Thursday, February 16, 2017

variations on a theme--the perceived decline of the fine arts in the US

Fifty years ago an instantly iconic photograph was taken of Rudolf Bing, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, Leonard Bernstein, music director of the New York Philharmonic, and George Balanchine, artistic director of New York City Ballet. They are posed in front of Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall. The Met is about to inaugurate its new home, completing the move to Lincoln Center of the three main institutional constituents. Bing stands alongside a poster brandishing the sold-out world premiere of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, inaugurating the New Met. Bernstein (with cigarette) stands alongside a poster showing the sold-out run of a subscription program comprising an obscure Beethoven overture, William Schuman’s String Symphony, and Mahler’s First (not yet a repertoire staple). A City Ballet poster, to the rear, announces the dates of the Fall season. So depicted, three performing arts leaders – all of them famously strong personalities — are seen poised to drive their celebrated companies to greater heights, buoying an unprecedented American cultural complex.

Half a century later, the photograph reads differently. We can newly observe that in September 1966 all three institutions were already fundamentally shaped by their pasts; that the pertinent histories of the Met and Philharmonic, and of New World opera companies and orchestras generally, were more confining than empowering; that Balanchine was the odd man out because he alone would sustain a creative aspiration in his new home, pursuing a kind of Americanization project that Bernstein could not successfully implement, and that Bing disdained attempting.

And this juxtaposition, of three art forms and their chief New York City institutional embodiments, carries vexed implications for the pivotal half century to come. If the coming Trump Presidency suggests an exigent priority to the cultural community (such as it is), it may be this: that never before in recent memory have the arts been as challenged to inspire hearts and minds. [emphasis added]

I wonder ... would Adorno have agreed during the peak of the jazz age?  ;)

The linked piece is long by internet terms but the short version is that between opera, symphony and ballet ballet did okay but the opera and the symphony are not always seen as being as robust as they once were.

At least according to Taruskin's account in the Oxford History of Western music, ballet didn't become "world class" until the 20th century, whereas opera arguably emerged in the 17th century, grew in the 18th century and peaked in the 19th century; and the symphony emerged in the 18th century and peaked in the 19th and "maybe" early 20th century before stabilizing and fading.  Some of the time reading all this I felt like a forest was being missed for some prominent trees.

The first American orchestra to embody a community of culture was the Boston Symphony, invented by Henry Higginson (like Thomas, a colossus) in 1881. Boston’s example inspired Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Chicago, and St. Louis, all of which had substantial orchestras of their own by 1907. Though the players, conductors, and programs were, as in Boston, formidably Germanic, evolutionary change was anticipated. An “American school” of composers, it was assumed, would anchor the future. As abroad, orchestras would substantially perform native works.
That nothing of the kind happened was a defining feature of classical music in America after World War I
The failed attempt to produce an American symphonic canon was complicated by a late start (modernism mainly rendered cultural nationalism passĂ©) and by an influx of powerful refugee musicians for whom American classical music meant European classical music in a new locale. Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Hindemith, and Bartok were among the relocated composers. The relocated performers included the pianist Rudolf Serkin, who influentially presided at the Curtis School of Music and the Marlboro Festival, and Arturo Toscanini, who as conductor of the New York Philharmonic and NBC Symphony became the iconic American classical musician of the thirties, forties, and early fifties. Neither Serkin nor Toscanini took much interest in Copland’s nascent American school.


That's arguably not the only reason, American music critics didn't WANT to focus on a nascent American school.

Douglas Shadle wrote a monograph on the history of American critics sidelining the American symphonic tradition as either being not-Beethoven-enough or too-Beethoven to be acceptable. 

The American symphonic tradition was constantly caught in an inescapable double bind throughout the 19th century.  Anyone who wouldn't pay homage to Beethoven was slighted as trivial and insignificant while anyone who paid homage to Beethoven (or Wagner) was slighted for failing to live up to the greatness of the masters.  By the first half of the 20th century a number of American composers concluded you can't win for losing and that rejecting the entire game had to happen for American music to come into its own in the highbrow scene. 

