Saturday, October 21, 2017

over at LA Review of Books Michael Markham has a long piece on poptimism and rockist music criticism and manifestos and ties it back to the classical traditions having their own poptimists and rockists
DEVOTEES OF THE SYMPHONY and the quartet who have not been paying attention to music criticism beyond the “classical” might have missed that for the last two years or so in music criticism we have been in one of the funnest kinds of navel-gazing cycles: the backlash to a backlash. The double backlash is a kind of El Niño of warm critical waters that occurs when the crest of reasonable moral advocacy is shared by two competing waves at once. This results in various disturbances, often taking the form of roundtable discussions, conference sessions, and responses to the responses to the letter to the editor.

The rains started up again over the summer following a session at Seattle’s Experience Music Project Museum hosted “Pop Conference” in which 10 leading critics held a roundtable on “poptimism,” a movement that has dominated music criticism for over a decade now. That symposium was a response to a flurry of anti-poptimistic essays, the most widely read of which (Saul Austerlitz’s “The Pernicious Rise of Poptimism”) appeared in The New York Times Magazine back in April 2014, a generation ago in the time frame of online critical squabbles.

Defined succinctly by one opponent in the aftermath of the summer Symposium, poptimism “contends that all pop music deserves a thoughtful listen and a fair shake, that guilty pleasures are really just pleasures, that the music of an Ariana Grande can and should be taken as seriously as that of a U2.”

That defines poptimism as a reasonable contention, and as a reasonable contention no one has a problem with it. If one finds something interesting, and one writes about it well, it should hardly matter that it was found in Fetty Wap rather than in Nick Cave. It was, as it usually is, when the contention became a movement, and then the movement became a paradigm, that the backlash began. For Austerlitz, poptimism has so dominated mainstream critical discourse that there is little room left for anything else. He outlined two problems with it, one of critical integrity (as he defines it, of course), and one of hegemony.

Neither is easy to refute and yet both are easy to overstate.

Well, when it's put in those sorts of terms then when it comes to television Wenatchee The Hatchet is a poptimist, since it's been way more fun to write tens of thousands of words about Batman: the animated series than about Game of Thrones or Mad Men or The Americans or Breaking Bad or The Sopranos or shows that television critics take seriously.  As a polemic poptimism can propose as well as demonstrate through critical example that you can actually write about an episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic the way a scholar might write about a Shakespeare sonnet.

One of the worries is that with too strong a presence of poptimist activity in criticism and the timeless or universal values will be undermined.  Shakespeare is just greater than My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and there's no room for debate.  You should be willing to read stuff about Game of Thrones if the alternative that is opened up by poptimist criticism is any attempt to take the Michael Bay Transformers films seriously or having to read about the fluidity of identity based on mere physicality of the body in Turbo Teen or Manimal, or how Auto Man could be thought of as anticipating cyberpunk and transhumanism.  If you don't remember any of those TV shows from the 1980s you're not hurting for want of cultural education.  The concern that poptimist criticism could force all of us who read criticism for the fun of it to have to wade through ridiculous pseudo-academic defenses of the viability of pulp TV from the 1980s.  You don't remember Turbo Teen?  Transhumanism and cyber-punk in any forms from the 1990s had nothing on Turbo Teen.

The internet being what it is ... retroactive sarcasm alert about Turbo Teen.

Not even poptimists are going to make a case that the lately released My Little Pony movie is somehow a bigger deal than mother! Sure, the former movie is within a million bucks of the domestic box office of the latter despite the latter having hit theaters a bit more than a month ago, but poptimists are not likely to try to claim that a Hasbro franchise cartoon feature is somehow going to be more profound than a Darren Aronofsky film even if maybe somebody "should" try to make that kind of case just to see how far poptimism as a polemical stance can be taken.  The fact that a cartoon based on a toyline from thirty years ago has not only been revived as a series but has a feature-length film out now might suggest that there's some level of cultural influence that might be worth examining but that may be where poptimism falters.  I haven't seen a whole lot of critical or metacritical heavy lifting on how and why Hasbro franchise cartoons have gone the distance.  I'm toying with some ideas about that for later. 

Let's get back to the article proper.


The complaints of forced conformity hurled at poptimists today are nearly identical to the ones they themselves were lobbing at the music journalism establishment 10 years ago. According to the poptimists, the preceding “rockist” dominance excluded an awful lot of music, and thus an awful lot of people, in its obsessive praise of “white guy rock” from Led Zeppelin to Nirvana. Left out of serious music writing in the ’70-’90s was disco, funk, hip hop, soft R&B, and romantic balladeers (“chick” music to rockists, the only women who counted being the few who “rock”), a list of what most people were listening to. Austerlitz admits that a strong turn toward “pop” was a necessary corrective step to “undo the original sin of rock ’n’ roll: white male performers’ co-opting of established styles and undeservedly receiving credit as musical innovators.” It was an antidote to what he, himself, calls “‘Rolling Stone disease,’ whereby Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen were treated as geniuses and the likes of Marvin Gaye and Madonna as mere pop singers.”

The result, according to Kelefa Sanneh, in what is widely regarded as one of the first (2004) important manifestos of poptimism, is bad, or at least myopic, journalism. Rockism took little account of the real cultural impact of music in favor of an imagined ideal audience and a museum of “serious” works “increasingly far removed from the way most people actually listen to music.”

In light of the recently noted headlines about how the highest selling music around is hip hop these days the poptimists have more of a point than rockists may seem willing to grant.  I don't even have to really like anything Madonna's ever done to appreciate the point.  For those who read about what happened when actual data of transactions began to be studied and how this analysis within the music industry showed an explosion in country and hip hop sales, it turned out that once analysis of what people were buying became possible the rockist establishment began to be seen as a kind of self-perpetuating myth that existed within the industry production and journalism side of things. 
Even if poptimists seem to have a dominant place in criticism in the last few years their adversaries can be thought of as "rockists"  Some of you may already be able to guess where Markham's going and he eventually gets there, discussing rockist manifestos as not just a thing for rock music but as an ideological current in the classical tradition, too.  Pay close attention to the Sanneh paragraph we're about to see.

And it’s not just the cultural life of the audience that was overlooked by rockism,
but also the rich creative process that produced music outside of the
“singer/songwriter” tradition. The poptimists recognize the challenges and triumphs
of collaboration and creativity (or at least polish) emerging from within the strange
mechanisms of “big business” music production. Here’s Sanneh:
To glorify only performers who write their own songs and play their own guitars is to
ignore the marketplace that helps create the music we hear in the first place, with
its checkbook-chasing superproducers, its audience-obsessed executives and its cred-
hungry performers. To obsess over old-fashioned stand-alone geniuses is to forget
that lots of the most memorable music is created despite multimillion-dollar deals
and spur-of-the-moment collaborations and murky commercial forces. In fact, a lot of
great music is created because of those things.
While it sounds like madness to glorify the one true villain (corporations, of
course), Sanneh recognizes a genuine truism in aesthetics that is neither new nor
particularly right or wrong: that a special gold checkmark is bestowed on those who
manage to be creative while working within strict boundaries and market systems
without losing their flair or their drive to be innovative. It is a welcome push back
against another truism, also neither new nor particularly right or wrong, which is
that a special gold checkmark goes only to those artists who survive wholly beyond
the system, the outsiders, the loners, the auteurs, and the madmen.

Let's interrupt this article again to point out something about classical music, because moving forward from the 18th century the acme of artistic success in the classical tradition is that you write out a score that someone you may have never met (or will never meet because you're already dead) can take the pages you wrote or published and execute a fantastic performance of the music you wrote.  In that sense a rockist condemnation of a pop star who does a good job singing or playing someone else's music doesn't count as legitimately rocking out  because, well, whether rock critics would concede this point or not, the difference between a pop star singing a song by a Swedish composer of pop songs and a bel canto soprano singing an opera aria by an Italian in the eighteenth century may not be so great a difference, after all. 

The one true villain being corporations is the sort of canard that is a little too readily bandied about on the left.  It's not like there's ever been a genuinely innocent dynasty of arts patronage, has there?  Adorno had nothing good to say about Soviet art but the unanswered question in the wake of denying that Soviet art could even be art (an assertion that can't really be proven as it is) is that what would count as legitimately socialist or leftist art?  Benjamin had some ideas but it remains to be seen whether a corporate mass media era of art can't create the landmark art works of our era. 

