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Difficult Questions

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Difficult Questions

One of the core projects of this blog has been to advocate for the quality and worth of classical music. The main reason I feel this is a worthwhile project is that classical music seems more and more to be pushed to the margins of society and public life and fewer and fewer people are given enough exposure to find out if it has something for them or not. The great juggernaut of pop music rules us all.

But every time I read something by Richard Taruskin I run into difficult questions that he poses that challenge my project. Take this very succinct statement:
In the West, a century-long tradition of reckless, socially irresponsible, and self-absorbed avant-garde behavior, supported by the dogma that art is the concern of artists only and coupled with an ever-increasing passivity on the part of an audience that is deprived by its education and by the growth of the recording industry of participatory skills in music, has led to the extreme apathy that threatens the continued existence of art music in our culture. And yet anyone who questions the dogma of autonomy, harmful though it has become, is immediately and unthinkingly branded an enemy of art. I am coming to exactly the opposite conclusion. Art must be saved from the dogma. And while saying this I concede to my critics-I do not shrink from it-that a step away from our culture's apathy toward art and artists is a step in the direction of Auschwitz and the Gulag.
Richard Taruskin. The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (Kindle Locations 222-227). Kindle Edition.
He goes on to say that he thinks the solution is finding a balance. It is a knotty dilemma indeed! On the one hand, one wants composers and performers to have the maximum freedom to follow the paths they find appealing or necessary for the pursuit of the artwork. On the other hand, yes, total autonomy also implies total irrelevance, though this is a bit hard for me to accept. The greatest music we have, however, from early times to Bach and Mozart, was all created under the seal of a current need. Bach wrote for the needs of the church and the Leipzig city fathers. Mozart wrote for patrons and to put bread on the table. It is with Beethoven that the seed of the fundamental autonomy of the composer is planted and we are still living with that dilemma.

This is a dilemma for me personally because I dropped out of a frustrating career as a performer to ultimately take up a new vocation (though long-standing as an inclination) as a composer. As a composer I feel more marginalized than ever, but the question is, what to do about it? What are the true responsibilities of a composer today? To try and write good music, certainly, but for what audiences? And how to do so without an obvious path to renumeration? I certainly can't solve the problem of the "culture's apathy toward art and artists" and how much is it my responsibility to try? And if I did accept the responsibility, how to even go about it?

I don't think that I have ever thought that art is the concern of artists only, but I have certainly thought that the fine arts are only really accessible to people who are willing to put some effort into it. I suppose this is elitist, but the arts have always been principally appreciated and supported by a certain minority in society. If this minority also happens to be the leaders of society, as in an aristocracy, say the rulers of Northern Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries, then the fine arts tend to do pretty well. In a society where the arts are supported and appreciated by a self-selected group of aficionados largely drawn from the middle class, as was the case in the 19th century, then they can still do pretty well. But in much of the world today, the fine arts, or classical music at least, gets less and less support from the general public and becomes more and more marginal. In the competition with pop music, classical music lost.

Was it just because of the "reckless, socially irresponsible, and self-absorbed avant-garde behavior" of the artists themselves as Taruskin implies? I can't quite think so. I see a give and take flow of causality and consequences: avant-garde composers do something challenging, pop artists find gold in more and more vulgarity and the dance goes on and on with each inciting the other. Thus we end up with a polarized environment. Crossover has always seemed to me to be the most distressing nexus of the dilemma because it takes just enough from classical music to be musically plausible, but then that music is stuffed into the seductive garments of a Victoria's Secret fashion show. Is the answer to the dilemma to be found in the clash of these disparate elements?


UPDATE: I really should have mentioned that the very powerful and practical solution that Taruskin goes on to recommend in the essay I quoted from above, lies in public funding of proper, serious, music education, something I heartily agree with.


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