Monday, September 18, 2017

From Prestige to Notoriety

I don't have quite the right tag for this--my subtitle might have been "what has happened to our institutions of higher learning?" What got me thinking is the latest kerfuffle over the firing of Matthew Halls as director of the Oregon Bach Festival by the University of Oregon. If you want a quick, nasty take on it, read this over at Slipped Disc. For a longer and more nuanced treatment, there is an article in The Spectator:
Mr Halls insists he has not been told why he has been fired. Sponsors and supporters of the festival are also in the dark. Oregon University, which runs the bash, has said only that it intends to pursue a ‘different direction’ to the one pursued by Mr Halls, and hence he has to go. I would have thought there were a limited number of directions one could pursue with a Bach festival, most of them in the general direction of playing some Bach, but there we are. However, a very close friend of Mr Halls’s thinks he knows why he was fired. Reginald Mobley, a hugely talented counter-tenor, and an African-American, believes it is because a stupid white woman overheard a conversation between himself and Halls and construed one of Halls’s comments as being — yes, yes, we’re there again — racist. And complained to the authorities.
Another theory has it that the festival was experiencing a drop in attendance and this is why Halls was let go, but just a few weeks before his contract had been renewed to 2020, so that seems unlikely.

What I want to talk about is not the merits of this individual case, or related cases such as the debacle at Evergreen State College where out-of-control student protests allegedly created a hostile work environment for a biology professor and his wife or the fraught circumstances suffered by Madison Faupel at the University of Minnesota where she is president of the College Republican chapter. Instead, I want to examine what seems to link these and other cases: a collapse of integrity at institutions of higher learning.

If we go back a few decades, universities and colleges were very prestigious places where distinguished scholars pursued their researches free of political bias and did so with a certain amount of courage on modest salaries. This seems to have changed, though, I am sure, some still remains. But if you look into the instances I cite above and other similar ones, it seems that the best characterization of current institutions is that they are now vehicles for political indoctrination and the administrators seem to be unable to resist pressure from extremists. Indeed, these extremists now seem to be the mainstream.

Instead of courage, what we see is rank cowardice. If you hunt around you can find videos of college administrators being berated by groups of student protestors and all they seem able to do is appease them. This seems to me to be the tail wagging the dog. Undergraduate students have always been susceptible to wacky idealisms, but what we are experiencing now is a level of viciousness that seems so out of proportion that one wonders, is it simply political correctness gone viral or is this a very clever strategy?

What does seem to be revealed is an emptiness at the heart of Western culture that makes it susceptible to a ravaging virus. The idea of preserving, presenting and teaching the quality of Western culture as exemplified in, for example, the music of Bach, used to be its own justification. But now it seems that the whole hierarchy of value is overturned and the mere (false) suspicion of racism overrules anything else. What we need are some serious antibodies to fight off the infection! Oh, yes, and to recognize that this is a cultural war and one that needs to be won.

Well, I hope that wasn't too political! There are not a lot of clips of Matthew Halls on YouTube, but here is the Sinfonia from the Bach Easter Oratorio with him conducting the Retrospect Ensemble:


Marc Puckett said...

"Another theory has it that the festival was experiencing a drop in attendance and this is why Halls was let go, but just a few weeks before his contract had been renewed to 2020, so that seems unlikely."

I think that what might explain this curious fact is that a new provost (I pay no attention to the UO but evidently the provost is sort of the COO over there) was installed in July-- my implication being that Dr Banavar simply made a decision to reverse his predecessors' choice, for reasons known only to himself and his closest confidants and perhaps others.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm starting to have a suspicion as to who really deserves firing!

Will Wilkin said...

Bryan if you could hear the vulgar vacuous illiterate rap music my workmates listen to, if you could know that together the whole crew reads less than a book every few years if ever, if you could appreciate what it means that many millions such people are all around us --and that they are basically good people, hard-working and honorable-- you'd remember that culture wars have always been a worry of the "elite" who take a historical and schooled view of society and culture (and thereby of art), that the majority have always been illiterate at the fundamental if not formal level, that "fine arts" and literature have always hovered above the common man who has no interest in what he's might take comfort that fine arts have always been islands that survive the centuries and millennia even in that larger sea, and that, aside from some special aristocrats and elements in the church, patronage of the arts has always had the aesthetic and spiritual corruptions of the mucky market and vulgar tastes even from the very rich and now over these brief recent centuries joined by a middle class.

And before anyone thinks this is an elitist perspective, I assure you I don't consider myself one of the elites of any kind....I once (back when I was a hs history teacher) had a principal ask me, "Will, are you an intellectual?" and I replied instantly, before I even knew what I was saying, "No, but I read them."

