The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
Lebrecht, a prolific and provocative commentator on the classical music scene, has written an appropriately sober state-of-the-field piece in a British cultural monthly. The question being raised around the world, he tells us, is “Who needs a symphony orchestra?” His answer is that we all do, because classical concerts “restore balance to over-busy lives.” Maybe, but that argument is part of the problem.
Lebrecht’s summary of recent good and bad news in classical music draws from Europe and Asia as well as the US, so it provides some helpful context for us provincial Americans. But his reasons for believing that “that the symphony orchestra will always survive” are pretty familiar:
[I]n a lifestyle of wall-to-wall wi-fi and instant tweets, the concert hall is one of the few places where we become reachable, where we can switch off our lifelines and surrender to a form that will not let us go for an hour or more. The symphony orchestra is our relief from the communicative addiction. It forces us, willy-nilly, to resist the responsive urge. It is a cold-turkey cure for our reactive insanity, our self-destroying restlessness.
Sure, that’s an interesting twist: we become “reachable” in an emotional or spiritual sense only when we become unreachable in a technological sense: when our gadgets are turned off.
And I’m struck by how similar Lebrecht’s diagnosis is to Martha Lavey’s, which I blogged about here recently. Lavey, the artistic director of Steppenwolf Theater, argued that sitting quietly in the dark with our devices put away forces us to internalize and process our responses to the artwork, whereas putting those responses into words for a tweet or a text shortcuts that inward reckoning and diffuses the moment. Clearly Lebrecht would agree.
But at bottom this is the old notion that classical music is a retreat from contemporary life, an antidote to its poison, rather than a vibrant part of it. As I’ve argued here before, it’s a self-defeating position: you can’t argue for classical music’s relevance to contemporary culture while also insisting that its virtue lies in how set apart from that culture it is. ...
“We, as a society, need the symphony orchestra now more than ever before,” Lebrecht writes, and “that need becomes ever clearer as the world speeds up.” If only more people could slow down for classical music, he implies, they’d enjoy its salutary effects…and they’d want their governments to subsidize it.
There’s a deep and unfortunate nostalgia here. “A country that once discussed culture with somber reverence,” writes Lebrecht, referring to the Netherlands, “is now resorting to the rhetoric of Sarah Palin and the Governor of Kansas, who recently eliminated all state funding for the arts. Culture is no longer a sacred cow.” He seems unaware that treating culture with somber reverence — making it sacred in the first place — was what created the segregation from everyday culture that it’s now struggling against.
I’m not questioning Lebrecht’s historical accuracy. When he writes that in the 1930s and ’40s “the perception of symphonic music as an improving grace was widespread,” I’m sure he’s right. But I’m equally sure that things have changed since then, perhaps especially with respect to phrases like “improving grace.” In today’s culture, that’s not how we think. The music people care about and form relationships with isn’t floating above them, waiting to lift them up like some divine hand. It’s inside them, intimate and informal and on their own level. Even when we are looking for improvement, we don’t sanctify the task — we try to make it fun.
Photo: Cleveland Orchestra blog
I think Lebrecht, like some other traditionalists in the cultural sector I can think of, is speaking from 20th century assumptions about 21st century challenges. On the other hand, he does mention approvingly the street-level work that some orchestras and musicians are doing to connect with people whose lives are a little rougher than those of the typical classical music patron, from inner-city youth and recent immigrants to soldiers, hospital patients. (Above, members of the Cleveland Orchestra playing in a homeless shelter in Miami.) It’s exactly that kind of work, and the redefinition of the musician’s role that it implies, that conservative musicians in the Detroit Symphony were fighting against in their recent strike.
So let’s take Lebrecht on his merits, which are considerable. Read his article and let us all know what you think.
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