How to advocate the arts (2)

Time to grapple with this. Continuing from my last post on arts advocacy…

3. What we should do

Well, first, what we shouldn’t do. We shouldn’t talk as if the arts are better than popular culture, or as if they’re the sole or main source of meaning in our society. First, those things aren’t true.  (See two previous posts, here and here.) 

Second, attacking popular culture — aka what other people like —  wouldn’t exactly be a productive way to bring people to our side. “Hi! Support the arts! They’re far better than all that crap you like.” An approach like that — whether it’s explicit, or only implicit in the assumptions arts advocates might make — won’t work, for reasons that should be more than obvious.

But how often — in, for example, the Dana Gioia commencement address that I linked to in an earlier post — do arts advocates more or less say exactly that?

What to do instead: Place the arts alongside popular culture. Try, in fact, to erase any hard and fast distinction between the two, as most younger people do today. I know people in their 20s, who work in classical music, and go back and forth, in their lives, between pop music, art museums, classical concerts, movies, TV shows, Broadway musicals, literary novels, poetry. Why wouldn’t they? I do the same. 

And we’ll rank the things we absorb by various criteria, making the same kinds of judgments right across the board. I know perfectly well that Godard, in his films, goes a little deeper than Dollhouse, a new TV show I’m wild about, but I won’t say that he’s doing something that, in its essence, is different enough to put in some exalted category of art. And if, in the same week, I happen to encounter Joni Mitchell and Massenet (whose music Renée Fleming, speaking on a panel at Juilliard, once memorably said wasn’t art, but only fluffy entertainment), I won’t hesitate to say that Joni Mitchell is by miles the finer artist.

So: no distinctions. We have one culture, which we all share, even if we parse it differently. 

And so people in the arts should welcome triumphs in popular culture. Example: When Aretha Franklin sang opera arias (the most memorable example is here), opera companies throughout America should have publicly praised her, saying something like, “Well, of course we do it differently, but we’re thrilled that such a great singer loves our music.” And then invite her to sing opera from the stage of the Met. 

Of course, other art forms, more advanced than mainstream classical music, have no trouble doing this. When the Metropolitan Museum in New York had a show about how superhero costumes have influenced fashion, that’s precisely the kind of thing I’m talking about. Or when Tom Stoppard wrote his play “Rock & Roll,” which among other things is about how important a love of rock was for dissidents in Communist Czechoslovakia. Art and popular culture, moving side by side. 

What else? If you’re talking about the value of the formal high arts — art museums doing shows without a direct connection to popular culture, classic literature, classical music, dance, we know what else goes on this list — then don’t talk in lofty abstractions about how important the art in question is. Instead, talk specifically about what some specific piece of art does. (Or, if you’re talking about a museum show or a classical music festival, evoke the power of the whole thing by using specific examples.) 

One model for that, as I’ve said before, is Robert Coles’s book on Bruce Springsteen, in which a great humane psychiatrist and scholar lets ordinary Springsteen fans say in their own words what Springsteen means to them. Surely we can do that with any art. Henry Fogel, former CEO of the Chicago Symphony and former president of the League of American Orchestras, loves to tell a story of a bus driver (I think it was) on an orchestra tour, who fell in love with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. If we had some thoughts about Mahler in the driver’s own words, so much the better.

Or here’s conductor Benjamin Zander, on Mahler’s Seventh:

Of all Mahler’s works, it may well be the astonishingly “modern” Seventh Symphony that most fully expresses the mayhem of living in the contemporary world. It lays out the conflicts and contrasts, then offers a kind of alternative refuge–dream-like, entrancing ‘night music.’ In the end, though, it is in this world, not some remote afterlife, that this symphony finds its true victory. It seems to say: “This is life. It’s rough–but I am going to look it square in the face, and win.”

