ART. WHO NEEDS IT ANYWAY!

I wrote this blog/essay/article over a period of weeks, thinking about how I felt about cuts to arts funding and the reaction on the part of arts people (short-lived) and the public (zilch). Reading it over and trying to make sense of it all, I see that I keep coming back to certain themes throughout. I’ll be the first one to say that it’s incomplete, very lopsided, and, I hope, infuriating. This has already appeared, in April, on the AABC website, but I thought I’d post it here again. My apologies for being so long-winded.

ART AS RELIGION

For some people the Arts are like religion, they think everyone should believe. Had I remained a Catholic, as I was brought up, I would still firmly believe that I belonged to the One True Church, all the others were merely misinformed. I’d feel sorry for all those pathetic non-Catholics, who were probably doomed to hell. I would truly believe that, if they had any sense, they would convert. Strangely enough, I realize that much of my thinking about ART (note the capitalization) has been very similar. Surely the world would be a better place if everyone loved classical music, went to the opera, art galleries, read great literature, and kept up with the latest developments as much as I did. I’ve even done my share of proselytizing for the cause, as indeed I did for the Church during my Catholic youth.

Guess what, though. I never once thought that the government should pay me for going to Mass or for taking the sacraments. Even in this day of dwindling church attendance, I do not hear religious people lobbying for subsidies. On the other hand, as a devotee of the Arts, I have always assumed that government should take responsibility for providing funding. After all, aren’t artists providing a necessary public service? And, haven’t the Arts always been supported by the church, by the aristocracy, by the wealthy, or by government? It’s only popular entertainment that makes money; true Art, like religion, is outside of the marketplace and does not concern itself with such sordid matters as profit-making.

GOVERNMENT WITHDRAWS FUNDING

Consider the outcry and outrage when, last fall, our provincial government announced drastic cuts to arts funding. Protest rallies were organized, massive letter campaigns promoted, petitions were signed, and announcements were made at concerts and plays. When the provincial budget came down recently, it was clear that the government was not swayed by any of this. My question is: Why should they be? Arts supporters can easily be discounted as a “special interest group,” obviously more worried about their own subsidies than about more serious matters like hungry school children, health care, and budgetary deficits. Let’s just say that the government’s attitude was “Ignore them, and they’ll go away.” And, sure enough, after the initial furor, the rallies and letter campaigns dried up. The same thing happened when the CBC (remember the CBC?) curtailed its classical music and serious discussion programming in order to inform us that “Canada lives here” and that we should follow “Everywhere music takes you.”

The government people were right. How many would you say wrote letters or marched in righteous outrage over cuts to arts funding? Several thousand, maybe—really nothing compared with the more than four million voters in the province, most of whom either didn’t care or didn’t know about arts funding in the first place. What they were excited about were the Olympics (Go, Canada, go!) and the latest three-D blockbuster. Our governments, it would seem, are following the procedures of television programming: Find out what they’re watching and give them more of it.

THE WAY IT USED TO BE

Some of us remember when radio and television devoted major programming hours to opera, serious theatre, symphony concerts, and provocative discussion. People used to tune in weekly to symphonic concerts like the Standard Hour, the Bell Telephone Hour, or the Firestone Hour. The American National Broadcasting Corporation, created and fully funded the NBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Arturo Toscanini, in two-hour Sunday concerts from 1937 to 1954. The Ed Sullivan show regularly featured opera stars like Birgit Nilsson, Joan Sutherland, and Franco Corelli. Our public schools had lively music and art programs. (Until sometime in the 1980s, each school district in the lower mainland had a full-time music supervisor.)

In 1949, the Massey Commission (Royal Commission on Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences) was created by the St. Laurent government (Try to imagine the current government creating such a royal commission). Upon the recommendation of the Commission, the Canada Council was created and funded in 1951. Support for the arts in Canada seemed guaranteed–until the mid 1980s when government appropriations began to fall In real terms (taking inflation into account), Canada Council’s resources had decreased by over 30% by 1992. Government claims to the contrary not withstanding, this decline has continued. The same is true for the British Columbia Arts Council.

AND THEN?