I know some folks would deny the possibility that Star Wars movies could be emblematic of late American culture but we can't entirely ignore ticket sales, can we? A more than faintly self-serving panentheistic Pelagian impulse can be found in Star Wars films that, in reflecting Joseph Campbell's monomyth and its mutation from a theory about folklore to a trope regarding a cinematic heroic journey can crop up in even a film like Transformers: Dark of the Moon where Sam Witwicky can bitterly remark in his unsuccessful hunt for a normal day job that he saved the world twice and that should count for something.  When liberal and progressive objections to the entertainment industry can circle around a desire for more representation in spite of the news emerging about the predatory nature of the producing cult it's hard to shake a feeling that the complaint is that more people should be able to have the role of Molech than to complain that what Molech does to people is bad.  But then enough with the Fritz Lang allusions.  The trouble with a rockist mentality as Markham summarizes it:

In short, rockism, was imposing values rather than reporting or analyzing them. And
the values it imposed were those of a small coterie of writers who were all of a
similar background and who had similar aspirations. It was writing about “what should
be” instead of “what is” and to do that is itself censoring and exclusionary.


and we'll skip ahead.

It’s easy to find great criticism on the poptimist side just as it was easy to find empty repetitive cheerleading two decades ago on the rockist side. Liking pop music is hardly an existential threat to free thinking. And the ethical claim to stand against the market hordes can seem a bit hypocritical, particularly given Carl Wilson’s trenchant critique, emphasizing that what is really at stake is not control of thinking but control of a shrinking market for writing about music. There is no shortage of forums for “old-fashioned” rockism to express itself freely. The problem is that “freely” increasingly means “for free.” As the intellectual space of the internet becomes increasingly disciplined by money and readers carefully funneled toward first-tier corporate-backed venues, it is more difficult for one’s ideas to get enough views to have any impact. That, of course, is not new. It is exactly the position decried by the early poptimists. Back then the limited first-tier venues, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, etc. were on newsstands rather than mobile click-bait farms. [emphases added] Those first-tier venues stay alive by following their audience. If the new first-tier venues increasingly cater to the poptimistic side, that reveals a market shift, and probably a generational one, in the music that speaks to the experiences of most people.

If we take a few steps back and, perhaps a bit too cynically, view the battles between poptimists and rockists not as ultimately being meaningful debates about the nature of the arts of themselves or even about arts movements or production but about market share, then the divide between rockists and poptimists is merely who has the dominant role in a critical/publication establish that has been in crisis mode for a decade or more.

It takes a while but we finally get to the rockist/poptimist battles that at one point were waged within what's now known as classical music:
19th-Century Rockism

I admit to a certain jealousy about all of this. It has been a while since the wide genre of music we still insist on calling “classical” seemed central enough for anyone to fight about. For most casual listeners, the beauty of the “classical” is that it is above such squabbling (an island of serenity making your dentist’s office stress free and babies smarter since 1720!). Monumental, unchanging, safe, and
utterly without risk of ethical misstep. This is nonsense of course — the Masterpiece Theatre image of the “classical,” and the worst fate for any art. If something isn’t worth fighting about, it probably doesn’t say much of value. And so it can seem “classical” music once again lags behind/beneath the patterns of pop in getting to the heart of what’s at stake.

But the stasis myth is one of the dumbest of all the weird myths about “classical” music. What interests me about all this, and what might interest devotees of the symphony and the quartet, is how utterly not new any of this is when one pulls the camera back a bit — how the pattern of backlash to the backlash to the backlash mimics patterns we have seen in “art” music for over two centuries. The world of online critics did not suddenly invent the idea of relevance as value marker in 2003.  [emphasis added]

I’m almost proud to remind that the same fight was being had within the world of academic musicology, sadly under the radar of most readers, a decade before Kelefa Sanneh’s call to poptimistic arms in the Times. It was a heady time to be in graduate school, when academic music historians were confronting the patterns and tendencies that had governed the field for a century. They too had a sloganistic label, the “new musicology” that implied a challenge to a lot of big and prevailing ideas.

One of those ideas was the privileging of “innovation.” It had been a truism for generations: Who matters? The pioneers. The challengers. The outsiders. The prophets. The ones who wrote music so new or difficult that their own historical moment couldn’t deal with them. “Unappreciated until after his death” was the tagline to the hagiography of all the greats, an epitaph that bestowed instant canonic status.No less central a figure than Beethoven remains the Promethean founder-myth of this
archetype in classical music. The primary feature of his mythic profile (the “angry isolated revolutionary”) is an unwillingness to compromise with his listeners, publishers, or performers; to demand playing and listening beyond what they were willing or capable of giving; and so to forcibly break new ground and in the process to drag and lift up the world along with him. We cherish the notion, for instance, that he was misunderstood, too radical for regular court employment, unhealthily
obsessed with intellectual rigor, ready to throw down at the slightest provocation.

The original rocker.

Wagner, looking back on Beethoven (and hoping to claim his maverick legacy), saw him as akin to Columbus, the explorer/conqueror who forced intellectual progress on a dull tired Europe through sheer force of vision and daring:

Did Columbus teach us to take ship across the ocean, and thus to bind in one each continent of Earth; did his world-historical discovery convert the narrow-seeing national-man into a universal and all-seeing man: so, by the hero who explored the broad and seeming shoreless sea of absolute music unto its very bounds, are won the new and never dreamt-of coasts which this sea no longer now divorces from the old and primal continent of man. […] And this hero is none other than — Beethoven.

It’s a hefty demand, that the purpose of composing music was not to entertain, but rather “world historical discovery” and not to reflect the values of an audience but to change them, “convert[ing] the narrow-seeing […] into a universal and all-seeing man.” That mission of challenge and uplift shows up in many of the most beloved (and often not quite true) stories about the great composers. Most amount to wishful hagiography, but all arise from the desire to have our greats live up to the
rockist’s idiosyncratic outsider vision. Beethoven refusing to step aside for an aristocrat on the road. Mozart refusing the Emperor’s judgment that his music contains “too many notes.” Schumann retreating into an inner world of madness (the reboot of Beethoven retreating into an inner world of deafness). Stravinsky’s riots. Schoenberg’s riots. All the riots.

Ask most concert goers to tell a cool story about Beethoven “being a Beethoven” and many will select the time a violinist friend of his, Ignaz Schuppanzigh (no slouch, either, the “Beethoven of string quartet leaders”), complained that his part was impossible to play. Beethoven’s reply, as found on countless blogs about inspiration in art, is supposed to have been something along the lines of “Do you suppose that I am thinking of your wretched violin when the spirit comes over me?”

It is at best hearsay and most reputable scholars will carefully deploy it with “supposedly said” or “was said to have quipped,” but the truth or falseness of the story matters less than how perfectly it resonates with our image of great artists. In the “old musicology,” that very quotation provided (shady) evidence of one of the foundational principles of what we might call proto-rockism, the supremacy of the single creative artist and the autonomy of the “great work” above the din of the
culture surrounding it. As put by Carl Dahlhaus, one of the last roaring lions of the proto-rockist camp: “The new insight that Beethoven thrust upon the aesthetic consciousness of his age was that a musical text, like a literary or philosophical text […] exists as an ‘art work of ideas’ transcending its various interpretations.”

Transcending everything in fact. Social context, market forces, audience taste, collaborative tampering, performer’s interpretation, time, place, class, gender. All the things that mark a work as “relevant” to its particular moment, or any particular moment, must be “transcended” in order to make it a classic.

According to this ideology, the greatness of Beethoven, and thus any great succeeding him, came from his floating above all that into a realm beyond context, a realm of timelessness to which we could only aspire. His music, a difficult climb for the average listener, was the ladder to Valhalla. To use Dahlhaus’s words, he “thrust” things upon us, for our own good presumably, things we couldn’t want or ask for because we were unaware of how important they were or how much they might change us for the better.

With that closing sentence Markham has settled on to what someone like John Borstlap has more or less explicitly said we need the Western European art music traditions for. 

Then he proposes that Beethoven was in crucial ways the first rockist among rockists:

The First Rockist Manifesto
There is hardly a better example of thrusting toward immortality than Beethoven’s  Grosse Fuge. One of his “late period” works, it is, perhaps, the first unofficial  anthem of rockism. Beethoven’s last decade provided the transcendence Dahlhaus  describes, a series of works that seem to deliberately strain to escape the taste and  functions of their time and aspire to challenge not just his generation, but future  ones as well: the 9th Symphony, the Missa Solemnis. The last six quartets and the final five piano sonatas, have become the proving ground for rockist idealism. They are “knotty” in the way Saul Austerlitz wants his music. And they are exclusionary in the way they dare/defy most listeners to keep up with them even two hundred years later. They stretch, in every possible way, the possible.