Or here’s me, telling a friend last night what the difference was, in my opera singer days many years ago, between singing Scarpia, in Tosca, and Iago in Verdi’s Otello. Singing Tosca is a little like imagining myself acting in a fabulous old movie. It’s terrific theater, a little over the top, with tasty characters you can have a lot of fun playing with. In his music, Puccini gives you not just the script, but quite a lot of the direction and the cinematography. And now it’s up to you as a singing actor. What can you do with the character Puccini sketches so delightfully, against such a rich and evocative background?

Iago works much differently. In that role, I felt that Verdi had gotten there ahead of me, that in addition to giving me the script, direction, and camerawork (to continue the film analogy), he’d also done the acting, and that what he’d thought of was deeper than anything I’d find, until perhaps I’d lived with the role for quite a while. So my first job was to find precisely the tone, the color, the subtext, and the timing — everything involved with meaning and with consciouso and unconscious attitude — that Verdi had built into the role, After I’d absorbed that thoroughly — and, much harder, was able to bring it to life in my own performance! — could I think of adding anything of my own. 

This didn’t in the least mean that Verdi made me wear a straitjacket. Just the opposite. Verdi gave me a very high kind of freedom, the freedom to touch something greater than myself, and transcend myself in it. 

You get the idea. We need to talk about the meaning of art in terms of our genuine experience with it. If some work traditionally labelled art turns out to be deeper, higher, more comprehensive, more deeply moving than many things (or even most things) in popular culture, then the truth of this will emerge from the way we talk about that work. I’m happy to tell anyone what Antonioni’s L’avventura means to me, and has meant from the moment I encountered it when it was first shown in the US around 1960. 

There”s first the observation of undercurrents, in body language and emotion, that comes from Antonioni’s camera, the way he moves around people, the way he follows them, the way he puts them (well, especially his star and later lover, Monica Vitta) against a background that shows us their entire being — or rather (this is part of his subtlety) the entire being that they’re showing at that moment, showing both consciously and unconsciously. That there’s more to them we take for granted, because Antonioni, in other moments, shows us that.

And then there’s the compassion in the movie, the unblinking eye (or unblinking camera) that Antonioni puts on people who are

n’t making sense, who are damaged, who damage other people. Here we all are. (The people shown are alienated rich Italians, some aristocrats, a choice that puts off some who see the film, who think the things we’re shown are trivial. For me, what Antonioni shows is so deep that it resonates far beyond its setting, but I understand the objection. Just as I understand people who think that the detailed, drawn out things he does with his camera are way too slow, too boring, way too self-indulgent. I don’t agree, but this kind of work isn’t to everybody’s taste.) 

So at the end, when a terribly flawed and deeply unreliable man hurts Monica Vitti, and in the film’s unforgettable final scene, she comes up behind him where he’s slumped on a bench outside in the dawn, and reaches out his hand, and touches him, this is a moment of redemption, just possibly, for us all, though it’s to Antonioni’s credit, I think, that we don’t know, and don’t need to know, whether the redemption is Monica Vitti’s, or the man’s, or whether, for all I know, she’s simply gone beyond her former love for him, and can feel pity because she’s free, and sees him for what he is. A strength of the scene is precisely that it could have many meanings. And I know it struck me to the heart when I was in my teens, and has remained with me ever since, as a revelation of how flawed we are, how badly things can go wrong, and yet how still there’s hope. 

You get the idea, I hope. I don’t need to say that L’avventura is better than Watchmen, a pointless comparison. I just try to let it stand there on its own, with my gloss on what it means to me, so that others with whom my evocation resonates can try it for themselves. If some things in art can’t support themselves in the market place, and need special funding (whether from government or private donors or both), we can make that case, but again by describing the power, value, and meaning of specific art works, the conclusion being (or the conclusion that we try to draw, and hope that others will accept) that these art works need to be available for all of us, even if they’re expensive, and even if not all of us make use of them.