So what happened? Why is support for the arts dwindling and why is that hardly anyone cares? As I said before, our governments and our popular media have become followers, not leaders. This all started with the advent of television and the market surveys that determined who was watching what. If the majority of people are watching sitcoms, why then let’s give them more sitcoms. The advertisers, after all, want to expose their wares to the largest possible audience, and it was soon discovered that intellectual challenge tended to drive viewers to other channels. Consequently, it was necessary to assess public taste and create corresponding programming. In the parallel world of food, McDonald’s has done this brilliantly. You always know what to expect, no surprises, and don’t ask any questions about fat, salt, methycellulose, or nutrition. The comparison with television is apt.

We’re all familiar with the notion of “dumbing down.” Just listen, for example to the dialogue in 1940s radio and even in 1950s television. The vocabulary as well as the political and social allusions are of a level of sophistication unknown in today’s popular shows. Action must now be fast and frenetic, and the sound bite has replaced the meaningful quotation. Popular movies are the same. Cutting is rapid-fire, with shots lasting rarely more than a second or two. Compare this with a scene from, say, “Citizen Kane.” Here you will see single shots lasting five minutes or more, typical of films from the 1930s and 1940s. The slower pace implies that the audience is capable of paying attention and following the measured development of plot and character. The big box office blockbusters of today present us with a slam bang relentless array of images of crashes, explosions, fights, and chases. Never a dull moment. And once you have created such a film or TV show, the only way you can improve upon it is to up the ante: more and louder crashes, more and stupider jokes (with laugh track), more provocative sexiness, and more carefully engineered “reality.”

WHAT HAPPENED TO POPULAR MUSIC?

Meanwhile, the field of popular music has also undergone radical changes. Throughout most of history, the basic format of classical and popular music was the same. A sentimental ballad sung by Frank Sinatra would run a close parallel to a song by Schubert: vocal melody with accompaniment, poetic text, and basic song form. The difference being that the Schubert song would probably be more adventurous harmonically, have a more complex accompaniment (for piano), have a melody that might take unexpected turns, and be set to a poem of artistic merit. Nevertheless, the listener to the Sinatra song would have no problem engaging with the Schubert, if he or she so chose. What has happened over the past 40 or so years is that popular and classical music have taken widely divergent paths, and as these paths diverged, the public followed the pop music path and forgot about the classical or high art path.

In many ways, popular music has remained more traditional—relentlessly so, with its simple harmonies, repetitious rhythms, and rudimentary forms. The ubiquitous electric guitar has placed its homogenizing stamp on virtually all popular music. Like television and the movies, popular music has become simpler and simpler, usually electronically engineered to sound like nothing that could happen in acoustic reality. Early Rap, with its street-smart, in-your-face vitality, soon morphed commercially (mostly by white guys) into a sullen pseudo-rebellious “product” so popular with boom-car drivers, relying on dirty words for effect. A similar process transformed Rock ‘n’ Roll from its vigorous black-ghetto beginnings into the nice-English-white-boys style of the Beatles. For more on this, I recommend “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Elijah Wald (Oxford, 2009). What with sexually charged techno pop, glam rock, and teen and “tween” performers, popular music is now almost entirely the purview of the young and reflects the lack of sophistication, life experience, and technical expertise of maturity. Our young people are now immersed in a hyper-sexualized, over glamorized, anti-intellectual milieu, their brains addled by drugs, cell phones, IPods, and social networking. YouTube sites popular with kids, including the very young, have titles like “Do I look like a slut?”, “Too drunk to fuck” and “Stick it in”.

Do we imagine that a symphony concert or an exhibition of cubist painting could possibly compete with the supercharged glitz and glamour of a Lady Gaga? Could I leave my Facebook page alone long enough to sit through an opera or a play? As someone once said, how can people who have grown up with the three-minute popular song comprehend a twenty-minute symphony, let alone a four-hour opera?

OH THOSE STUFFY INTELLECTUALS

Along with this has come a widespread disdain for the output of the mature and intellectually developed adult. Classical music, literature, poetry, and art are dismissed as boring. Even politicians must now be careful not to betray any intellectual prowess or achievement. Better to be “just folks.” Remember how Stephane Dion was ridiculed, in the 2008 election, for being “the professor”? Notice how Michael Ignatieff adopts a “folksy way … when trying to be a man of the people, ‘What the heck are the facts?’” (Ron Graham in The Walrus, January/February2010) Used to be that people looked up to leaders who were articulate, well-read, idealistic, and thoughtful. Louis St. Laurent, whose government founded the Canada Council, while known as a man of the people, made no apologies for being a respected lawyer, a professor of law (Laval University), a humanitarian, and an articulate speaker.

