The arts and popular culture

Sorry I haven’t blogged for a bit. Or maybe not sorry — found I got overloaded, forced myself every day to do more than I really could. So after my vacation, I pulled back, and especially didn’t force myself to blog. As I said on Twitter today, I’m finding that time management and prioritizing have to be my top priority.

But the blog is a big priority within that — and besides, I miss it (and I miss all of your comments), so here goes. Two days ago (January 16), I spoke at a class at the University of Pennsylvania. This is a course in leadership issues in the arts, taught by Jim Undercofler, aka the former CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He invited me to come down and speak, and I thought I’d talk about popular culture and the arts. I was there almost two hours, and spoke for only 15 minutes. The rest was interplay with a terrific group of students, but I thought I’d post a quick summary of what I started the class by saying. It ties into a lot of discussions we’ve had here.

Popular culture and the arts. Important to talk about because popular culture is the ocean in which the arts swim. Or, in cultural theory terms, popular culture is the Other, for the arts — the thing the arts supposedly are not.

And when we defend the arts, or look for more support for them, we’re doing it in a world defined by popular culture. So we’re always saying, implicitly or explicitly, that the arts are something different.

Which is where I start having trouble. Because popular culture can’t be defined anymore as something commercial, or even as something popular. It’s evolved its own forms of art, and all too often, people in the arts don’t acknowledge this, or even understand it. All too often, I’ve seen people advocate the arts by either ignoring popular culture, or else dismissing it.

Examples, both of which have circulated widely on the Web: Dana Gioia’s 2007 commencement speech at Stanford, and Ben Cameron’s keynote talk the same year at the Southern Arts Federation’s Performing Arts Exchange. (Gioia used to be Chairman of the National Endowment, and Cameron is Program Director for the Arts at the Doris Duke Foundation.)

Gioia thinks our society isn’t creative anymore, and that the arts can help restore that. He looks back wistfully to a time when, he says, the arts were more widely acknowledged, and when we could turn on network TV and see performances by opera stars like Robert Merrill. I’m afraid that makes me giggle. I love opera, as readers of this blog know, and Merrill had a voice to die for. You can wallow in his singing, as long as you don’t think about it very much, because Merrill also wasn’t notably smart, and — apart from luxurious vocalism — brought very little to the parts he played.

Now we can turn on TV and see Bruce Springsteen, who, unlike Robert Merrill, is very smart, writes his own music, writes his lyrics, produces his albums, has something to say, and is a cultural force in America in a way that Merrill never could have been, because for years (and maybe even now) articulates a vision that helps many of us know ourselves. And know the world we live in. Is seeing Springsteen on TV instead of opera a step backwards, as Gioia thinks? For me, it’s a step forward, no matter how much I love opera.

Cameron is more forgiving toward popular culture, but in his peroration he says the arts are like our family photographs, the record of who we are, just as if popular culture didn’t exist (or had nothing to say). He gives examples, drawn from his own life:

As a man born and raised in the southern part of the United States, the plays of Tennessee Williams, the stories of Carson McCullough, the novels of William Faulkner are my family photographs. As a man in contemporary New York, the plays of David Mamet, the plays of David Rabe, are my family photographs. As a gay man, the dances of Bill T. Jones, the plays of Tony Kushner are my family photographs. But as an American, an American, the novels of Toni Morrison, the poetry of Maya Angelou, the songs of my native American brothers and sisters, the poetry of my Asian aunts and uncles, these are our family photographs. And if we do our job right, they will live and breathe as testaments to who we were, what we thought, what we felt, – just as we turn to the plays of Aeschylus, Socrates and Euripides as the living photos of ancient Greece – not to some record of wars worn or lost.

To which I or anybody else could answer: As a southern man, Creedence and the Allman Brothers could be your family photographs, along with country music, bluegrass, and the blues. As a New Yorker, Lou Reed and Dion and the New York Dolls and the Ramones and Sonic Youth (and Naked City and the original King Kong) could be your photos. Plenty of gay men turned out for the Pet Shop Boys. And if we’re going to talk about black culture, please! Aretha Franklin, Motown, Otis Redding, jazz, gospel, hiphop…it’s an endless list. Does anybody think that people in the future won’t be turning to all these things when they want a record of what our age was like?

Cameron can make whatever personal choices he might like, but to then say that only choices like the ones he makes can be the record of our time — I just shake my head. How to lose your argument, when you venture outside the bubble of the arts. How to make yourself implausible. How to show you don’t know who you’re talking to, when you advocate the arts. How to lose your argument,

And now, in the interest of time management, I’ll save the rest of my outline for my next post.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    Ironically, Greg–a similar kind of myopia exists with regards to, um–for lack of a better term, “advocates” of popular culture with regards to the arts.

