Henry L. Menken, that most articulate of curmudgeons, famously labeled Dixie as “almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert.” While his comments (in The Sahara of the Bozart) have to be appreciated in context (for his scorn was reserved only for the South’s then-recent culture), the simile pierced me well into adulthood. I found myself, occasionally, tempted to nominate cultural life in Las Vegas and later Phoenix as the Mojave and Sonoran Desert nominees, respectively, for enshrinement in Menken’s Pantheon. Recently I’ve been struck by two advances that give me great pride in the progress of our arts community that I salute. I’d recommend these venues to visitors and residents alike–and might suggest investing a few visiting hours during the December holidays down-time.

First is the Phoenix Art Museum. It has been in a period of sustained advance and truly has become an excellent place to enjoy the visual arts. Particularly dramatic in its improvement in quality, I think, is the modern art collection. A few of the Museum’s Trustees have answered the call of philanthropy and the results are, well, easy to appreciate if you’ve not lost your vision altogether. Two occurrences are especially salutary for the contemporary art lover. One is the museums capital improvements, and they are capital indeed. improving in leaps and bounds the galleries and other display areas. When I first visited the museum in the 1970s, housed in a bleak spot, I vowed never to return. (Thankfully, I can’t recall any of my vows except when my wife kicks me in the shins.) Second is the hiring of a new curator, Sara Cochran, who has already served notice that anyone expressing an interest in improving the collection will be on her radar screen. She’s erudite, she has a lilting Scottish accent bespeaking refinement of the pleasantest order, and she knows how to “make the ask.” Now they’re cooking!

Second is the Dale Chihuly installations at the Phoenix Botanical Garden. I was there en famille in the driving rain the other night trying not to stomp soggy luminaria bags into a congealed, primal mass of waxed paper. Nothing dampened our spirits; the glass installations are spectacularly contradictory in their simultaneous mass and fragility. They require visiting at night and during daylight hours both, in order to have a full appreciation of the interplay of [natural and artificial] light and color. But if your budget restricts you to one visit, the exhibition is socko any time of day or evening. So hand over your cash to the Garden–which has become a wonderful place in which to appreciate the gifts of the natural desert, whether or not under glass–and enjoy the Chihuly exhibit through sometime in May, I gather. P.S.: You need a reservation for a set visit time, so call in advance to avoid disappointment live at the entrance.

The best evidence of mediocrity on the current Phoenix cultural scene is the unimaginative–and awful– programming of a few local FM stations during the holiday season. Bulletin to the programming directors: Your 50 great Christmas hits of the “popular music” era, repeated between 3 to 6 times daily for the entire month of December, are not. Not deserving of listenership, I mean. Paul McCartney’s A Wonderful Christmas Time lyrics featuring nearly 40 unique words? Dan Fogelberg’s whiny Same Auld Lang Syne? Andy Williams’ powering through the octaves on It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year? Honestly! There are a lot more great tunes that you can tape for “sustained” play even if you’re trying to conserve a few bucks or give the DJs some extra time off with their families. I’m not anti-icon; I recognize the power of Bing Crosby and Karen Carpenter to evoke the comfort and romance of the season, and their voices (yeah, that Karen Carpenter–just listen to Merry Christmas, Darling and tell me that you’re not blown away by her completely effortless key change after the “logs on the fire/ fill me with desire/to see you and to say” phrase; just ignore the juvenile Oh-Ahhh! chorus in the background. Ms. Carpenter had the premier natural American pop vocal talent after Crosby (Bing, not David) and Nat “King” Cole–and had to demonstrate her gifts handicapped by bizarre and cliched arrangements by Richard), like that of Elvis, send them to the top of anybody’s play list. But a lot of your “hits” aren’t enduring by dint ofy selling a half-million copies during one holiday season. And everything recorded around a Christmas theme by Sinatra and the Beach Boys isn’t a classic only because they tossed another licorice pizza. There are local bell choirs that will give the stations complementary CDs that have seasonal fidelity and genuine musical integrity. Play one of those tunes every 25 minutes. Show some imagination, radio folks. Or poll some locals on the subject of what makes an enduring Christmas pop classic. In fact, maybe the readers here will throw down a few candidates for next year’s play list.

In the meantime, readers, revolt. Turn the volume knob to “off.” Make your own play list. Here’s a couple of albums that received my attention lately. Los Lonely Boys have put out a CD, Christmas Spirit, this season with two original songs and the remainder covers, but with their own coloration. They are great respecters of Texas Latino dance bands, and Henry Garza can play lead guitar with ferocity and touch. Josh Groban (Noel) has an immense voice. Its massiveness brings me to my knees; finally, though, it feels like chest compressions, and after about 20 minutes I have to move onto something else–but God knows the man has chops. James Taylor’s At Christmas album (2006) that the FM “holiday music” stations play a cut or two from once in a while, but not enough compared to the works of the venerable Gene Autrey and Burl Ives, is worth a re-listen. His voice will calm the noise in your head as well as anything this season. Incidentally, are there any listeners left of the generation of Autrey and Ives who actually tune into–and stayed tuned to–“holiday music” stations?

Enjoy all the holiday assaults on your senses, and make some joyful noise!

–MNW