But this questing for immortality had its own ties to his moment. In crafting Beethoven as the prototype of the transcendent maverick a lot of overlooking was done, not exactly on purpose, but at least on cue. Overlooked were Beethoven’s own rich ties to a cultural market “of the moment” in his Vienna and his careful cultivation of an image tailored to his time and listeners. Beethoven had the
particular luck to live in the early moments of Romanticism, the Napoleonic moment that was the first in which “being difficult” (both technically and personally) could be seen as a positive selling point to a wide and growing audience of connoisseurs looking to show off their appreciation of sublime depth rather than charming naturalism. Beethoven, for his part, seems to have been keenly aware of how his image as an outsider formed part of his “brand.”

There is an irony here, pointed out by Tia DeNora in an engaging study on the historical market value of the idea of “genius.” Beethoven found himself living in a particular cultural moment when the market of concertgoers first decided they wanted their composers to be visionary and idiosyncratic. By proclaiming himself to be such, cultivating a public image of the difficult unstable “non-commercial” artist, and by loading his music with moments bound to test the ears, he was catering to a change in popular taste and market forces.

The irony, perhaps too glib and pat an irony at that, was that in being the isolated and misunderstood lonely genius artist Beethoven was actually pandering to what his audience imagined themselves to be but for their day jobs, social ties and class location.  Whether it's Beethoven or Beyoncé or a celebrity preacher the artwork as a talisman the possession of which provides a second-hand sacred status doesn't necessarily change and we kind of can't help it, can we?

This very idea, that formula and convention, the engine of pop (and in the minds of rockists, its original sin), is underappreciated, is among the most important of poptimistic criteria. Flash ahead from 1994 to 2014 and a Tumblr-poptimist can essay without much pushback that formula is the very source of pop’s energy and, more importantly, the key to its being able to communicate in a way that makes it matter, “playing with its conventions is something that has perhaps more cultural impact than doing something new.”

McClary had seen, all those years ago, the same bias at work across classical musicology, a disdain for formula that causes us to miss out on just how rife with intense worldly and poetic meaning such conventions are. It is conventions, according to McClary, that carry the most powerful meaning in musical works,

that so permeate human transactions that we usually fail to notice their influence. [emphases added] And I want to examine the values they represent, the interests they reinforce, the activities they enable, the possibilities they exclude, and their histories within the contested field that music inevitably is.

If we disdain convention in favor of radical innovation, we miss the real “work of
music” if you believe that work to be the work of reflecting our own cultural
obsessions back at us

Of course as I've written a few times before, Leonard B. Meyer's proposal half a century ago in Music, the Arts and Ideas was that no genuinely new or revolutionary ways of making art were likely to be discovered.  Instead we'd have a new era of stylistic pluralism and experiments with fusions and amalgamations of elements from existing styles and forms.

I try to stay connected to the new music scene and while I don't get out as much as I'd like I have managed to keep attending concerts and checking out music over the last twenty some years.  What's been interesting is how readily a "rockist" ideal persists, in the form of composers attempting to explore what they regard as new or unexplored possibilities.  Not all the time.  Some composers explicitly say they are exploring existing paths.  Ben Johnston's exploration of extended just intonation and microtonality comes to mind.  He didn't attempt to break off in a new direction from his mentor Harry Partsch, he just opted to refine some ideas within the context of the Western concert music tradition rather than try to break away from it. 

I would venture to propose as a polemical idea for a weekend that the easiest and dumbest thing in the world for American musicians and  writers to try is some formalist experiment that tries to "break the rules" as if the rules were more than just conventions passed down through educational cultures and also somehow magically indicative of the arts themselves as practiced by everyone who has not been immersed in academia. 

What I mean by that is that the aggressively guarded barriers between high and low, art nad pop, these things don't have to be so firm if we don't want them to be.  If I want to try writing a three-voiced fugue in G major for solo guitar in an open chord tuning so that it can be an homage to Hank Williams Sr. and Don Helms why shouldn't I give that a try?   If rockists and poptimists share a narrative of how whatever popular music they like doesn't fit "the rules" of classical music that is itself a myth that would benefit receiving a dismantling.  If any of us are inclined to believe Stevie Wonder when he sang "music is a world within itself, with a language we all understand" then if you accept that (and, of course, not everyone does) then the poptimist and rockist divisions don't reflect music so much as ideological battles.  I'm not even going to say ideological battles don't matter.  They obviously do.

I know Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music has its fans and detractors but his proposal that we attempt to understand classical music in terms of the ideological and economic philosophies of the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War period seems like a good path to explore.  Leonard Meyer and George Rochberg both wrote in their different ways that the central artistic crisis of the 20th century was the sheer level of global pluralism in the arts, the capacity we have as humans to be aware of all styles across all lands spanning the known history of humanity.  Traditionalism in the European Christendom sense no longer held up as the be all and end all of the arts so what would the future look and sound like?  In that sense capitalism and communism could be thought of as competing ideological claims as to how such a peace with pluralism of some sort was possible in the arts.  Soviet polemics emphasized that American culture had a subordinate place for blacks, for instance, and thus capitalism did not give people he liberties of a non-capitalist society ... though for Jews and dissidents who ended up in the Gulag the Soviet model was not really more liberating or able to accommodate a pluralism in the arts.  Neither capitalism nor communism turned out to be better than the other on that front.  While guys in the Frankfurt school condemned Soviet art as not even really art the mass media culture industry of the West, but particularly America, wasn't really art, either.  But Adorno's advocacy for twelve-tone music hasn't exactly been vindicated by Schoenberg albums winning Grammys and also completely saturating culture.  A Grammy here or there ... .

Something Adorno wrote was that once art was unmoored from a cultic or religious context its very reason for existence was open to question.  Recurring variations of rockist and poptimist battles in some ways look as though they are the ideological battles waged by critics and partisans within the culture industry as to what quasi-religious rationale can be provided for the legitimacy of the arts as more than just products available on the regional or global market. The battles can become as bitter as they've been because the battles are about resource allocation within the available pie.  That can be how poptimists can do battle with rockists about popular styles on the one hand and how a John Borstlap can write a short book lambasting what he regarded as the ineptitude of the Dutch fine arts patronage systems as an undercurrent in writing about the need for some kind of "revolution" in reviving classical music.   It's not clear whether such a revolution, even if it were to happen, would bump up the presence of classical music in the market share beyond roughly two percent.  But then Borstlap's claim is that high art should be spared no expense by government bodies and arts funding boards.  There may be in all that nothing more than a case that the old art religion of European high art deserves to be the art religion of nation states in Europe.

That moment passed possibly as far back as a generation or two ago.  In the United States the torch of art religion was pretty well passed from the non-existent-to-American-fine-arts-critics American "classical" bids to jazz and then to rock and pop. 

It's worth remembering how regularly today's rockist was yesteryear's poptimist. 

John Borstlap has issues with the New Music Box blogger who tlaks about "post genre" music. a few thoughts on the Western art music tradition in an era of music sales being dominated by hip hop

Before we get into this bog post looking at some stuff blogged by the Dutch composer John Borstlap about brainwashing and young minds, it might be worth noting that as music news headlines go the dominant musical style in terms of sales these days is a type of music that Borstlap would not even regard as music, most likely.

It’s Official – Hip-Hop Dominates Music

and ...

and ... if we go back to 2009 it seems ...

So that may set the stage a tiny bit for what you're about to read from Borstlap's blog, because if Norman Lebrecht has vented over the last decade or so that classical music is a dying art form Borstlap's been selling a book that urges the need for a revolution or resurgence of classical music as the highest and noblest of art forms that provides an interiority that people would only be able to get through the highest and best art. 

