Sunday, December 2, 2012

Is it Still Possible to be a Philistine?

I just ran across this article in the Guardian. Much of it is only of interest to British readers of course, who are involved in some way in the political controversy. But what caught my eye was the use of the word "philistine" in the headline:

What future for the arts with these Tory philistines?

The term "Philistine" has an interesting history in musical aesthetics. In the early 19th century the name was taken from the Bible, where it referred to a people who were traditional enemies of the Israelites, and applied by the Romantic idealists to those people who were satisfied with commonplace entertainment. The leader of the battle with the philistines was none other than Robert Schumann. Even then, there was an internal contradiction: great Romantic artists like Liszt, Paganini and, yes, Schumann, actually depended on the commercial support of the masses for their success. But at the same time they disdained what Schumann called the "poisoned flowers" or temptations of "the applause of the vulgar crowd".

But aren't we told over and over again that the high-brow arts are dead? Irrelevant? Mere historical fossils? Arguments are sometimes made, and are made in the article I linked to, about the "economic benefits" of the fine arts. How many dollars they bring into a local economy. My feeling has always been that the more dollars a cultural event brings in, the less likely it is to be 'high' art. And then there are some cultural institutions that are very hard to justify at all. Libraries, for instance:
By any economic measurement, libraries are as worthless as a dead language. They attract no tourists, generate no soft power, save no lives, have no impact on obesity, produce "no clear benefit to the economy" and are prized, in the main, by the sort of marginalised losers who can't afford to buy their own books or sort their lives out online. 
But I have been getting the distinct impression that no matter how barbaric your tastes, you can't actually be a philistine any more. The reason is that 'taste' is an exploded concept probably involving the hegemonic oppression of the ordinary person and 'barbarism' is just a multicultural alternative. If you express an opinion in favor of high culture in a forum somewhere, it will be mere moments before someone is chiding you for being an 'elitist' arrogantly trying to impose your dried-up, worthless taste on other people.

But at the same time, the high arts seem to survive. We have great orchestras, great conductors, great soloists, all furiously giving concerts and making recordings. People are attending concerts and there are still a few music students here and there. So it seems the high arts are not dead after all. If they were, then they would not be a very useful political football, would they?

Plus I think that the aesthetic power and quality of so-called 'classical' music is so especially evident any time you set it next to the drivel that is usually passed off as popular music, that it is always going to capture the interest of those with ears to hear. Now for some Schumann:

No comments: