Saturday, May 5, 2012

Music, Subsidy and Commercialism

I've posted before about commercialism in music and how I'm tempted to call myself a "non-commercial" musician. As we all know, commercialism is bad. Bad, bad, bad. But nothing is ever that simple! If you dig into the history, most of our present day musical institutions, such as conservatories, symphony orchestras and subscription concert series, not to mention the specially-designed concert halls where artists perform--these institutions that we see as being above the commercial fray, were all the product of audience demand, i.e. commercialism. The huge growth of a prosperous middle class in the 19th century and their appetite for music that manifested itself in sales of pianos and sheet music and attendance at concerts was the driving force behind the creation of professional symphony orchestras. At first, the development of recording technology also was a great spur to recording all the classical repertoire on long-playing discs for sale world-wide. A great number of classical musicians had spectacular earnings from recordings.

But as the 20th century progressed and popular music took over the lion's share of revenues from recordings (classical music probably represents around 3% of sales nowadays), lovers of classical music more and more recoiled against commercialism and called for government and private subsidies for classical music. How's that working out? Alex Ross has a post up praising Alec Baldwin for his work supporting the New York Philharmonic. He quotes Mr. Baldwin as saying government support of the arts should foster "freedom from the commercial considerations that so often compromise and eventually suffocate real art." But commercial considerations didn't seem to compromise and suffocate "real" art in the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Why now? One extreme way of putting it would be to say that the cult of romanticism, with its emphasis on the individual vision as being the only authentic truth in art, metamorphosed into the 20th century modernist ideology that the individual artist's evolutionary progression to greater and greater technical complexity means that the interests and likes of the audience are no longer of any importance. Therefore, if society wants 'real' art, it has to pay for it by subsidizing the avant-garde, even if no-one wants to listen to it.

That is put a little baldly, but it is not far from the truth. But now that seems to have faded. Just what is it that government and private donors are subsidizing at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting these days? With a hat tip to Alex Ross for the link, here is what is on the menu:



James Last, for pete's sake? Something seems to have gone horribly wrong somewhere!

I suppose PBS has decided that this is what their demographic wants to hear. To put it baldly again, the recipients of public money for the arts seem to ultimately end up being those who know how to play the game. The professional grant-appliers, the experts at seeming, the fakers, the coldly ambitious. The public rarely seems to get their money's worth. The programming shown above features the popular music of one or two generations ago, which is still loved by the aging boomers. Why does this need to be subsidized?

The logical conclusion is that aesthetic worth and commercial worth are not on a see-saw and neither imply nor exclude one another. Neither giving money, nor withholding it will guarantee anything. Beethoven's music has been a commercial success for two hundred years, but that does not mean it is bad music. The music of the total serialists of the 1940s to 1960s has never been a commercial success, but that does not mean it is good music.

Here is a little example. Beethoven's last string quartet in F major, op 135 is justly admired as a musically great work. But the last movement is famous for its joke about a sometime patron named Ignaz Dembscher who failed to pay his dues for the premiere of the quartet op 130. When Dembscher wished to borrow the parts for that piece, Beethoven refused unless he paid up. Dembscher wailed “do I have to?” (“Muss es sein?!”). Beethoven responded by writing a canon on the phrase “yes, you must!” (“Es muss sein!”) and sending it to Dembscher. A falling and rising three note phrase standing for Dembscher's question is used as the theme for the slow introduction to the last movement of op 135. The quick section of the movement starts with the answer: "yes, you must!" That second theme, rising then falling, appears at the 1:18 mark in this performance:

For Beethoven, there was no contradiction between making money and making music. Commercialism need not affect the quality of his compositions. If it does affect the music of other musicians to the point that it seems they are merely pandering to the audience, then that would seem to be a problem with the musicians and not with commercialism as such.

I'm just waiting for Elliot Carter to send me a canon on the theme "stop writing about my music!"


Nathan Shirley said...

Very interesting post. It gets into a lot of murky territory, but overall I have to agree.

One observation I've made (as a US citizen and composer) is that when people wish to donate money to art, the easiest thing is to give it to their arts council. Because of the commercialization of these arts councils, they in turn give the majority of this money to the largest, most prominent, wealthiest arts organizations. Much of that goes to paying operating costs, organizers salaries, advertisements, etc.

In short, a lot of this money is indirectly be put to good use, but much slips through the cracks and never makes a "positive" impact on art in the community.

As a byproduct, per capita, I would guess there are far fewer true patrons today then there were in Beethoven's day- people hand picking artists to fund because they see some potential in their work. A bit like how the stock market is supposed to work. Instead potential patrons simply give their money to arts councils and other large non-profit arts organizations, and as a result art suffers. These donations are tax-deductible, which as a self-employed artist makes it very difficult to compete for patron assistance. And as an individual, just try applying for one of these grants. If you are lucky, after 20 tries you may get one... and it might be for 150 dollars! Not even minimum wage for the hours and hours of time spent writing these grants.

I don't think the concept of government funding art is inherently bad, but in its current form it seems to actually do more harm than good. And this is coming from someone who is about as far from the political 'right' as you can get.

Bryan Townsend said...

A lot of murky territory indeed! I was trying to say something different about commercialism and the arts. My experience has been with arts funding in Canada, which nearly all comes from the Canada Council. For various reasons, just as you say, that money tends to go to either the big, well-established organizations to support their costs, or to the most fashionable of the avant-garde.

As for individual patrons, I have always found it extremely ironic that one of the largest contributions to the arts was from Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, who donated funds to create a Jimi Hendrix museum in Seattle. This has expanded to include other popular music and science fiction and is now known as the EMP Museum.