Now I'll get to my annoyances with the New Music Box scene eventually but let's get to some Borstlap:

The concept of 'genre' is merely a tool to be used within a value framework: we listen with different expectations to a piece of pop entertainment than to a Beethoven symphony or an Arab maqam or Chinese opera, all these types of music require different things to write and to perform and to understand as a listener. These things are reception and value frameworks, results of long, carefully honed traditions. Such framework is not something that restricts creativity either on the side of the composer or the listener, but is the normal perception field upon which the input is projected and then, processed. Removing such framework and then trying to find 'a concrete theoretical framework' for material from which frameworks have been removed, is nonsensical and will merely remove any opportunity of quality assessment - however subjective that may be. It destroys the meaning of choice, both on the side of the composer as on the side of the performer and listener. The sound sample of Mazzoli in the article says it all: to material stemming from traditional choral genres, quickly a rhythm box from the pop sphere is added, as if this would enhance the listening experience. But it takes away any goodwill to take the piece seriously: pop = entertainment from which we don't expect serious expression, and such treatment merely works as inverted commas: 'I don't mean it, really'.

Behind such thinking lies the wider context of 20C modernism, where meaning and intention of the production of new music is measured along a line of development which holds articulation points where the music breaks-away from established notions, transgressing boundaries all the time, in the pursuit of freedom from conventions. But at every new stage of a vision of new music, there is some notion of 'what is', which afterwards is considered a 'convention' and which thus has to be transgressed again, and so forth ad infinitum. With creation this has nothing to do because it merely deals with the outward wrapping paper, not with content and meaning. It is the inheritance of romanticism which says that a work of art can only be good if it breaks with a context. But all great works of art in the past were merely very personal interpretations of existing contexts, a result of an attempt to create something of value by the artist, and they never violated the basic frameworks of genre. So it is with music, but the ghost of modernism has now entered education, and - as this article amply shows - liberates young minds from the requirements of understanding of what creativity means.

If by "modern" we mean anybody and everybody in the European intellectual tradition since the later 18th century you had to learn about in public school then maybe that's true, that a trajectory of escalating innovation and daring has been expected. But Borstlap has, in a number of his writings, pinned the blame on post World War II modernism when it would sure seem as though the seeds of everything he disliked, in ideological terms, began in the "long 19th century" in terms of thought; further, it's arguable that all the post-World War II modernists did was double down on the ideas promulgated in the first half of the 20th century with help here and there in the European mainland from the CIA and non-communist leftist organizations.  But Borstlap every so often seems determined to blame some kind of "cultural Marxism" for the spate of overfunding he believes has been doled out to the sonic art of post-Xenakis sonic engineers.  

Borstlap seems to want to blame the Boulez generation for the stuff that passes for high art that he doesn't regard as music.  There's no shortage of things to blame Boulez for, really, but the comparative silence in mainstream media coverage that greeted Boulez' death compared to the death of David Bowie can either suggest to Boulez fans that nobody contests the relevance of Boulez because he was a titan of musical art ... or nobody contested Boulez' relevance to musical art compared to someone like David Bowie because classical music is at the bottom two percent of music sales in contrast to hip-hop.

Borstlap seems in his writings to want to blame Romanticism for making a fetish of innovation and breaking with tradition but to go by what he writes and what music he praises he seems to want to have the 19th century sound without accepting its ideology.  That kind of eclectic hodge-podgery is explicable in light of Leonard Meyer's proposal that someone could be a formalist in style and a traditionalist in values and Borstlap seems to have read Meyer, but Borstlap so far seems short on Meyer's capacity for nuance or fine-graded analysis. 

Still, the idea that genre is a useful category for understanding a musical idiom is worth noting and that's the thing Borstlap can be easily granted because if there's a quibble to be made about the New Music Box scene it's that I keep seeing contributos there talk as though it's possible for there to be post-genre music or that genres don't eist or that genres only exist because record laels invented them to sell music.  These bromides are as useless as Borstlap's bromides about "interiority" as being the domain of high art music or high art more generally.   Since Borstlap referred to a specific author as being subject to modernist brainwashing let's quote her. 

Back when I was compiling the last month or so's reading stuff there's been a domain adjustment so I'm presenting both links for the fun of it.
The need for a shift toward post-genre seems most evident to me whenever I try to find language to discuss much of the music that interests me as a performer, composer, and listener. When asked by friends and family what kind of music I am interested in, I usually end up giving a rather vague description like, “I guess it’s ‘classical’ (always said with air quotes), but it’s not like Mahler or anything like that. It’s really cool. You’ll like it; I promise.” The word “classical” does not serve to accurately describe much of the music that is shoved under its label. I’m talking about music by many of the composers who have written for Roomful of Teeth, including Brittelle, Missy Mazzoli, and Sarah Kirkland Snider, as well as other composers such as Ted Hearne and Jodie Landau.
This pushing back against the “classical” label due to the fact that it confines composers and misleads listeners may be at the root of how a post-genre mentality can make its way into the mainstream. In our conversation, Brittelle addressed the importance of this, stating:
"I think we have to get really aggressive about deconstruction. Every single time somebody tries to put you in that box, and tries to make things objective, you just have to push back on it. Every single time."
My response: That sounds exhausting. But perhaps by committing to a more active resistance to objective and genre-based language, conversations can begin about post-genre thinking in favor of a more accurate, individual intent-based characterization. My overarching question is then, what language do we use to discuss music instead of genre-based language? Or, more specifically, in a framework so focused on the individual, how do we create cohesive language that can be realistically used in the world of music to discuss and promote music?

 I've been thinking about how Meyer wrote that we've had cycles of classicism and romanticism in musical art for thousands of years across the world.  What's been so different about Romanticism with a capital 'r', he wrote, was that the cycle of romanticism that took hold in European culture in the "long 19th century" has not really ended in ideological terms and has so suffused cultural activity and criticism that its ideals and ideas are still with us.  So Francis Schaeffer was, if anything, wildly wrong about the end of romantic era humanism as he defined it.  It's never left our culture.  Borstlap may have reason to be upset that Romanticism has continued to exert such a potent influence but he seems bereft of any alternatives.  He wants a push back to traditions of great art but this is pretty literally a reactionary stance. 

But the New Music Box contributor rejection of genre is another kind of reactionary stance.  Rejecting the idea that genres exist is no proof that genres don't exist.  The complaint and condemnation of cultural appropriation couldn't even be registered if no such thing as genre existed.  Pretty clearly genres of music exist but, as I've been blogging for years, we can grant musical genres exist while also insisting that all the boundaries delineating and separating genre rom genre are permeable.  What New Music Box contributors may want to describe as "post genre" may be nothing more or less than a quest to discover what syntactic and gestural possibilities can render all possible style and idiom and genre distinctions fully permeable. 

Then there's a couple other posts.  It might not be a surprise that for a panoply of musical styles broadly classifiable as "classical" or Kyle Gann's use of "post-classic" style that a question of how the audience might define the post-genre experience would come up.  But it's worth keeping all of this in mind in light of the readily reportable fact that hip hope sales dominate the music industry as we know it.  There's a case to be made that hip hop is a consensus of musical idioms extrapolated and refined from a wide range of idioms but that's a case someone else can make who's way more immersed in hip hop than I've ever been.  I'm just suggesting in passing that what we tend to get from music journalism and advocacy is a push for a finished product that can come at the expense of a histirography that shows how the polished product that is placed within a canonical/academic context is often the end point of a decades or even century-long process of consolidation and refinement. 

So there's this:

