Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Badness of Modern Art

I think I have put up this clip before, but let's have another look at it:

The speaker is Robert Florczak, who gets a modest entry in Wikipedia. While the situation is certainly more complex than he describes, I tend to agree with a number of the assertions. Some questions that loom are how do you distinguish simple, functional commercial art and illustration from "fine" art? Is it mere technique, is it some kind of aesthetic content? What? I would like to hear his answer to that, because I suspect he would start arguing for the validity of a lot of commercial art. But what is missing from commercial art is the kinds of tensions that artists build into the more challenging pieces of fine art. Sometimes these tensions are mere eddies in the stream of fashion as artists find new ways to insult the viewer through scatalogical elements or just incongruities like pickling a ten-foot shark and immersing it in a tank:

But other times, an artist like Francis Bacon builds the tension into the work with the basic elements of art:

The difference between the situation in the fine art world and the classical music world is interesting. There are hosts of great museums in most urban areas that display the great works of traditional or classical art alongside works of contemporary art and they are praised for doing so. They are even, largely, financially viable. The new Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, which cost a fortune to build, paid for itself in only three years:

Symphony orchestras do something similar: they are like museums of classical music, presenting for the listener, the great works of the past alongside more contemporary works. They are doing exactly what museums are doing. But symphony orchestras are constantly being reviled for this! They are supposed to toss aside the presentation of conventional concerts for something more relevant like playing in a parking garage or a pub. Audiences are supposedly dwindling and getting older. But if this is true, why? Attendees at art museums don't seem to have this problem.

I wonder if the huge presence of commercial pop music is distorting the landscape somehow. Does how pop music is produced and consumed distort how we see and hear classical music? After all, there is no particular reason why all music has to be a head-banging cornucopia of excess, is there?


Tom McElvogue said...

Hi Bryan,
one few difference where I live would be that museums are for the most part free to enter with only charges on visiting exhibitions.

To enjoy any classical or orchestral music, the minimum entry fees are generally quite high. Museums also seem to be very good at merchandising their wares whereas at my nearest concert hall, it seems more money is spent on cleaning the plush red carpets.

At the museums, they nearly always offer a reasonably priced cafe or something similar for people who may wish to rest between walking around and appreciating all that they have to offer, the local concert hall has a rather expensive restaurant and the thoughts of just being able to get a coffee etc aren't upper most in their minds. From this I think it's more than the "huge presence of commercial pop music .. distorting the landscape", I think that the culture of orchestral/classical/art music is still not quite aimed at people of modest means.

Perhaps it's just the economics of subsidising Museums being more accepted than subsidizing concert halls and orchestras ? Sadly, free entry into anything will always win over paid entry to listen to really good music in Ireland (unless it's Garth Brooks!).


Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Tom, and welcome to the Music Salon. Those are some very good points. I would love to see some data on ticket prices in different places. Here in Mexico the ticket to a full symphony concert where I live is about $8 US and the last concert I attended, the 2000 seat hall was completely sold out with most of the audience under 40. In the US and Canada they seem to be complaining about declining and aging audiences so maybe your theory about the entry fee simply being too high is correct!

The model for the subscription series symphony concert was formed in the 19th century, but I suspect the art museum might be of later formulation. Did this make a difference? Why don't people do the basic research and find out, I wonder?

I think that orchestras and concert halls are pretty heavily subsidized nearly everywhere.

Rickard Dahl said...

The question is how the musicians and the rest of the staff are going to get paid if the ticket prices for the concerts aren't as high. If you reduce the prices you have to compensate by increasing the number of concerts (assuming that there are enough people interested in attending in the first place) and this most likely means an increased work load on the musicians. In Mexico 8 USD is probably a more reasonable price since the costs of living aren't as high as for instance in the US and the salaries are lower. Either way: the younger audience is probably a good sign of a culture that values classical music more highly.

By the way, I haven't really been commenting lately. The main reason is that I'm back in school and I'm busy almost all the time (either with schoolwork, music or video game modding).

Bryan Townsend said...

Welcome back, Rickard. The Mexican orchestra I attended is highly subsidized as it is connected to a conservatory and many of the members are students. But very good nonetheless. I think orchestral performances always have to be, and always were, subsidized. The real cost of an orchestral concert is many times what you actually pay, even in Europe where you are paying, what, a hundred or more dollars a ticket? The production cost is even higher than that!

Tom McElvogue said...

Hi Bryan,
I am also struck by the amount of "priceless" art that has been gifted or donated to museums all over the world by patrons from maybe 50-100 years ago. I know that without these pieces and collections, most museums would struggle to compete financially if they had to pay 20-30 million for a single artwork. It seems to me that it was easier to get these philanthropic donations in years gone by whereas today, people who have that kind of disposable income are more likely to buy shares in facebook or apple rather than invest in art, music or anything else more intangible to them in terms of value.

I know that U2, who would be possibly Ireland's biggest export, donate several millions per year to fund a music generation scheme within schools, assisting with the costs of teaching and instruments and various other projects. As much as I try not to be cynical about this, I reckon this is just a clever tax write off and doesn't cost them anything at all. After all, they kept all of their accounts in the Netherlands ever since they started earning large sums of money and I'm sure they have continued to avoid paying tax at anything like the rates ordinary people must pay.

As much as I hate it, the recent focus on providing tax incentives to the larger corporations could be leveraged in such a way that a large part of the social infrastructure required to feed the minds of communities and inspire future generations could be funded quite handsomely by allowing more of these tax incentives to go to the arts rather than pension funds for the CEOs and shareholder dividends.

Failing that, we would need to wait for the ultra-wealthy to approach their last days on this planet and hopefully find their humanity in their dying breaths when they realise they can't take their billions with them whilst also realising the folly of their ways in how they have accumulated their wealth - by exploiting other human beings in a way that they can no longer justify or reconcile.

OK, I think I'm done now! Cynical hat off, back to listening to music!

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Tom,

I'm delighted to hear that U2 are making a significant contribution to music education in Ireland, even though it might be a big tax write-off for them. But I am less enthusiastic about leveraging the tax code to support arts donations. It's not that I'm opposed to arts donations, quite the contrary, but I am, in principle, opposed to complex tax codes because they are always gamed by the rich. When it comes to taxes, the simpler the system the better, that takes away the advantages possessed by the rich who can afford to hire armies of lawyers, accountants and lobbyists.

The only good way to persuade people to support great music is, to my mind, to convince them that it is great music!