The Place of Arts in our Society

As we begin to get to the serious part of another presidential campaign, along with all of the other domestic and international issues that confront us, my mind turns to the place of the arts in our society. Some of the candidates have actually begun to articulate positions on the arts and arts education (I'll avoid appearing to advocate here - you can certainly do the research) and that is gratifying. I believe strongly that how any society views the arts says much about the quality of that society. Last year I was asked to give a commencement speech at Bowling Green University, and I decided to make that my subject. Because of my strong feelings about this subject, and because I believe that public policy regarding the arts deserves a visible place in a political campaign, I am going to re-print that speech here, even though it is significantly longer than a normal blog entry. I hope you don't mind, but these are thoughts I wanted to share with you.

I am very honored to have been invited to speak with you. What I would like to explore with you today is the kind of society that you will help to build over the next fifty years. In particular, I'd like to explore the place of the arts and culture in that society. The reason that I want to focus on that is because over the past quarter century or more, the arts and culture have been more and more marginalized - and in my view, that is a sure indication of a decaying society.

Any careful examination of newspapers across America over a fifty-year span will demonstrate dramatically the shrinking of arts coverage. Fifty years ago, every small town newspaper had an arts critic, sometimes more than one - perhaps one for music, one for dance, one for theatre. Now, many smaller communities have let that lapse completely, and even many large cities have offered buyouts to retire their music critic, and chosen not to re-fill the position. If you attend a gathering of the music critics' association, one of the main topics of conversation is the shrinking space they are given to cover their art. 

Even the federal and local governments have contributed to this decline - the National Endowment for the Arts support for arts organizations of all kinds around America has, in real dollars, declined dramatically in the past 25 years. State, city, and county funding has also dropped significantly in recent years. And then there's our education system, which for the past 25 or 30 years in city after city has been reducing or eliminating music and the arts, in order to concentrate on testable, quantifiable results like math and science scores.

More and more, it seems to me, there is a growing climate of anti-intellectualism in America, and with it a trend to diminish the importance of our cultural heritage.

Why am I talking to you about this? Because it is up to your generation to change this. And why should you care? Ah...that's a harder question to answer, but I'm going to try. 

When speaking about the subject of the arts and music, I start with the subject of arts education in the public schools of America.  The decline there mirrors, and even leads, the decline of the place occupied by culture in the country as a whole.  And when one tries to think about how to change the focus of arts education in America, one immediately faces a conundrum.  Do I talk about the quantifiable, pragmatic advantages that are known to accrue to those youngsters who study music? Test scores in all areas, improved problem solving, high percentage going on to college and doing well - all kinds of real, measurable, and practical positive effects of music study. While different people will have differing views of how meaningful and dramatic these effects are, I think that few reasonable people deny their existence totally.  And, in truth, those might well be strong justifications for stronger music programs in the schools - and just the kind of justifications that the political and community leaders who make decisions on school expenditures and education budgets might respond to, because they like those things that can be measured in numbers.  

Or, do I speak about the fact that the arts in general, and music in particular, represent perhaps the unique achievement of human civilization - and that you cannot prepare young people to be a part of a civilized society without teaching them to understand and fully experience its greatest achievements?

I feel that today there is a serious distortion of values in the world - a set of values that puts the short term ahead of the long term, that puts financial achievement ahead of ethical standards, and a set of values that increasingly diminishes the worth of intellectual achievement and of human expression.  In fact, when future generations look back and judge the civilizations and societies of the past, it is first and foremost the cultural and artistic achievements of those societies that are spoken of.  To be sure, engineering and scientific achievements are a part of the picture of any society - even a major part. But whether it is Homer, Shakespeare, Mozart, Beethoven, Rembrandt, Picasso, James Baldwin, Garcia Lorca, or Leonard Bernstein - the artists and the art they created express the deepest and most profound thoughts of the civilizations in which they lived and worked.  And it is the achievements of those artists that, in fact, define civilizations, define humanity.  It is, in fact, the arts that distinguish us. Ants and beavers achieve, for their physical size, remarkable feats of engineering. But as far as we know, they have yet to produce a Mozart or a Rembrandt.

I know that only a part of the audience today consists of music students - and these remarks are not aimed at them. If I will focus on music to some degree, it is because that is my own chosen field, and where I have experience. But what I say about music can be broadened to apply in a more general way to the arts and culture as an integral part of the society in which we all live. And while my own experience is in what we call classical music, my thoughts apply to the broad range of music and what it expresses - whether it is jazz, or folk music, or any musical or artistic expression that expresses that which is deepest and most profound about the human experience.

