Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Three cheers for elitism

A. C. Douglas links to a blog post on arts funding by composer David Byrne:
The LA Opry production of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” is budgeted at $32 million. 32 million! Jeez, Broadway shows don’t cost that much; U2’s concert tour might, but then that’s a stadium show… and in those latter two instances the people who wrote them are still living!

[. . .]

I think maybe it’s time to stop, or more reasonably, curtail somewhat, state investment in the past — in a bunch of dead guys (and they are mostly guys, and mostly dead, when we look at opera halls) — and invest in our future. Take that money, that $14 million from the city, for example, let some of those palaces, ring cycles and temples close — forgo some of those $32M operas — and fund music and art in our schools. Support ongoing creativity in the arts, and not the ongoing glorification and rehashing of the work of those dead guys.
ACD points out, quite rightly, that funding arts education and funding performing arts companies are complementary goals, not mutually exclusive ones. That is, a healthy performing arts community cannot long exist without a reservoir of amateur music-lovers to draw on - people who play instruments, write music of their own, and listen to professional musicians with a fellow craftsman's appreciation - and this sort of amateur culture cannot develop unless men and women have the experience of making music themselves during their formative years. And contrariwise: few things are more inspiring to a young musician than watching a really fine live professional performance, and so without support for professional performing arts organizations any community of amateur musicians would be severely curtailed. The two levels of activity are, or ought to be, mutually reinforcing. And if Byrne thinks the balance between them is askew, with too much emphasis on professional music-making and not enough on amateur music-making, then surely the solution is to find some way to foster amateur music-making without further alienating the professional music community.

(Having said that, I'm not convinced that the LA Ring is worth $32 million, quite frankly. Flip through the production photos of Rheingold and judge for yourself - I don't claim to be a Wagner expert, but surely Fricka isn't supposed to be portrayed by a giant papier-mâché clown? Truly hideous.)

Fine. But what I find really objectionable in Byrne's entry is rhetoric like the following:
[Thomas] Hoving and a couple of others, following this line of thinking, created the blockbuster museum show — which famously brought Tut to the masses, and made the Met and other like-minded museums into temples for all, instead of the dusty halls for academics they had become. Hard to remember, but the Met was once a fussy old place, and now it’s super popular — which is not in itself a bad thing. Although the idea was loudly espoused that art was for all, and all could benefit from exposure to it (something like a flu shot), this idea was not exactly democratic, not as I would define it — though it was certainly portrayed as democratizing art and culture. What the movement was actually doing was letting more people know that culture was, and is, HERE, and you slobs, you hoi polloi, are over HERE. We want you all to look at it, and listen to it, but don’t even think you could ever make it, or that your feeble efforts are anywhere close to these Himalayan peaks we have on display.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the reason to have an art museum is precisely that the work displayed therein is better that you could do yourself. To assert that the average attendee at the Met is not as talented an artist as Picasso is not "undemocratic" - it's common sense.

This sort of anti-elitist, power-to-the-people rhetoric is not new. Inasmuch as it arises from an impulse to cultivate amateur artistry, I cannot fault it; after all, my own livelihood depends on ordinary people from all walks of life who make music together in church choirs, or take part in congregational singing. But by condemning traditional culture as somehow undemocratic or soul-destroying, by yielding to the immature and childish wish to take "Bill Shakespeare" and "opry" down a peg, it misses the point of culture. The great works of the past, properly understood, are not a disincentive to new creation, but a part of an ongoing conversation in which we can participate. They shape our thinking so that our own creations will be part of a living tradition, in the best sense of that word - in some ways similar, in others different.

The composers, artists and writers who we meet in museums, libraries and concert halls knew all of this, of course. So do Indian sitar players and West African drummers and Javanese gamelan musicians, whose art depends precisely upon their engagement with a longstanding tradition dating back to preliterate antiquity. The only people who have forgotten it are affluent, 21st-century Westerners, who need to learn it again.

1 comment:

Pratik said...

Anti-elitism really grinds my gears. An unnamed governing body this year made the decision (later reversed, thankfully) to withdraw support for an unnamed honour band on the grounds that it was "too elitist". I wasn't quite sure how to respond, other than "a-DUH".

No, no, let's just discourage any talent and foster mediocrity in our school systems. That's definitely the way to produce quality performers. Shine in the face of adversity, mongrels!