I was surprised when I mentioned James Rosenquist to a composer, a bright, musically informed musician. “Who’s that?” the composer said.
I’m skeptical of artists who don’t know about their field. But what about other fields? Do musicians need to know about painting? Or dance? Or writing? Politics? Physics?
A prospective doctoral student at Juilliard told the interviewing committee his favorite symphony by Beethoven was the Ninth. “Is there anything unusual about the last movement,” came the question. It became clear this young composer didn’t know that singers sing in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Some committee members were shocked.
There may be musicians who rely on a certain ignorance to do their own work. Knowing too much about the past might weigh them down? Perhaps every practitioner does not need to be a scholar. Maybe some artists are not artistic connoisseurs?
The desire to discover or look into something may matter more. A lack of curiosity or a lack of desire to inquire is more harmful than not knowing much. Perpetual discovery and wonder seem to go together artistically. Yet, am I naive to think that insights and ideas come more easily if there’s some information to think about, mull over, consider, and reconsider?
Is instant electronic information access increasingly making it unnecessary to know specific facts? (And perhaps our electronic portals are leading to a reconsideration of what a “fact” might even be?) Some graduate students in instrumental music question why they should learn European languages, for example. Translation programs improve. The whole world seems to aspire to speak English.
Shouldn’t an artist develop a nose? Away from statements by authorities, or expert vetting, we benefit from our own sense of art, of artistic value. It’s an important game. When a prospective undergraduate piano student who didn’t get warm receptions from my colleagues was accepted as a student by Leon Fleisher, I doubted my own opinion less.
The willingness to support artistry we perceive even when no one else does — is absolutely necessary.