Cultural amnesia: Is there hope as history, language, fine arts take beating?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 23, 2014

SALISBURY — Dr. Mark Evans isn’t on a crusade by himself to save American culture, because he thinks we should join him.
In his many talks, interviews, television commentaries and more recently a book, Evans makes some good points about how culturally illiterate we’ve become — and how we’re suffering from cultural amnesia.
“We have forgotten who we are as a people,” he says.
Evans says out loud the kinds of things many of us as a graying generation keep to ourselves, because it otherwise would make us fuddy-duddies, uncool, stuffy and unwilling to accept change.
But let’s face it. We’re losing some basic things: a knowledge and appreciation of history, our English language, classical music and other fine arts.
Evans, who spoke recently to the Salisbury branch of the English Speaking Union, is a composer, conductor and musician, besides being an author, founder of a local television station in Pinehurst and host of his own show.
He grew up in Hollywood, perhaps during a more golden age of film and music. Evans studied under well-known composers such as Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Roy Harris. He has his doctorate from Claremont Graduate University in California.
One of Evans’ earlier books, “Soundtrack: The Music of the Movies,” has been described as the definitive book on film scoring.
Evans once asked Aaron Copland what advice he would give a young composer thinking about writing an American opera, and Copland said, “Plan on never hearing it performed.”
Before it gets to sounding too preachy here, Evans hasn’t lost hope. He often says he likes to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.
“I’m a great believer in self-education,” he says, adding that people, no matter how young or old they are, should never stop learning.
But he no longer trusts academia, the government or the entertainment industry to show us the way.
He has started a nonprofit “Cultural Conservation” foundation based on a principle that society should preserve its cultural resources and heritage much like it should devote itself to saving its natural resources.
The foundation will soon have a website, and Evans hopes individuals and whole families will subscribe to hear, watch, share and comment on some of the best things American culture has to offer.
Evans will tell you he can be long-winded. The title of his recent book betrays this fact. It’s called “Mark! My Words: How to Discover the Joy of Music, the Delight of Language and the Price of Achievement in the Age of Trash Talk and MTV.”
In the book and in person, Evans says a ghastly pop culture has consumed us, yet as individuals we have a chance to do something about it.
He complains how too many young men and women are coming out of schools tuned into a celebrity culture, in which fame is the going currency. In other words, we place a great deal of emphasis on the label, not the wine.
Meanwhile, our sense of history is vanishing.
The ability to master our language also is declining — lost in the jargon of bureaucrats, politicians and lawyers, or just wasted in vulgarity.
Often talking in anecdotes, Evans recalls the teacher who introduced a section on Pearl Harbor and a student asked, “Who’s she?”
Then there was the high school honor student who confused the Pilgrims’ Mayflower with a moving company.
More people know the last winner of “American Idol” than the name of the current speaker of the U.S. House, or they can recite the words to a Top 40 song but can’t tell you about the Bill of Rights.
With today’s decline in language, Evans says, Hamlet’s soliloquy would become “To be or not to be, you know, that is a question.”
Or if we wrote the Gettysburg Address now, it would say, “We have a really cool country. Let’s keep it that way.”
Evans says only one major article, written by him, followed the death of Calvin Jackson, whom he considered an absolute genius as a pianist, composer and conductor.
Jackson, an African-American, was “one of the most remarkable musicians of his generation,” Evans wrote in the introduction to his book.
Evan’s tribute article to Jackson ran in a little known magazine on black culture.
“In contrast,” Evans continues, “the death of Michael Jackson, always described as the ‘King of Pop,’ was treated by the press as a national tragedy worthy of coverage and mourning normally reserved for heads of state or historical heroes.
“Millions of people (including those often protesting the neglect of African-American achievers) have heard of Michael Jackson; very few have heard of Calvin Jackson, and that is the problem in a nutshell.”
Evans contends many of the musicians and artists today actually have little talent, imagination or creativity, but they are geniuses at self-promotion.
He says American colleges are producing graduates who are unaware of most major American musical figures, “including those key pioneers of jazz, musical theater, motion picture scores and the concert repertoire.”
One poll of students showed them unable to name one American composer, Evans says.
Likewise, exceptional representational painters are dismissed today as too traditional. “When ‘traditional’ becomes pejorative, our culture is in trouble,” Evans says.
“… We cannot succeed if we remain a society that, in the words of Oscar Wilde, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Only we ourselves can discover, develop and empower our culture.”
If so many of us are thinking to ourselves it can’t be good that kids are playing video games instead of reading, and we’re spending too much time with our noses down in a smart phone, watching trashy reality television shows and listening to vulgar music, maybe we’re on to something.
Evans asks how we can expect future generations to support the opera, symphony, ballet, major jazz ensembles, musical theater productions, the local library and museums.
These are things not even on their radar.
“We think we know what we like,” Evans says, “but we really only like what we know.”
In terms of culture, Evans thinks we are what we read, watch, listen to and attend. He suggests these tenets:
• Don’t confuse change with progress.
• Don’t confuse fame with quality.
• Don’t confuse technology with wisdom.
I think Evans is right when he says learning is a never-ending process, and it’s up to us to continually self-educate by finding the best and better things on our own.
Evans always says it another way. He devotes himself “to the best of the past, which shouldn’t be forgotten, the best of the present, which shouldn’t be ignored, and the best of future, which shouldn’t be undiscovered.”

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or