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June 15, 2007

Steampunks and the world we live in

by Greg Sandow


I'm much in sympathy with Vanessa Bertozzi (as if anyone would be surprised by that). Opera fans...steampunks...both showing up, in a new kind of cultural map, as subcultures that can seem very strange to anyone outside them.

Which is a big surprise, according to official -- canonic -- notions of high and low art. Opera, we've long assumed, is important. Steampunk is curious,weird. And probably won't stick around as long as opera did, right? So opera is worth more, right? (Not that I'm posing those rhetorical questions in my own voice.)

First corrective to this: look at Billboard, the trade paper of the recording industry. Look at their charts and commentary for innumerable musical genres. See how classical music shows up as one of these -- as one of the lesser ones, in fact, a genre they don't feel they need to touch base with every week. From a culture-wide point of view, then, the canonical arts can easily look like just one activity of many, with their own demographic, it's true, and their own rules, but easily viewed as part of the larger (and definitely not high-art) culture.

Second corrective: A group of twenty-somethings (to judge from their appearance), overheard talking as they came out of a performance of Tosca at the Met. "I didn't like it," said one of them. "I could tell he was really going to get shot at the end. That was dumb!" Popular culture, to make this point quickly, has gotten so smart that some things in high culture look dumb by comparison. We can't assume the superiority of high culture, just because we always have.

And then Robert Levine: there's still a place, he says, for the canonical arts. I agree. But that place, in the future, will demand (at least as I see it) that they get stripped of their canonical status. That doesn't mean we devalue them. Mahler, who's been with us a long time, deserves some deference. But only because of what's actually in his work, and what it actually means (and has meant) in our culture. We need to take away the aura, and let canonical artworks fend for themselves in the modern world.

Some people, of course, will find that horrifying. These artworks are special. They can't be understood without special preparation. (That thought is endemic in classical music, and goes a long way toward killing that artform.) They need to be nurtured, funded, protected.

But why? How does anyone argue for that? How do we justify, to our fellow citizens, all the money that goes for high art? These aren't academic questions. We're actively fighting those battles, as the arts studies I mentioned in my last post demonstrate. (Along with many others.) So supporters of the canonical status of traditional high art can huff and puff all they want (sorry; got a little carried away there). But they're still facing the present-day reality, which is that high art needs to show why it still matters -- and why its high status should still be maintained -- in the present=day world.

A thought. I've seen some figures on the proportion of the population of certain major cities that the orchestras in those cities reach on a regular basis. We're not talking now about the people who show up for Fourth of July parks concerts, but the people who come regularly to the core subscription concerts these orchestras give. I can't quote these figures , because they were told to me in confidence. But I can tell you that they're shockingly low. So low, in fact, that it becomes hard to justify the amount of money and prestige that these orchestras have. Opera companies, I don't doubt, would show the same disparity. So, opera and steampunk. Opera gets special care and feeding. Steampunk takes care of itself. That's a virtue in steampunk, a defect of opera. (Though I'm not closed to the argument that opera has been with us a long time, and plays an important role in the history of western culture. But does that really mean -- just to be devil's advocate here -- that we need live performances? Maybe we should just archive all the opera DVDs.)

Finally, Steven Tepper, so cautiously wondering what proportion of kids actually do create culture on their own. Studies haven't been done, he says. And I certainly should be sympathetic to that caution, because I so strongly said that we don't base our pontifications strongly enough on facts.

Still, I wonder if there's not a double standard here. Steven hopes that a majority of young people, maybe all young people, will participate in the ways Vanessa Bertozzi and her collaborator described. But we don't need that level of participation before it's clear that a major trend is at work. Rolling back the clock a few decades, did anyone ask -- when Andy Warhol was getting big -- how many people actually cared about pop art? Or saw Warhol's films? (That last was surely a small number.) Nobody asked. It was clear that something new was going on, and because it happened in the area of high art, we had a model for the emergence of new styles. We'd been clocking that emergence for centuries.