Last week, I spent some time grappling with issues of language in a post-genre musical framework. I was left wondering how we could realistically create a cohesive language to describe, appraise, and promote music in the absence of genre-related terms. Is that even possible? The prevalence of genre in our current characterization of music, as well as the important role of the composer within this framework (which I also delved into in my previous post), led me to another issue that I have yet to fully resolve. Namely, I have been struggling to fully understand the role of the listener in post-genre.
There is no doubt that all listeners have pre-existing connotations surrounding certain types of sounds.
As I described in my previous post, post-genre thinking seeks to move away from objective methods of characterizing music, instead focusing on a more subjective method within which music is viewed piece by piece with an emphasis on the intention and background of the composer. If a composer has no intent of writing within the “classical” genre label, then attempting to understand the piece through a classical lens is irrelevant. But what about the listener? There is no doubt that all listeners have pre-existing connotations surrounding certain types of sounds. Realistically, because we have discussed music in terms of these genre constructions for so long, a listener’s experience is likely to naturally include elements of: “This moment in this piece of music reminds me of X genre, which makes me think of Y connotation.” For example, imagine a situation in which a composer uses strings in a way that reminds a listener of “classical” music. The composer may have had no stylistic/genre-based intent, but that does not stop the listener from making this association. Does this detract from a composer’s intent in any way? What impact do these associations have on a person’s listening experience when it involves a piece written by a composer who has no intent of associating with any element of genre? This issue can be highlighted by taking a look at the piece Otherwise by Brad Wells, founder and conductor of Roomful of Teeth.
So far that looks like composer demography. 
What I take away from Wells’s response is that, when writing using these stylistic influences and vocal techniques, his interest is not necessarily in the styles themselves, but rather in the emotional charge and specific color that each brings to the table, as well as how their combination allows for new colors and emotional charges. This is the individual intent behind the piece he wrote. However, when I hear Dashon singing his bel canto baritone lines, my first response as a listener is, “Wow, listen to that opera singer!” So despite Wells’s emotional charge and color-focused intent, the listener’s experience likely still centers, to some degree, around genre and stylistic labeling.
How do we reconcile the role of the listener, who may naturally use genre and style to label what they hear, within a post-genre framework? Does this confound the entire post-genre concept? In the future of developing a more concrete framework, it will be extremely important to address the role of listeners and how their pre-existing understanding of genre and style may affect their listening experience despite a composer’s intent. The way that I currently imagine the role of the listener working together with the intent of the composer is by emphasizing that post-genre thinking does not seek to entirely eliminate the existence of genre and style distinctions. It would be utopian to imagine a world where genre disappeared in a puff of smoke and no longer impacted how we processed music; currently, these types of associations are pretty intrinsically tied to people’s listening experiences.
Yes, it does confound the entire post-genre concept. The way I would suggest composers address the ineradicable stereotypes associated with genres and styles of music is to recognize them and find ways to manipulate the gestures and elements of style in ways that recontextualize gestures in ways that adjust but do not reject the expectations of a stylistic syntax.  At the risk of speaking as too broadly as blogging tends to be anyway, I don't think there's any benefit in trying to find new ways to compose music.  We have a music industry that has made a truly global and human-species-spanning library of musical idioms available.  The idea that anyone is going to come up with something new is completely stupid at this point.  It was a stupid idea fifty years ago when Leonard Meyer suggested we would see no truly new and innovative ideas introduced in the arts. 

His counter-proposal was that what we were going to see was formalist experimentation, attempts to get disparate elements of a variety of styles to fit together in new musical contexts.  So the Schoenberg/Adorno trajectory of a new and putatively universal Western art style was never going to happen.  Nor would it be plausible to suggest that tonality in the 18th through 19th century common practice was going to stay the norm.  It seems that a loosely diatonic/chromatic but not necessarily functional harmonic language is still with us but it may look more like the early and middle Baroque than the high Baroque fusions of German, Italian and French idioms that we hear in Bach or Handel. 
Then there's this:

In this scenario, the listener’s association does not involve them placing the piece into a genre categorization. Instead, the focus is on the individual experience of the piece and how the sounds in the piece affect how much they like it. This allows the music to exist on a piece-by-piece basis as opposed to being tied into a tradition or an institution. Of course, there is no way to get into people’s minds and actually change the way that they think about the music they hear; I believe that the more direct shift will come in conjunction with the development of a more cohesive non-genre-focused language. As artists and music critics/promoters shift their conversations about music, this way of thinking will likely seep into the minds of listeners to some degree. But for now, at the very least, this reframing of genre’s role in listening may serve as a way for composers and critics to rationalize the listener’s experience. As we move forward, we cannot disregard the listener’s potential tendencies towards genre-based thinking. We must figure out a way to understand what it means to think about genre in post-genre music.

Or we can reject the idea that there will ever be a post-genre music.  Let's think of things in another way.  The 18th and 19th century art music traditions of Europe involved a lot of conventions that are not necessarily with us any longer as common or popular practice.  George Walker has had no problem saying all of this stuff is elite art and high art and that only elites tend to enjoy it.  New Music Box contributors tend to not want to be so explicit in saying that's how high art idioms "work". 

I would venture, again invoking Haydn but also composers like Villa-Lobos that what people seem to struggle to get at by talking about "post genre" could be construed by some critics as a kind of "middlebrow" but there's another way of putting it.  Even Charles Rosen could say that we shouldn't begrudge the popular success of a Gershwin and he wrote that what made the success of Haydn and Mozart what it was was that they had a popular and populist style that did not sacrifice academic or elite rigor in technique.  Rosen went so far as to say that in the history of the Western art music tradition Haydn was one of the only cases in which genuinely popular appeal was combined with rigorous and even esoteric developmental techniques.   What I'm trying to get at is that there have been composers in each era that did not "choose high or low but trafficked in high and low idioms and forms.  Nobody can really be post-genre but we can be polystylistic.  It's characteristic of the Baroque era that there were multiple practices.  Yet in school settings we may just get the high Baroque music as canon and not much about the early and middle Baroque.  That's a shame because I kinda like Heinrich Schutz.  There's no reason to so venerate J. S. Bach we forget Buxtehude.

And this is where I'm going to bring things back to Borstlap, because as I've read his work it seems he bewails the decline of the art music traditions of 19th century concert music as one who might in an earlier era of lamented the decline of ars perfecta.  Only now the perfected art isn't Palestrina or Josquin but Wagner or Beethoven or Schubert.  The collapse of one style does not necessarily mean the extinction of that style, just its marginalization.

So if Borstlap laments the decline and the need for a revolutionized continuation of an ars perfecta of the 19th century symphonic idiom and Schiller wants to arrive at some "post genre" future there might be something both authors are not considering, the possibility that just as the decline of the pervasiveness of ars perfecta would not lead to what scholars would recognize as a "unified" common style until about a century later, it might be unrealistic and implausible to assume that there will never be a common musical style.  Hip hop may just be the new common musical style, after all.  Whether or not it's the new dominant and global musical style either Borstlap or Schiller may want is not the point.  What might be a post-genre way of thinking about music is not thinking of what we colloquially call classical music in terms of not being classical music but realizing in a technological era such as ours that classical music could be sampled at some point into hip hop recordings and to, for want of any other way to put it, be okay with this.  Classical music is a millennia long discipline replete with multiple styles and shifts.  A post-genre approach to music won't ignore the existence of styles or genres but can recognize the malleability of musical gestures and concepts across genre boundaries, as I've kept saying. 

Then there's this ... a proposal that maybe marketing can transcend the strait jacket of "classical" as a label for promoting music.

While the minimal monetary success that New Amsterdam has had despite the switch to a for-profit model is discouraging, I believe that it does not mean that such an operation will not be more widely successful in the future. This issue is intrinsically tied to genre being central in musical criticism and promotion; even if the music that New Amsterdam is pumping out is accessible and innovative and could potentially appeal to a large number of listeners throughout the world, the fact that many of its recorded artists are still tied into the “classical” label to some degree will still deter people from listening and hinder efforts to create opportunities for post-genre artists to build their audiences and lead more sustainable lifestyles. Thus, the process of finding a fitting place for post-genre music and artists will be a multi-step process. Once we are able to create a cohesive language and fully understand how to discuss music in the absence of genre-based language, we can begin to shift the way that music is promoted and critiqued. Once the shift occurs in music promotion and critique, I hope that post-genre thinking will slowly begin to spread to audiences and listeners. And once this way of thinking about music gains some traction, I hope that listeners will begin to explore the music that they would have separated themselves from back when we labeled it as “classical.” These shifts could create the draw that post-genre composers need to build their audiences and create a fully successful for-profit post-genre label.

I wonder if the emphasis has turned out to be on "lead more sustainable lifestyles".  :)

What if being a musician is simply not a sustainable lifestyle for people who aren't born into what's colloquially known as "privilege"?  I'm going to go out on a limb here and propose that maybe just as in the early Baroque era the revolutions in style that were introduced came from music-loving and music-making amateurs rather than the professional musical guilds of the Renaissance era, so too we might be seeing in hip hop a shift in musical activity that is geared toward the mediating recording technologies of our era (i.e. the means of production) and that sampling is nothing if not a capacity to recontextualize and transplant musical gestures and ideas into synthesized new totalities regardless of previous genre constraints.  Hip hop may, in a phrase, already have arrived at the "post genre" state Schiller wants and that Borstlap doesn't.  But, it might be necessary to add, hip hop is just one possibility of reconstituting existing possibilities in musical idioms.