People understand, I think — I’ll end with this — that there are valuable things in life that they themselves might not make use of. I won’t hesitate to argue the worth of art like L’avventura, which in fact many people don’t like at all. (As I’ve said before, I like a lot of things that aren’t exactly popular.) What’s crucial, I think, is to admit that it’s not for everyone, but that it still has an important meaning, an important function in our lives. 

A big part of that — as dramatically opposed (I think) to the Johnny Mathis approach (“Wonderful, Wonderful”) I made fun of in my last post — is that art exists in part to challenge us. Not everyone needs to accept the challenge, or accept it for every art work that purports to put a challenge forward, but we can make a case that the challenge is important, as Caroline Levine does in her book, which I cited in my previous post. I might also talk about art as an experimental laboratory for life and culture, a place where new attitudes and thoughts and new emotions are tried out, as well as new ways of evoking/describing/thinking about/embodying new things. One key point is that we don’t need to know, in any work of art, what these new things are, or what the artist means in showing whatever she might show, or in doing whatever she might do. The very form of new art might surprise or shock or bother us, or be, at least at first, entirely incomprehensible. 

But we can learn, as we know (or ought to know) we always need to do in life. We in the arts could provide examples of things learned from art, of art that taught us new ways to feel and look and listen and live, art that seemed beyond most normal experience that later was wildly influential. (Popular culture understands this perfectly. Look, for example, at the joke that’s regularly made about the Velvet Underground: “When their first records came out, only 15 people listened to them. But all 15 were inspired to start path-breaking bands.”) 

But that’s a shallow — if still perfectly valid — way to do it. It’s more powerful, I think, and more true to the nature of art, to say that we don’t know what role a new art experience may pay in our or anybody else’s later life, and that this precisely is a part of art’s value, that it can bring us something new without either we or the artist needing to know what benefit we’ll ever get from it. The experience itself — and the openness to new experience — should be reward enough.

It goes without saying, of course — or it ought to — that all of this can happen in popular culture as well. In fact, my use of a film example (a commercial film, in fact) immediately places me in a netherland that maybe isn’t fully recognized, by those who make decrees like this, as art. Next time I write about things like this, I’ll talk about Beckett instead. Or Webern. Or Morton Feldman. 

And I don’t mean to say we make our case just by talking in the ways I’m outlining. To get support for art, we have to make every case we can — an economic case, an argument that art helps kids learn, whatever. But we can’t pretend, as many music advocates seem to do, even without meaning it, that art music is the only kind of music that kids can learn from, or that can enrich anybody’s life. And our economic and practical arguments need to be grounded in our unabashed talk about the value of our art — something, I fear, that if we really did it faithfully and honestly would blow a lot of hot air out of the present concept (and practice) of “the arts,” and leave us much closer to the deep artistic truth that all of this is supposed to be about. 

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  1. says

    In so many ways, I agree with what you say. Almost all of it, in fact. And this in spite of my personal view that some aspects of culture are, intrinsically and perhaps even demonstrably, of greater value than others. But let’s set that aside, for it strays from the point I want to make.

    I was asked to judge an advertising awards thing recently, and one of the entries was a really excellent pastiche of the Apple iTunes TV ads. It featured ballet dancers wearing iPods silhouetted against bright, changing colours while dancing to the Act IV finale of Swan Lake. The purpose? To attract a new managing director for one of the UK’s leading arts organisations. The brief, apparently, was for this person to come in and help attract younger audiences. And as soon as I saw the ad, I thought of your views on advocacy.

    Then I marked the ad down.

    Not because it wasn’t brilliantly executed, or it failed to communicate its message effectively, but because of what it represented. To me, this pastiche smacked of dumbing down; of cynically piggybacking on a popular cultural icon to try to convince someone that they should come on board and use similar tactics to promote classical music to young people. It seemed to me as pathetic and cringeworthy as your dad trying to engage your friends in conversation when you were a teenager.