THE DISAPPEARING PUBLIC

When did artists start losing the public? My piano teacher used to refer to certain pieces of music as “musicians’ music,” in other words, music that only musicians could understand. In his 1948 essay “The Dehumanization of Art” José Ortega y Gasset cites “art for artists” as a reason why the public does not favour “the new art.” New art, in this case, being cubism, abstract expressionism, and performance art. As if that weren’t enough, the public was further alienated by the musical creations of composers like Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Igor Stravinsky, and, later, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez et al. In the theatre, people were confused by plays by Luigi Pirandello, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and others. Arts and artists were breaking new ground, and the public was left behind in the dust.

I am not suggesting for a moment that artists should not be breaking new ground. This is the very nature of art. But at the same time that the above-mentioned ground was being broken, the public was being lured by new, easier, sources of entertainment: radio, movies, and, television. As soon as the television moguls discovered polls and ratings, the downward spiral began. After all, the more popular your show, the more advertising you can sell. Classical music, visual and plastic arts are now entombed in museums and concert halls where people behave and dress in ways that are foreign and off-putting to everyday people. Again, popular television, blockbuster movies, and rock concert producers—and don’t forget McDonald’s restaurants—know what people want, and they deliver entertainment (or food) that is fast, immediately recognizable, and easy to grasp—no surprises for the generally passive and uncritical consumer.

WHO NEEDS IT? WHO CARES?

Massive cuts to government funding to the arts are but one result of the alienation of the public. In other words, who cares? If people no longer respect or even know about what artists are doing, how can we expect them to care if their tax money no longer goes to support these arcane activities? As I said before, I would not expect the government to pay the faithful for their church attendance or for the priests and ministers who deliver the sacraments and sermons. Then why should we expect taxpayers’ money to support the rarefied indulgences of an elite and aging population who want to attend the opera, the symphony, and the art gallery? Or even a cadre of younger artists, who, instead of giving people what they want, insist in striking out in new directions creating challenging and disturbing new art?

Like the television and rock concert producers, governments know what people want and where their support lies. Hence you will soon be able to spend up to $9000 for a seat to watch two guys beat the stuffing out of each other in an Ultimate Fighting Championship event at GM Place (“could generate millions for the local economy”). If violence of that sort is not your dish of tea, you could stroll over the new $500 million (and counting) casino at BC Place and relieve yourself of your excess cash. (Be careful, on your way, not to step on any of the homeless people trying to sleep on the street.) Oh yes, the Vancouver School Board has just announced the virtual elimination, “due to cutbacks,” of art and music programs. One or two parents have lamented this loss, but ultimately, who cares?

In case you haven’t noticed, our governments have become followers, not leaders. Look, for example, at the Harper government’s “tough on crime” legislation. As we speak, $2 billion is being spent on building new prisons. Bill C-2, which will probably be supported by election-shy Liberals and the NDP, calls for tough minimum sentences and more invasive control of drug use, with penalties that emphasize retribution as opposed to rehabilitation. This in spite of all scientific and sociological research demonstrating that tougher sentences do not reduce crime. This government can push its own agenda by playing on the belief that we are living in a dangerous society. To convince people otherwise and to take a sensible and humane view would mean assuming a leadership role. It’s easier to ignore the fact that the crime rate has been steadily descending since the 1970s.

Because the Prime Minister was embarrassed by his pre-election remarks about artists at fancy galas, he has had his picture taken with a boy with a cello and he even sang a Beatles tune to his own accompaniment at, imagine!, a fancy gala. Remembering that he didn’t bother to show up at the Canada Council’s Fiftieth Anniversary celebration, I am not convinced. But he got a lot more media coverage from his singing and playing than he ever did from his no-show for the Canada Council.

This might be a good time to remind the reader of the difference between “market driven” and “product driven.” As we’ve pointed out, most popular entertainment as seen on television, movies, and rock concerts is based upon what the public wants, often determined by polls or by market surveys. Art, on the other hand, is, or should be, created out of the compulsion and imagination of the artist. As we have seen, the public may be confused and feel somehow cheated. The artists are playing tricks on them—and getting paid for it. Remember the anger expressed by some people when the National Gallery paid nearly $2 million for Barnett Newman’s “Voice of Fire”? This very large painting consists of a single red stripe on a blue background. “My four-year-old could have done that,” people were heard saying, somehow equating the value of the work with the amount of labour involved. A lady I was talking with at a concert recently, said, “I don’t trust the modern stuff.” She explained that she had attended a concert of contemporary music and heard only dissonance and not a single melody. In the essay cited above, Ortega y Gasset also wrote: “We then have an art which can be comprehended only by people possessed of the peculiar gift of artistic sensibility—an art for artists and not for the masses.” For the most part, the public is acquainted neither with the arts of the past or of the present. And what’s more, they don’t care. No one even let’s them know that it exists.

