BEFORE PORTLAND, ORE., established itself as a hipster utopia and beleaguered punch line—a land of vegan tattoos, fastidious food-truck chefs and all things crafty and pickled—visitors were already taken with its abundant natural attributes. The Willamette River divides the city, forest trails wind throughout it, and Mount Hood and the coast each sit just over an hour’s drive away. A cleverly planned long weekend in Portland will tap both aspects: sampling urban obsessiveness and the abundant verdure of the Pacific Northwest.You should especially look at all the photos that accompany the article, like this one:
Let me hasten to say that I have never been to Portland so what I am really going to critique is just the image of the city represented by the article. I also know quite a few really lovely people from the area. But what resonates is how very much Portland seems to resemble a place I was very familiar with: Victoria, British Columbia, something of a Canadian Portland with its own very similar natural beauty and cultural amenities. The same kind of rustic hipster vibe seems to emanate from both. Must be a Pacific Northwest thing.
So what do I think? I would really, really hate to spend any time there. Why? For me, all the cultural values are wrong--and likely false. These places reveal an emptiness in our culture precisely because they seem to enshrine a kind of secular paradise.
Now there is nothing wrong with any individual element: natural beauty in the form of gardens, forests, mountains and oceans (in the case of Victoria, if not Portland) is a Good. So are things like locally-sourced gourmet foods, craft breweries, cycling around town, shopping for all sorts of odd things and so on. Portland also has a very large and famous bookstore, Powell's.
What I want to point out is what is missing. This is hard to do without sounding like a snob, but here goes. Apart from that bookstore (which I haven't visited so cannot comment on), there really doesn't seem to be any actual culture here. By culture, I mean "high culture". Of course, they don't want any of that stuffy crap. That's why they are hitting the craft brewery tasting rooms, the gourmet locally-sourced donut shops and cycling around town to the vegan mini-mall. I know this culture quite well. Just look at that photo of the craft brewery tasting room. Everyone is relaxed, laid-back, casual, just enjoying life. A life entirely free of anything challenging or intellectual or genuinely aesthetic. This might seem a low blow, but c'mon, these people have absolutely no idea how to dress, but they are likely quite smug about it! They're hicks in logger shirts thinking they are sophisticates. That room is like an empty warehouse with no aesthetic pretensions whatsoever.
The last photo in the WSJ photo gallery on Portland is what really clinches my argument: it is of the Arlene Schneitzer Concert Hall, a renovated 1927 theater. So what cultural events are presented there? Here is the list from now until October. Standup comedians like Patton Oswalt and Jerry Seinfeld, progressive activists like Shaun King, popular musicians like Lyle Lovett and Bryan Ferry, crossover artists like the Piano Guys. And in all that long, long season there is one and only one classical music concert: the Portland Youth Philharmonic. This gives us a pretty good insight into the cultural values of Portland. They like entertainment like popular music and comedy, they like some crossover because that is, again, popular entertainment, they like social activists and they are willing to tolerate a bit of classical music if the justification is education and "for the children." All of this is flattering to the attendees, both culturally and morally, while demanding absolutely nothing from them. It's kind of like a cultural craft brewery tasting hall, all hoppy and vacant.
Isn't all this perfectly and absolutely vacuous and banal? Well, not if you have never known anything different, no. And that's the problem. This is a lovely and paradisiacal environment where no-one is consciously aware of what they are lacking. Any curmudgeonly bitching about the programs at the concert hall such as I have just engaged in is going to be greeted by simple puzzlement or outright denial.
What I believe is that the beauty and consolation of art must always be earned. You can't just suck it up like craft beer. In music, beauty, without the fraught journey towards beauty, is just melodrama and kitsch. Everything worthwhile has to be earned.
Let's see if we can find an envoi that illustrates this, sonically. Here is a challenging symphony by the Swedish composer Allan Pettersson, this is the Symphony No. 7 with the Stockholm Philharmonic conducted by Antal Doráti: