Art and the Arts

by Greg Sandow
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More than 20 years ago - when I was writing about new classical music as a columnist for The Village Voice in New York - I got a call from someone in the New York City government. He was working with a city program that reserved some downtown lofts for artists, and he had a question. Sting had applied for one of the lofts. Was Sting an artist? Should he get the loft?

I asked what the problem was. The answer was simple enough - Sting was (horror! horror!) commercial. So how could he be doing art? And yet his music didn't sound unartistic. What to do?

I think if I were asked this now, I'd suggest that the city shouldn't try to balance art and commerce, and instead might simply have a means test. If you made piles of money, no matter whether you're Sting or Lorin Maazel, you should find your loft on your own. What I did say was a softer, less confident version of that. I couldn't solve the problem, I declared, but if they rejected Sting, I hoped they'd reject big-league opera stars, who in their way were just as commercial as any pop star (and were comfortably wealthy, even if they didn't earn pop-star fees).

So why am I telling this story? To introduce my thought that art and the arts aren't the same thing. Art is an activity, sometimes sublime, and also the result of that activity. By now we know - or certainly we ought to know -- that it might be found anywhere, in vacant lots, in silence and graffiti, in overheard remarks (see the poetry of Jonathan Williams, an advocate of outsider art, who died not long ago), and in popular culture. The arts, by contrast, are a set of interest groups, whose claim to glory (and to funding) is that they speak for art, which is only partly true. They don't speak for all art, and when someone speaking for the arts - by which I mean for the interest groups - says that only the arts can offer meaning in our society, we've strayed so far from reality that we might as well be jumping off a cliff. Especially if we're looking for a younger audience!

Here's an example. Dana Gioa, the chairman of the NEA, gave a widely circulated commencement speech at Stamford, in which (among much else) he longed for the good old days, when art was in its glory, and opera singers like Robert Merrill could be heard on network TV... But Robert Merrill didn't have a brain in his head. I can say this affectionately, because I love opera, and Merrill can ravish me with his voice. But he had nothing to say in his singing (something that certainly was noticed back in the day), and to imagine that putting him on TV brings art in all its glory to an audience of millions is really pretty funny.  Contrast what happens now, when we have pop stars like Bruce Springsteen, who write their own words and music (something Robert Merrill couldn't do), who sing about serious things, who both reflect profound things in our culture, and influence them (see for example the book about Springsteen - Springsteen's America: The People Listening, a Poet Singing -- by Robert Coles, one of our most profound and literate psychologists). And who go on 60 Minutes, talking about society and politics, in a completely serious, compelling way. Is that a step backward? I'd call it a big step forward, at least if you want art to mean something, and to help form both our consciousness and our reality.

But wait! How can Springsteen be an artist, if he's a pop musician, and therefore (horror! horror!) commercial? To me that question is based on a misunderstanding both of commerce and of art. Or at least of the history of art. My field is classical music, and you can't study its history without noticing that many great musicians of the past were commercial, including many of the great composers, or maybe even most of them.

I've just been reading a lively little book - Liszt: My Travelling Circus Life, by David Lee Allsobrook -- about one of the greatest pianists of the 19th century, Franz Liszt, and his two tours of England in the 1840s. He made those tours purely for money, flacked for a piano manufacturer, whose pianos he endorsed, and packed his programs with popular opera arias and comical songs, all to please an audience that would have run away from more serious music, by the likes of Mozart or Beethoven.

Handel was thoroughly commercial, and wrote his famous oratorios only because the market for his operas had dried up. Beethoven tried to be commercial, though he wasn't very good at it (he threw a fit when the premiere of his Ninth Symphony didn't make much money). Verdi and Puccini were commercial stars; Rossini was one of the greatest commercial successes in the history of any kind of music. And the list could go on. Brahms made his fortune by writing popular piano music. Why was commerce, for an artist, OK in past centuries, but bad in this one? Someone's going to say that our culture has degenerated, but I don't buy it. Things were better in the days of slavery? Should we look back with admiration at an age when women were their husbands' property, just because people (or so we think) liked better music then? Picasso knew exactly how to sell himself. Should we condemn his art?

And no, I'm not forgetting that many artists - including, just for instance, Webern, one of my favorite composers - stand (or stood) apart from commerce. But we also should understand the nature of the commercial world today. In the arts (and certainly in classical music) we all too quickly think that there are just two choices, to be commercial, and to create only what the market wants, or to be an artist, and be true to our inner selves. But that's not at all how it works. Pop music is a good guide here. Not everyone making pop records tries to sell 10,000,000 copies. Many people work in alternative genres - alternative rock, dance music - and don't expect to sell anywhere near that. One of the leading people on the edge of dance music, Aphex Twin, sells about 50,000 copies of his CDs. Another dance artist on the same label, Clark, sells just 5,000. And not many people calculate their position in advance. More likely, you make the music you want to make, and then find who's going to buy it. Maybe you sell ten million records, but more likely you sell many fewer - 100,000, 50,000, 10,000, 500.

And is commerce really bad? In pop music, it can be noxious, but for honest artists, it's also a way to reach the people who love your music. And are the arts really free of it? Again I'm going to speak about classical music, because that's the art I know most about. A few years ago, I saw a public conversation at Juilliard, between Reneé Fleming, one of the world's top sopranos, and Stephen Sondheim. Had either of them, they were asked, ever had to compromise their art for commercial reasons? "Very often," said Fleming, who then gave chapter and verse. In order to make recordings she cared about, she said, she had to make others that her record company wanted to make, recordings they thought would sell. Sondheim's answer? "Never."

So here we have Reneé Fleming, an opera singer working (or so the myth goes) in the sacred precincts of high art, and Stephen Sondheim, working in the commercial world of Broadway. And he's the one who never compromises! Fleming also was very funny about the role she was singing back then at the Metropolitan Opera, the lead in Massenet's Manon. "That's not art," she said, or words to that effect. "That's fluff, that's just entertainment." We'd be silly, in any case, to think that what arts organizations do is always art. Again, a classical music example. Orchestras and opera companies, not to mention big classical record labels and classical radio stations, are terrified of their audience. They're afraid to program things that their audience won't like. Yes, they do it sometimes, but they always know that some large part of their audience might not like anything new or adventurous - and that it would be commercial (that word again) suicide for them to do too much of that. Then you have some part, maybe a biggish part, of the classical music audience - see Roger Paterson's blog for this (he's a radio guy) - that loves classical music because it's a refuge from the rest of the world...that's not art. It's nostalgia. Or at the very least it's not a mindset that'll endear classical music (as it currently manifests itself in our culture) to younger people intensely engaged with the world around them.

And then - moving back to the rest of our culture - we have Bob Dylan, who decades ago realized that he didn't want to write novels, and didn't want to write plays. All he wanted to do is write songs, and sing them. (You can see him saying this in Martin Scorcese's tremendous documentary on him, No Direction Home.) So that's what he's done, in album after album, and concert tour after concert tour, whether anyone was listening or not, no matter how many albums he sold, no matter what critics said. He made familiar songs unrecognizable in his live performances. He turned away from his fame, and wrote songs. If that's not how an artist acts, what is? Dylan has done what Schoenberg (the 12-tone composer) said that artists do, produce art because they can't help it, the way an apple tree produces apples.
But Dylan's not part of "the arts." (Neither is Bruce Springsteen, whose impeccable art-like work is documented in the DVD on the making of his Born to Run album, included in the 30th anniversary Born to Run boxed set.)

