I spend a lot of time talking about the disconnect that has developed between the arts and the general public. If you consider that the arts began as an expression of community around the campfire, the fact that arts organizations now need to identify ways to connect more deeply with their communities is truly astonishing.
[CAVEATS: 1. I don’t really “blame” Beethoven. That’s just a semi-cute, attention-grabbing, hyperbolic title. See below. 2. There is nothing about any of what follows that suggests we “pander” to people’s tastes. I’ve written way too much about that in way too many posts to rehash that here.]
One part of the explanation is that with the development of specialization of labor, artists began to be supported by those who could afford to support them. (Artists are not stupid!) Over time, this meant that the interests of the supporters naturally became more important than the expression of the whole community. Today, we have become so accustomed to this disconnect between the arts and the public we often don’t recognize it in any but the most abstract sense. We lament it, certainly, but we don’t see it as unusual.
Another part of the explanation has to do with the Nineteenth Century’s invention of the “heroic artist,” aloof and disconnected from the concerns of common humanity, answerable to no one but himself. (In the Nineteenth Century it was almost universally himself.) This development stood the historical relationship between artist and community on its head. Now, instead of being an interpreter of and voice for the community, the artist became an outsider forging new paths without concern as to who (if anyone) would follow. The artistic merits of this shift are open to lively debate. But the impact on social sustainability (and therefore political and economic viability) has been negative. From the point of view of fostering lively, artistically vibrant communities, this has led to a cultural cul-de-sac.
And this is where I sometimes find myself saying, “I blame Beethoven.” The danger in writing this down is that there is a major “however” that needs to be added, and a sentence as provocative as that one can spin out of control when withdrawn from context. Nevertheless . . . . The “however” is that Beethoven’s refusal to consider himself (or act like) a servant was a necessary pushback to the notion of artists as scullery/drudge workers. (That was certainly not part of the “expression around the campfire” world out of which the arts evolved.) In a sense, Beethoven was pushing for a bit of social justice, recognizing the importance of the fruits of the worker’s labor. (That starts to sound a bit Marxist, doesn’t it?) The problem is that subsequent artists (Wagner as, perhaps, the prime example) expanded the notion to near-deification of the creative artist. Of course Wagner believed the pantheon of deities to be a small “group”–himself . . . and maybe Beethoven.
The idea of the artist serving his or her own muse exclusively creates an inevitable separation between the art and those who might “consume” it. I am not saying that every artist needs to be serving their community with every work they create. However, while the pendulum swing that Beethoven fostered was worthwhile in its context, the time for a recalibration, a reversal of that swing is in order. A view that artists operate solely for themselves without connection to the communities in which they live will keep the arts themselves separated from those communities. (Of course there are many artists who are very aware of and involved in their communities. At the same time, there continues to be a strand of thought that places creators outside the rest of society.) The reversal of pendulum arcs can be a valuable corrective.