Monday, October 24, 2016

High (Remunerating) Culture

I'm all for economic decisions being made on the basic of economic facts, but I'm also all for aesthetic decisions being made on the basis of aesthetic facts. The Wall Street Journal has some tough love from Terry Teachout to the orchestral musicians currently in salary disputes with management in Fort Worth, Pittsburgh and one recently settled in Philadelphia. He reviews the history of orchestral pay in the US and concludes: a market economy, the price of labor is determined by the interaction of supply and demand. You get what someone else is willing to pay you—and nothing more.
“Demand” is the key word here. In 1967, classical music still occupied a central position in our high culture. Now it doesn’t. Most Americans don’t care about classical music and don’t go to orchestral concerts. I think they should, but it doesn’t matter what I think. They’ll do what they want to do—and one thing they don’t want to do is go out of their way to hike the salary of a violinist in Philadelphia who already makes over $2,400 a week, especially when the median weekly household income in the U.S. is $1,073 (which is roughly what the average London orchestra player earns per week).
The mention of the year 1967 refers back to some research Mr. Teachout did:
Prior to 1968, membership in the Cleveland Orchestra was a part-time job. When [Arnold Steinhardt] joined the orchestra, the regular season was just 30 weeks long, with lower pay for summer concerts. In 1952, the base salary was $3,240—$29,231 in today’s dollars. By 1967, it had only gone up to $11,700. (The current base salary is $120,000.) The U.S. median household income in 1967, by contrast, was $7,970. According to a 1952 survey, 60% of the players moonlighted in nonmusical jobs, and many of them did so until 1968, when Cleveland, in keeping with other top-tier American orchestras, finally lengthened its season to 52 weeks.
If you read the whole thing, Mr. Teachout is making two points: first of all that conductors and administrators are paid very high salaries while players make much less, but even so, players in orchestras like Philadelphia's make double the median household income. Therefore, they should shut up and play. Well, ok. As I said, economic truths are economic truths. But the problem I have is with the mention of "high culture".

We live in topsy-turvy times when all those who are supposed to be educating us about the value of culture and high culture in particular are instead off fighting social justice wars. One gets the distinct impression from this article that high culture in the form of classical music concerts has no importance whatsoever now. If you look only at remuneration, the central position in "high" culture these days is obviously occupied by Taylor Swift (earnings in the past year: $170 million), Beyoncé and Katy Perry. That's the little logical hiccup in the column: yes, in a market economy, you get what someone is willing to pay you, the classical violinist in Philadelphia, $2400 a week and Taylor Swift, $170 million a year. But I don't think you should connect market value with the concept of "high culture" which is an aesthetic concept, not an economic one. Hopefully, the Philadelphia Orchestra does still occupy a central position in high culture.

It seems as if in the USA these days, high culture, like music programs in schools, could be dropped entirely. Contrast this with another article at The Huffington Post: Kent Nagano Discusses Ten Years with Montreal Symphony:
When I first got to the city, many people on the administration staff said, ‘...oh dear, we have a grey-haired syndrome here...,’ meaning that our audience is getting older and older. But, we decided over the course of the season, that we would never change one thing - we felt that the one thing that transcends generation is the natural human tendancy to appreciate exceptional quality.
So rather than push the bar down, we pushed the bar very, very high, where we challenge the audiences with extremely adventurous programming. We promote not only very well-known marquee international soloists, but we support young and up-and-coming soloists that our audience takes under its own wing. They feel that the young soloists belong to them, and are a part of our tradition in Montreal. The same thing with young composers.
The result, after ten years, is that the audience today—and I think you probably felt that when you came to our concerts—is so much more homoginized. All from as young as 8, 6 years old up to people who have already retired from their profession and everything in between. Families come. In short the concert hall looks like Montreal. It looks like what you see when you walk in our parks, walk on our streets. That’s what our public looks like.
 What I take away from this is that if you lose focus on the reason why you are playing this music, that is, the aesthetic reason to give to the audience, the community, the highest quality music you can, then you end up squabbling over the "market value" of your work and when you do that, then Terry Teachout will tell you that most people don't go to orchestral concerts. Well, they never did. Just the ones who appreciated aesthetic quality.

This is the Stravinsky Capriccio for piano and orchestra with Yulianna Avdeeva, piano and Kent Nagano conducting the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal:


Anonymous said...

Speaking of high culture, the HuffPost should use a spellchecker: "tendancy", "homoginized," as well as an editor -- the writer meant the opposite of homogenized.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Anonymous. Yes, I noticed quite a number of errors and just general awkward wording. I suspect that the original interview was conducted in French and this is a not quite up to snuff translation. I was reading a piece in the Jerusalem Post this morning and noticed a lot of similar awkwardnesses. That was probably originally written in Hebrew.