And many younger people aren't recognized by the arts, even though they're artists. Consider an important essay by Henry Jenkins and Vanessa Bertozzi, "Artistic Expression in the Age of Participatory Culture," published in Engaging Art, edited by Steven J. Tepper and Bill Ivey, a largely tentative examination how changes in our culture affect the arts.
But Jenkins and Bertozzi mostly aren't tentative. They introduce us to a 17 year-old high school student, Chloe, who makes costumes based on characters from anime, or on singers in Japanese rock bands. She studies Japanese at a nearby college, and delves deeply into traditional Japanese novels and poetry, of course doing all this on her own. Her high school didn't teach her any of it. There's also a woman who, when she was in high school, used comics to come out as a lesbian, and now is a successful comix artist. And a 14 year-old whose art is designing what she wears to school - a different look every day, no matter what the other kids might think. And a kid who recorded music in his bedroom: "I used a belt buckle and a glass ashtray and made just like a clinking sound. My mom is an elementary school music teacher so she gave me children's instruments, like a recorder and little sand-blocks you scrape together to make percussion sounds." He put together tracks on his computer, posted them to MP3 sites, and eventually got signed to a record deal. His band is Grizzly Bear, a star attraction in far-alternative New York clubs; in March it appeared with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Though Jenkins and Bertozzi quite properly treat these kids as artists, there's one hesitation in their essay, a decision to avoid asking "whether making media is the same thing as making art." To even note that question seems to me like a step backward, a bow toward lines artificially drawn by the arts that have some kind of official sanction. Paint a painting - that's art. Assemble a collection of pink objects, and show it in a gallery - even that will be acknowledged. But make a comic book? Record noises in your bedroom? Dress up differently each day? Suddenly that's "media," and might not get official sanction. This is one way that "the arts" preserve their sense of their importance (and along with that, their claim on funding).

But I think these kids are artists, just like the college-age son of a friend of mine. He's a musician. He has a band. He made an album, and released it on vinyl - yes, as an LP record - though the songs were available as downloads. Once the album got some attention, a small indie label picked it up, and released it on CD. But the original idea was to have it for sale only on vinyl. This musician also does noise music improvisations, which he releases on cassette! This - and the same goes for the people Jenkins and Bertozzi write about -- is how artists act, doing things to please themselves, and deliberately moving away from the mainstream, something not exactly unknown in the history of art. Think of Guillaume Apollinaire, early in the 20th century, walking a lobster down the Paris boulevards. He did this as artistic self-expression, though his claim to art was his poetry. In our age - after a generation of performance art -- the lobster might be art all by itself.

So my friend's son is an artist, but I doubt the arts know about him, just as they don't know about the kids that Jenkins and Bertozzi write about. That has to change. Especially if the arts - which we now have to define as only part of the larger world of art, and most definitely not as all of it - want to reach a younger audience!

How to do that would be yet another long oration. But it starts with getting smarter, avoiding empty middlebrow talk of sublimity and masterworks. (Maybe only the classical music business talks that way. I hope so!) In fact, to reach a smart younger audience, those of us in the arts will have to talk about how smart the art we represent is, how it's offbeat, even quirky. And how creative people can participate in it, by playing with it in their bedrooms.

Which, to me, is wonderful. At the very least, we'll have more fun than we're having now.  

To hear more from Greg Sandow, read his blog.
To learn more about NPAC sessions such as "Taking Art off the Shelf: What Do Today's Audiences Really Want?"
, visit the website.

May 11, 2008 5:44 PM | | Comments (11)


Yes. Interesting debate. Part of the problem is in how musicians tend to, or perhaps feel they have to, desribe themselves or what they do. They follow the formula. They present their music at 'gigs' not exhibitions.

There would seem to be some argument for a more imaginative approach to all of this. Certainly, Ambient Music would suit performation described as Aural Art, where the listener could attend an exhibit in an altogether different setting to that of an theatre.

Creative people, you would have thought, need to be a little more creative when it comes to breaking down barriers between the visual and aural.

Vincent Wood
(Aural Artist)

Bravo, Gregg. You know, Keith Emerson and all his ELP stuff, including his Piano Concerto that I just can't be quiet about, is 'classical' music now. It might as well be Ginastera or Ravel, or Beethoven for that matter, as far as today's youth is concerned.

Have fun in Denver!!

"It's time to recognize that everybody's art matters.

When "everybody's art matters", nobody's art matters.

The only way to pretend that "everybody's art matters" is to willfully suspend your aesthetic sensibilities to an extreme degree. Failing that, you will eventually encounter something you don't like aesthetically, and it will cease to matter to you (or it should).

Art is not about finding a way to embrace everything that is thrown your way so that there will be fewer bad vibes floating around. Art is about being picky, opinionated, and irrational, both pro and con.

Where the "empty middlebrow talk of sublimity and masterworks" seeks to impose an opinion on us, the all-encompassing relativism whereby "everybody's art matters" seeks to strip us of any opinions we might already have. Both are useless. "Everybody's art matters" only where aesthetics don't matter. God help us if we ever arrive at such a condition.

