Ballad of the American Arts

A few weeks ago EIC Scott Crawford asked me if I was interested in writing an article or blog entry for BLURT. Since then I’ve thought about it and thought about it. There’s so much I’d like to say. It always makes me think of Randy Newman’s I Just Want You To Hurt Like I Do. “Rough, rough world… tough, tough world… you know…” 

We are in such a strange time in our relationship with the evolution between ourselves and what we create – technology, music, porn, junk and medicine, our culture at large; everything. It is beautiful what we’re capable of. It’s not always beautiful what we do. Somehow, any cultural balance seems simply gone. Capitalism and marketing has made the goal more important than the work. I don’t pretend to understand all the details of what feels wrong about where we’re at. But, something is wrong. 

Where is our culture when soda (pop culture) is more important than water (art)? Think about that. Is there even a hint of balance? I believe there should be, because art offers wisdom, sparks imagination, and confronts us with what is often our own story in our time from a different point-of-view. And to me, pop culture just seems to be leaning further towards the quick and the sensational, it’s like a pill that’s been so thoroughly researched that often it’s just a precise missile designed to attack, but not inspire.

Recently a friend from Italy gave me a collection of poems by Wallace Stevens. Initially I didn’t like it, because it felt like waking up in someone else’s house. But upon a few sittings with the book it started opening up to me. One favorite poem turned into two then three. My life was enriched, engaged, spoken to. Might I suggest you read Description Without Place. Maybe it will speak to you, maybe it won’t. But one thing is beyond debate, it is art. 

You see, there is a difference between art and entertainment. Art often needs to be digested, considered, felt and sometimes ruminated upon; entertainment is designed to engage. Each can be both. But more and more, entertainment alone dominates in a way that we can’t fully comprehend the consequences of. At least not yet. Because it’s my feeling that entertainment is on a march motivated by capitalism. Our music, our books, our technology and our films are all at the mercy of capitalism and they’re being compromised for the sale rather than celebrated for the soul. Capitalism has no conscience. Art appeals to the better self in the struggle, it’s complex and simple and rooted through where you were and where you’re going. Art is humanity in an almost physical form to be shared via pictures or sound. Think about that. It’s true. Yet sadly it seems, that more and more, our culture is celebrating entertainment and marketing as art. Meanwhile forgetting what art really is.

So, I opened my email this morning, and a woman named Pam sent me the stunning, beautiful and patient Ballad Of The American Arts by Wynton Marsalis. He nails it. And I am inspired and in awe. I could certainly say it no better, no smarter, no more thoroughly than Mr. Marsalis has. We have to take a stand for the arts. That’s what BLURT and so many of US are trying to do. There is no reason pure art shouldn’t be in competition, in balance, in contrast to the things that only have the skin and teeth of art, but not the soul. 

So here’s the link, scroll down the page and you’ll see the video of the Wynton Marsalis speech. It’s masterful – earnest, funny, pure, sad and hopeful. Beautiful stuff.


Matthew Ryan is an independent American singer/songwriter, producer and composer. He’s released 11 records since 1997. He’s currently working on a new one.

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