Norman Lear: An Appreciation

Norman Lear is a comic poet on the order of the Greeks who, just our luck, came of age at the dawn of the television era. In another time he would have been perhaps Aristophanes or Voltaire, or Swift or Twain. He has always said, "If you can get people to laugh, you can get them to care."

Norman Lear is the definitive artist of our American culture. But I write here about Norman, my friend, who has taught me personally -- I write about how he informed my life.

Norman Lear transformed my hopes. Before I knew Norman, I hoped to be successful as a conductor, to tackle the great works and to collaborate with the greatest musicians in the world. After I came to know him, I began to see the possibility of reaching people and illuminating connections at even a fraction of his effectiveness. Now when I plan a concert, I hope I can help people truly listen in a way that brings their hearts alive. That is how Norman Lear re-shaped my ambition.

"If you can get them to laugh you can get them to care", is a simple yet infinitely insightful observation for the artist.

Our modern life smashes our humanity into a zillion pieces, with our thinking parts, and our laughing parts and our feeling parts blasted apart, lying in separate shards in haphazard patterns all around us.

Enter the artist, the transformative artist who recognizes his or her responsibility not as commentary or showmanship, but as the re-assemblage -- if even for a moment -- of the human soul and of those natural human gifts of listening and communication that help us to understand one another.

For all that has been written about the social conscience of Mr. Lear's life-work, his oeuvre is organic and meaningful, because he puts things in their right order and he gives us the ability to leap beyond our limits and to understand and care about one another -- and to truly be together.

The laughter in Lear is powerful because it is a release from the tyrannical bondage of our differences and the dark terror of our loneliness. And yet the work is disguised in the silly safety of the sitcom or film, with characters we know -- and who resemble us, and remind us of our neighbors. And in every way the form of his art is as approachable and accessible as it is infinite and profound.

This is what the performing arts are about for me.

Music and performance are most needed when our differences and personal defenses have severed our ears and cut us off from listening and so from caring. We acknowledge music as a powerful force bringing us together in community, and yet we seem content to know this as fact and not to practice the true art of listening with open spirit. In so doing, we can leave the riches of music just beyond reach -- and that leaves us separated from ourselves.

In defiance of this dynamic, Norman Lear taught me that the minimal standard of excellence is to be transformative.

With his leadership, which is a clarion call to all American artists, we are reminded of our responsibility to defy the expectations of genres and formats and personalities -- and to reach for the truth in its living form.

We are well reminded by Norman that this is a brave fight and that custom is a sneaky and divisive and furiously destructive foe.

Think of how strongly and deeply we associate different kinds of music with different kinds of people. And how strongly surprised we are when our expectations are upended, such as when a buttoned up businessman loves hip-hop or an inner city kid hums Bach. There seems such a determination to divide ourselves that we allow even our music to separate us from one another. In many ways, we USE our music to separate ourselves from one another.

But there is no separation in music itself. Music is a whole and beautiful continuum.

We just choose to see it in the divisive notion of "genres."

Before (and after) Norman, we see this in TV and film as well -- with stock characters and shorthand stereotypes serving to reinforce our sense of separation. And yet for Norman, mass entertainment media became a vehicle for unity. He turned the world on its ear and put it back in its proper place all at once.

For me, inspired by Norman, finding common bonds within music became the whole heart of the matter.

Even though all music can make you feel good, music is not making you whole when you don't endeavor to hear all of it -- and all of it INCLUDES its connections to the rest of the continuum.

What may sound obvious -- this notion of wholeness and the continuum -- is something we spend enormous energy and violence seeking to blot out.

Meathead and Archie are part of the same whole of humanity. We laugh and regale at their competition, and then we are moved beyond words when they connect -- unexpectedly -- in love.

This is because connection is not how things should be -- it is how things really are.

Fragmentation is the unnatural state, and it is our fractured perception that is incongruous to the real world. The transformative artist like Norman Lear is the rescuer who performs magic by simply illuminating our path. Through him I came to know art as personal and connective.

Now when I face an audience I know that my humble calling is simply to create listening, because listening is learning, and learning is caring. And when we care we discover the world anew.

In the last few pages of Norman's memoir I learned that for decades we have both subscribed to the same belief profoundly described by George Bernhard Shaw...

I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can... Life is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.