Greg always presents pop music with a kind of aesthetic zealotry that leads to specious arguments and hidden agendas. It is quite true that commercial and non-commercial art can both be profound and meaningful. (Is that really news to anyone?)

Nevertheless, Greg misleads us with clever polemic that brushes aside the profound economic differences between pop singers and opera houses. To fund Springsteen requires paying for one person singing and playing a guitar, but opera requires paying for an organization that on average employs about 400 people. (In fact, large opera houses usually have about 800 employees on the payroll.) A pop singer can exist commercially but opera can’t. The differences are economic and cannot be reduced to manipulative polemic about elitism, snobbery, or attitudes of entitlement.

Please remember that Greg writes for the Wall Street Journal. His hidden agenda is the neo-con argument that the marketplace should be the sole arbiter of all human activity. We are led to believe we should write off opera because it can’t fit into America’s peculiar and isolated type of extreme capitalism. It is also a subtle rightwing attack on the NEA. Our plutocratic system where the wealthy fund the arts, or where they provide it through corporate media, is to be left in place.

The United States is the only industrial country that primarily uses a private funding model for the arts. All other industrial countries primarily use public funding. The mixed economies of Europe provide a better model, and that is why they are so much better at supporting both “art” and the “arts”. If necessary, I can provide the statistics to substantiate that argument.

Excellent post, as always Greg. We here at the Composers Forum have been talking a lot about how the nature of art has changed from an interaction between maker and audience to one that includes the maker enabling the audience to be makers themselves. Your examples from Jenkins and Bertozzi are part of this art as participatory experience continuum.

It's ironic how "commercial" has become a bad word when the composers I work with are seeking commissions and awards for the music they write. Isn't playing the commission game more commercial than someone who's moved to write a rock song that speaks out against the Iraq war?

I hope I get the change to meet you at NPAC.

This is a good post.

I think you might save some confusion, though, by distinguishing between the descriptive and normative meanings of the word “art.”

Descriptively, “art” could just mean anything that’s made out of whatever material is available (including sound-waves) for goals that go beyond the merely useful, although art objects may be useful as well. Such goals might include: Fun, pleasure, profundity, shock-value. Therefore fashion can be art and so can new media or someone’s new dorky television show.

“Art” in a normative sense has usually been restricted only to works that aim to be particularly profound or stirring. And often art just equals “good” in the same way that “democracy” usually just means “good.”

A very useful question to ask is why something was made. What is a new fashion design, a new television show, a new symphony, a new play trying to accomplish? To make us laugh? To make us wonder? To provide a little bit of fun? Does it succeed at what it’s trying do? And even if it does succeed in its own terms, was the whole enterprise worth doing to begin with?

If these kinds of question are conscientiously and thoughtfully answered our conception of art is going to get at once much broader and much narrower than it now is.

It’s going to get much broader because we are going to have to face the fact that times change and that “art” is going to cover a greater and greater variety of phenomenon.

But our notion of art is going to get narrower as well: Because sooner or later we’re going to face the fact that not all experiences are created equal and not all goals are all equally worth pursuing. We’re going to see that there is a hierarchy of values – but that this hierarchy cuts across different art forms. The issue isn’t whether “classical is better than pop” but rather: Who – in the fields of pop or classical – is really doing worthwhile work?

Greg, Thank you so much for posting this. While an emphasis on new and different may misrepresent the issue, I agree that "the arts" don't represent contemporary artistic practices nearly as well as they should. The fatalist cries of society's regression, and classical music's death, address the loss of power within these cultures to decide what is and is not acceptable. Susan McClary's article "Terminal Prestige" (1989), Robert Fink's article "Elvis Everywhere" (1998), and Lawrence Kramer's book "Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge" cover this and similar issues.

It's time to recognize that everybody's art matters. The hierarchy of genres creates divisions between people, and I for one refuse to believe that my physical experience of music is worth less than my intellectual one.


I'm worried that you may be trying to have your cake and eat it too. I basically agree with you, but I don't think you go far enough.