It doesn’t take long to realize that the media are devoting large amounts of time and energy to talk about sports. Sports have taken over the public imagination with regard to accomplishment and civic pride. We hold up our Olympic athletes as role models for the young, and we cheer wildly when “our” hockey team wins the series. (Even though the players are mostly from elsewhere.). There is nothing wrong with this, but it is happening in a vacuum of reporting about the accomplishments of our artists. We have not celebrated the achievements of our artists, writers, and musicians, many of whom are better known abroad than at home. Who knows that 22-year-old baritone from Toronto Elliott Madore was a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions? Who ever heard of Jan Lisiecki, the brilliant 15-year-old pianist from Calgary who has performed at Carnegie Hall and with major orchestras all over the world? He has recorded both Chopin piano concertos to great acclaim. He is International Youth Ambassador for UNICEF. Governor General Michaëlle Jean told him “You are an inspiration to children and adults across Canada.” Who knew? Why aren’t these artists and the many others, young and old, as well known as Sidney Crosby?

As long ago as 1948, José Ortega Y Gasset, in the essay cited above, wrote:

In these last few years we have seen almost all caravels of seriousness founder in the tidal wave of sports that floods the newspaper pages. Editorials threaten to be sucked into the abyss of their headlines, and across the surface victoriously sail the yachts of the regattas. Cult of the body is an infallible symptom of a leaning toward youth, for only the young body is lithe and beautiful. Whereas the cult of the mind betrays the resolve to accept old age, for the mind reaches plenitude only when the body begins to decline. The triumph of sport marks the victory of the values of youth over the values of age.

Arts groups have tried to lure back a bewildered public by trying some market-related tricks, pretending that they are “just folks” like everyone else. The Vancouver Symphony presents concerts of video game music, complete with large-screen video so you can see the musicians sweating it out. Vancouver Opera offers Manga versions of opera stories and a few young people “blogging” about the opera on opening night. The string quartet plays an arrangement of a Beatles tune. All this is well and good, but I’d wager that not one person has been moved to attend a regular symphony concert or an opera—or to come to believe that their taxes should support the arts—as a result of these slogans and condescending offerings. What we’re really saying is that we don’t believe that the product is good enough to sell itself on its own. We don’t expect you to sit and listen to an orchestra concert or a string quartet or to study up on an opera story.

If religious people can no longer persuade the wider public that church attendance will ensure a blissful afterlife, people who believe in Art have failed to make the case that participation in the arts guarantees a richer more fully-lived temporal life. We come up with flimsy slogans like “Creativity Counts” or “Don’t Torch the Arts” whilst flaunting grey squares to show how poverty-stricken a world we would have without Art. As if anyone cared.

We have failed to display a passion for and dedication to making Art. We have failed to engage the public with Art and artists. Our protests have been short-lived and insignificant. We have stood by while schools have eliminated arts programs. We have tuned out of the CBC’s erosion of music programming. We have failed to demand media attention for the arts at least equal to sports reporting.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. It took years of hard and constant work to get the environment onto the public agenda. People risked their lives; people went to jail and endured ridicule and hardship. They asked who cares? and answered: We do! And environmental issues have made it into the media and into public awareness. The government is compelled to respond, like it or not. Until we have the same kind of courage and determination, Art will stay in the background, an unnecessary frill, an elite indulgence. Why should tax money go for that?

In her 1953 book “Feeling and Form,” the philosopher Susanne Langer wrote:

An enlightened society usually has some means, public or private, to support its artists, because their work is regarded as a spiritual triumph and claim to greatness for the whole tribe.

How will we answer the question Who cares?

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About tdurrie

An aging radical with thoughts about society, education, arts, politics, and food.
This entry was posted in Arts Funding, Canada Council, Ortega y Gasset, Religion, St. Laurent, Susanne Langer, Ultimate Fighting Championship. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to ART. WHO NEEDS IT ANYWAY!

  1. Pingback: SPORTS, ARTS, LIFE AND IMPENDING DEATH | Rants and Raves of Tom Durrie

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