Monday, December 9, 2013

The Value of Music

The two kinds of discussions that appear most often on the topic of the value of music are first of all, articles that attempt to measure the financial contribution of arts and culture to the economy. I linked to one article of this kind in my Friday post. The other kind of article bewails the diminishing profile of classical music in society with aging audiences and falling record sales. There are whole blogs devoted to this problem. Apparently the solution has to do with branding and being entrepreneurial.

But I just ran across this, which I think puts it all in perspective. The super-rich are ruining art for the rest of us? The piece begins:
If you can believe all the hand-wringing and soul-searching these days among artists, art critics, and sundry other arts professionals, you’d imagine that nobody is really happy about the $142.4 million paid for a Francis Bacon triptych at Christie’s the other day—or the $58.4 million for a Jeff Koons at the same auction or the $104.5 million for a Warhol at Sotheby’s the following night. Those prices are as repellent as Leonardo DiCaprio’s baronial frat house shenanigans in the coming attractions for Martin Scorsese’s new tale of Gilded Age excess, The Wolf of Wall Street. Among the most revolting sports favored by the super-rich is the devaluation of any reasonable sense of value. At Christie’s and Sotheby’s some of the wealthiest members of society, the people who can’t believe in anything until it’s been monetized, are trashing one of our last hopes for transcendence. They don’t know the difference between avidity and avarice. Why drink an excellent $30 or $50 bottle of wine when you can pour a $500 or $1000 bottle down your throat? Why buy a magnificent $20,000 or $1 million painting when you can spend $50 or $100 million and really impress friends and enemies alike?
Well, if this is an actual problem and not just a desperate attempt to find something--anything--to write about, then we in the classical music world can heave a sigh of relief. At least the super-rich are not destroying OUR hopes for transcendence! I just purchased the complete symphonies of Haydn for less than $23 from Amazon and I am eyeing the complete Mozart for a little over $100. I can attend a fine concert of chamber music for $20 or less. I can purchase the score to the complete string quartets of Beethoven for a mere $5.99.

Now you can either bewail that these low prices indicate that our society is destroying classical music by valuing it too low, or you can bewail that the prices from the article I quoted above indicate that our society is destroying the visual arts by valuing them too high. But it has to be either one or the other, doesn't it?

This reminds me of the current hot debate about inequality in society. And again, it is economic inequality. This is seen to be a Bad Thing. But my view is that if someone made a lot of money by giving a lot of people just what they wanted, then I have no problem at all with that. Steve Jobs is a good example. Didn't he earn his money by creating and selling a product that a lot of people really wanted? On the other end of the scale, a Franciscan friar takes a vow of poverty in fidelity to the rule of St. Francis. Surely this is not something we want to criticize either? So all that debate should really be about injustice and not just unequal numbers.

Perhaps we could just accept that there are other values than monetary ones. I'm sure we would all be a LOT happier. What's the real "value" of Haydn's Symphony No. 43?


Jared White said...

What about people who become extremely rich by ruthlessly exploiting other people and the environment? For some people to be extremely rich others must be correspondingly poor. The basis of capitalism has always been slavery (building of railroads and other infrastructure in north america, mines in south america after cortez etc). Not to mention apple outsourcing to foxconn sweatshops.

The disparity of wealth is directly reflected in the shape of economic markets and political decisions and hence the natural world and the human world. We all claim to love democracy and capitalism but they are actually incompatible.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Jared, thanks for the counterpoint. It is my own fault for wandering carelessly into politics! Must remember not to do that. I think that when I said that "all that debate should really be about injustice and not just unequal numbers" I was anticipating an objection like yours. Of course ruthless exploitation of people and the environment is wrong, no argument there. But at risk of prolonging the debate, I would want to say that capitalism, for all its faults, creates wealth where there was none before. China is an excellent example. Ever since they stopped the Maoist "Great Leap Forward" kind of program, that resulted in the starvation of tens of millions of people, and began to reform their society along capitalist lines, China has become a far wealthier society. I don't think they have any plans to go back to socialist economics!

Regarding democracy, at the risk of provoking more discussion I will comment that I have had my doubts about democracy ever since the people of Athens democratically decided to condemn Socrates to death on trumped up charges of impiety and corrupting the youth.