In what sense, for instance, did Webern "stand apart from commerce"? I assume he got paid for his conducting, that he got paid commissions for at least some of his compositions, that he was paid by Universal Edition when they published his music, and by Universal when he worked as a proofreader. I would also guess that working as a proofreader was a fallback from difficulty in making a living as a conductor and composer. All of these activities are commercial.

And in what sense can commerce be "noxious" in pop music? On what grounds is the most mass-produced pop record any less a work of art than a Webern piano piece? And where is the harm done by the mass-produced pop music? For the most part it makes millions of people happy. You raise the issue of artistic "honesty," but in what sense is wanting to sell millions or records dishonest? Is it any more dishonest than wanting to appeal to snooty classical music critics and elitist audiences?

Accusations of commerciality usually just a bludgeon wielded by hypocritical elitists seeking to leverage their own lack of popularity in order to delegitimize a commercial adversary through implications of inauthenticity.

Greg Sandow, you have avoided any reference to the thing that Art does to us, namely, affect us emotionally.

Everyone, according to Yoko Ono, is an artist. But this may only be true if the quality of their Art's emotional impact is disregarded. And it often is, because it's operative sub-consciously. That makes it difficult to talk about it.

The difference between High Art & Low Art, presumably, lies in the different ranges of emotions that each arouse. For example, probably, High Art goes for the 'nobler' emotions, & may be currently unfashionable as a result. Low Art appeals to emotions involved in 'belonging' & being 'trendy'. It is currently fashionable.

It all depends upon who has the most money to spend on Art; the intellectuals, or the masses. So currently, the intellectual Art is the type worthy of support. And we know it when we hear/see it, or we used to, but I'm not so sure that all of us still do, thanks to Nihilism as a Cultural force.

Wonderful post that gives me much to think about. So much of the Romantic artist-as-outsider ideology over-simplifies the issues, often along the "popular vs artistic" fault line.

Dear Mr. Sandow,

Two questions:

1. Regarding the loft issue, forget the big money maker vs the struggling bohemian. I agree that's a no brainer. The real consequence of your argument is this: given two aspiring young musicians, both equally destitute, if one is a brilliant young composer in the "line" of Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen and the other is a brilliant young composer in the "line" of Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, and Paul Simon, and both composers apply at precisely the same time and there is only one loft available ... who gets it?

2. If Dana Gioia's NEA get's an application from a 501(c)(3) performing arts organization to support a commission for a string quartet from John Harbison for $20,000, most people would say that's what commissions are for. One might argue that in the balance, since there is only a finite amount in the NEA pot, such grants should go to less established composers, but still the example is within the bounds of current practice. But what if the very same nonprofit organization applied to NEA for a grant to commission a string quartet from Bruce Springsteen for the same amount of $20,000. Should NEA give the grant? Why? or why not?

(Please take this second question seriously -- it is currently not outside the realm of possibility, and the mostly unanswered argumenta ad populum and cruminam by you and others may soon be trotted out to defend some rather "unconventional" funding decisions.)

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Recent Comments

vincent wood commented on Art and the Arts: Yes. Interesting debate. Part of the problem is in how musicians tend to, or perhap...

Jeffrey Biegel commented on Art and the Arts: Bravo, Gregg. You know, Keith Emerson and all his ELP stuff, including his Piano Conc...

Stefan Kac commented on Art and the Arts: "It's time to recognize that everybody's art matters. When "everybody's art matters"...

William Osborne commented on Art and the Arts: Greg always presents pop music with a kind of aesthetic zealotry that leads to specio...

Wendy Collins commented on Art and the Arts: Excellent post, as always Greg. We here at the Composers Forum have been talking a lo...

gary panetta commented on Art and the Arts: This is a good post. I think you might save some confusion, though, by distinguishin...

John Pippen commented on Art and the Arts: Greg, Thank you so much for posting this. While an emphasis on new and different may ...

Galen H. Brown commented on Art and the Arts: Greg- I'm worried that you may be trying to have your cake and eat it too. I basica...

Richard Harris commented on Art and the Arts: Greg Sandow, you have avoided any reference to the thing that Art does to us, namely,...

Scott Walters commented on Art and the Arts: Wonderful post that gives me much to think about. So much of the Romantic artist-as-o...

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