By John Rockwell
Doug: The issue of audience sophistication and naivety is bound up with the democratization of the arts. The ideal, for those who believe the arts have been dumbed down by yahoo audiences (meaning rubes, not subscribers to that estimable e-mail etc. site), is of a Leo Straussian elite, guardians of the refined secrets of art surrounded and threatened by a roiling mass of dopes who can never be expected to appreciate the Finer Things. Who offer standing ovations as a Pavlovian response to most anything. And who wait for the authoritative voice of the critic before daring to offer any opinions of their own.
The trouble is, elites of taste and class and wealth are not the same. The Archbishop of Salzburg was an aristocrat, and he made Mozart’s life miserable. On the other hand, Louis XIV was (in his less corpulent youth) a dancer who more or less invented ballet, and Frederick the Great, when he wasn’t slaughtering innocents in his wars, played the flute and composed. Rich social climbers have always been a source of mockery: Monsieur Jourdain was rich, and hence of the elite in the same sense that Donald Trump is, yet he stands as a symbol of Philistinism.
I come out of the 1960’s, as anyone who spends enough time with my book will see is embedded in its sequence of articles: hippie stuff at the beginning, a nostalgia for the 60’s at the end, general subversiveness throughout. I was a rock critic in the 70’s in part (the main part was loving the best rock music) because we believed back then in the democratization of the arts, that only a ruddy influx of populist energy would purge the higher arts of preciousness and academic self-absorption. Of course, that didn’t so much mean a newly vigorous response to Mozart as a new kind of popular music worthy of the ruddy populists.
Of course, as I discuss in my introduction, it didn’t work out in quite so sanguinely. There is terrific popular culture out there today, in music, films, television, video games, graphic novels and the like. But there is also a lot of crap, worse yet corporately dictated crap, originality having been bled out of the product to fulfill commercial formulas. They don’t usually work, those formulas, but that doesn’t stop the suits from trying.
In the meantime, for all the laments about the dearth of exciting composers, choreographers, conductors and soloists, and for all the periodic collapse of this orchestra or that ballet troupe, the high performing arts are booming. Yet the boom is more quantitative than qualitative. More and more people attend such events, but they persist in standing up like marionettes whenever they can.
In one sense, disdain for standing ovations seems a little snobbish. Rituals change. I can remember being surprised when the concertmaster came out before the conductor to garner applause before settling down to tuning the orchestra; it seemed a little vulgar. Now Americans, at least, stand. I heard a wonderful concert in Paris Monday night. The audience loved it but expressed its enthusiasm with prolonged applause and rhythmic clapping; not a soul stood, except to leave. But I’m not sure that means the Paris audience was more sophisticated than one in, say, Seattle or New York.
Audience timidity about strongly expressing opinions might seem contradictory with a disdain for standing ovations; sitting and applauding politely is hedging your bets; standing and cheering puts you out there, in some sense. Anyhow, the complaint is old hat, and has prompted all sorts of pundits high brow and middle brow (the dreaded Siegmund Spaeth, the laudable Leonard Bernstein) to undertake musical education for the masses. Whether people are shyer now about voicing their opinions than they used to be, I’m not sure. I keep trying to tell people that critics are part of a conversation, the same kind people have in avid groups disputing one another’s opinions at intermissions of operas and concerts and dance performances.
As for you, Doug, you probably sit because you’re still a critic at heart and critics are notoriously grumpy about evincing enthusiasm in public by anything so vulgar as applause, let along standing ovations. And maybe you occasionally do stand either because you want to see what’s happening on stage or because impatient people sitting toward the center of your row are pushing past you to get to their cars and babysitters. Or maybe, very occasionally, you love something so enthusiastically that you can’t sit still in your seat.
If, however, people feel freer to express themselves about pop culture, maybe that means they are intimidated by the classics (a solution: more education). Your theory about their being freer to express themselves because pop culture is everywhere, devalued by ubiquity, seems spurious to me. There is still classical music on the radio and the Internet, and CD’s (despite the demise of Tower) are still easy to come by. Maybe people freely express their opinions because the popular arts, which generally involve brand new creation, are more exciting and impassioned than safely historicized classics have become.
Greg Sandow is not alone. Everyone I know in the institutional end of the performing arts is busily reaching out to the young, the disenfranchised and the poor. A good plan, though it may lead to an influx of the very yahoos who persist in standing to cheer. The best lure to the young or the poor is cheap tickets. Frank Castorf, an old leftie who runs the Volksbuehne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz (mostly for spoken drama) in the former East Berlin, would only accept his contract if the Berlin city fathers guaranteed him a subsidy that would allow him to peg his ticket prices at the exact same level as a movie. Last time I looked, his theater was packed.
Enough for now. Do you yourself feel a victim of lassitude about, say, classical music? Are there performances in Seattle that regularly thrill you? If not, maybe you need to broaden your tastes and accept popular art not as some easily dispensable product but as a source of real creativity. If so, maybe you should accord them a standing ovation.