Thursday, July 9, 2015

Museum Culture

Classical music is often accused of being a "museum culture" that is, a dusty, obsolete form of music that belongs in a museum. It is even accused of having created its own stilted musical museum by means of the institution of the musical canon, or corpus of works that provide the content of most concert programs.

But is this even a bad thing? In a lengthy and thoughtful article in Commentary Magazine titled "How Art Became Irrelevant" by Michael J. Lewis, he writes:
If one compares the performance of museums to other entertainment facilities in the United States in terms of box office, the museums come off splendidly. According to the American Association of Museums, annual attendance hovers at about 700 or 800 million, and it did not even suffer declines during the recession of 2008. These figures far exceed the combined attendance at major-league sporting events and amusement parks. This is not by accident, for museums have been assiduously cultivating their attendance for quite some time. The process began with the “Treasures of Tutankhamen” exhibition that opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1978 and drew a record 1.8 million visitors. Startled museum trustees, previously accustomed to covering the annual deficit with a discreet check, took notice of the lines stretching around the block. The temptation proved irresistible, and the culture of the museum reoriented itself toward the regular production of a reliable blockbuster.
By any measure, there is hardly an institution in the Western world so healthy as the museum today. By any measure—there’s the rub. For some things cannot be measured but are important nevertheless.
Wow. Annual attendance greater than sports? This reveals a side of contemporary culture that is scarcely reflected in the mass media. Doesn't this show an interest in artworks, many of which are ancient and traditional ("classical" if by that we mean art from times before modernism and post-modernism came to be) far greater than is usually thought to be the case? Now sure, the museums have fallen prey to the lure of the fashionable and not above doing exhibits devoted to the motorcycle or Björk, but still, most of what they display is actual art, leavened with some exhibits of pop culture and the avant-garde. But they have made a great success of it. According to the article, the grandiose Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, recouped the cost of its construction in a mere three years.

So why are symphony orchestras constantly criticized for doing much the same thing: presenting a traditional canon of masterworks, leavened with the occasional pops concert and some avant-garde. Why is it their budgets are always in arrears while the museums are raking it in?

As I see it, one of the great strengths of classical music is that it is, in part, a museum culture: a canon of the great masterworks from the last five hundred years or so of Western culture, leavened with some semi-popular works like West Side Story and film scores and with more contemporary music from Stravinsky to John Luther Adams. This should be as big a winner as the art museums. But instead, classical music culture is either ignored entirely (as seen by the way it is handled by the music streaming services) or criticized unmercifully for being sexist, racist, or just irrelevant.

The article I cited is mostly about how art has lost its way and become irrelevant to the general populace:
Without a sincere concept of the meaning of civilization, one cannot explain why a masterpiece of Egyptian New Kingdom art counts for more than a creation of 1960s industrial design (other than in dollar value). If one cannot do even that, it is hard to see how one might set out to make serious and lasting art. To make such art—art that refracts the world back to people in some meaningful way, and that illuminates human nature with sympathy and insight—it is not necessary to be a religious believer. Michelangelo certainly was; Leonardo da Vinci certainly was not. But it is necessary to have some sort of larger system of belief, a larger structure of continuity that permits works of art to speak across time. Without such a belief system, all that one can hope for is short-term gain, in the coin of celebrity or notoriety, if not actual coins.
This "sincere concept" that he mentions is what I call "aesthetics" and what I have been trying to revive in this blog. The "larger structure of continuity" in culture and the arts is what we go to a museum to experience. We look at fine art from the ancient Egyptians up to Picasso and beyond and, if we are thoughtful, we start to notice some aesthetic continuities. What has this process arrested is the century-long project of modernism to banish this kind of thinking entirely. As Lewis puts it, we are not being given any help by scholars and critics because:
For a generation they had been schooled by those French 20th-century intellectuals Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida who said that art and literature were best understood as expressions of a structure of power. Better to eliminate altogether the word art, which evokes unhappy images of dominant cultures expressing their hegemony, in favor of the aesthetically neutral term visual culture, which makes no judgments about merit but merely looks at the purposes for which one makes works of art—or, in their terms, “objects of visual interest.”
 So my policy is to pay no attention to this kind of approach. Its intent and effect, I am quite sure, is to de-legitimize Western civilization and put nothing in its place but a kind of soulless uniformity. So I feel no qualms about saying away with all that. Similarly, about thirty years ago, I decided to attack the problem of creeping neurosis by rejecting modern psychology. Even notice how if you read books about neurosis, they always make you neurotic? Solution, don't read books about neurosis. I ended up rejecting all modern psychology since Freud and I haven't been happier!

Similarly, rejecting the whole modernist ideology, as exemplified in the works of Foucault and Derrida will have nothing but positive beneficial effects and enable us to recapture some of that "larger structure of continuity that permits works of art of speak across time." They do, you know. Just look at the example of the first great poems ever written, the epics Odyssey and Iliad by Homer, still widely read today.

Classical music does not have quite that pedigree, largely because the Greeks did not have a good musical notation, but we do have a thousand year corpus of great, truly great, musical art. Here is a magnificent Magnificat by Alexander Agricola (1446 - 1506), whose music stylistically lies between that of Ockeghem and Josquin:


Christine Lacroix said...


Bryan Townsend said...

I hate to admit this, but I just recently discovered Agricola!

Marc said...

In what way do the streaming services maltreat classical music, other than with the woefully small amounts of money artists earn-- but that is an issue with all artists who sign up there, right? hmm. My experience for several years has been Spotify only-- certainly they're mainly selling popular music and one gets the impression that they have fifty staff 'curating' its different genres while perhaps retaining one to 'sell' the glamorous Joyce DiDonatos and Jonas Kaufmanns of the classical world.

Bryan Townsend said...

Did you mean this comment for the Friday Miscellanea? I'm sorry, I forgot to give the link to the Alex Ross piece about streaming. I just added it. But here is another, more detailed examination of how streaming services maltreat classical music:

Sounds like the main problems are that they break up multi-movement works and make it hard to search by composer.

Marc said...

Ha. You write above, "But instead, classical music culture is either ignored entirely (as seen by the way it is handled by the music streaming services)..."-- so, yes, I meant it here. Haven't gotten to the FM yet although am now almost there. :-) You are remarkably good at what you do here! but even Homer nods. I have to remind myself what day of the week it is more often than I care to admit.

Marc said...

To the point, off the top of my head I don't see how having the four movements of a symphony arranged as separate 'songs' makes any difference, apart from the fact that they aren't songs. On the other hand, when I was downloading via iTunes it is true that I would get movements out of order etc in my playlists.

But the search parameters at Spotify are definitely not entirely consistent-- that's true enough.

Bryan Townsend said...

Right you are Marc! I did say that here. I compile the Friday Miscellanea over several days, so that can confuse me as to when I said what. I don't have an opinion on the streaming services myself, since I don't use them, but the NPR article was pretty detailed about some of the problems.