Friday, January 13, 2012

Classical Music is Irrelevant!

Via Greg Sandow's blog comes this article with the title "Are the Arts Irrelevant to the Next Generation?"

As the article says:
The data points to a “general shift of emphasis towards the popular cultural mainstream,” in the words of Gripsrud and his colleagues.
I'm always skeptical about this kind of research as it often raises more questions than it answers. For example, we could step back and take a look at a longer time span. This study comprises two surveys of students in Bergen, Norway, one in 98/99 and the other ten years later in 08/09. But what if we looked back a hundred years? Two hundred? It is entirely plausible that the widespread enjoyment of high culture is something that grew enormously in the 19th century, in the wake of the downfall of aristocratic regimes and the growth of middle-class culture. What I mean, to be clear, is that high culture prior to the French Revolution, was largely an activity of the aristocracy. Afterwards, the now-powerful middle class appropriated and adapted high culture to their own uses. Instead of a very small number of people listening to harpsichord music and trio sonatas, we had large concert halls full of people listening to piano recitals by Liszt and symphonies by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.

What may be happening now is that the real enjoyment and understanding of high culture is shrinking again to a smaller circle of knowledgeable admirers. The study seems to show that might be the case:
“Class differences have become significantly more pronounced,” Gripsrud added in an e-mail exchange. He noted that students raised by highly educated, culturally aware parents are now “clearly distinguishable from the rest, since they continue to include the high art and avant-garde genres in their repertoire, and remain quite knowledgeable in these areas. They also are considerably more active, not least as producers/contributors in the digital realm.”
From a sociological point of view this might be rather disturbing as it indicates that the egalitarian society may, in fact, be eroding. But perhaps it offers a bit of optimism for classical music. Perhaps classical music will not fade into the sunset, but become something beloved of a smaller proportion of society, as it was a couple of hundred years ago.

So the answer to the question "is classical music irrelevant" might be that it is irrelevant to most of society, but not all. In the present musical universe where Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Katy Perry are large galaxies, Bach and Beethoven might be mere nebulae, size-wise if not quality-wise. As I stood in line to pay a phone bill the other day, there was a large flat-screen TV mounted on the wall playing a Lady Gaga video. This is the new normal. But it isn't the new good! Isn't it the case that the more, as Gripsrud says, "highly educated" and "culturally aware" you are, the less you will be satisfied with the popular music of mass appeal?

I mean, no contest, really... 


Joel Lo said...

too many factors involved... very complicated issue. What worries me is that even if WE know that mass music isn't the new good, the rest of the people are sure that it is. A while ago, I found a blog ( I don't remember which) where all the coments lead to a hard discussion about the two MASTERS of the these two different worlds: Beethoven and Michael Jackson. Yes! I'm not kiddin'. The comments of course were written by "normal" people. And what I realize there, was that cultural significance of Michael Jackson could be even greater than Beethoven's (for the people). The last comment I read was something like "M.J. is better 'cause hi has touched more people's hearts"... and... well I think that's sadly true. I think that if people TODAY could dissappear one of these two men from the history, I think democratically Beethoven would be gone. Yes.. I'm pesimistic but that's why I'm worried about the irrelevance of classical music. May be relevant for some little group (us) but... it's that enough?

Joel Lo said...

Oops, sorry. My pesimistic hypothesis did not came out as I meant. I meant that: IF peopple today was FORCED to choose between the two men. The biggest part would prefer to disappear Beethoven's music than MIchael Jackson's, or.. may be other big figure like The Beatles for example.

Jon Silpayamanant said...

Small sample in one European country. No necessarily indicative or Europe as a whole, I think. Not that it might be the case that it's a general trend in Europe.

Then again, maybe part of the "decline in interest" has as much to do with what is considered the great works in an artistic canon. I certainly come across more and more people who are as familiar with Mohammed Abdul Wahhab's music nowadays as they are with Beethoven's. And some who may have never heard much Beethoven (or Classica Music) but have a deep knowledge about Cemil Tanburi Bey and Ottoman Classical Music.

And give how few classically trained musicians know about the art musics of other cultures, I'm not too terribly worried that there might be a general decline in knowledge about Western Art music in Western culture.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Joel,

You bet it's a complicated issue! You can certainly say that Michael Jackson has touched more people than Beethoven. You can also say that MacDonald's has sold more meals than a gourmet restaurant. I think the choice issue is crucial. Absent the kind of aesthetic rules that a totalitarian state might impose, we can all choose what music we want to listen to. If most people prefer Michael Jackson, that's not too surprising. What I am trying to do, every day, in this blog, is offer alternatives. There are different kinds of music. With a little exposure and education, you can come to enjoy music that is more deeply satisfying.

Hi Jon,

Yes, I was also making the point that this survey is of a very brief chunk of time, a single decade. Also, yes, there is always a shift going on in the artistic canon. Perhaps Mendelssohn has slipped down a rung and Shostakovich risen a couple of rungs. And according to my philosophy of aesthetics, great musicians from other cultures can certainly become part of the canon!

A general decline in knowledge about Western Art music does concern me as would any decline in knowledge! That is another reason I write this blog.