Kurt Vonnegut’s Call to Save the Planet Is Just as Timely Now as It Was Four Decades Ago
Posted on Nov 16, 2016
By Kurt Vonnegut / Alternet
The State University of New York at Albany,
It is nice of you to have me here.
I have been asked to make an announcement by the management: If anyone cheated in the process of getting a degree, now is the time to confess it and leave quietly. If you don’t confess it now, you will be haunted by bogeymen for the rest of your lives—and by a very angry Santa Claus.
I never graduated from college, but I am sick about things I did in high school. I, too, was invited to confess. And did I? No. That is one of the reasons I have heebie-jeebies all the time.
My brother works here. He used to work in a bloomer factory. It was a very good job. He was pulling down twenty-five thousand a year.
That isn’t really true. I just like that joke so much. Actually my brother is a scientist, and always has been—and an Earthling, too, as far as I know.
He works in your department of Atmospheric Sciences. You mustn’t picket him or blow him up. Dr. Bernard Vonnegut is not in war work. He is trying to find peace-time uses for thunder and lightning. I made sure he had tenure before I agreed to speak.
I am an exemplar. I would not have been invited here, if I were not exemplary. I am in Who’s Who. I am costing about what a used 1968 Volkswagen would cost—with a busted tape deck and good rubber all around.
I will show you today what Diogenes had such trouble finding—an honest man. I am perhaps the second honest man ever to come to Albany. My brother was the first. He moved in from Delmar about four months ago. He can tell you the truth about the sciences, which are killing us all. I will tell you the truth about the arts, which would like to drive us crazy.
You may have been told at the great institution of higher learning that the arts are good for everybody—or at any rate have no harmful side effects. That isn’t true. One of the principal uses of the arts in this and many other modern countries is to confuse the uneducated and the powerless and the poor.
I am talking about expensive arts now, tremendously official arts—and not the little tunes and poems and pictures and stories which the downtrodden select or create for their own amusement.
I have heard powerful men on both sides of the Iron Curtain praising the arts. I have been in their museums and concert balls. I have seen the common people attempting to appreciate the art treasures said to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars or rubles or what have you. The common people always look waterlogged. They seem to have double pneumonia. They swoon with apathy.
The purpose of the museums and concert halls and theaters and public statuary and so on is to persuade the common people that they are unworthy of holding power or making big money—because their minds and spirits are inferior.
Proof of their inferiority is the fact that they are incapable of appreciating great art.
The rich and powerful are even more bored by the arts than the common people. One has only to attend the opera in any country but Italy to know this is so.
How much fun can it be, day in and day out, to pretend to admire the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Albany Mall?
I assume most of you are sufficiently familiar with modern art history to know what I mean by “the Albany Mall.” Then again, perhaps architecture isn’t thought of as being one of the fine arts at the State University of New York at Albany.
That would certainly be understandable. My brother has gunports instead of windows in his laboratory. He turned on his Bunsen burner, and Pepsi-Cola came out.
There is some small chance, I suppose, that some works of art are closer to God or Truth or what have you than some other things which men have made. I am a Unitarian, so I wouldn’t know. I have no handles on God or Truth.
I do know something about the American dream, since that is what brought my ancestors from Germany to Indiana so long ago. And I can name things men and women have done which are closer to the American dream than any book or statue or painting or building or song. These are the acts of social justice.
We have plenty of art, and important art, too. I will guess that one American in twenty has a love for the arts which is joyful and natural and genuine. I am one of those persons, and had to get out of Indianapolis on that account.
And that tiny part of our population which appreciates the arts is well taken care of, is often appalled by how much good stuff there is to read and see and listen to. We have plenty of art in America.
Can the arts distract some people from social justice? Yes—they can. Consider the case of Thomas Jefferson, our third president, the author of our Declaration of Independence. He died on the Fourth of July, by the way. Nobody ever wrote more eloquently about freedom and fair play and the natural rights of every human being than Jefferson.
He was also fond of architecture and the pleasant things which can happen in well-designed dwellings when labor is cheap and tractable. So he kept human slaves until he was an old man. He let them go at last, but he was old by then.
Let us forgive Thomas Jefferson. He had a weakness for the finer things in life. A lot of us do. What’s wrong with a little slavery?
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