Sunday, April 15, 2012

What is it, Lassie? Did The Arts fall down a well?

As you all probably know, the contest has ended -- thanks so much for voting!

*This is the final entry in the Spring for Music Blogging Fest. If you like what you see, please vote here.*
"Save the arts? Really? Why do so many people think the arts need saving?
Do we need to save the arts, and if so, what does 'saving' them mean?"

There are three questions here, so let’s address them one by one.

Question No. 1: Why do so many people think the arts need saving?

The “Arts-In-Danger” shtick is a catch-all for a whole slew of problems, from the defunding of education programs to the bankruptcy of the Philadelphia Orchestra to the dangers of pop culture to the avant-garde’s alienation of the broader public. I’m going to speak mostly about classical music here, because 1) it’s what I know and 2) it’s what people are often talking about when they’re having these discussions.

Those who preach The Danger seriously fall into two camps: the sky-is-falling folks like Norman Lebrecht, whose style of apocalyptic tabloid journalism works perfectly with the idea that classical music dies a bit more every week; and people like Greg Sandow, whose attempts to make classical music “relevant” end up taking an extremely narrow view of what art can be in order to find ways in which it can be fixed.

Both branches of this unholy non-alliance miss the point. One ossifies the art form into a kernel of itself, romanticizing a small period of music to encompass the whole thing (the death of a subsection of the recording industry = the death of classical music) and wrapping it up in shouting, Daily Mail-style declinist oratory. The other indicts an entire history and culture of listening because it doesn’t conform to today’s pop culture, blaming classical music itself for its problems. (Like when he claims that the classical music’s irrelevance originated in the 18th century, even though it was perhaps the most relevant form of art in the 19th.)

But is anything actually dying? When we talk about saving, we’re usually talking about one specific thing: the institutions. Carnegie Hall, Deutsche Grammophon, your local orchestra and opera house, if you still have one. The Detroit Symphony clawed its way out of oblivion last year; Opera Boston is over. But if the Louisville Symphony dies, art doesn’t die, right?

Question No. 2: Do we need to save the arts…

So, let’s talk about this need for saving. The arts aren’t about to fall down a well, or get hunted to extinction by Japanese fishermen, or end up in any other situation in which they might require saving. The phrase itself is disingenuous: it’s talking about one specific kind of art in one specific kind of place. A single example never represents the whole – that Joshua Bell subway debacle, to which I refuse to link, only proved that people sometimes need to get to work.

Preservation isn’t exactly a streak that runs deep in our history. Sometimes we preserve; sometimes we don’t. Today, we are shocked to find that tens of civilizations layered their own buildings right on top of Roman ruins. How could you destroy such a monumental chapter in world history to build your houses? But they did. (Take a class on pre-1700 music and you’ll find out just how many manuscripts of masterpieces were copied over with accounting records.) And sometimes, in excavating straight to the Roman “originals,” we risk destroying other parts of our past, digging for one “authentic” truth while ignoring the others. (Try digging through this craziness.)

Mozart and Haydn weren’t classical until long after their deaths. Let’s not forget what Tinctoris said: “There is no composition written over forty years ago which is thought by the learned as worthy of performance.” The musical repertory is a nineteenth-century invention, codified in the twentieth. Go back to the American classical scene in the 1800s, and you’ll find a listening culture that resembles the circus more than it does the symphony – as Daniel Cavicchi writes in a new study, “Leopold de Meyer played fantasies for the left hand while he ate vanilla ice-cream with his right; Wehli played a military piece; when he wished to imitate the cannons, he sat down on the keys in the lowest bass.”

“Saving” can be stultifying, even dangerous. We can end up freezing things in time instead of allowing them to grow. Certainly this happened with the orchestral tradition. Constructing a canon made sense: it justified the orchestra’s existence as a keeper and reviver of historical treasures, guaranteeing its importance.

Now, though, it traps us. In “classicizing” a large swath of our musical heritage, we cut it off from today’s present and the past’s present, cauterizing it from interacting with important components in our society – the very components it interacted with before it became “classical.” Music that was once political, was once humorous, was once dangerous, is now only contemplated; all secular music, no matter how bawdy or irreverent, becomes sacred. A friend of mine was recently shushed for laughing during a Haydn symphony; evidently, the lady next to him felt a sense of superiority about what she was listening to without even realizing that it was a joke.

We could try to “save” some things, not let them “die out.” That might also mean not letting them change, not letting them grow, not letting them morph into more effective, more purposeful, more useful. The separation of the composer and performer was an historical aberration, one we are correcting today. Blow up the opera houses, in the words of '60s-era Boulez, and the ones that replace them might be better suited to the 21st century.

But; and this is a very big BUT: death isn’t always a good thing. The circle of life isn’t the best metaphor for a commerce-driven cultural market, where corporate tycoons can complain that the Grammys are out of touch because the competitor that sold the most albums didn’t take home the prize. Blow up the opera houses, and there is a very good chance that we won't build new ones.

