May Day Mayday

This semester I laid on a freshman seminar about Art and Despair, partly because I was already offering Arts and Cultural Policy,  partly because Cal had set up a program to encourage freshman seminars about art and promised Oakleys for any art event on campus.  And partly because at that point in the fall I was particularly uncertain about how to present policy analysis to my students with a straight face as something that could make a difference, or had any relevance, in a world where something aggressively mindless, ugly, and terrifying was slouching towards the ballot box to be born, and a corrosive slime was steadily leaking out of Fox and coating what we used to call public deliberation.

At that time a song popped into my head, which I was unable to put aside.  I hummed it, played on the piano, and listened to it, for example here.  This had ambivalent results. On the one hand, I was further despondent reflecting on the loss occasioned by Wunderlich’s early death falling down a flight of stairs, then by all the other blighted and shortened young lives spent in war and lost by neglect.  But the song is a hymn, the content is neither sappy nor dishonest (Schubert, another life truncated by neglect, paid real dues), and my realist, skeptical intention not to fall for a cheap sentimental anodyne was overcome by the art. A world that has music is worth pushing a pretty big rock uphill for.

“Something is going on here”, I thought.  “Anyway, at worst it’s an excuse to see and hear some art.”  The overall structure of the exercise (and my students were remarkably patient as I figured this out in real time) was three big pieces:

A. Art expressing or representing despair

1.Personal: work (Milton, Hopkins) and of course all the ways love can go wrong or not happen, blues; an enormous repertory of treasures

2. Political/social: Goya, Millet, Reading Gaol, Kollwitz, lots of stuff here too

B. Art confronting, denying, overcoming despair

1. Personal: (too much to count, but here are Cavaquinho and Becker again)

2. Political/social: Wondering when this post would get around to the title? Buon primo maggio!

C. Art as a path to resignation and acceptance

1. Personal: Brahms Deutches Requiem, Vietnam Memorial

2. Political/social:  Not served here; go back to B.2.

I had no trouble finding examples for B.2, from the union and lefty-political songs I sang in grade school with Pete Seeger, to the Internationale to political posters (I even brought in my personal red fist t-shirt from 1969 for show and tell the same week the graphic appeared, of all places, on the cover of that subversive revolutionary rag, The Economist).  But they were all old, back to 1915 and earlier, and almost all left-wing (though there’s been plenty of co-optation) including many that aren’t ferocious or bloodthirsty.

Are we too grownup or cynical or passive to sing at rallies, the way our fathers and mothers did with Pete and Woody twanging away and getting everyone out of their seats?  Is that something to be proud of?  Is the disappearance of unashamed political art of any quality related to the coarsening and stupefaction of our politics? I know a lot of great stuff was made while brownshirt and KPD thugs were slugging it out in the streets, communists around the world teed up as much disillusion and death as hope and justice, and getting the adrenalin flowing in a big crowd with posters and a song is no substitute for bullsh*t detection and realism. But still…

Where is the right-wing or conservative art of any quality since 1900, and lefty art since about 1980?  Is nihilism and wallowing in drugs, violence, and attitude in a misogynist persona the Desastros of our time?  If so, as McWhorter asks, what does it do and how does it work for change?  I can dish up sarcasm, ridicule, and condescension for the Trump of the moment, but where’s the equivalent of This land is your land to put up against it? and sing along with?

Did they sing  Union Maid in Wisconsin? Did they sing anything?

Mayday! Mayday!


Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

13 thoughts on “May Day Mayday”

  1. A reader sent me this link from Wisconsin . On the one hand, great! On the other, the crowd was only singing along to a song whose music is a century and a half old, lyrics from 1915, and I bet it was the senior tranche of the crowd. And nothing in the arrangements or accompaniment would have surprised Woody Guthrie. Compare ; crowd scenes from five or six years ago at about 3:00 in. The song is half a century old, but it’s still alive here.

  2. Avanti o popolo, alla riscossa,
    Bandiera rossa, Bandiera rossa.
    Avanti o popolo, alla riscossa,
    Bandiera rossa trionferà.

  3. You might try some of Billy Bragg’s work (his own, in addition to
    the previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics he has set to new music).
    Try “Mr. Love and Justice” (for his stuff) and “Mermaid Avenue, Vol. I & II”
    for the newly-set-to-music Guthries (done with Wilco).

  4. No, we still sing at rallies, provided someone starts the singing. I was at an anti-war protest when the Iraq debacle began, and we were singing the old favorites: Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Down By the Riverside, etc.

    We also organize concerts, not long afterwards I played in an ad-hoc orchestra performing the Vaughn-Williams Dona Nobis Pacem. You should consider adding that work and Britten’s Mass in Time of War, possibly Hindemith’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d to your list.

  5. The center-right blogger Ann Althouse (herself, I think, a Walker backer – or at the least a Prosser backer) had a lot of coverage of the Madison protests on her blog. I didn’t notice so much on the singing, but a lot of lively and visually striking costumes.

  6. I blogged a parody of “Joe Hill” a couple of years ago in connection with a 3-hour strike by waiters (and others?) at the Essex House Hotel on Central Park South. Almost nobody, as far as I know, even some in their sixties and certainly those younger, knew what I was alluding to.

    (And if your students watch the Schubert you linked, tell them that the opening slug spells it wrong: there is no “d” in the title.)

  7. I’m with co-opting. See Bruce Springsteen. There is also, of course, a lot of rap out there with plenty of message (left or right, depending on your reading) but People Like Us don’t listen to it.

  8. Art: Kaspar David Friedrich. Schubert’s Winterreise; there’s a convention in Germany that at he end of a performance the audience does not clap. Jacobite songs such as Loch Lomond

    Political affirmation: William the Silent’s dictum “It is not necessary to hope in order to struggle” (original French: Point n’est besoin d’espérer pour entreprendre, ni de réussir pour persévérer.) The Alamo – very unusual in American culture to celebrate a defeat.

Comments are closed.