For some of the last two weeks, I was blogging on a special ArtsJournal blog leading up to the American Symphony Orchestra League’s just-concluded conference. The subject was, more or less, the state of the arts, and the need for arts organizations to engage audiences in a much more vivid way. If I’d been the least bit organized, I would have noted this here, while it was happening, and maybe even crossposted some of my many entries.
But to tell the truth, even while I almost obsessed with that blog, I was discouraged. My view, simply put, is that the arts — as an enterprise separate from our wider culture, and somehow standing above it — are over. And that therefore any attempt to revive them (this includes classical music, of course) will have to mean that they engage popular culture, and everything else going on in the outside world. Which I started calling “the real world,” partly because I was frustrated that many people just don’t get all this.
I have many reasons for my point of view, starting from my own arts consumption, which these days makes no distinction — in presumed cultural level — between TV, movies, gospel music (my current craze, along with a yet again renewed passion for past-generation opera singers) and classical music. And then there’s the wider world, where the arts clearly don’t have the force or constituency or unquestioned prestige that they used to have. The clearest example of this is the sense that emerged over the last decades that cities don’t need the arts to attract a smart, creative young workforce (and therefore the corporations that employ it). Instead — as reported by Richard Florida in his book The Rise of the Creative Class, and in reporting in the New York Times, cities need a vital local band scene, and a good network of bike paths. That’s a huge cultural change, of course reflecting the change in younger peoples’ culture.
But never mind that. You can read my posts in that blog for more. And in fact I’d recommend at least skimming the whole thing. It was quite a vital discussion.
What bothers me is the way I seem to be received. I was praised, offstage, by more than one person, for being “the provocateur the field needs.” I’ve gotten that “provocateur” label many times before, and, honestly, I don’t like it. I feel a little bit like Varese, who hated being called an “experimental” composer. “My experiments I leave in my studio,” he groused. “This is my music!” (Or words to that effect.)
So, likewise, me. These posts, here in this blog and in the other one (along with all my declarations on these subjects) aren’t meant to provoke anyone. They’re simply my ideas. They’re what I think is true. They’re what I think should be acted on. But they don’t quite register that way. I don’t often get people saying, “Great! Let’s do it!” Or, which I’d like just as much, “His solution doesn’t seem right, but he’s certainly raised some crucial issues. Let’s find a way to deal with them.’
Of course, maybe I’m just too extreme. Maybe I’m out beyond left field, raving about global warming, when all we’re seeing is a hot day. Or maybe, on the other hand, the field is too conservative. Take your pick. But I’d offer the following as one perspective that ought to be more than a provocation:
1, The arts are in crisis. There’s not enough audience, not enough support. Why else are we having all these debates?
2. From outside the arts, the world looks very different from how it looks inside the arts. And, above all, the arts look very different.
3. There’s even a literature partly about the arts, written by people in the outside world, including such widely read items as the Richard Florida book I mentioned above, and John Seabrook’s Nobrow. People in the arts don’t seem to know these books. Certainly they’re not cited very often, even in the middle of debates where what they say is directly to the point.
4. People in the arts don’t pay enough attention to what people outside the arts think.
5. People in the arts need to pay close attention to what people outside the arts think. Because if you don’t have enough audience, or enough funding, or enough advocacy…well, we can all connect the dots ourselves.
But people in the arts are, in my experience, far too focused on inside-the-arts thinking. They (including me) talk, talk, talk about how to engage a new audience, without spending enough time considering what that new audience is really like.
Quotation of the day: “Most orchestras have got to do something to lower the age of their audience, or they’re going to be in big trouble in a few years.”
– GaryBongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, the trade publication for pop music tours, quoted in a New York Times piece about how some orchestras are starting to include alternative rock on their pops concerts.
Granted, Bongiovanni is talking about pops concerts, and where pops concerts are concerned, orchestras really do seem to be addressing the problem Bongiovanni raises. But look at the forthright way he states the problem. Do orchestras ever talk like that? This is yet another example of how things in classical music that we walk on eggs to talk about, get addressed in plain English when they come up elsewhere in the world.
The problem, by the way, with talking so frankly about orchestras’ classical concerts and their audience would be something like this. It’s fine to fiddle with pops concerts; they’re not part of the orchestra’s core mission. The classical concerts, on the other hand, are at the center of that mission, and therefore can’t be changed. Which then means it’s fairly hard to address some huge problem like the aging of the audience, because the most direct solution — start doing things younger people might like — seems to conflict with the untouchable core mission, and therefore can’t be contemplated, unless you’re only talking about very small changes around the edges of the standard concert format. To change that format in fundamental ways, or to change the programming in fundamental ways — these things aren’t yet allowed. Therefore it’s best to state the basic problem very cautiously. If it was hurled at the world in the kind of plain, bold English Gary Bongiovanni used, someone might just jump up and say, “So do something!”