I’ve been involved in a very lively, enormously stimulating e-mail discussion of some the problems facing orchestras. One subject that came up is the supposed hierarchy of art — high art at the top, popular art far lower down. Along with this usually goes the idea that art, by its very nature, is something spiritual and sublime, far removed from everyday life. And then, of course, it’s easy to say that high art, existing in its own lofty sphere, is the only real art.

I’d challenged that idea, suggesting among other things that it’s a fairly recent invention, going back no later than the first few decades of the 19th century. And I got wonderful support from Paul DiMaggio, a professor of sociology at Princeton, and research director of Princeton’s Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies. Paul can talk about these issues with an authority I don’t have, and he also presents data that everybody in classical music ought to know about, if we’re hoping to find a new audience. Who, after all, is the audience we’re trying to attract? What kind of people are they? A lot is known about this, and Paul gives us some of the really crucial information. Note especially the third and fourth paragraphs. (And thanks, Paul, for letting me post this here.)

The hierarchical view of art established in the early 19th century was well suited to the way people lived back then, with a small, stable inter-marrying upper class capable of enforcing their definition of art. It was also natural that the emerging commercial middle class, when it became large enough to sustain concerts, would draw from the ideas of the upper class — and would actually elaborate on those ideas and in some ways make them even more restrictive — to solve its own problems of identity and status (e.g., why it was not just richer but also more virtuous than the lower middle classes and simple trades people, how to tell the difference between art and fashion, etc., and so on). So the heyday of classical music was marked by an alliance between urban upper classes that were relatively stable and tightly connected and urban middle classes that served and relied upon those upper classes and their approval for their livelihoods and senses of selves. Classical music, and the stories they told themselves about it and what their ability to appreciate it said about them, was an important part of this.

The late-20th early 21st-century crisis, I think, reflects the dissolution of the way of living to which both the organization of classical music (in the U.S. at least) and the stories people told about it were tailored. Instead of fixed, well-defined upper classes, we have international overlapping networks of elites; and instead of urban commercial middle classes, we have even larger networks of highly educated and self-confident professionals, who have many other bases of identity (including viewing themselves as too “un-snobby” to like classical music). Research (both research at Princeton and research by folks elsewhere) has shown, first, that it’s almost impossible to find a college-educated American who will espouse the hierarchical view of culture that dominated discourse about music c. 1900 and was common even in the 1950s; and, second, that the kinds of upper-middle-class people who use culture as a basis for identity and status (people with more of what sociologists call “cultural capital” than money) now tend to be “omnivores” who like and can talk intelligently about many kinds of music. Omniverousness fits the way we live now, with middle class people participating in far-flung, cross-national networks that put them into contact with many different kinds of people — it makes sense to know enough cultures so that you can operate in all of these interlocking networks. The current form of organization and traditional narratives about classical music fit this new kind of social structure really poorly.

In other words, the problem isn’t just getting the music and the internal organizational dynamics right, but it’s aligning the music and the stories we tell about it with the way people live their lives and they way they use music and the other arts to understand themselves and construct their identities.

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