A real problem, I believe, in America today is that people in power want simple and quantifiable answers - graphs, charts, numerical indications of progress. So when you talk about the non-quantifiable human qualities of music and the arts, when you start talking about the way in which an understanding of great art leads to a greater understanding of other cultures and peoples, you are asked to prove it. Well...I can't document it with graphs - but every year of my life spent in music makes me more certain of it.  And exhibit A for me is not a chart - it is an orchestra, a very specific orchestra. Some of you may have heard of it: it's called the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and it is now in its seventh year of existence. Founded by Daniel Barenboim (one of the great pianists and conductors of the 20th Century, for fifteen years music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), it consists of Arabs, Palestinians, and Israeli Jews - and every year for three or four weeks they live together, eat together, rehearse and perform together. My wife and I were a part of that orchestra from the beginning - and that first year was an experience I shall never forget. Daniel Barenboim, and  famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma working with him, assembled this group of young musicians, ages 17-25, and brought them together in Weimar, Germany. In addition to forming an orchestra, Barenboim and Ma invited them to form chamber-music groups which they, Barenboim and Ma, would coach in preparation for a chamber music concert to take place the night before the orchestra concert. There was only one rule - no all-Jewish chamber group, and no all-Arab/Palestinian group. The resulting chamber-music concert was three and a half hours long - and each group only played one movement, not whole pieces, or it would have gone on forever. To sit there and watch, for instance, a movement from a Brahms Clarinet trio, played by an Egyptian, a, Syrian, and an Israeli was one of the most moving experiences of my life - to see these kids working out musical problems together, leaning into each others' phrases, and embracing each other while receiving applause - this was all the charting and graphing I will ever need to demonstrate what it is that music can do that nothing else can.  We know this - you and I and those who are in our fields know this. The question is how can we work together to help the rest of the world to know it - and to get the value, the human value of this art form across to those who determine what we teach our future citizens?  This power is something shared by all of the arts - because the artistic achievements of human beings represent the best that humanity has to offer. They mirror the human soul - and define it.

As you go forward in this world, helping to shape the America of the 21st Century, I hope that you will work to make that future something more than faster computers, bigger buildings, more productive factories, and certainly about something other than more devastating wars and conflicts. The peak of human achievement, in civilization after civilization is represented by its artistic and cultural achievements - and any society worthy of respect is a society that respects and preserves the great art handed down to it from the past, and adds to that heritage by the creation of new art.  The great playwright Arthur Miller may well have put it best: "When the cannons have stopped firing, and the great victories of finance are reduced to surmise and are long forgotten, it is the art of the people that will confront future generations. The arts can do more to sustain the peace than all the wars, the armaments, and the threats and warnings of the politicians." Thank you.

April 11, 2008 3:06 PM | | Comments (4)

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Mr. Berger is absolutely correct in stating that much of the music of past eras isn't really worth the hearing. I also agree entirely with Mr. Ruggieri's premise that society should support the efforts of its creative members.

With all due respect to Messrs. Berger and Ruggieri, however - there is a difference between merely boring music, such as Mr. Berger refers to, and acoustical abuse of audiences, as we have observed more recently (and while Mr. Berger is also correct that an editor applied the title to Milton Babbitt's article, Babbitt himself could have but has not rejected or disavowed that title).

It is unprecedented in music history, before serialism, that composers would deliberately produce material that their ostensible audience quite sensibly and predictably doesn't consider to be music, and which so patently isn't music insofar as it lacks all of the elements and qualities that define music and separate music from mere noise. It is even more inexplicable that some of these "composers" have actually undertaken to offend their hearers, but this is undeniable.

Yes, much music of poor quality was written before serialism, but I would challenge anyone to cite examples of widely publicized composers of those earlier times who purposely set out to alienate audiences. There may have been a few cranks, but these never would have become the truly dominating presences that serialists, aleatorists and minimalists have been since 1950. In past times these cranks would never have found the financial and critical support afforded to acoustical abuse in recent times.

Therefore, I do not accept that people calling themselves "composers" who produce this sort of material are creative. On the contrary, by acting to drive audiences away from new music, they are concretely undertaking to suppress real creativity and the composers who actually are creative. The question here is simply the survival of classical music as a living art form.

If classical music is going to remain a living art, control and operation of the performing, publishing and critical establishments must be taken away from those who produce and promote material that alienates audiences, and these resources, along with the financing nedded to maintain them, must be allocated instead only to production of music that audiences want to hear - enough audiences, that is, to ensure that the production is financially viable. Until this is done, we will continue to hear about more and more orchestras and ensembles incurring financial difficulties and going out of business, and less and less public interest in classical music.

Any mentally challenged person can roll dice, pound out a simple phrase a hundred times on a piano, sit for four and a half minutes doing nothing, or make a tape recording of subway noise - no creativity required there! As for serialism, I myself once conducted a little experiment on that when I was an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1965. I spent 6-1/2 hours in my dorm room one Saturday evening producing some 80 pages and 16 minutes' worth of absolutely correct serialism, scored simply for string orchestra. While I was writing this material, I carefully avoided hearing it in my mind's ear, so that what I wrote would not be influenced by how it sounded. I then submitted this "music" to the chairman of the music department at UCSB, a rather well-known composer named Peter Racine Fricker.

