Saturday, February 1, 2014

Bring Back the Funny Aesthetes

Complaints about a lack of diversity usually come from politically motivated quarters, but it's not a useless or inappropriate question. Is it not, at least potentially, significant when some person, group, or idea is completely excised from a medium of expression? Being sick this week I took refuge to the television and skimming around I began to wonder: where did all the funny aesthetes go?

Yes, there are plenty of intelligent people on television, in fact there is a superabundance of them, but there isn't any character I've seen in the classical, liberal, or traditionally educated mold. We have nerds, doctors, lawyers, detectives, teachers, and so on and so fort, but none of them live in the world of refined culture. In fact, they don't even visit that world. They're all brilliant philistines. While the aesthetes have never dominated either sitcoms or dramas, their complete absence seems remarkable.

The 1950s and '60 saw an aesthete in the surprising, furry form of Bugs Bunny. From the 40s to the 70s, in fact, the Merry Melodies star had hilarious run-ins with the classics, most notably musical. He fled Porky Pig to Strauss' Tales from the Vienna Woods (A Corny Concerto), became Mrs. Fudd on two separate occasions, to both Rossini's Barber of Seville in 1950 and then Wagner in 1957's What's Opera, Doc? Bugs even takes up the baton himself, the first time in homage to the great Leopold Stokowski conducting one poor tenor to a house-felling finale in The Long Haired Hare. His second turn at the podium is a satire of the conductor's histrionic gestures as Bugs conducts Franz von Suppe's Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna. Finally Bugs turns to performance himself and after a hilarious attempt to get Daffy Duck to pronounce Camille Saint-Saens, tickles the ivories of Carnival of the Animals conducted by none other than Michael Tilson Thomas in 1976.

Although it lacked persistent characters, the '70s also enjoyed the liberal erudition of Monty Python's Flying Circus, who veered philosophical in their philosopher's soccer match, and historical in their infamous sketches The Spanish Inquisition and The Funniest Joke in the World.

The '70s also saw the Odd Couple's neurotic Felix Unger, whose love of the arts ran afoul of his roommate's congenital sloppiness and barbarism. This was a revealing play of contrasts, with Felix ever hoping to show Oscar that the arts are for everyone. The show saw the duo manhandle Carmen and Swan Lake, opera club meetings gone awry, and the occasional poignant turn, like when the two quarreled about whether a multitalented protege should follow his talent for football or the cello.

Perhaps M.A.S.H had the most famous aesthete of the era, though, in the irascible Charles Emerson Winchester. Played by David Ogden Stiers, Winchester found himself the recipient of relentless scorn and pranks from Hawkeye and friends who enjoyed tormenting the major for his priggish pomposity, yes, but also for his overblown longing for the arts and civilization. This premise took turns comic, when Winchester's French horn drives his tent-mates bananas, and painful, as when Winchester treats a soldier who had lost a hand, and in doing so finds out the man had been a pianist.

On Frasier Crane, who spanned the '80s and '90s, it'll suffice to make two comments about it. First, nearly every episode featured some cultural context, whether he and his equally picky brother were arguing over a recording, they walked in singing Wagner, or they were making quips about random cultural trivia from Middlemarch to O. Henry. These touches were slight but voluminous, selling the fact that these guys lived and breathed the rarefied air. Second, there's a consistent thread of Frasier's elitism distancing himself from other people. In one episode, offended by a scurrilous graffito, Frasier tries to open up to the common man, only to find himself swarmed by the masses. One of the show's best bits, typically, is a combination of the highest and lowest brow.

Part I of Three Valentines. S06.E14

It'd be easy to let the science fiction and special effects distract from the high culture of Star Trek: The Next Generation if it weren't so frequent. Whether it's Captain Picard speaking French or even Latin–gasp!–the crew concerts of Chopin and Schubert, or performing Henry V and Cyrano de Bergerac, the Enterprise was not a ship of war but of exploration, a sort of traveling cultural capsule of Earth. Alongside, or inside, also dwelled the android, Data, with his attempts to study and mimic humanity by playing the violin, writing poetry, painting, and acting.

Alongside Frasier, the two other most influential shows of the '90s made few but significant nods to high culture. It was hilarious to see the vulgar quartet of Seinfeld, with their petty concerns, interact with the world of concerts and culture, which they always proceeded to bring down to their level, as when one Pez dispenser destroys a performance of Beethoven. Meanwhile on the Simpsons, in a brilliant but brief bit of satire, the town of Springfield votes to build a new concert hall. Success! The people fill on opening night, and four notes into the first concert, of Beethoven's 5th, everyone leaves. The people, philistines that they were, knew they had to at least make a little pilgrimage to the realm of high culture.

I'm not just talking about hoity-toityness either. There are no classical intellectuals or aesthetes on Downtown Abby, for example, despite the formality of the time and place. Aesthetes often bewail the lack of funding for the arts and the prominence of the arts in our society, and they often do so with just cause. I wonder though that the seemingly complete disappearance of the arts from representations of life, from art, in this case popular television programming, might indicate that the cause is further gone than we thought.

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