That would be where you get the likes of Henry Cowell and John Cage or Conlon Nancarrow.  You'd have fans of the Germanic tradition like Charles Ives, of course, but Ives so drastically transformed the application of the Germanic Romantic tradition it wasn't always easy for peple of his era to recognize what he was doing.   In any case, the double bind regarding Beethoven had to get shaken off and even now that we've arguably had that done in America it was basically too late.  The hour of the symphony as concert music had in many respects already passed and the symphonic moment has arguably been in soundtracks.  Taruskin's take on opera is that the opera got replaced by the cinema for popular appeal. 

To summarize this Lincoln Center tale: George Balanchine and his City Ballet changed the face of dance. Leonard Bernstein led audiences to Mahler: he expanded the canon. But Bernstein could not change the face of the New York Philharmonic. Rudolf Bing did not attempt to change the face of opera or of the Met. That, commensurately, he filled a vast auditorium with paying customers proved a cul-de-sac.

 So that,, however laconically presented, is the theme.  Here are some variations.


While there is an argument to be made for clustering together arts organizations and cultural buildings, the idea has to be animated in some way. Why should these organizations physically be together? Is it about art or about buildings? If it’s about buildings – creating a kind of critical mass of cultural activity that benefits by proximity – then the art comes to be defined by the buildings and how they’re used. The institutions themselves also come to be defined at least in part by their buildings. Build institutions and buildings that are impressive and can be visited and admired and pointed to with pride.  That’s how you build the arts, goes the conventional wisdom – build institutions and the physical infrastructure to support them.
Except what if it isn’t?
We live in a time of gathering distrust of institutions. Where institutions were once essential for marshaling resources to accomplish things, we all know that institutions are inherently inefficient. They can be clumsy and broad-stroked. Generic and slow to react. Cautious. Institutions now seem to be at a disadvantage compared to dynamic constantly-reconfiguring networks that can move quickly and nimbly adapt. Increasingly more of the creative energy in our culture is found outside of traditional institutions.

 Wow, see, this briefly gave me flashbacks to the last ten years of reading stuff from church growth gurus! 

Substitute the word "church" for the word "art" and it's pretty much seeker-sensitive church growth verbiage, isn't it?  The church isn't a place it's a people, right?  How many former members of Mars Hill remember that one?  Having seen what a trainwreck the former Mars Hill became over a twenty-year period it feels a bit weird reading people in the arts management scene and the arts worlds start talking in the same way about outreach to people and doing this in the era of Trump.  If the NEA does actually get gutted where's the funding going to come from? 

Now my own conviction is that the gap between high and low culture has gotten too big and that doubling down on an already alienating highbrow culture is probably not going to work.  To some extent Terry Teachout's advocacy for the middlebrow is that meeting in the middle has its artistic drawbacks but that some mid-point between the alienating extremes is nice to have.   Late Beethoven and folk songs have an awful lot of middle ground between them, for instance. 

Of the variations on the theme one of them explicitly proposed that maybe one of the core problems is that arts organization leaders have identified too closely with a specific strata of their donor demography.

Part III: Do arts leaders identify too much with their upper middle class donors?
While donor research and cultivation has become a serious science, the ideology driving such behavior has been with us since the founding of the nonprofit-professional arts sector in the US. I am amazed that we are able to say with a straight face that America’s 20th century nonprofit-professional theater companies were largely established to serve the general public when many institutionalized a practice (at their inceptions) that would ensure they paid attention to the needs of the upper middle class at the expense of all others.
In the 1960s Danny Newman persuaded theaters that it was better (not just economically better, but morally better) to focus their time and resources on the 3% of the population that is inclined to subscribe and to ignore everyone else. Though some artistic directors rebelled mightily against this approach in the theater industry—Richard Schechner and Gregory Mosher were among the most vocal who noted that it was undemocratic and had a stultifying effect on programming—it was embraced wholeheartedly by a majority of institutions. This was in large part because it was strongly encouraged by the Ford Foundation and its proxy at the time, Theatre Communications Group.