He himself was a "born again" christian who only survived a year in our hs, where the teachers and community were much too "sophisticated" for his old-school morality and world-view. Pushed out by the political correctness of a secular mindset that even to my own atheist mind has long seemed superficial and hollow in a spiritually empty materialism. I really liked the guy.

Does any of this follow from what you wrote, Bryan? Perhaps not much literally, but these are the kinds of thoughts provoked by your on-target criticism of the devolving campus culture, the rising democratic tide that I both support and despise. I take comfort that serious artists and serious music will survive because in the human diversity there will always be a small set of people who yearn for maximum inventiveness combined with historical consciousness and respect for tradition and the disciplined study and practice that are required to make the best music. That aesthetic will not die, no matter what the popular culture does.

Bryan Townsend said...

Will, I always enjoy your perspective on things.

Marc Puckett said...

You may or may not have seen Michael Cooper in the New York Times today; he seems to have obtained emails which confirm that the OBF executive director was 'investigating' the so-called 'racist incident'.

Have heard privately that there was no love lost between Halls and ED McCoy but this is the first 'evidence' (it could be construed as that, certainly) of unhappy relations that I've seen.

Must go to bed! long day ahead tomorrow: Renée Fleming is in town for tomorrow's first concert of the Eugene Symphony season.

Will Wilkin said...

Well more to the point, you have readers who appreciate YOUR perspective. And Bryan, if you can find 250 words for an abstract, I think you definitely could bring much to this conference, which is obviously begging for you to present a 20-minute paper:

Bryan Townsend said...

Marc, thanks for the New York Times link, I am going to put that in the Friday miscellanea. Enjoy Renée Fleming, a lovely singer.

Will, that's quite a gauntlet you throw down! The last time I delivered an academic paper at a conference, it was in England. This does sound right up my alley and I think I would do something in the area of aesthetics. There are a couple of problems: one is that the paper would be delivered to a room full of full-time academics who could easily start throwing references at me that I might not know. I just don't have time to stay abreast of all the literature. Second, January is a busy time for me and it might be hard to get away. But it is an excellent challenge and I will sit down and try and come up with a suitable abstract. Thanks so much for the link!

Will Wilkin said...

Bryan my friend, this is no gauntlet thrown, please do not feel you have to take the dare just to maintain honor. The endeavor would just as likely be a waste of time, addressing over-intellectualized enthusiasts of "critical theory" with zero relation to anything functional or real. Whenever my son puts on the CD of your "4 Pieces for Violin & guitar" and improvises with his saxophone, I am deeply moved by the power of real music, of melody and invention that flows from no formula or analysis but from the vital impulse deeper than any intellect, to which mind is only a blind slave.

But if you genuinely burn to answer the call for papers, do NOT doubt yourself. You could make just as many references the academics wouldn't know, you have competencies at least equal to any you will encounter there, and most of all, you have a seasoned and life-tested perspective on their questions that seems missing from their Ivory Towers, at least as reflected by the American students of musicology at "Musicology Now" who are posting politicized articles devoid of musical focus, except as an entré into their own politics. But again, it might be a waste of time if your goal were to affect the culture wars, though then again perhaps you'd reach some students who are as critical of the critics as they are of the criticized.... Ultimately only worth it if you would truly enjoy it and find it growthful in real ways worth the effort and expense. God knows you don't need their conference to stimulate your mind, its always going!

Hell, if I had the money, I'd enjoy meeting up with you there and catching a few operas in Europe. But I don't, though I'd read whatever you might present.

Bryan Townsend said...

Will, thanks so much for your support. If I can come up with a good enough idea for an abstract, I will post it here so everyone can comment. If it is accepted, no sure thing, and if it seems practical to go, it might well be worth while. Perhaps it might encourage others to speak up. Academia tends to become an echo chamber!

Will Wilkin said...

Bryan, I can't resist the impulse to invite you to (so sorry about this...but its relevant to your discussion above of the absurdity of political attacks on musicians) once again visit the Musicology Now blog where the typically hyper-politicized argument was made to suggest that Haydn was no genius but rather has significance as a symbol of racist and German nationalist ideologies. I kid you not, though the article merely insinuated this as an overt statement of could not stand even at that weirdly twisted website.

Hopefully you'll find my extended reply to the article and especially to one of its defenders amusing and somehow comforting, if only because it spares you the trouble of reminding those people that music is about aesthetics and the human spirit, not about power struggles.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks Will. You may have given me a topic for a post today!