Comments on "The Razor's Edge"

Daniel Asia

So it has been ages since I have blogged, but now seems to be a good time to start up again.

I have recently finished my opera, Tin Angel (check it out at, which has been about 8 years in the making. It is being considered for production by a great institution, so please keep your fingers crossed!

My newest course, Human Achievement and Innovation in the Arts, the first offering of the Center for the Study of American Ideals and Culture, is well underway. The premise of the course is very simple: the creation of beautiful objects by those of great genius is worthy of our study, particularly by those in universities. Thus we teach this course in chronological order from the Greeks to 1950, looking at the best in Art, Music, Dance, and next year, Drama.  We also teach and look at terminology that is used in all of the arts, provide terminology that all literate people should know about the arts so they can talk and write coherently about the stuff (thank you E.D. Hirsch), and even provide a philosophical framework, looking at the delightful writings of Plato, Bloom, Dutton, and that true magician, Roger Scruton. We try to demystify, and make more approachable, the artistic process, and its results.  I think we are getting somewhere with this approach.

Which brings me to my next small topic, the fate Western Civilization; or rather its fate, as written about by Robin Fox in his article “The Razor’s Edge,” that appears in the most recent Academic Questions issue.  He says what we can all agree with, I suspect: Western Civilization is in trouble, and whether it can be saved isn’t clear.  But it is sure worth trying to do so.  In his article he makes many incisive remarks, but also, in my estimation, a few problematic comments. I will look at the latter.

One of his primary questions is Can America produce anything truly unique, within this rubric of Western Civilization?  He suggests that so far the answer is no.  “To find a literary “voice” that was not beholden to European-particularly English-literature. Did Whitman do it? The jury is still out. Did America ever find a “serious” composer who was not a knock-off of Dvorak-apart from the minimalists who were trying desperately not to sound like Dvorak?” In my view, the answer is, of course, an emphatic yes.

But first let’s back up.  What does it mean to be an American artist? It means to bring all of the forces of your experience, background, and yes, familiarity of historical antecedents, to bear on one’s creative work.  I grew up with classical music, and American pop and jazz, not to mention synagogal music. Is it a surprise if all of this shows up in my own, unique ‘voice’?  Am I less authentic because of my familiarity with the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Mahler?

But now let’s name a few American composers about whom the jury is definitely not out on: Copland, Barber, and Gershwin, of the earlier generation; Bernstein,
Piston, Schuman, Hanson, of the mid-century generation; Bolcom, Albert, Harbison, del Tredici, Corigliano, Crumb, Reich and Adams of the latter part of the former century generation; and finally, the now middle-agers who are still thought of as young, including Beaser, Hartke, Kernis, and yes, Asia.

While no expert in verse, I will list a few great ones, both dead and alive: Pound, Williams, Bronk, and Pines.

Lastly, Fox makes the statement “Music, art, and literature are common to all advanced civilizations, but the scientific methodology that we depend on and that was a unique aspect of the Western miracle….were (sic) unique to northern Europe, particularly England.” This serves to undermine the unique contributions of the West, and specifically, individual genius (and recognized as such), in the aforementioned artistic spheres. Charles Murray, in his Human Accomplishment, mentions certain transformative meta-ideas that are truly “ new cognitive tool(s) for dealing with the world around us… A meta-invention is an idea and not a thing; literally an invention; that enables humans to do a class of new things.” Among these are the thoroughly western inventions of polyphony, artistic realism, linear prospective, abstraction, and the novel. Please, there is a reason that classical music is so popular in the East and that pop music, based on Western principles of harmony (however vapidly expressed) is sweeping the world.

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