It still seems like donor cultivation is more of an art than an applied science but the point is taken. 

So if there "were" a class war of some kind the arts organizations would be unable to escape association with "the ruling class".  It's not like Cornelius Cardew didn't put that in the most direct and explicit terms possible while he was quoting Mao.  Quoting Mao approvingly has its own issues we just won't get into at the moment but the short version of that post would be there will never be a team that isn't guilty of atrocities but that won't stop partisans from trying to "no true Scotsman" their team into innocence.

Having worked with Joe Horowitz and having read his books I agree in principal with his assessment of the “classical” music industry, its history and present situation. Copland’s quote from 1941 stands as well today as it did 76 years ago. My copy of Joe’s “Classical Music in America” is dog-eared, with quotes from people during the late 19th-century underlined which could have come from my subscribers today. We have indeed created a museum culture out of this art form, one which is perceived as irrelevant for many reasons, an unnecessary result of a focus on the “masterpieces” we all know and love at the expense of the creation of our own voice.
The issue of a cultural shift in America (some would say decline) and the diminishing of the importance of education in music and the arts specifically, in the humanities more generally, is in my mind at least as important a factor. The inundation of our lives with popular culture and multiple distractions, and the lack of distinction of fine art from more popular forms confuses the issue further as people view everything through the same lens. (This is most prominent in American culture; in much of Europe and even Mexico, Central and South America this is not so much the case.) Our industry muddies the waters still more by marketing what we play in the same manner as more popular musical forms. I personally think of this as false advertising; we do not need to apologize for what we play – art and entertainment serve different functions in society. As Joe has often suggested, we need to reframe our institutions as cultural resources; I would say for the understanding of our own society and its place within history.
I have always believed that our art form is living and breathing, and have devoted myself, as well as substantial time and resources of the SDSO, to supporting living American composers. That is not to say that I am a lover of contemporary music, rather that I am a believer. I believe in the power of art to influence, even restore, society and I idealistically hope for a cultural renaissance in which art can serve in this way.

... kind of standard issue art-religion there? 

What's interesting to joke about here is that where a social conservative is always bewailing the endless downward slide in public morals the cultural progressive seems always able to lament the downward slide of the prestige of the high arts as a synechdoche for ALL art.  But does BeyoncĂ© (who's no less a fully formulated brand than Taylor) really need that Grammy?  Did the relatively recently departed David Bowie ever even get a Grammy in his lifetime?  Awards have their uses but I remember reading the composer George Walker remark that winning a Pullitzer didn't really change his musical life in any way.  Ellington didn't get a PUllitzer and it would seem like his music didn't need that particular award, either. 

But in a way musicians can't help wanting a shot at mortality.  You can't be a forgotten musician if nobody knew who you were to begin with.  A reputation can only decline if it already exists. 

Another variation on the theme ... that the arts scene is characterized by what can be called a museum culture, particularly for the symphony.

Now my own take is quite biased, as a guitarist, which is to say that the tradition of extended and abstract conceptual development of musical ideas in complex formal processes can be done on the guitar.  We don't know whether the symphony will regain or reclaim its previous prestige but guitarists are legion and, as the oft-used and over-used bromide has it, the guitar is a miniature orchestra.  Like I blogged earlier this month, when war ravaged Europe Heinrich Schutz didn't double down on the idea that he HAD to have the symphonic scale of resources he worked with earlier in his career.  He scaled back the level of musical detail and thought into the resources he DID have available.  It entailed plenty of compromises and unrealized goals but it ensured the survival of the musical idiom in his area. 

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