Pure cultural Darwinism—orchestras as for-profit corporations, competing for funds—could give us more cost-efficient, driven, relevance-minded institutions. It might also give us no orchestras at all, if they cannot afford to employ musicians for forty-week seasons and pay for large concert halls. I’m all in favor of a future model of non-classical, touring chamber ensembles that provide a variety of music in a variety of concert settings. But then how will we hear our Mahler? There is about ninety years of music—stretching from Beethoven’s Ninth to Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder—which demands the orchestra that we have constructed for it today (a similar situation exists for 19th century opera; it’s not easy to do without a big house). Yes, a pick-up group can make its way through Beethoven 9, but I’m not sure if I’d want to hear a “Resurrection” Symphony done by freelancers.

And that ninety-year span is a period that we cannot forsake. If we lose Mahler, we endanger erasing a vital part of our cultural memory, a sublime piece of fin de siècle artistic truth. This music is like the Passions, or the story of Passover: we need to tell these stories, relive these stories. Yes, those stories have changed remarkably over the years; but listen to Mengelberg and then listen to Boulez, and you'll realize that Mahler has too. Every couple years, wherever you may live, there should be an opportunity for you to hear this:

Or this:

Question No. 3: …what does "saving" them mean?"

This is the really tough one, and the one that I had to hash out in a long discussion with @haliefrancesca. We want to save the arts; but we don’t want to be elitist, and the ones that need “saving” are the ones which are usually acquired tastes. We want to preserve our great cultural institutions; but we don’t want to artificially respirate things many people don’t like or care about. If the public doesn’t care about classical music, why should we agonize over saving it? And how should we save it without forcing it on people, or re-packaging it as something it’s not?

The answer – or at least my/haliefrancesca’s answer – is the too-obvious one: education. We need better arts education so badly. I’m not even talking about making sure every kid knows how to read music or can name four great Renaissance painters. (Though: a couple months ago I heard a college student--at a good college--ask if it was Picasso or Shakespeare who painted the Mona Lisa.) I’m talking about fostering a sense of artistic experience, giving people hands-on connections to all of music history, local and global – Bach and pipa and Josquin and Ives and Coltrane and Björk and shape-notes. Actually, Björk’s model is a great one: hands-on musical education via iPads and composing, cutting to the heart of the creative experience instead of teaching note-reading and Minuet in G.

And we need to continue to foster that education—without moralizing or dumbing down (that’s the tricky part)—until kids reach the age of independent cultural consumption (it’s earlier every year). We need to train our country to be educated consumers of culture, just how we need to train our country to be educated consumers of food or gasoline.

That is not about forcing them towards a classical path: we need to show everyone all the options, so that when it comes time to make that decision, and find that passion, they make it knowing what choices are available. Democracy is great; we should all be able to vote. But it would be even better if everyone knew why he or she was voting, and what the implications were. Same goes for the arts. If everyone understands what’s going on in all facets of the arts, then we won’t need to artificially revive symphony orchestras or museums – people will go to them, I guarantee it. This looks like a good move; El Sistema is also a great idea.

Today, the problem isn’t that nobody cares about classical music. It’s that many people aren’t even given the choice to care about classical music. So let’s tell them all about it, and find out what they think.


Edit: People have requested the return of Coco and Igor. As a strict populist, I can only satisfy their demands.


  1. I have to say, I agree with pretty much every point you've posted here. I'm finishing up my master's right now, and my classwork has been focused on musicology (which was never my forte). I did pay attention this time though--perhaps the most important aspect of my study was observing the way in which music unfolded over time, and the way social, political, and technological innovations impact the climate of musical life. As I sit here, studying for my orals, I can't help but gawk at the contradiction--music students learn how music unfolds over time, but then are trained to build careers around a tradition that has already unfolded.

    I don't think we'll ever lose the canon, though. Technology (hopefully) will take care of keeping our tradition alive--recordings of these works will always be available at the click of a button. This, of course, doesn't substitute the experience of hearing these works live, but it does ensure the preservation of 19th-21st-century performance practice, and perhaps could even instill in the listener the desire to experience a live orchestral performance. There's no doubt in my mind that the institution of canon-based symphony orchestras is going to decline, but I don't think the industry will die out completely.

    I think it's important, especially for young musicians entering the field, to recognize that the industry is changing in a big way, and that we actually have quite a bit of power in terms of shaping this new period. It makes me wonder who the activists you speak of are trying to "save the arts" from.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment! It's all very important stuff.

  3. Here it is, folks! The only worthwhile entry in the final round of this befogged, bizarre "contest". Argument well-reasoned, clearly laid out, well-articulated. How did you manage to advance? No snark, slang or gushy rambling nonsense!Just honest analysis. I bet you didn't cheat with voting software, either.I hope you win so I do not feel the need to hide under a rock from embarrassment due to the "quality" of the writing elsewhere. Ad astra per aspera.