    This isn’t, as far as I can see, the way to attract new (younger) audiences. Not when box office figures show that younger people are already more inclined to go and hear ‘difficult’ contemporary music than most of the ageing classical music ‘elite’ who stick rigidly with Beethoven, Brahms and Mendelssohn then complain the artform is dying. No, we need methods of engagement that are culturally relevant – and this is why I agree with so much of what you say. Only trouble is, I’m a closet cultural snob – a fact of which I’m not especially proud.

    Springsteen? Thanks, but no thanks.


    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with such honesty. We should all hope to be as self-aware as you are, as discerning, and as honest.

  2. says

    It’s more powerful, I think, and more true to the nature of art, to say that we don’t know what role a new art experience may pay in our or anybody else’s later life, and that this precisely is a part of art’s value, that it can bring us something new without either we or the artist needing to know what benefit we’ll ever get from it. The experience itself — and the openness to new experience — should be reward enough.

    I just asked my singers to answer some or all of a set of questions about why they sing, when they began, etc. for inclusion on our Facebook page. I was struck by how many of them emailed me and said, in effect, “I don’t know why I sing – I’ll have to think about it and get back to you.” The comment that started it all was this: “Like? I like doing this I guess. Why do we do this? It’s hard,stressful, exhausting, with almost no tangible reward. Somehow I’m hooked. I just have to do it – its importance rank seems all out of proportion when I think about it rationally. Some kind of intangible thing in my right brain hemisphere… Truth? Beauty? Beer? Hard to put my finger on it…”

    We are all overflowing with art, and the need to create it. If people don’t have conventional outlets, they take to unconventional (and some might say antisocial) ones, like tagging, or rap. I think that perhaps our job is to find a way to reconnect people with that yearning for beauty in their lives. In that sense, the recession might almost be viewed as our friend – in times like these, people, after they get over the initial whining stage, often begin to seek what is really important in their lives. If we can get over ourselves a little bit, maybe we can be there in ways they can relate to.

    Sorry if this is incoherent. I know exactly what I want to say, and don’t know how to say it. Which is why we need art – to help us express the unexpressable.

    I think this is completely clear and coherent, Rebecca. And I loved it. Hiphop (whatever anyone thinks of it) is a perfect example of what I think you mean. It burst out among some of the most disadvanged people around, and proved a powerful means of self-expression. Not just the lyrics, but the very complex moves involved in making the music. Especially at the start, when it was all done by finding passages on LP records to repeat many times, using two turntables at once.

    One of the sad things about classical music today is how removed from creativity most of the audience is. Not only are they sure they don’t have enough training to create music for themselves, they’re often even hesitant to express an opinion, because they think they don’t know enough. Compare the audience for most kinds of pop music, full of people many of whom (just for a start) have been in bands themselves.

  3. says

    I guess I’ll have to read Dana Gioa’s address now. I’m not sure how I missed that.

    But I’m surprised that he would diss popular culture, even while I know he promotes so much of the “old”. I took a poetry workshop with him and an attendee harped on about rap and how it was horrible and not music and Gioia took the defensive on that one.

    Hmmm. Sorry … that doesn’t have much to do with all you write above.

    I don’t think it’s just those of us who happen to really love “classical” music who tend to thumb our noses at that which we don’t “do”. I think it’s fairly typical for any who are obsessed with something to come across that way. I’ve seen popular music snobs too. It just kind of happens.

    I agree that putting down popular culture isn’t the way to win the affection of the masses. I’m not arguing. Just sort of tossing out a thought or two … because it’s more fun than making an oboe reed. 😉

    Oh … and one other thought. I think symphony orchestras do attempt to “embrace” popular culture at times. And fail miserably. Because someone at the top decides that embracing it means playing horrible arrangements of popular music, or we attempt to be jazzier when some folks don’t have a clue how to relax or swing, or we pull in some old performer who *was* popular but certainly isn’t any more. And someone thinks this is embracing popular culture? Meanwhile we still do the same old same old with our demeanor and formality, and the men in the orchestra still wear their silly black (alienating?) tails. And then younger people laugh at us? No wonder.

