I Blame Beethoven

BeethovenI 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is a major “however” that needs to be added, and a sentence as provocative as that one can spin out of control when withdrawn from context.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.



Photo: Some rights reserved by saigneurdeguerre

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  1. says

    In the 1950’s governmental officials and policy makers were concerned about the United State’s standing in the world and our societies interaction concerning science. In a certain sense the same disconnect you suggest exists between the arts and community was fear to be happening between the sciences and our community along with the global community. The US didn’t want to fall behind as world leader in the sciences so they took action and established the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health, The Atomic Energy Commission, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It would not be until 1965 that our governmental officials felt the same need to promote and foster the Arts and established the National Endowment for the Arts. My point here is that we as a society invested heavily in the importance of science and failed to do so in the arts. We can see the results of these actions today.

    Today while we still have the above science agencies as well as numerous additional ones we only have a gutted and useless NEA, an agency stripped of initiative and purpose by a political cultural war. We have politicians that want to fund wars but not our cultural institutions. We have a society that funds sports teams but not art education programs. We all say that the arts are one of the most important aspects of our intrinsic life and our extrinsic economy but we do the least in terms of public policy to show that we really believe that to be the case. Is there any reason why we should be surprised by a public disconnect when it comes to the arts?

    Yet regardless of the fact that we as a society have done so little to foster the arts, that we as a society have in fact taken steps to devalue and even destroy our cultural institutions and artistic programs Mr. Borwick keeps finding it somehow important to build some revisionist case that artists attitudes are to blame for any disconnect between the arts and community.

    Where or when did this fantasy land of artists working side by side with their fellow community members ever exist? Certainly it wasn’t during the grand reign of the church who controlled artistic production for it’s own goals. And certainly it wasn’t during the reign of wealthy patronage, which only served the small and controlling wealthy community. No, it was only when artists finally began to have their own identity and began to make art that was their own independent vision, their own individual style that art began to resemble anything that remotely comes close to being about community. It’s true the seeds of this independent vision required huge “heroic” fortitude on the part of artists to break with the controlling traditions and power of the past. This was no easy road to follow and artistic heroism should not be something to be mocked or looked down upon but rather admired by Mr. Borwick.

    This heroic road opened up the idea of art becoming new things, and these new things could be expressed by anyone. Art, beginning with Millet and through the Impressionists and then finally into Modernism, had finally broken free of the control of the wealthy and religion. Artists were now free. Art was now free and isn’t freedom what America is all about?

    As an artist today I’ve been trying to get my mind around why blogs such as yours and others in your field continue to dream up these theories that blame artists. Is it simply art policy maker’s lack of historical knowledge about the history of art? Is it the result of administrators and policy maker’s desperation to figure out a solution for their financial woes? Is it a lack of really understanding what artists actually do? Is it political beliefs?

    Whatever the reasons, blaming artists as you do not only isn’t factual, it doesn’t help solve your problems.

    • says

      These are terribly complex issues, admittedly not well suited to this form of discourse. I’ve got two more posts coming dealing with the same general area.

      That said, re: your first paragraph, I agree completely. But regarding your second, I have said before I think the lack of public funding comes from the disconnect, not the other way around. There certainly is, though, a chicken or egg argument to be made.

      RE: #3, my work is about highlighting the disconnect, identifying sources, and working on addressing them. If you have read much of my work you know that it is almost all about arts organizations. However, it would be a bit strange if I never mentioned artists. These posts are simply addressing another element of the arts ecosystem. Any artist’s attitude that looks down upon non-artists is a hindrance to the kind of engagement with the public that I think is necessary. But if such artists exist that is in no way a cause of the broad disconnect; it’s a minuscule part of the whole picture. It’s simply not helpful. (Unfortunately, artists do not carry enough weight in our current system to make much of a difference so they could not be to blame for the disconnect.) And I appreciate the fact that you have said before you know of no such artists. That makes me very happy. Perhaps my experience is largely a thing of the past. (More on that in my next post.)

      My “fantasy land” is hearkening way back to the origins of art as best we understand them. I have always said that the roots of the disconnect you and I both lament go back to specialization of labor and the rise of arts support by the church, then the state and wealthy patrons. The fact is that the current 501c3 infrastructure has largely cut out the creative artist altogether.

      And the word “blame” . . . . Sigh. I was simply going for a catchy title, but as I said in that post (and will be repeating) this is truly not about blame. It’s about identifying those things that might get in the way of a broader public coming to appreciate the benefits of the arts. The cost of catchiness is imprecision. Guilty.

      Believe it or not I do understand and “get” artists. That’s my background, training, and experience. I regret that anyone reads what I say as mocking or looking down on the very difficult work that is the life of the creative artist.

  2. says

    I like your “hyperbolic” heading! But yes, the word ‘blame’ carries with it the potential for much controversy, so I salute your bravery in using it. Certainly drew me towards clicking on the post as it scrolled by in my social media news feed…

    Whilst I don’t necessarily ‘blame’ artists for the disconnect of which you speak, I do think that things could change if more artists, especially the ones employed by large performing arts organisations, decided to take responsibility for communicating with the public about what they do.

    I’m fortunate to work for a wonderful organisation called Gondwana Choirs that takes it’s outreach/engagement very seriously and has met with considerable success in doing so, particularly in the area of giving young indigenous Australians a voice (Here’s a video about one of our projects http://youtu.be/rBRcj2kzjjI ) One of the best things about it for me personally is the skills I’ve learnt in working with young people with little or no experience in singing and composing. I’ve been able to use these skills in many contexts alongside my work as a concert soloist here in Australia i.e. I’ll tour somewhere and on the first day I’m in town, I’ll work with a bunch of kids ‘on the ground’ as it were, composing a new work by playing clapping games or drawing with coloured markers or improvising some vocals, whatever… The very next night, the kids all turn up to the concert hall and see me perform (last time, it was a world premiere of a work by Philip Glass, with the man himself performing too). Sooooo, the point is this; the kids see me in both these very contrasting contexts (workshop space in a school vs. concert hall stage) and I think this is a pretty powerful way to shorten the distance between performer and ‘consumer’, for want of a better word.

    Is it really too hard to get more performers to do this kind of hands-on creative work, with the blessing of their employers? I think it’s very achievable. I just think it’s super important that it’s all-hands-on-deck as far as this kind of engagement is concerned.

  3. says

    I agree with Dr. Borwick that this is a highly complex topic. But as someone who grew up on a small farm, has lived and worked in classical music in Europe, taught at a major conservatory and served as a music administrator, performer and teacher for over 40 years, I have observed continually that artists who attempt to connect with our audiences, to relate our art to them, to explain as fellow human beings why our art means so much to us–invariably these artists do establish real connections. They then build a base of listener/viewers who feel co-ownership with the artist of the art.

    I also believe that connecting with an audience–acknowledging and honoring who they are and what they bring to the art– and artistic individuality and excellence do not have to be mutually exclusive. The key, for me as a performer and also visual artist, is to realize, with gratitude, that it is actually a privilege to share with others what enriches my own life. Call me a hopeless Pollyanna…or an engaged, productive artist who loves her community and audiences.