Walking

Walking in New York; hot weather, the temperature up as high as 99. Walking is good for me, says the current fad, echoed by my body, which feels toned and alive after walking miles on shopping trips. But then I’ve breathed enough exhaust to give me cancer faster than a lifetime of second-hand smoke. The air is foul.

As I’m walking downtown on Broadway, I stop at LincolnCenter to buy some bottled water. I want to sit and drink it by the fountain. They’re charging $3 a bottle, for Aquafina—Pepsi-Cola water, a product of the Pepsi-Cola company—so cold that some of it is frozen.

$3 a bottle. That’s high, even ridiculous. Any deli (and I’ve passed dozens of them on these walks) would sell Aquafina for half that. So this is an art tax. The extra money pays LincolnCenter’s bills.

And that seems wrong to me. Sure, I go to the ballgame, and pay too much for beer that might be watered down. If I go to a Broadway show, the concessions are exhorbitant. Movie theaters make their money on the popcorn I might buy.

I know all that. And I know that if I buy anything to eat or drink at intermission at Carnegie Hall or the Met, I’ll be paying far too much as well. But outdoors at LincolnCenter? This seems like a mistake. It establishes to anyone who passes by and wants to drink some water that they’ve entered an elite space. LincolnCenter—don’t even think of coming here unless you can afford to pay $3 for a small bottle, not even of Evian, but of Aquafina. (Which, by the way, isn’t even mineral water. It’s distilled, and on the bottle Pepsi has the nerve to claim that this unneeded purity makes it taste better, as if Evian and Perrier and, for God’s sake, New York City tap water were dangerously loaded with impurities.)

Is this the message LincolnCenter wants to send? (Note that their outdoor space is home to their most populist activity, the wonderfully lively Midsummer Night Swing dances, attended by people who mostly never go to LincolnCenter’s arts events. Sometimes LincolnCenter wonders how to get this new potential audience into the Met, or the New York Philharmonic, or LincolnCenter’s own productions. Well, first let’s charge them $3 for some water, just to weed out the undesireables! I’d call this incoherent messaging.)

On another note, and maybe biting the hand that feeds me, I saw that Juilliard has some posters that try to give the school some sizzle. “Refining virtuosity!” says the one about chamber music (and if the exclamation point isn’t really present—I don’t quite remember—certainly it’s there in spirit). “Exhilirating originality!” flares the one about jazz at Juilliard.

And those phrases fascinate me. Let’s forget the meaning—if there is one—of doing ads like this at all. Some people might say that anyone who advertises this way forfeits the right to also claim the arts are special, but I won’t go there. I also won’t ask if the phrases really mean anything, or, rather, have any tangible connection to the music Juilliard students actually make. Are the students playing chamber music all virtuosos? Are the jazz performances always so original?

What interests me is the implied contrast between jazz and chamber music. Jazz gets called original, perhaps because the players improvise. Chamber music does get to be both exciting (all those virtuosos) and refined (or in other words artistic), but even advertising copywriters know that it’s not likely to be innovative in any way.

But why not? The grain of truth in this upsets me. Both in reality and perception, jazz appears more likely to do something new than chamber music. Too bad. What would chamber music be like, if we all expected “exhilirating originality”?

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