Another parallelism that may be possible between hip hop compared to classical music with the emergence of early Baroque innovations in music compared to the ars perfecta of the Renaissance may lay in polemic--specifically, just as advocates of the ars perfecta style regarded nasent operatic techniques and forms as unmusical garbage requiring no talent at all, so advocates of classical music who aren't interested in rap or hip-hop can regard the sampling and studio experimentation and production of hip hop to be not even music and requiring no musical talent at all, just so much prattling on in rhythmic speech on a few fixed pitches.  Well, okay, but wasn't that the complaint leveled against recitative as opera was beginning to take shape?  Couldn't (and didn't) polemicists against opera regard it as a hopeless mishmash of neither competent music nor competent drama? 

I've loved listening to blues since I was a teenager and I admire ragtime and the first half century of jazz.  But I've grown tired of liberal and generally white male narratives that blues "didn't follow the rules" of classical music.  I hear the I, IV and V chords.  I even hear a conformity to the golden ratio in the 12 bar part.  There's no inherent reason we can't take slide guitar riffs and make fugues with them.  There's no reason we can't take ragtime as  a stylistic set of options and compose a fugue with that.  What a composer like Borstlap has been set on is the idea that entertainment isn't art and that in some way the boundary between popular entertainment and high art is mysteriously impermeable.  This hasn't been the case.  Haydn alone would prove otherwise.  The idea that there's an antinomy or dualism between high and low may be beneficial in the eyes of those who insist on an authenticity of a high or a low but I'm not one of those people. 

In an era in which so much popular culture is copyrighted and licensed hip hop could raid the library of public domain recordings or recordings of public domain music and bring classical back in a different context.  These composers are often guys who have been dead for centuries.  So if you sample something by Schubert for a hip hop song it's not like Schubert's going to object. 

When I see people trying to make a case for music education the moral improvement angle keeps coming up.  I'm not sure the conduct of jazz musicians and rock stars, let alone the composers of the classical canon should be held up as role models for ethical living.  A lot of them were nasty pieces of work.  But, on the other hand, in an era when less and less popular or mainstream culture seems to be public domain what the classical tradition has that not many other styles of music may have in the wake of the recorded music industry is a vast store of musical material that is completely public domain.
I'm not sure that artists should even talk about making a living at the arts in the United States these days.  If you "can" do it more power to you  but ever since the decline of a patronage class with a recognizable set of identifiers it's been easy to talk about the role of the artist as doing work that is in some sense self monetizing.  I don't think that's true and I don't think American arts education can possibly provide an honest or reliable account of "if" artists and writers and musicians make a living from their art as distinct from teaching gigs or selling insurance or having a boring old desk job during the work day.  Nobody talks about Sor's desk jobs when they can talk about his guitar sonatas.  American arts education may have sold generations of American citizens a great big lie if they taught that "we" can make a living in the arts that isn't tethered to corporate interests, whether those corporate interests are those of the mass media market on the one hand or the demands of academia on the other. 

Academics can sometimes have a problem with conceding that the pop culture and mass culture we keep talking about has been bankrolled by massive corporations.  It's easy for academics to say that mass or pop culture doesn't matter but the sheer inescapability of Game of Thrones memes on the internet means that if you don't even like the show or care to watch it you can't escape it, as Noah Berlatsky has complained about Game of Thrones in his life of work. 

Something I'm just floating as a thought for the weekend is that partisans of classical music as it's broadly called who are into the 19th century stuff seem more angry that stuff like hip hop exists or that attempts to create fusions of jazz and classical idioms continue to happen.  I don't quite see this as often with partisans of Baroque music.  Fans of Baroque music already know we're into music that is canonical, sure, but that is literally centuries away from anything "current".  But Baroque music is chockfull of motoric vamping and mechanically reliable gestures.  The Baroque era was full of a variety of styles and idioms and forms.  It also took a century to culminate in the high Baroque style that has, alas, been construed as a stand in for the entire era.

So where I'm going this weekend is proposing that a guy like John Borstlap is upset that the ars perfecta that could be known as the symphonic repertoire of the late 18th through early 20th century has been sidelined as the acme of sonic art, displaced by modernist experiments that have not yielded large audiences but have netted government subsidy in Europe.  He thinks there's still life in the ars perfecta he grew up being taught.  Sure, but like the ars perfecta that was eventually displaced by the Baroque consensus, the perfected art may survive as museum culture, provided it's preserved in a way that lets it be more than "just" museum culture.  For folks at the New Music Box the ars perfecta has passed but there is not necessarily a desire for any "new" stye or idiom to become th enew thing, despite the fact that a global consumer level hip hop has turned out to already occupied this space just in terms of sales. 

So if what's conventionally known as classical music is in the bottom two to "maybe" five percent of all music sales debates about where best to take that approach to music in light of the dominance of hip hop in terms of sales could be not even a tempest in a teapot, it might be an epic battle pitched on one of the grains of sugar on a teaspoon that isn't even near the teapot. 

Friday, October 20, 2017

Warren Throckmorton provides update on Mark Driscoll Ministries with 990 forms

something kinda jumped out ...

Form 990 2015
Mark Driscoll Ministries
revenue less expenses
Gross receipts $540,942
(from page 1)

Part I
total assets ... $202,315 (beginning of current year)
end of year $146,117
total liabilities $4,215
end of year $32,225

net assets or fund balances
beginning of current year $198,100
end of year $113,992

revenue less expenses
beginning of current year $198,101
end of year -$84,108

From Part VII
Mark Driscoll, presdient
reportable compensation from the organization

from Part IX line 5
compensation of current officers, directors, trustees and key employers
total expenses
line 24a housing allowance $104,550
line 24c books, subscriptions, r $47,607
Then for The Trinity Church line 24d, $25,000

For an end of year statement of losing 84k jumps out.  It looked like a few liabilities or operating expenses got added in the 2015 year.  It looks from the 990 that the housing allowance was four times bigger than the money designated to The Trinity Church.  Whatever got covered by "books, subscriptions ... " seems to be almost twice as big as the monies designated to The Trinity Church.

For folks who might want a gander at compensation numbers from the old Mars Hill days ... the recent housing allowance is almost half what it was back around 2011 in the Mars Hill days. 

Sutton Turner memo recommended raise for Driscoll for FY2013 to 650k salary, retain 200k housing allowance for CY2013

That post has been, beyond all doubt, the most viewed post in the history of this blog.

So, anyway, some numbers to consider


As some have noted, the satirical site The Babylon Bee has made sport of Driscoll claiming he wrote the letter to the Hebrews.  Another piece on the steps for disgraced celebrity pastors has gotten mentioned here and there.  Given how often people skim it could be easy for people to scan a headline and then write something like, "But Driscoll never apologized".  Yes, well ...

1.) Issue a public apology for getting caught. Get your PR people to draft up an apology where you sincerely ask for your people’s forgiveness for being so careless that you got caught. Make sure you don’t actually take any real blame for your actions. Really, it was your church’s fault for putting so much pressure on you, if anything.

The joke is that the preacher doesn't apologize for actually saying or doing anything wrong, just for being caught.  If the tag "Celebs" wasn't another indicator, well, maybe people read too quickly these days.

I've said it here multiple times at the blog but the thing that's worth reiterating is that Mark Driscoll has expressed regret over his "tone" and how sinful he was when he got angry over stuff.  But he's never repudiated the substance of a single thing he's said from his William Wallace II days.  If anything he's just found ways to be more genteel in how he's expressed his thoughts about stuff. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

it looks like Mars HilL Was Us is now down

so if you wanted to reference anything from ...

it's gone. 

Might have to use something like The Wayback Machine to pull up stuff that interests you.

Because unlike a few sites Mark Driscoll used to contribute to there don't seem to be any robots.txt points of interference.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

over at LA Review of Books Alexis Clements has written about the improbable chance of "success" in the arts in the US.

For those who recall the blogging Warren Throckmorton did about Mark Driscoll's book Real Marriage you may recall, too, the coverage provided by WORLD magazine on Mars Hill Church contracting with Result Source to secure a #1 spot for Real Marriage on the New York Times best seller list in 2012. 

