an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

“The Difference Between Quality Art and Crap” Take Three

Yuja Wang performing the music of Schubert, Liszt, Scriabin and Balakirev at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night, December 11, 2014.


Though as usual most of the feedback to my recent blogs comes via private emails rather than public responses, a flurry of interesting posted responses here and via Facebook spurs me to rant some more.

Re: “quality art” versus “crap,” Joe Patrych – someone who knows what pianism once was — writes:

“Part of the problem is the audience – in order for a sophisticated musician such as Moiseiwitsch to be fully understood requires that the audience is properly educated in what constitutes art – the importance of that in Soviet (and post-Soviet) Russia vs. the dismissive approach to arts education in the US is certainly part of the problem, and it takes a lot of work to self-educate; it is clear that most people don’t have the impetus to do so.”

A new book that’s a necessary read is Stalin’s Music Prize: Soviet Culture and Politics by Marina Frolova-Walker. Excavating Soviet archives, she documents the intense private deliberations that considered which Soviet composers, singers, and instrumentalists would be awarded substantial monetary prizes, with their attendant prestige. We eavesdrop on what the composers Shostakovich and Myaskovsky had to say. We also eavesdrop on craven ideologues.

The book begins with some testimony by the actress Vera Maretskaya. She writes:

“In ’46, when I was a delegate to the Congress of Antifascist Women, I happened to speak with an English actress, who had been forbidden to approach our delegation. But she boldly made her way over to us regardless and struck up a conversation with the Soviet women. While she was talking to me about the arts, she couldn’t keep herself from looking downwards, at my chest, and eventually she asked me: ‘What did you get that medal for?’ I told her that it was a medal given to Stalin Prize laureates. ‘For what?’ she asked. ‘For my work in the role of Nadezhkda Durova,’ I replied. . . . ‘What did they give you?’ I asked her. After a moment’s hesitation, she dipped into her handbag and pulled out something drab-looking, small and flat, a kind of powder box. ‘That’s how they reward us performers.’”

Much could be said about this vignette. Stalin’s Music Prize is certain to be a galvanizing topic when PostClassical Ensemble presents “Secret Music Skirmishes of the Cultural Cold War: The Shostakovich Case” at the Washington National Cathedral on May 23.

P.S.: The most impressive New York audience I’ve encountered in recent seasons was at Town Hall last June for a Russian-language Uncle Vanya presented by Moscow’s Vakhtangov Theatre. That audience was hungry, engaged, and generationally diverse (parents with children). It was also (of course) overwhelmingly Russian.






an ArtsJournal blog