Wednesday, July 2, 2014

High Art Is Overrated

I'm going to pay dearly for this, I just know it.

Well, I guess I had this coming after the jazz talk yesterday about music genres being cyclical and there not being anything wrong with that. Because on my wires today, there's an article about classical music. Namely, the Nielsen numbers for the top-selling classical albums. The writer, Norman Lebrecht, doesn't consider the top three items on the list to be truly 'classical' music, and they sold a dismal 1,789, 253, and 173 copies respectively. Lebrecht doesn't even bother to list the numbers below that, dismissing them as "peanuts".

His headline: "Last Week, No Classical Music Was Sold In The USA".

You could probably guess that, as classical music has found itself in some embarrassingly low-profile situations in recent years. Not too long ago, I linked to Forgotify, a site that plays tracks that have never been downloaded on Spotify a single time. I don't think I've heard so much classical music in my life. And then there's this ad, which I think you're probably familiar with, even though it's opera, which is really in the same boat so let's toss it in:

This is what opera companies and symphony orchestras will do these days just to get mass-market work. That and video games. A fair amount of the music you hear in video games over the past decade or so is created by orchestras, several of which get entire shows specifically out of playing it. As far back as 2002, EA Sports made a huge show of showing off how they wrangled the services of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra for that year's official World Cup title, which now might only be unusual in the sense that they didn't go get licensed music instead. It's right there in the game's intro:

And used in an actual game context:

And really, if we're going to declare any genre as actually 'dead', classical would be it, as these are some of the few places where you can reliably hear new classical music, along with TV and movies (the London Philharmonic has a very good working relationship with Doctor Who). You're sure not hearing it on a radio, and although you'd think you'd hear new music played by the local symphonies, that's not the case. An article by Greg Sandow from 2003- and the situation hasn't changed since- explains that the people who buy the bulk of the tickets to orchestras greatly prefer familiar music. New works- and 'new' in this sense basically means any point after World War 2- are derided as 'too challenging'. Thus, orchestras don't play them, because they would like to not go broke because their regulars won't show up anymore. They stick to Mozart and Beethoven and Vivaldi. If you're actually out there making new classical music, good luck finding anyone willing to play it for you no matter how good it is, unless of course you want to put it in a video game or a movie or a TV show. It's like speaking Latin.

Honestly, though, and I may not make many fans by saying this, but I've felt classical music to be a little overrated. It, opera, particular artists and works, just in general the things that are widely accepted as 'high art'. Not that there's anything particularly wrong with them per se, but the mindset that these are the things you have to start liking in order to be truly cultured has always grated at me a bit. I think it has something to do with where and when it was modern and popular: typically, Western Europe, during the age of exploration, conquest and colonialism. The time when the most influential and powerful region of the world was at the peak of its global influence. It would only be natural to be nostalgic about the time when your little corner of the world was at its best, or at least its most powerful. I think that's where it comes from, at least in part. But it kind of gets done at the expense of the rest of the world.

When I was at the Milwaukee Art Museum, for instance- and it's a good museum, mind you; we're not talking some backwater thing here- I went around and wrote down all the nationalities of the pieces on display that day. There were two rooms devoted to Haitian art, so good on them for that, but in the bulk of the museum, it was overwhelmingly European and American. In the tourist map supplied by the museum, you'll find rooms labeled 'Renaissance Treasury', 'Northern Renaissance', 'Southern Renaissance', 'Northern Baroque', 'Southern Baroque', '18th-Century English and Italian', '18th-Century French', '19th-Century German' and '19th-Century European'. All on the first floor, not far from the entrance to the collection (which starts you off with the real antiques, the things from ancient Greece and Rome and Egypt).

Meanwhile, in the entire museum, there was one piece from Canada. One from India. There was one piece from Central America; it was from Mexico. There was one piece from South America; it was from Chile. Tucked off in a corner of the top floor, there was one room devoted to the whole of China; one room next to it devoted to the rest of eastern Asia (including more China), and one small room dedicated to the entire continent of Africa. And the Asian and African works weren't even modern. The Asian works were chiefly ancient, centuries or even millennia old, and the African works were... is anthropological the right word? I don't want to go that far, really, but it was all tribal; things representative of an entire people. Never the name of an individual artist; never a purpose-built piece of explicit art. It all had a functional or cultural purpose to it. A scarf here. A mask there.

You'll notice I haven't mentioned Oceania or western Asia. That's for a reason. Save for the presence of Israel, the Middle East was totally absent. No Australia or New Zealand or any of the Pacific islands.

I don't think the Milwaukee Art Museum means that kind of geographical or chronological bias; I don't think they really even know they're doing it to that extent. And it's not like they're exactly the only one; I'd be willing to bet if you looked around the art museum near you and did the same once-over, you'd see something not all that far off what I got in Milwaukee. Domestic art plus a whole lot of 15th-19th-century Western Europe.

My point is that the world's got a lot of culture to it. Culture is simply anything people do together. That's all it is. Art is any form of expression. They're very broad, very simple concepts at their core. For us to declare that any one particular culture at a certain place and time is 'best' and that you have to consume it in order to be 'cultured' is wrongheaded.

There's a guy ESPN hired as part of their World Cup coverage, a local artist named Jambeiro. Jambeiro's been commissioned to create a mural telling the story of the Cup. He's been given 180 feet of wall stretching from ESPN's studio out to Copacabana Beach, and every day of the Cup, he's supposed to cover six feet with the biggest image of the day. (No word on how he's supposed to handle days like today, which have no scheduled games.) This is a tough, tough assignment the guy's been given, but the thing is, this is art that's done all the time where he lives. This is part of their artistic expression. This is part of their culture, and it's going to stick around a while and stay part of their culture after the Cup is over and the rest of us go home. And to ignore that, to ignore or even actively suppress any culture, because some other culture is 'better' or their art 'higher' only works to help destroy that culture. (There is the assorted case where it probably should be destroyed, but that's a whole other talk.)

One should not also automatically assume that our own era's culture is just silly little 'pop culture'. After all, all that high art, opera, classical music, ballet, half the stuff in Florence, it was shiny new pop culture once too.

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