Well, to provide some context we could reference some writing Alexis Clements did not so long ago about a statistic that established what the odds were of actually landing such a #1 spot on the NYT list.
What Are the Chances? Success in the Arts in the 21st Century
By Alexis Clements

•The chances of your book becoming a New York Times best seller in 2012: 0.002 percent [1]
•The chances that a living artist in the United States would receive a solo exhibition at MoMA in 2015: 0.0006 percent [2]
•The median income of those with art degrees who made their living as artists in New York City in 2012: $25,000 [3]
•The median income for an artist in Canada in 2012: $21,603 [4]
•The percentage of total earnings that came from commissions and/or productions of their plays among a group of 250 working playwrights in the United States surveyed in 2005: 15 percent (or $3,750–$5,999 for the average playwright in that group) [5]
•The minimum fee set by W.A.G.E. for artists receiving solo exhibits in organizations with total annual operating expenses of $3,000,000: $6,000 [6]
•The percentage of artists surveyed by the group W.A.G.E. who received no payment at all for exhibiting or presenting their work in New York City in 2010, not even reimbursement for expenses: 58 percent [7]
•The percentage of artists across the United Kingdom surveyed by the group a-n who received no payment at all for exhibiting or presenting their work in 2010, not even reimbursement for expenses: 59 percent [8]
•Number of years the artist Walid Raad estimated that an artist showing in commercial galleries will achieve “financial success” over the course of their career: four [9]
•Chances of being awarded a Creative Capital grant in 2015 (if you applied): 1.2 percent [10]
•Number of the top 10 most expensive colleges that were arts schools in 2011: eight [11]
•Average cost for a four-year undergraduate degree at one of those eight schools in 2011: $150,312 [12]
•How much whiter the population of working artists in New York City is than the population of the city as a whole: 224 percent [13]


So with that in mind, if the chances of you getting on the NYT list is no better than 1 out of 500 even on the assumption that you're already a published author what are the odds for someone who's put out their first book?  Pretty slim ... unless a company decides to sink enough money into promoting a book that a person ends up on the list anyway or by dint of sheer ... celebrity.

But as Clements went on to note, the dream remains, the dream of:
Time and again I encounter people of all ages for whom success for artists looks like some version of the following: 1) making a living entirely from your art, and/or 2) getting to spend all of your time making it. My own version, for most of my 20s, manifested as an intensely vague idea that if I were able to get one of my plays or performances produced by a big enough theater or if I were to win a big enough award or grant, then suddenly I would level up — this new echelon of achievement would beget more achievements. I would unlock a portal to a new world where I would consistently have opportunities to produce and share my artistic work, and lucrative financial support would just materialize to go along with each opportunity. Pretty much every article or essay I have read since then, and all the artists I know or have heard from, indicate that I had entirely the wrong idea.

If Clements had the wrong idea it's only the same wrong idea any of us who ever had any education in the arts ever beyond high school, or even from within high school, got from the kind of arts education we received. 

This wouldn't even be a remotely new element of American arts educational culture.  One of my favorite composers complained about this problem as far back as 1949 and 1950, which would be the German émigré composer Paul Hindemith.  In A Composer's World Hindemith opened his chapter on education with the following:

(page 175)
Let us assume that a country has, at a given time, five thousand active music teachers in colleges and music schools a number not too high compared with the number in this country. The duty of these music teachers is, of course, to instruct professional musicians and amateurs, and among the professionals  so instructed, new music teachers are produced. Now, if each music teacher produces not more than two new music teachers each year which is not an exaggerated estimate and if no interfering war, plague, or earthquake hinders this happy propagation, the result can easily be foreseen: after the first year we will have an additional ten thousand music teachers, in the fifteenth year every man, woman and child in the United States will be a music teacher, and after about twenty years the entire population of our planet will consist of nothing but music teachers.

I admit that the example slightly exaggerates the results of our teaching system, but it demonstrates clearly that we are suffering from overproduction. There is in each country a certain capacity for absorbing music teachers. Once the saturation point is reached, they will either go idle or have to look for other jobs. In this country nobody knows this fact better than the directors of music schools and the deans of music departments. Each year the problem of finding teaching jobs for their graduates becomes more and more desperate, because the saturation point is reached.
page 176

We are teaching each pianist or violinist as if he had a chance to become a Horowitz or a Heifetz, although we know that the entire concert life of the civilized world can hardly absorb more than ten or twelve great soloists in each field. Even if for regional demand in each larger country another ten are acknowledged, what in heaven happens to the remaining hundreds and thousands? [emphases added]
pages 176-177

Among those taught by our endless phalanx of pedagogues the nonprofessional, the man who wants instruction for his own amateurish fondness of playing with musical forms, hardly counts at all. He who normally ought to be the music teacher's best customer has, as a numerical factor, dwindled to almost nothing, and as a musical factor he usually wilts away after several years of a training that, instead of flattering and fostering his layman instincts, has administered an indigestible virtuoso treatment. Thus the clan of music teachers is now living in a state of ever growing artistic isolation and infertile self-sufficiency. Their teaching of teachers who in turn teach teachers, a profession based on the resentments of the frustrated concert virtuoso and not aiming at any improvement of human society's civilization, by its very activity removed from the actual demands and duties of a real musical culture, must inevitably lead to the sad goal reached by every other kind of indiscriminate and large-scale inbreeding [emphases added]: after a short period of apparent refinement a gradual degeneration and slow extinction. ...
Hindemith was not, by the way, what people would nowadays call especially progressive or "left", but his complaint, registered with too much bitterness for American scholars and formulated with the assertion that in the arts there is no possibility for genuinely democratic processes of the sort possible or desirable in civic life, can be summed up in his complaint that by the 1950s the arts had descended to the basest level of what someone like Adorno would call the culture industry.

Here in 2017 the prospect of degeneration and slow extinction of a bloated and self-insulating American academic educational culture surrounding the arts is not really up for consideration by those who write about the arts.  We're not talking about the death of any of the arts themselves, since all sorts of artistic activity is being done even now.  But the possible demise of arts education, arts funding, and arts institutions has been a steady threat in the coverage of the arts in the United States for years.  Even the Clements articles I've been quoting note with a measured outrage that the improbability with which you or I can "make a living" in the arts is predicated on the assumption that such a financial living is possible, almost as if there's no artistic life worth living that doesn't pay your bills.  Clements does get to the nature of what's now called privilege and that being of socio-economic caste soon enough:

Of course, there are those artists you meet out at events who never really say quite how they make it work, but always seem to spend as much time as they like on their work and never worry about whether or not they have the cash to spend a night out with friends. Robinson offered a clear-eyed assessment of those types: “They haven’t figured something out that you don’t know. That’s the dirty secret of the art world — the people that have the apartments bigger than you inherited them. They are not more talented than you. Nine out of 10 times they walked in with the asset and they left with the asset.”

Which is to say, all signs point to a reality in which no artist, no matter how famous or successful, spends 100 percent of their time on their art, nor do they earn 100 percent of their income from their art alone over the course of their entire career, except perhaps for those with enough support from wealthy families that worrying about the pesky reality of earning a living will never be a thing. [emphasis added]
A favorite pastime of many American artists is to wax rhapsodic about the artist’s life in Europe. They love to mention things like Denmark giving small annual stipends to artists, but they generally neglect to mention that it’s only for 275 artists out of a total population of 5.7 million people. What makes a much bigger difference to the well-being of every single artist in Denmark (and in many other European countries) is free healthcare and education, subsidized child care, a national pension system, and guaranteed unemployment benefits for two years, not a handful of stipends for the lucky few.
And if you read a book by someone like the Dutch composer John Borstlap you'll find out that complaining bitterly about the injustices of a European nation-state patronage system for the arts can still happen.

But, to once again invoke Hindemith's cranky but potentially necessary rebuke to American education and American academic theorizing about art, back in those days when young musicians apprenticed to practical musicians nobody taught music composition as we know it as a scholastic subject.  If anything composition was merely the practical outworking of educating anyone and everyone who was involve in music into a comprehensive musical life.  Composition, the products of musical life and activity, was in many respects merely the side effect of a musical culture and educational culture.  To study all of that music and teach it as though the products of the culture could be taught as a way to compose could be a fatal educational mistake.  To the extent that Clements proposes that if all the expenses of living were moot artists could make a living being artists is somewhat moot itself, if everybody got a universal basic income, for instance, the question as to why anyone would choose to work in the arts just gets back to the questions as to why. 

Why should artists be making a living being artists?  This is not to answer the question with a rhetorical "no" before the question has been asked but I've spent the last year or so reading arts journalism and arts criticism wondering why nearly everyone who writes about arts funding, arts education and arts culture reflexively assumes the only legitimate or possible answer to such a question must always be "yes". 

Clements wrote another piece related to the aforementioned article about the improbability of "success" in the arts, of the sort that would ever actually pay your rent.


