In a previous post, I linked to one of Kaiser’s blog posts, in which he forthrightly says that popular culture is more fresh, daring, and inventive than what happens in the arts.
That’s a fair criticism. I’ve been excited, for instance, in this blog about all kinds of alt-classical performances, as I call them, including Bang on a Can’s annual marathon. So it’s not as if good things don’t happen at all in the arts.
But it’s also true that the big arts institutions — certainly the classical music ones — don’t do much that’s fresh or inventive. You could say that Kaiser should have qualified his critique, but on the other hand, when arts advocates talk about the arts (and how we all should support them), mostly they talk about things that are safe. Not daring, not inventive. The popular view of the arts, too, would be similar — Beethoven symphonies, not John Cage’s silent piece. At one of the Southwestern University discussions I was part of, someone not from the arts talked about art, and all his examples were classic and safe (Tolstoy, for instance).
So Kaiser’s warning isn’t misplaced. Especially since exciting things in the arts these days often are close to popular culture, or at least closer to popular culture than Tolstoy or Beethoven symphonies are. I mentioned John Cage’s silent piece as the kind of thing — even though it’s 60 years old — that most people don’t mean when they talk about art. But as I noted here in the blog, a consortium of pop music people in Britain tried to push the silent piece to the top of the pop charts. To them, it’s central to art, but they’re from popular culture.
If, let’s say, new music people in New York, burning because Kaiser implicitly dissed them — “Nothing daring in the arts? What kind of chopped liver are we?” — I might suggest that they be more proactive, and storm the Kennedy Center ramparts. Just demand to be heard, and not just there, but in all major arts institutions. Easier said than done, I know. But sometimes, if you’re not well-enough known, it’s because you haven’t promoted yourself enough.
And yes, I know — some things are hard to promote. You can’t expect the silent piece to be played as often as Beethoven. (And, please, it shouldn’t be! It would grow stale.) But we’re at a turning point now, I think. All kinds of installation art, for instance, gets major coverage, gets done in public, gets eager, enthusiastic support from people who don’t identify with any kind of avant-garde. Indie rock, as many people have said, is converging with new classical music.
So this is a time when we can promote things that are daring and fresh, and really get a response.
Another critique of Kaiser, though, is worth thinking about. As far as I know, he doesn’t do what he preaches. The Kennedy Center’s programming largely is safe. They just announced their next-season’s schedule, and, in music, it features — wait for it — a festival honoring Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. Not, of course, the music created there now, but safe, familiar, not exactly fresh classics, music premiered in those cities in centuries past.
I really have to shake my head. First, is Washington clamoring for something like this? When I ride the Metro, when I walk through Dupont Circle, do I overhear people saying, “I wish we heard more Viennese music from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries”?
Not even the classical music audience could possibly say that, because every year they hear just maybe a little bit of Viennese music. By, for instance, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms. Which makes every year a Vienna festival! How can you play the core of the classical repertoire, without playing Viennese music?
And of course the audience also hears — every year — music by Dvorak (Prague) and Bartok IBudapest). Which wouldn’t matter, if the Kennedy Center, featuring these three cities, had picked more surprising composers. But they didn’t.
Popular culture, believe me, is fresher than this.