’ve got to be taught from year to year

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear—

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

 

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made

And people whose skin is a different shade

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

 

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late

Before you are six or seven or eight

To hate all the people your relatives hate

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

 

Oscar Hammerstein’s original lyrics went on to praise love, but Rodgers thought it became too didactic or heavy-handed and so this was left out:

 

Love is quite different

It grows by itself

It will grow like a weed

On a mountain of stones

You don’t have to feed

Or put fat on its bones;

It can live on a smile

Or a note of a song

It may starve for awhile

But it stumbles along

Stumbles along with its banner unfurled

The joy and the beauty, the hope of the world.

 

The play opened in 1949. Rodgers and Hammerstein based this musical on James Michener’s Pulitzer winning book, Tales of the South Pacific, about his experiences there during WWII. Indeed, many Americans there developed loving relationships with Asians; they did as well in the European theater, as they did in Korea and in Viet Nam. Love will find a way (or not—many babies were war orphans abandoned by American fathers).

Some important cultural changes gathered momentum during this period. Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Brown vs the Board of Education was in 1954. The fight to extend civil rights to all humanity picked up steam. To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. Sidney Poitier would soon be the first Black actor to win an Academy Award. Muhammad Ali would soon show us how to be a just champion on his own terms, accentuated by his doggerel.  You can remember all this or you can get the idea pretty easily these days.

In thinking about art I have pondered about how an individual artwork reflects and encourages cultural change, and the enormous popularity of South Pacific on Broadway (“the Hamilton of its day” VF calls it) and at the cinema gave me pause. Of Jewish descent both Rodgers and Hammerstein faced prejudice and their children suffered from it as well. They relished their success in part because it helped their children face less rejection. When I was teaching 5th grade in a small North Carolina town all the kids, especially the African-American ones, loved Kid Dynamite from the tv show Good Times. They would come in the day after the new episode mimicking J. J. Evans lines from the night before, and “dy-no-mite!” was their own great exclamation. Remember what a lovely movie Brokeback Mountain was with its frank depiction of cowboys in love? Go even further back to consider the role Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin played in mobilizing the forces of emancipation. Examples of artworks contributing to the waves of progress go on and on. I will only mention in passing that some artworks asserted the status quo, like the movie Birth of a Nation. Norman Rockwell’s illustrations for the covers of The Saturday Evening Post were restricted to depicting minorities only in positions of servants, as in redcaps on a train; that was not his choice, it was the magazine’s.

We move forward bit by bit, waves rise and fall, tides ebb and flow. Hollywood is today seen as ‘liberal’ for its attention to diversity and gender justice. In my youth Hollywood was seen as quite conservative, even reactionary, as depicted in the movie Trumbo. One of my favorite movies from the last year or so is Wadja, about a Saudi Arabian girl who wants to ride a bike (oh, the horror!), made by a woman who had to direct from a van hidden from the world. And of course we now have the Black Panther showing the dignity of an African people. Fantasy? Why, yes it is, just like all the other artwork being mentioned. Truthful? Absolutely, just like the rest of artwork, though it happens to be more important than some of the other movies out there.

The interplay between art and culture is quite complex and to make sense of it while I pondered the biological roots of these features of our humanity I had a vision of culture and art arising in waves across the ocean of experience. Hmm, a wave theory of art and cultural shifts? Maybe another post is needed here.

The demands of the growing season are upon me and will soon ramp up. That affects my time and energy for writing so posts may become even more sporadic but I will still be writing as best I can. Travel on.

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