Don’t Fence Me In

What do Cole Porter, Rudolph Giuliani and Igor Stravinsky have in common?

“It begins to look as though convenience, ready availability and coherence can still win out over inconvenient, hard-to-find, messy facts, bit by little bit of them.”

So there I sat in the subway car, minding my own business, when the ad across from me seemed to shout: “Take back the living and working space you’ve lost!” Without my permission, there tumbled into my head phrases like “elbow room,” the once-popular slogan favoring the United States’ territorial expansions in the nineteenth century; then, cranking up the volume, came “Lebensraum,” one of Hitler’s empire-building mottoes / justifications of the 1930’s and 40’s; and that recent bitter soundbite, “ethnic cleansing.” In the background, I imagined a hearty male voice rabble-rousing to Cole Porter’s Don’t Fence Me In: “give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above ….”

What was being advertised in my subway car? Self-service ministorage compartments for crowded city-dwellers with more stuff than places to put it. It struck me as a little overstated, calling on warlike language to appeal to the urban middle class to spend $60 a month for a locker.

We are familiar in this country with the notion that politics has been losing ground to entertainment – itself a trespasser on the broadcast news about politics (see, “infotainment”). Entertainment also encroaches on education generally (“edutainment” software titles are available at your favorite online vendor), and has made significant headway onto history’s turf, political history included. Spike Lee’s film of a few years ago, X, was widely understood to be an entirely factual narrative of the life and death of Malcolm X. (Lee himself knew the difference, having conducted significant research for his screenplay, but many of us who saw the finished product were happy to ignore any discontinuities with what we remembered, in favor of the packaged film version.) Edmund Morris’s recent political biography of Ronald Reagan, sold in some bookstores as fiction, exemplifies another approach to history: tell a fact-based story and portray its players from the points of view of their imaginary colleagues.

As to politics, religion, too, can overlap, oppose or intersect it – in theocracies like Savonarola’s post-Medici Florence or seventeenth century Salem Village of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as in today’s Iran or Saudi Arabia. For that matter, New York City’s mayor did a double-whammy this fall, fanning his ire not only at a City-funded museum’s poor taste in art but at its “Catholic-bashing,” something one can assume the Museum did not anticipate. (It clearly did anticipate the challenges to its taste and judgment, and, it seems, may have courted them.)

That recent brouhaha, over the Sensation exhibition of young British artists’ works at the Brooklyn Museum, excited commentary from a multiplicity of outraged sources, each eager to exclaim their rightness and everyone else’s wrongness. A Federal court handed the first round to the museum, on First Amendment free-speech grounds. Opposing the museum, New York City may bring suit again, on other grounds. From center court, the Guerrilla Girls posted a notice: “Available Immediately: Historic Brooklyn Landmark!…. Must agree that shocking behavior belongs solely in the police department, not on the walls of museums.”

Along another side of this complicated fenceline where the arts meet politics is the devastated home of the Museum of Modern Art in Belgrade, now more rubble than museum. From Sweden, where several Yugoslav artists now reside, comes an international benefit exhibition, The Last Waltz, opening in Stockholm in December 1999. The publicity materials for this show quote its organizer: “It is unfortunate that a country’s art institutions have to be punished because of a deplorable political leader·.The exhibition is not about the war or politics, but is a humanitarian gesture by international artists to help restore the museum to its former glory.”

More than 80 years ago in a Paris concert hall, a new composition for strings, accompanying a new ballet from a Russian choreographer, incited riot and changed Western musical history. Igor Stravinsky’s le Sacre du Printemps, as choreographed by Nijinsky, was the culprit. At moments like that, we can be sure it wasn’t only insiders and newspaper critics making themselves heard. Now as then, we want to look to our leaders for guidance, hoping they will synthesize all the information into something understandable, something pointing true North on our moral compass.

As to actual party politics, here and now, a local newspaper columnist predicted the percentage of voter turnout for recent off-year municipal elections would be “lower than your mortgage rate” – a prophecy fulfilled the next day at the polls. Politics doesn’t seem to like being confined to such small demographics. So politicians set out for greener, larger, and more fertile pastures. Once there, elected officials, the proud stewards of a representative democracy, sow seeds – of hyperbole, of discord, of publicity for its own sake.

It begins to look as though convenience, ready availability and coherence can still win out over inconvenient, hard-to-find, messy facts, bit by little bit of them. It is human nature, perhaps, to want manageable, neat views. But it seems we want (or are perceived by subway placard-placers to want) those tidy views presented to us with unstoppable fanfare. We would rather our leaders shout and posture nearby difficult questions, than think quietly and develop good ideas about them.

Not that this is anything new. Without the benefit of telephone, radio, or late-night television commentary, the Salem Villagers of 1692 needed a year and twenty court-enforced death sentences before they came to their senses and stopped prosecuting members of the community based on “spectral evidence,” that is, testimony that the specter of the defendant had been observed doing evil. Over 300 years later, the immediacy and ubiquity of communications have increased their impact but perhaps without influencing us enough to distinguish truth from falsehood; partial truth from another partial truth, a small, crucial, shade of grey away.

Then, just when it was looking hopeless, a message arrived: the arts can effect political change, as well. Just the other day President Clinton was heard to say, “I don’t think I would have become president if it hadn’t been for school music.” He explained, “Music taught me how to mix practice and patience with creativity·how to be both an individual performer and a good member of the team.” He envisions a day when people everywhere realize they are stronger “when we are playing in harmony based on our common humanity.”

As artist and critic Therese Schwartz says in this Newsletter, the filmmakers whose work she reviews “did not indulge in stereotyped mythology, sugarcoated solutions or sermons on life style. They left that to those in other arenas – perhaps in politics?”

Maybe what we need here is a little fence-mending. Some rebuilding here, a squeaky gate over there – a little separation between politics and the arts might not be so bad.


According to its website, the Brooklyn Museum’s director has wanted to bring the Sensation exhibition to Brooklyn since he first saw the show in London two years ago: “Reflecting the contemporary artistic energy and creativity in Great Britain, this exhibition contains important work that provokes, challenges, and rewards the viewer.”

Access to its posters, and descriptions of the campaigns it has waged over the years, the Guerrilla Girls organization can be found at

In the email archives [Old Link] is a poignant plea for clarity from a teenaged Republican who can’t quite reconcile her politics with her… politics.

[Old Link] Opening Saturday 4 December at the Greek Cultural Centre, Stockholm, The Last Waltz is dedicated to the reconstruction of the Museum of Modern Art in Belgrade. According to its organizer, “We sincerely hope that ending this millennium with this peaceful, humanitarian gesture will help bring peace into the next century and beyond.”

A colorful description of the initial response in May of 1913 to Serge Diaghilev’s production of Stravinsky’s score and Nijinsky’s choreography is available at [Old Link] and a brief musicological analysis of Stravinsky’s composition appears at [Old Link]

President Clinton’s public acknowledgment of his political debt to music in the schools appeared in ArtsWire Current, an excellent email publication, part of the ArtsWire site, at The event at which he spoke was sponsored by cable television channel VH-1 through its Save the Music programs. See

Anne M Carley has never run for public office, nor does she contemplate doing so. First published, November 1999. Arts4All Newsletter Issue 7.

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