    Sorry … rambling and much is probably either silly or wrong.

    But look how long I’ve avoided reeds.

    That all made a lot of sense, Patty. I’m avoiding writing a blog entry by responding to these comments, so you and I are joined in procrastination.

    If I’ve read Dana Gioia wrongly, I’m really sorry. I’m glad that, in person, he was more accepting than he seems to be in his commencement speech. To my eye, he seemed to be saying there that people these days know nothing about the arts (as formally defined, so hiphop isn’t included), and that as a result our society is crying out for the thoughtfulness and creativity that the arts can bring us. Well, maybe he thinks hiphop is creative, but in a limited way, and “real” are is better. Doesn’t sound like he was saying that in the workshop you describe, though.

    And you’re so right about the way orchestras try reach out to popular culture. It’s so often pathetic, in all the ways you describe.

  4. says

    I like your comments (as always), but it highlighted another problem, I think.

    I agree with you that we should be able to let people know what the arts mean to us so that people can compare it across styles and across genres and make up their own mind what they like.

    The problem is, though, what do you do when there’s barely anybody who can explain your art form in words that people unfamiliar with the art form can understand?

    For instance, you quoted Benjamin Zander, but seriously, if you were to buy a Mahler CD or read a program at a Mahler concert, would you find comments like that in the booklet? No, not really. You’d be confronted with a whole stack of stuff about tonality and Mahler’s experiments with polystylism (a word that you’d be left to figure out its definition on your own).

    Also, as someone who doesn’t have a strong musical training, I feel terrified to come out with my own comments on music too much, in case I’m proven to be incorrect or not academic enough. Are we frightening away the popular advocates of our art forms by creating a culture where only academic discussion is allowed?

    Why will we go to great lengths to mount economic arguments for music rather than simply speak about our art form in words that people who are unfamiliar with it might understand?

    So, to sum up, I think you’re quite right. We do need to share our experiences. But are there many people out there who can do that?

    Yes, yes, yes, and yes. This is a problem I and others have talked about a lot. For some of my thinking about it, go to the website for my Juilliard course,, and scroll down to this week’s class, dated April 8. You’ll see that I’ve assigned some of my blog posts on this subject, including some examples of how I think we ought to talk about classical music.

    But especially take a look at — or rather listen to — “The Ring and I,” a show that ran on WNYC, NY’s public radio station, about Wagner’s Ring. It’s a terrific example of how to talk about classical music in an entirely contemporary — and comprehensible — way.

    Many people I’ve talked to think program notes are unfortunate. And a few changes have been made. They’re chattier than they used to be. But still I think they hold the music at a distance. And you’re right — they intimidate listeners, and make people feel that their opinion can’t possibly be worthwhile, because they can’t talk the way the program notes talk. I’ve found, actually, that ordinary listeners often have quite a lot to say, once they start to feel that their views are worthwhile.

    And you know, it strikes me that this is a human problem, not just a problem in advocating art (or anything fancy like that). We’re being discourteous to our listeners.

  5. says

    I assume you’ve seen this:

    It has been making itself around the blogosphere. It seems to be exactly what you’re asking for (and rightly so, IMHO.)

    I read through it quickly a while ago. Somehow I didn’t quite care for it, but maybe I was having a bad day.

    You’ve encouraged me to give it another shot. I mean, if _you_ like it, I have to take it seriously.

  6. says

    I don’t know that I would agree with everything he said, but the primary point – that art is important not because it creates lots of jobs or makes you some sort of intellectual, but because it is necessary to us in a way that nothing else is – is what I’ve been getting from your posts. Maybe he is saying (although I didn’t really see it) that only “classical” or “high” art will do, but as far as I could tell, he was just saying that art will endure because we need it.

    And thanks for the props, although frankly I like a lot of things that probably shouldn’t be taken seriously by any grownup. Fortunately I don’t appear to be one – I only play one on TV (or in the classroom, more accurately…)

    You and me both, Rebecca…