The Medieval church. The 18th-century court. The 20th-century university.
Artists have to eat, and the ways they have found to put food on the table throughout the ages have provided equivalent fodder for their inspirations. Whether their goal is to elevate a divine entity, a royal personage or scientific inquiry, these arts patrons have dictated, either directly or through habituation, the artistic emphases of their eras.
The word on the street now is that the 21st century is the age of entrepreneurship. It’s too soon to say whether entrepreneurship is a destination or a pathway (nobody foresaw the impact university arts departments would have on the 20th century a hundred years ago), but we’ve definitely moved beyond the heyday of the academy as the primary funder and defender of the arts. Arts students are now being trained to succeed in the open marketplace, to take advantage of the tools of technology to create individual careers.
I will be addressing that training and its prospects in later posts. At this point, though, I’d like to spend a moment checking out the rear-view mirror, trying to understand what was once all around us and is now fading from view, specifically as it relates to composers.
Academic patronage makes promises and exacts compensation in return. The promises: financial stability, flexible schedules, freedom to pursue esoteric or highly personal paths, connections to like-minded individuals, and a gradual, step-by-step process to the pinnacle of the profession. The price: academic (as opposed to artistic) rigor, isolation from listeners, the strange bedfellows forged in faculty meetings, and the perpetuation of questionable ideas through teaching.
University patronage of the arts came into full blossom in the 1950s, and has been gradually disintegrating since the 1980s. In light of that shift, it’s fair to say that we have among us a generation of artists who were bred to flourish in an arena that has drifted away from center stage, indeed, a generation that played a central role in dismantling the patronage system it inherited. If we have indeed entered a new era — the era of entrepreneurship — this is the generation that inhabited both worlds, a period of transition from the freedoms and shackles of academia to the freedoms and shackles of the marketplace.
An ironic aside: The old model rewarded seniority and the new model rewards youth. As a result, many composers from this transitional generation have found themselves climbing to a destination that turned out to be behind them.
At its best, the music from this transitional generation gives us a lot of what we want from art: the interior world of the aesthete and the connectivity of popular culture. At its worst, it can seem to grasp at things just out of its reach, displaying a neediness and insecurity that undermines its aspirations.
Having completed my formal education in 1985, I am a poster child for many of the things that are right and wrong with this generation. For a taste of my take on this era, you could do worse than to head to Ontario this weekend, where the Windsor Symphony will be giving the Canadian premiere of Wright Flight, a multimedia piece I wrote in 2002 to celebrate the centennial of some experiments that took place on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. This’d be the link: https://www.mywso.ca/show/386/wright_flight