    I guess that may be difficult to see unless you’re also immersed in popular arts communities. Being in a band in Indianapolis that frequents the same types of clubs and venues that local punk and indie rock bands do I get to hear how fans, promoters, and musicians talk about what they consider to be truisms about the role, function, and [self-]importance of popular forms of culture.

    The same can be said about the musicians, promoters, and fans I get the opportunity to talk to while I’m touring with Ray Price on the Country/Western and Swing music circuit. Or with the communities surrounding the noise and “non-academically sanctioned” experimental musicians.

    In the Classical Arabic Ensemble I play with in Louisville I often get to play private parties for Arab-Americans and the discourse surrounding what constitutes sanctioned “authentic” Middle Eastern music and popular music from Middle Eastern musicians easily criss-cross the boundaries–and sometimes stand well outside the boundaries of what constitutes popular culture (since usually by “popular culture” we in the West are framing and referring to “popular Euro-American culture”).

    I understand your frustration–one of the reasons I stopped frequenting the cello chat forum at the internet cello society website is still the number one reason why I can sometimes barely stand to frequent it now namely that the cellists there are more interested in constant re-legitimization of the high art of cello playing rather than discussing of the trend (and on time will tell if it is just a fad) of singer-songwriter cellists like Jorane, Ben Solle, or Lindsay Mac.

    At the same time, I’m trying to re-visit the music I first heard and grew up with before I started learning the fine art of playing the cello, Thai music. I remember when I first took up the instrument and learning the accompanying way of thinking about tuning and scales and began to [secretly] think that my mother was singing “out of tune”–obviously, I was being trained as a legitimate musician so should know such things, right? That was until I learned, while exploring world musics, that in Thai music, the scale is divided into roughly 7 equidistant tones per octave (making the interval between any two notes just a tiny bit smaller than a Western whole tone). Boy was that a revelation to learn–something I didn’t even question until I “learned” otherwise.

    I’ve since given up trying to think I really know much about anything, though what I think I do know is that apostles of any kind of culture (“high art,” “low art,” “medium rare”) exist and the discourse surrounding their disparaging the culture and arts of the outgroup is pretty constant!

    Jon, when I read this I had one of those rare moments when my worldview changed, at least a little. I almost literally felt walls in my mind falling away, leaving me able to see many more things than I’d seen before. Thanks so much for bringing the larger picture in — or, quite literally, the larger world we all live in, whether we bother to notice or not. I hope I won’t forget to bring in what you’ve said, when I write or talk about these issues.

  2. says

    Thank you for taking the time to address this important issue. I firmly believe that we in the arts, particularly classical music, need to open our eyes and continually pursue “elite but never elitist” approaches to our art. We must strive to be relevant to one person at a time.

    I am continually inspired by your writing and I appreciate the time and effort it takes. I do indeed wish that you had been at Juilliard when I was a student and young Tenor there in the early 90s. I imagine that you are a fascinating teacher.

    Best Regards from Richmond,VA

    Jeff, thanks from the bottom of my heart. I’ve had an unfulfilling day of putting out tiny fires, figuratively speaking, in various areas of my work. Then I had a lovely lunch, and, on top of that comes your comment. You’ve made me glow. I trust everyone understands that I’m not hungry for praise. But encouragement like this makes me feel that I’m doing something right.

    As for teaching, it might be the most satisfying thing I do.

  3. says

    Paul Whiteman did ‘Experiments in Modern Music’ fusing popular styles with the concert hall. He picked Gershwin amongst others to fuse the styles. Why can’t we do this now with popular composers more?

    And when Whiteman premiered Rhapsody in Blue, the established concert world was there in force.

    I think the fusion has gone quite far among younger composers, at least in New York. I’m going to blog about that shortly. But today’s established concert world, just as Jeffrey says, could pay a lot more attention.

  4. says

    In the 1920s, Paul Whiteman began ‘Experiments in Modern Music’. He picked Gershwin as one of the composers to fuse popular music in the symphonic sense in the concert hall. Why can’t we do more of that today with popular composers, working together with serious orchestrators? Worked for Keith Emerson.

  5. T.D. says

    Not to pick nits from an interesting blog entry, but I’m not sure how iconic Creedence Clearwater Revival would be for a Southerner, as the band hailed from the SF Bay Area. I’m a CCR fan, but must admit that John Fogerty’s Southern accent was broadly put on and rather fake

    That’s an important nit to pick, and I’m glad you picked it. I should have known better. Thanks!

  6. Greg Evans says

    Very well said Greg, Until the arts figure out a way to make what they do relevant to those who are outside of the “inner circle” that’s exactly where we will remain as the circle gets smaller…..and smaller.

    Thanks, Greg.

