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Fine arts had their glory days

THREE VIEWS •ÊEntertainment changes with the times, and so do we

Today's question is whether television has diminished our appreciation of traditional European culture such as classical music and the great paintings and writings of the Old Masters.

My response to that is, 'You're kidding, right?' When was the last time you saw a special on Fox called 'When Great String Sections Attack'?

So next we have to determine to what extent we're willing to help the traditional arts survive Ñ despite the harsh mechanisms of the free market.

To begin with, why old Europe? What's the payoff for having a ballet troupe when the general public cares more about the Blazer dancers?

The obvious point: Television has presided over the biggest slide in cultural values in the history of the world. When a vacuous brat like Paris Hilton theorizes that Wal-Mart must sell walls, she is celebrated the way other societies once celebrated Lord Byron. While one culture lavished fame on Beethoven, we chose Clay Aiken from 'American Idol.'

Fans of traditional arts may counter with sheer numbers: When the Hallmark Hall of Fame series televised 'Hamlet' in 1953, it was seen by more people than had attended all the productions in the 350 years since the play's debut. How could this not prove that there's a place for the classics in the modern world?

First of all, that was 1953, when television was young. If you walked into a network meeting today and suggested that what sweeps month really needed was a production of 'Hamlet,' your fellow executives would immediately check you into rehab. Broadcasting Shakespeare on network TV? Maybe É if you could get Jessica Simpson to play Ophelia.

No, even then you'd be laughed out of the room and fired for being stupid. And these are the people who thought the Reagan movie was a clever idea.

Part of the problem is the general decline in our culture. Technology-driven shallowness makes it hard to relate to the traditional arts. Did you ever walk into the food court of a shopping mall and say to yourself, 'Somebody has got to write a symphony about this place'? Did you ever have the urge to write a sonnet about a traffic jam? The appropriate soundtrack to our lives isn't a concerto Ñ it's the annoying machine-generated ring of a cell phone.

Television has played a huge role in our cultural decline, but it doesn't deserve all of the blame. Have you been to an art museum lately? The chronological progression of painting actually looks as if it's in reverse. Modern art appears as though it should be splattered on the walls of some dank cave, while the Old Masters such as Rembrandt look like the natural conclusion of centuries of improvement.

But while it's still cost-effective to display great paintings, it's another matter springing for 70 musicians in tuxedos. Are we supposed to have the taxpayers cover it? Why stop there? Why not fund a big swing band? Why don't we have a civic band that just plays Duke Ellington?

As long as we're talking about the traditional arts, maybe they should be funded the way the original works were: by the ultrawealthy. If Mozart had to work for eccentric noblemen, why shouldn't the Oregon Symphony?

And if you want it on TV, put it on cable access.

Bill McDonald is a Portland writer and musician; he lives in Southeast Portland with his wife, Mary.