Or here's an example from the history of rock. The Velvet Underground (a Warhol connection there, parenthetically) is now ranked as one of the greatest of all bands, and certainly as one of the most influential. It's also understood that not many people heard them when they were new. In fact, there's a hoary old rock joke: "When the Velvet Underground came out, 12 people bought their records. And then all 12 started really important bands."

Why can't we have a model like that, at least provisionally, for current developments in culture? It's odd, I think, that we might not even think of it. At the same time, by the way, that most of us here are in the business of supporting the canonical arts, which are definitely a minority enterprise.

Besides, it seems hard to doubt that participation -- creating your own cultural stuff -- is a huge trend right now, whether or not any large number of teenagers are making the kind of really interesting art Vanessa and her collaborator described. Have we forgotten the hundreds, or maybe thousands, of Brokeback Mountain mashups? Have we forgotten the three commercials shown during the Superbowl (I think that's the right number), that were made by customers of the companies that showed them? Certainly the New York Times, in its business section, has run many pieces about how advertisers now solicit their customers to create or help create the ads.

Have we forgotten Time's person of the year -- who, precisely because of these participatory trends, was all of us? (Symbolized by a mirror on the cover of the magazine, instead of a picture of someone.) I'm all for studies, but while we're calling for them, let's at least grant that the conventional wisdom currently says that participation - creating your own cultural stuff -- is a big, big thing.

My final thought. We in the arts often don't have a clear sense of what people who don't participate in our kind of art are actually like -- what they think about, what they do. That's certainly true in my own field, classical music. The many smart, educated people who don't go to classical concerts might as well be on Mars, we understand them so poorly. And studies aren't the answer, I really must say. You have to know these people (who, after all, are our families, friends, and neighbors). You have to live among them. (As in fact we do, if we'd only open our eyes.) The reasons they might give for not going to classical concerts are only the slightest tip of an enormous iceberg. These people don't really know enough about classical concerts to know why they don't go. But when you can feel in your gut -- because you know it from your own experience -- what they actually do like, the reasons for their non-attendance start to seem very clear.

Posted by gsandow at June 15, 2007 9:26 AM


Dear Greg,

What the hell is a steampunk?
(Can't assume we dull classical folks know these things, anymore than we can assume people who know what a "steampunk" is will know what polyphony is, hmmm?)

And yes, creating your own "cultural stuff" is big right now, but it doesn't follow that the stuff being created is any good, does it? I mean, popularity and quality are two different things. Sometimes they overlap, sometimes not.

- Ken

Hi, Ken. It's reasonable to raise this point. I'd say that a lot of the stuff being created these days isn't popular at all. We're in a high tide of alternative culture -- the work Vanessa Bertozzi describes in her book chapter is very much niche stuff, appealing to small groups of people.

For whatever it's worth, I'll offer this: For a number of years, I was a pop music critic. And I'd say that the new bands I heard -- several each week, when I was a critic on a daily paper -- were "better," on the average, than the new classical pieces I've heard in my long career (before and after my pop years) as a classical critic. I put "better" in quotes because the judgment here is very much subjective, and it's also to some extent a matter of apples and oranges. That is, the classical pieces had element of craftsmanship (counterpoint, for instance) that music by a new band wouldn't have. This doesn't mean, by the way, that the new bands were crude or careless; just that they were doing different things. But I felt much more engaged with the new bands, and that continues to this day, when I catch up with new pop albums. If we look to art to tell us something about the meaning of our lives, new pop bands (for me; your mileage might vary) are, on the whole, much more telling than new classical music.

I'd also gently tease you about raising the quality question so quickly, even though, as I said, it's a perfectly reasonable question to ask. My teasing comes from a sense I get, from your comment, that you wouldn't be surprised to discover that the new work in question actually wasn't very good. But why not? And why do we more or less automatically assume that new work in "the arts" -- new classical compositions, for instance -- is in fact high quality work? If I honestly look at my reactions to it over my many years in the biz, i can't say that I should make that assumption, or at least not invoke it automatically.

Posted by: Ken at June 15, 2007 8:30 PM

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