    And one thing that ought to follow from what I’m saying is that — if popular culture can be smart and complex — we have a potential audience that’s looking for brains, depth, and complexity. So we don’t have to dumb ourselves down to be relevant. In classical music, in fact, we have to make ourselves look quite a bit smarter.

  7. says

    Trying to bring arts and popular culture together is one of our organization’s biggest challenges. Popular culture is often the ‘gateway’ to hook children on learning music in a broader sense. Many of the disadvantaged that we serve reject the arts out of hand as elitist. Must admit that we have indeed found them to be that, reluctant to reach beyond that ‘inner circle’.

  8. says

    Please tell me Cameron didn’t comically mistake the name of his “family member” Carson McCullers. Of course her novels were popular, Tennessee Williams was huge on Broadway, and Faulkner wrote scripts for Hollywood, so it seems like he’s advocating for a smart pop culture, not some sort of high art.

    I hope this isn’t far OT, Greg, but sometimes when classically oriented people do attempt to cross over in some way they just don’t have enough command of the idiom of the instrument or genre. One thing that’s wonderful about Mozart is, no matter how difficult the part, it’s written by someone who intimately understands the capabilities of the instrument (or voice). This is not always true of Beethoven. Compare the C Minor Mass, frequently performed by good civic choirs, with the Missa Solemnis, which some believe has never been sung adequately and cannot be.

    And here I’m going to pick on your blogger colleague Kyle Gann a little, a composer whom I respect. He wrote a piece for four electric guitars. You can view the score here:

    I like parts of this piece, and other parts were less successful. But as a guitarist, I found a few things odd about it:

    1. Here’s the apostle of modern microtonality, writing for potentially the most microtonal of all instruments (since they commonly come with a tremolo bridge), and he does not take advantage of this capability at all. The song is completely chromatic.

    2. The guitar, unlike (say) the piano, also allows for pitch bends and effects such as slides, hammers, pulls, etc. This piece includes none of the above. As a result, it sounds oddly un-guitar-like on his MP3 of it.

    3. Look at measure 11. Having the widely spaced chords ensures that the song cannot be played with a pick; it must be finger-picked (not the norm for electric guitars, but not unknown). Now look at the buildup around bars 133-35. These chords cry out to be played with a pick but the ensemble is forced to finger pick because of the earlier decision to include a few widely spaced chords in a few stray measures. Someone who is used to writing for guitar would have rearranged the notes at measure 4 (the same notes assigned to different guitars) so the song could be played with a pick.

    I think a piece like this, which may be deliberately “minimalist” in that it makes as little use as possible of the usual tricks of the guitarists, comes off as interesting but artificial in a recording. Which will keep it an academic curiosity, not a popular piece on the radio. And this has nothing to do with genre, or even the inherent musicality of the piece. It does reflect, I think, Mr. Gann’s oft-stated lack of interest in popular music and especially rock. Which is kind of like composing for saxophone, but only being familiar with 19th-century French repertoire for sax and orchestra, and having no interest in learning from Bird or Trane.

    Finally, I’m the rare guitarist who prefers staff to tab notation, but, folks, guitar may be the single hardest instrument to read from staff (unlike piano, there are many places to play each note, and figuring out how to voice chords requires detective work ahead of time). Contrary to the notion that working guitarists are mostly “musically illiterate,” we *all read tab* and reading tab *is* reading music. (And has been since the 17th century, for lute.) So, if you ever want anybody to play your guitar piece, please prepare a tab.

    Digressions are the key to life, so go OT all you want. From a composer’s point of view, the guitar is the hardest instrument to write for, even harder than the harp. Because you can write something that seems perfectly elementary, and then discover that it’s unplayable. The only way to know what’s playable or not, other than consulting a guitarist, is to know enough about the guitar to picture how the passage you’ve just written would be played. Or not played, because it’s impossible.

    Which says nothing about Kyle’s piece, which I don’t know. But I do understand the point about idiomatic guitar writing. Beethoven’s vocal writing is really off-base some of the time, though more the solo parts (in my view) than the chorus. It’s almost impossible, or probably outright impossible, to find solo singers with voices large enough for the music who also have the ability to blend with each other. (Although somehow they do pretty much blend on the Toscanini recording of the Missa. Did Toscanini terrify them into blending?)

    Once I gave a talk on Beethoven before a St. Louis Symphony concert. I wanted to bring Beethoven down to earth a little, and talked about some failings of his, and also about great composers (Verdi, for instance, and Stravinsky) who didn’t like the Ninth Symphony. I mentioned the writing for the soloists in the Ninth as an example of a failing, because it’s next to impossible to bring off.

    One of the violinists from the orchestra came to hear my talk, and thanked me afterward for the bit about the soloists. She said she’d played the symphony many times, and always wondered why the soloists sounded so bad (in their ensemble passages). She was glad to find a simple, comprehensible explanation.