The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
Lately it feels like every book and article I read mentions the “two cultures” dichotomy that physicist and novelist CP Snow diagnosed in his 1956 essay of that title. Snow was complaining about the gulf he saw arising between the sciences and the humanities, whose mutually uncomprehending practitioners showed little interest in each other’s worldviews. (Being a scientist, he naturally blamed the literary types more than his own camp.) But the phrase itself is one of those neat little dualisms that’s fun to borrow on behalf of entirely unrelated points. It offers a convenient name for something I’ve been trying to put my finger on for several years in the arts and culture sector. Today I’ll test it out on classical music, and in a future blog post I’ll see if the shoe fits museums, too.
If someone asks you why the classical music scene—think of your local world-class symphony orchestra, but also its audiences, supporters, trustees, leadership, program notes, along with your classical radio station (if you still have one), newspaper critics, the whole lot—looks and acts the way it does, you might answer by referring to those appearances and actions as manifestations of a particular set of values: the values or culture of classical music.
These might include, for example, a reverence for certain masterpieces and composers; a high value on musicianship and performance quality, and by extension on the rigor and discipline required to produce them; a deep respect for the intentions of the composer; an enjoyment of virtuosity as well as subtlety; a belief in the importance of human hands (and ears) in the production of each note; and so on.
The details of this list don’t matter here; your take on those values will differ from mine. But neither my list nor yours is likely to explain certain other facts about the classical music scene, facts we rarely even notice because we take them as givens but which can be glaringly apparent to newcomers to this scene.
The acknowledged culture of classical music doesn’t tell us why so few orchestral musicians smile at the audience, or even make eye contact before or after the music-making. It doesn’t tell us why musicians dress in black tie or somewhat less formal black-and-white business attire. It doesn’t quite explain why on-air hosts at classical stations seem to put such a high premium on elegant, self-consciously correct diction, even when they’re reading advertisements for a rug shop, nor why words and phrases in languages other than English play such a big role in today’s classical music experience. It doesn’t explain why classical concertgoers who are already sitting in their seats when I come down the row to find my own seat are almost uniformly curt about having to let me past and far less likely (in my unscientific sampling) than other kinds of audiences—film, popular music, theater—to smile and engage in the little phrases and conversations that grease the social interactions of strangers. Nor does it tell us why that audience should be so stubbornly white, with African Americans and other minorities underrepresented even when we control for education and income.
In short, the acknowledged culture of classical music doesn’t provide a sufficient explanation of the differences between the experience of classical music and the experience of other kinds of music or other forms of art and entertainment. There’s something else going on—an unacknowledged culture, largely unexamined but (or rather, therefore) hugely influential. Here’s where Snow’s phrase comes in handy, but “the two cultures” of classical music aren’t opposing camps. They’re nested value systems: a set of “core” values and aesthetic commitments that we’re quite proud of and happy to talk about, surrounded by another set of values and aesthetic commitments that we’re largely unaware of and not inclined to talk about even when somebody points them out.
It’s the unacknowledged culture that makes it hard to imagine clapping between movements or (a la jazz clubs or rock venues) after a dazzling solo, even though we all know the prohibitions against such applause are of recent and somewhat artificial vintage. It’s the unacknowledged culture that makes today’s experiments in club-and-pub classical so hard to assimilate into the rest of the field’s practices. It’s the unacknowledged culture that tacitly undermines the attempts of many ensembles and presenters to make their performances feel more culturally savvy and relevant—like the hip brochure I got last week from a contemporary music group here in Chicago whose bold design and clever text promise an energetic and lively experience but whose performance photos belie that promise by showing human beings engaged in the activity of music making without a shred of enjoyment, passion, or humor on their faces. (They look NPR-earnest and a little inward, even uncomfortable being onstage. I’ll have more to say in a future post about what performance photos announce about classical music.)
And it’s this unacknowledged culture, I think, that’s preventing classical music from finding the new and more diverse audiences it so desperately wants and needs.
What would classical music look like if we could somehow preserve that inner, acknowledged culture while replacing the outer, unacknowledged culture with something less precious and dour, something more confident and connected to the rest of life? Or better yet, replace it not with a culture but with many different cultures, aesthetics, personalities, and possibilities. How would the institutional and funding ecology of classical music change? Would different kinds of people become musicians or choose to work in classical music in other ways? Most importantly, what would happen to the audience—or rather, audiences—for classical music?
Let me know what you think. A useful distinction? How does the unacknowledged culture operate in your sector or institution? And how can we begin to make those other cultures visible so we can talk about what they mean and what they do?
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