Institute expert: ‘Let’s start here’ |

Institute expert: ‘Let’s start here’

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

When it comes to why and how Walter Paepcke of Chicago started The Aspen Institute and the Aspen Music Festival in the rare air of Aspen, no writer has explained it better than James Sloan Allen.

His book, “The Romance of Commerce and Culture,” is the definitive tract on the summer of 1949 and the celebration of the 200th birthday of German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

And on Tuesday, Allen will give a free public lecture called “Aspen, the life of an idea,” at the Institute at 6:30 p.m. in Paepcke Auditorium.

He plans to retell how Albert Schweitzer, Jose Ortega y Gasset and Thornton Wilder once found their way to Aspen for several days of ideas and music under a tent in a meadow in the back of the West End.

He’ll discuss how the Institute first chose its mission of bringing businessmen to the mountains for a dose of humanism.

And maybe tell how the Institute once fell in love with Aspen, nearly left Aspen, and now is well aligned with the city’s dominant class of business people and cultural elite.

The Institute was almost founded as “Aspen University” but was scaled back to focus on Mortimer Adler’s University of Chicago Great Books program.

By 1969, its focus was less on the humanities and more on policy programs.

“When I got involved in the late 1970s, it was basically a networking organization for the movers and shakers and those who wanted to enter their ranks,” said Allen during a recent interview from New York. “That was always part of it. It is a high-level conference center that wants to have an impact on policy issues, and it does that by hosting high-powered people.”

Yet Allen also feels that the Institute is still committed to its humanistic roots. And he feels Institute President Elmer Johnson made that clear during the organization’s 50th anniversary, which focused on “Globalization and the Human Condition.”

“That event was quite a significant affirmation of the humanistic emphasis of the Institute without going back to the original Institute,” Allen said. “And I hope that the kind of conversations that occur at the Institute do have a global humanistic perspective.”

Allen has recently updated the epilogue to “The Romance of Commerce and Culture,” and he describes how the Institute and Aspen have changed since the 1970s.

“The jet set took over Aspen,” Allen said. “Like it or not, this is the kind of culture that Aspen represents. I have never had great fondness for the culture itself. The glitter, the Hollywood, the obscene wealth that has taken over Aspen. As a culturally iconic center it has no appeal for me. But the Institute has thrived on that and that is what Paepcke wanted in the first place.”

Today, the Institute is trying to get global business leaders to think about humanism in a broader context, especially American business leaders, who are in a position to improve cultural and social equality.

For what Aspen is to America, a center of intense wealth and luxury, America is to the rest of the world.

And Allen is quite willing to discuss whether the Institute, by virtue of its historical relationship with Aspen, can help bring equality back to Aspen.

“In principle, the kind of questions that Johnson would like to address, substantive questions, should have ramifications for Aspen itself,” Allen said. “Namely, what is the role of affluence in the role of the world and in Aspen? If you want a just world, you have to deal with economic injustice. Should it just be more and more bigger houses and real estate and glitter? Down that road lies the global conflict between the haves and the have-nots.

“And the implications of The Aspen Institute’s discussions should extend to Aspen itself, but unfortunately do not. They talk about these things and get in their jets and fly off to another meeting somewhere.

“The moral obligations of the Institute and its clientele is to try and create a more just world and that should extend to both home and abroad. If they are going to take this high-minded position of equity on earth, let’s start here. If equity is an issue for the world, it should be an issue for Aspen.”

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