Thursday, November 24, 2011

Dilemmas of Arts Funding

In what is known as the "cultural industry" there is always a great deal of heated discussion over audiences, funding and future directions. Here is a post by Norman Lebrecht about an EU funding increase. Greg Sandow has made discussions of the future of classical music a central theme of his blog. I really wish I could get more engaged with this sort of thing, but, probably for the same reason that I always found managing my own career impossibly difficult, I just can't. I know it is necessary and important, but it always feels backwards to me.

If you craft your creative activities in order to appeal to journalists, critics and arts bureaucrats, then I think they will suffer. And the more you get involved in trying to figure out what these folks want, then I think the more you will be distracted from good creative choices. But maybe I'm just confused! Set me straight if you can.

One of the most interesting articles I have read on arts funding was in a Canadian newspaper so long ago I probably couldn't find it online. The gist of it was that arts funding in Canada has a problem. The federal government, in order to stay at arm's length from arts funding, has set up the Canada Council whose mission is described as follows:
The Canada Council was created by an Act of Parliament in 1957 (Canada Council for the Arts Act) to foster and promote the study, enjoyment and production of works in the arts, and operate at “arm’s length” or independently of government. 
Since then, the Canada Council has evolved into a dynamic organization that is Canada’s leading supporter of the arts. We are proud to have contributed to the lively cultural life and abundance of exceptional art that we now enjoy in Canada.
The article focused on writers, but a similar dynamic could be at work in music as well. The problem was that there had grown up an assortment of writers who frequently received funding. The method for determining that funding was through a jury of other writers chosen by the council. No writer on a jury could risk being too critical of an application by another writer in the club for fear that next year that writer might be on his jury. If you were in the 'club' you usually got your applications approved. If not, not. In order to get in the club in the first place, you need to be doing something that other writers in the club would recognize. I see some problems there, the main one being that over time writing in Canada becomes hopelessly stodgy and unadventurous--you never want to risk your next grant not being approved. Of course, in many places arts funding is determined directly by a government-appointed bureaucrat so the problem is much worse.

There is a more subtle issue also at work in the current debates over arts funding. Instead of direct political interference or an old boy's club calling the shots, we have a kind of anxiety over the fact that classical music just doesn't seem to appeal to as many people as we would like. It especially seems to have a problem with younger listeners who receive little exposure to it. Instead of hearing it occasionally on the radio or television, perhaps taking a few piano lessons, they are surrounded their whole lives with a constant stream of popular music. Confronted by classical music they initially find it boring. No surprise there.

So what's the solution? Somehow make classical music more like popular music so those raised exclusively on the latter will feel more comfortable? That does seem a likely approach which I talk about in this post. Early on in this blog I responded to a promotional article in this post in which I questioned the whole idea that classical music should apologize for not being more like popular music.

Let's acknowledge one thing: classical music and popular music are different things. The idiosyncratic way I define classical music as "that music that has shown exceptional quality over an extended period of time" means that I classify not only music by Guillaume DuFay (15th century), Rameau, Bach, Beethoven, Shostakovich, and the Beatles as classical, on the other hand I also am reluctant to call music by bad composers classical even if they wrote string quartets.

But I have created a problem for myself: 'classical' music for the most part is still dependent on certain institutions and traditions such as the symphony orchestra, the conservatory and the opera house. Without them, it would be very difficult to experience classical music because, despite my definition above, most classical music does come in the form of symphonies and string quartets and piano sonatas even though it extends to early music and I think slowly incorporates new music. Symphonies, conservatories and opera houses have never been commercially viable so, in the absence of wealthy nobility, we are forced to seek funding by government.

 But we should always keep in mind the dangers of so doing: the dangers of political influence which can mean excessive funding of 'progressive' causes as well as the opposite; the dangers of failing to do good creative work because it seems too risky; the dangers of diluting the art so as to appeal to people who have had little or no exposure to it and other dangers I haven't even thought of.

If at the end of the day we have some kind of 'classical' music that barely resembles the real thing, then we haven't gained much, have we?


Anonymous said...

Lebrecht makes a jaw-dropping statement: "The bad news is that half of it will be spent on film, which ought to be commercially self-sufficient."

One can argue whether half is the right fraction, but to say that film should be commercially self-sufficient is stunning, especially coming from a Brit. Britain, thanks to its insistence on commercial self-sufficiency is --and has always been-- a second-rate film nation. Which is amazing considering the great British theater tradition. Now take a country where film has always been heavily subsidized: France. Measured by quality and influence, France has always had the second most important film industry in the world after the US. Italy provides a control experiment to prove my point. Italy has long had one of the greatest filmmaking traditions (Fellini, Visconti, Antonioni, Pasolini, etc). But today, Italy's quality cinema is dead. Why? Ask Lebrecht. The death of Italian cinema, brought about by Berlusconian beliefs in commercial viability, is one of the great cultural tragedies of our time.

Or perhaps Lebrecht will want to argue that a commercially successful movie like Slumdog Millionaire is a sign of British film mastery. Now that would be very funny considering how perfectly crappy that manipulative piece of schlock is.

Bryan Townsend said...

I bow to your knowledge of the economics of the film industry. But it sure seems right. Italian art film seems just to have disappeared. I've been off film myself for a decade anyway as the commercial stuff from Hollywood is so smothered in CGI, bad writing and ideology that I can't stand to watch it. Well, I did see the new Star Trek one...