Artists have always had a complex relationship with facts: challenging their meaning, dissecting their sources, refracting the information across differing viewpoints. And that’s important work, to be sure. But I was surprised when someone approached me shortly after the essay was published about a speaking gig. Even though my essay emphasizes that certain notions of success, particularly consistent monetary rewards, are almost entirely unattainable by the vast majority of artists, this person asked if I would talk about how artists who have achieved financial success managed to reach that goal. In other words, he wanted me to tell him how he and others could be the exception — how they could be the 0.002 percent.

There’s something deeply American about that response, and incredibly revealing about how much winning at the game of capital is tied up with many artists’ conscious or subconscious motivations. Certainly many readers will have at least a passing understanding that the high-end visual arts marketplace has largely become a cash-bloated status contest for the wealthy, but I’m not talking about that here. I’m focused on artists themselves, not the markets. And I’m talking about artists working across disciplines, not just in the areas that attract hedge funds willing to store paintings in offshore containers in anticipation of future profits. Artists across fields, even fields with notoriously low earnings, still believe that money equals success. We all know that very few people win that particular game, but we’re convinced there’s a way for us to beat the odds. And we cling to that belief, even when it harms us.

Here in the United States, we’re steeped in these stories from childhood: the underdog; the Horatio Alger figure; the courageous individual who surmounts challenge after challenge to win it all. [emphasis added] But you’ll notice it’s never a story about changing the odds — about making it less hard for more people to succeed. We never seem to flip the script. We prefer to believe in one of the most poisonous and persistent myths the United States has to offer — that our society is a meritocracy. And the American arts suffer enormously under this yoke. We are told over and over that if we work hard and do a good job, we will be rewarded. But “doing a good job” in the arts is not about how well you put together a machine or a spreadsheet; being judged worthy of attention or money in the arts is tied up with our very being, our beliefs and worldviews, our identities — the sources many of us tap to generate art in the first place.

Which sounds more than a little like the delusional idea Hindemith said was at the core of American educational culture surrounding the arts in general and music in particular, that would lead to the eventual atrophy and collapse of the educational culture.  Hindemith's counsel was clearly not to change the odds but to change the foundational premise of all arts education in the United States from "we school you in this so you can make money at it" to "we'll teach you this stuff because it's part of life, it's fun, and you can do it whether you make money at it or not."

Even if we flip the script there's no clear reason why an educational or economic culture should make arts a priority.  American artists and writers and musicians seem to want the arts to be front and cener but the arts are not where our production seems it should be.  We still need farmers and engineers and plumbers and architects and electricians and accountants and people who do all the unglamorous but necessary things in cultural life about which we'll not likely see movies.  I see trailers for American Assasin not American Court Stenographer.  Whether from a proverbial right or left Americans want art that is about revolution and not art about the normal, whether the normal that is or the normal we think should be.  We can never entirely extricate ourselves from art that plays some role in moral instruction and formation and if a whole lot of religious people seem like pious fuddy-duddys for it we can at least credit them for not forgetting that we do want our arts to instruct us and change us in some fashion.  Clements seems to grasp that working in the arts is some kind of priestly craft in a virtually religious mode but we live in a culture in which priests are not held in particularly high regard the way they were in earlier epochs, at least not explicitly religious priests.  Academic and artistic priests are another matter. 

Clements had more to say:

Of course, it should be pointed out that many artists of color — as well as women and trans artists, among others — have long known that the meritocracy was a lie. But that myth is internalized so deeply within many Americans and those who seek out this country, that it quietly and subconsciously drives our actions and beliefs, even when we know it’s a lie. It’s tied tightly into the knot of internalized capitalism that tugs on countless little strings within us: making us believe that our value as human beings is tied to our work (or, more precisely, our earnings), whispering to us that, without earnings, we have no value — that poverty, like wealth, is deserved. And if we just worked harder, if we just did better, we would get out of poverty, earn more money.

But that just isn’t true. If there is no significant money in the field you want to enter, or there are thousands of other people there already (which is the case in pretty much every field today), or the folks in charge don’t particularly like you or your perspective, you simply will not be able to sustain middle-class or better earnings over the course of a career from your art-making alone. Period. That has nothing whatsoever to do with your output or your value. And, as I said in the previous essay, time and again you will find that the people who appear to be making substantial incomes from their art alone for long periods of time are often deliberately or tacitly hiding inherited or married-into wealth and privilege, or are quietly running side businesses to keep their finances afloat.

That last point gets to the other deeply insidious American myth — we are all each other’s competition in a zero-sum game. The net effect of that internalized belief is that we isolate ourselves. We pull back into our shells, our studios, our small corners; we hunker down, we hide. We don’t share information with one another and we lean on rumor and suspicion because so many people, particularly those in power, are obscuring or deliberately hiding the facts. This leaves everyone ripe for exploitation.

But at this point it's hard to wonder about the fiscal disaster of not being able to sustain a middle-class or better level of earnings from the arts.  For those who lean left on economic issues it might be helpful to clarify what is meant by middle-class if the middle-class has also been a put-down for ruling class provincialism.  "Should" any artists derive a "middle-class" income from the arts of an American middle class variety in the 21st century?  What may be different now is that where in the past those who spent their days making art were more transparent about the power and privilege of being given patronage.  Hindemith's complaint about the United States educational system was that it harbored the delusion that artistic life could be democratic to the point that everyone was given a promise of being able to be involved in the arts when the history of European culture, at least, showed that it was improbable that very many could pay their bills doing the arts and that, in any case, the exceptional cases were exceptional with cause--America was not likely to embrace a paradigm in which artistic activity was presented as a kind of side-effect of cultural life rather than a goal in itself.  In the end Clements raises some good points worth considering for everyone who is interested in artistic activity but Clements may harbor an idea that is ultimately mistaken.
In other words, I would like to suggest that, more than individual professional development, what we need to think about right now are other areas of development. I would like to suggest that the secret recipe for success in the arts is comprised of the following ingredients, rather than anything mentioned in the countless get-rich/famous-quick books that make so much money for their authors:
•universal healthcare;
•universal care for children, seniors, and those with special needs;
•free education and vocational programs for all, from preschool through graduate school;
•affordable housing for all;
•redistribution of wealth through taxation, reparations, and universal basic incomes;
•redistribution of political roles to demographic groups that have been systematically excluded from those roles; and
•workers taking ownership roles in the companies and organizations they work for.

Even if all of this happened this would still do absolutely nothing to establish what success in the arts would be or why anyone "should" pursue the arts as a field of activity.  If you wouldn't pursue this program of activities even if no art were ever made in the future then don't consider it a pre-condition for "success in the arts".  If the history of those who have had money and power are any indication then whoever gets the new power and wealth of the future will not be any more likely to share it equitably than the last group to have gained it which can be summed up in a phrase of rich white males.  There's no compelling reason to believe that giving the wealth accumulated by rich white males to other groups of people will ensure that those people will be more just than rich white capitalists have been.  It's not like the Soviet system of the arts was altogether fair.  It's too easy to forget that what we regard as great and beautiful art has very often been made in spite of and not merely because of the vicissitudes and cruelties of each cultural empire of patronage. 

I guess I'd have to say my skepticism about artists advocating for universal health care so they can be artists is comparable to the skepticism I have about American Christians who are evangelical and social conservatives who want revival so that God will make America great again.  It's a different kind of "MAGA" of a progressive variety but I'm just not convinced that it is any left jingoistic, selfish and ultimately reprehensible coming from a liberal arts perspective than a Christian fundamentalist red-state one.  If the checklist is just what we wish everyone could have if that's possible then, fine, I don't argue with healthcare and affordable housing for everybody.  It's just that I don't think we can ignore that in any large technocratic system that injustice ever goes away.  Someone will get scapegoated and someone will get massacred.  Someone will be ignored and artists may want something closer to a Canadian patronage system for the arts, perhaps.

But thinking about this in Christian terms, it could seem as though making art out of love for and gratitude to the mercies of Christ is a reason people can make art.  Adorno wrote in Aesthetic Theory that ever since art became autonomous from religious expression the very question of its basic legitimacy and reason for being has been a crisis.  When I read American writers and artists and musicians talking about what the United States should do it generally reads as if they are saying the empire and its largesse should serve the artists' interests rather than conceding that the largesse of national patronage in the United States won't be any different than it's been in arts patronage regimes since the dawn of the human race, that empires fund artists provided that artists use their gifts to serve the empire.