The dear professor was ecstatic. He said it was one of the most remarkable student works, no, even one of the most remarkable new serial pieces, period, that he had ever seen, the more so for one who was not even a composition or even a music major (I majored in history and took only appreciation courses in music, no theory or composition), this breaks new ground, we must get it performed and published, etc., etc. I did not respond to these entreaties from Prof. Fricker, because I had achieved my purpose of proving that how it sounded was irrelevant for serialism, and that all one actually needed to produce "good" serialism was knowledge of music notation and the rules of serial "composition" - again, no creativity required.

Once again, the question is the survival and prosperity of classical music as a living art form. Allowing practitioners of acoustical abuse to divert resources away from genuinely creative and appealing music will only hasten the death of the art. As to what is genuinely creative and appealing, the core audience has already decided that and has voted resolutely with their ticket purchases and their feet against the three modernisms.

Those who provide funding for serious music should keep their eye on that core audience and end their support of that offensive material once and for all. There are too few resources available for any of those resources to be squandered on producing and promoting abusive material.

What Mr.Wozniak fails to realize is that most of the classical music from every era has been deservedly forgotten,simply because it is not very good.True, a lot of boringly arid music has been written by serial composers,but there is plenty of tonal music from the past that is just as boring.However,some minimal music has been favorably received by audiences. Only time will tell what will last. We might be surprised if we could come back 100 years from now and see what music is popular.And Milton Babbitt did not say "who cares if you listen".That was a title made up by the editor of the article Babbitt wrote.

A diatribe against contemporary composers who disdain writing music that "pleases and entertains"is misplaced in the context of Mr. Fogel's heartfelt plea for an arts-enhanced society. Seems to me that the world Fogel envisions is one in which humanity is enriched by supporting and at least attempting to understand the efforts of its creative members, not merely dismissing their works as superficially offensive.

Music is a highly compartmentalized human activity; it's reasonable to believe that those works which ultimately form a high water mark of civilization are not the same as those which pleased and entertained.

With respect to music (and I assume we're talking "art" or "classical" music here, in contrast to popular, folk, etc.): I believe that the single most important reason that public interest has declined is that composers, or at least those composers whose material is receiving wide attention, have by and large forsaken audiences. For close to 60 years now, new "art" music has been dominated at the publishing houses, in the concert hall and among critics by material that the traditional core audience for classical music frankly does not consider to be "music."

I contend that, by and large, that core audience’s characterization of this material is spot on. Here's why: All three "modernist" schools of composition - serialism, aleatory and minimalism - seemingly strive to purge every element from their material that, to an audience's hearing, makes that material into music: melody, harmonic logic, coherent form. One should not be deceived by the fact that minimalism is usually less dissonant than serial or aleatory material; it is just as empty of musical content as those other modernisms. Indeed, dissonance itself is not the problem with modernist "music"; audiences have no problem, for instance, with improv jazz, and they have embraced much highly dissonant early 20th-century music, such as that of Bartok or (pre-serial) Stravinsky. No, it is this lack of musical content, not dissonance, that alienates audiences from modernist material.

This brings me to another thing that has worked to diminish interest in serious music: the unabashed contempt shown by modernist "composers" towards audiences. There is Milton Babbitt saying, "Who cares if you listen?" There is Charles Wuorinen saying that if you don't like serialism, it's because you're too lazy or too stupid to learn to understand it. Far from not understanding it, audiences DO understand it, and they reject serialism precisely because it is so flagrantly lacking in musical content.

This contempt on the part of exponents of modernism is also expressed in material that, in my view, appears deliberately calculated to offend audiences - material that would be more accurately described as acoustical abuse, instead of "music." Their contempt also extends to composers who do not partake of the modernist orthodoxies. Composers who write music with real audience appeal have been derided by the modernist academic, publishing and critical establishments, have seen their careers obstructed and have too often been unable to secure performance and publication of their music. Instead, we see acoustical analogues to paint thrown at random at a canvas and the crucifix submerged in urine consuming scarce performance and publishing resources and being celebrated by critics.

And so, audiences are left only with the masterpieces of past eras - and even those masterpieces wear out if heard too often, so audiences eventually stop going to hear even the great music of prior centuries. I am convinced that exactly like popular music, art music needs a continuing supply of fresh and appealing material to thrive. And when, as it has done now for some 60 years, the music establishment acts to suppress that appealing material, audiences eventually lose interest in ALL art music.


How, then, to restore public interest in art music? Stop patronizing and subsidizing the modernist material that audiences rightly find so offensive. Let the outre types who think that subway noise, four and a half minutes of silence, or notes chosen by rolling dice are "music" go find other means of financing their bizarrerie, and instead help those composers and other artists who are prepared to please and entertain, rather than offend, audiences.

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This page contains a single entry by on the record published on April 11, 2008 3:06 PM.

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