Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Death of Great Art

Requiem: Classical Music in America Is Dead (Slate Magazine)
(Click on the picture to see the article in Slate that prompted this blog post.)

"When will this ever end?"

That's how I felt sitting through my first live classical performance. I was a freshman in high school, and my parents had obtained tickets to a recital by Van Cliburn, one of the greatest American pianists of the mid-twentieth century. I can't remember if either of them was there (it would've been a natural for my mother, herself a classically trained pianist who almost went to Julliard), or if any of my brothers was there with me (and please, bros, if you were and you remember, chime in in the comments); all I really remember is I wished I'd brought a book to read, though even at that age I knew it would've been considered rude.

My fourteen-year-old musical skills (trumpet and piano) were unremarkable, and my exposure at that point in my life to classical music was limited to watching The Boston Pops on PBS, and wishing they'd play less light classics and more show tunes. For a piece of music to excite me, it had to have a recognizable melody, preferably in a minor mode, and some kind of driving rhythm. I did not yet care for rock music, had yet to be exposed to jazz. Considering my parents' musical gifts (my father, though lacking my mother's training, was an accomplished musician in his own right), the most striking thing about my musical upbringing was how little music there was in our home, so I really hadn't heard much of my mother's meager record collection.

In sum, I was bored.

It took four years of music school to teach me to love listening to the classics, as opposed to playing them in the background while I read novels and wrote short stories. I took quickly to symphonic music, for which the soundtracks of John Williams were my gateway drug. Chamber music was a harder sell: it took four years of music theory and history to enable me to appreciate recitals. Once I had that knowledge, though, and could appreciate the nuances of individual performances, I grew to love this music, too.

The bottom line for me, though, is that I would never have learned to love great music if I had not been required to expose myself to it: thirty concerts a semester was the minimum when I was in music school. As far back as the early 1980s, it was understood that attending concerts was work, and that, college students being who they are, without a requirement, they just wouldn't go to that many of them. It was also understood that more is better, that this kind of music is an acquired taste, and the more one experiences it, the more one is likely to appreciate it for what it is. The requirement worked: as a freshman and sophomore, I took books to concerts and found a seat with enough light that I could study during the performance. By the time I was a junior, I was only taking out my studies during intermission. I was also watching entirely classical concerts on television (the Bernstein on Beethoven series in particular), enthralled by not just the music issuing from my black and white set's tinny speaker, but also the conductor's work at the podium.

I ushered at many of these concerts, partly to get in free to the symphony performances, but also because I enjoyed people watching. Apart from fellow music majors, most of the attendees were middle-aged and older. This continued to be the case once I'd graduated, and was attending concerts as an adult: I was typically one of the youngest people in the auditorium.

Three weeks ago, I took Amy to an Oregon Symphony concert. The first half of the concert was all pops: special guests singing solos, cheesy humor, some celebrities behind microphones solely because of name recognition. The second half of the concert was what had brought me there: a full performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, a piece that is in my own personal top ten for greatest works ever composed. The performance felt anemic, though it still moved me. The orchestra performed competently, the soloists were strong, and the chorus was full-voiced. As a connoisseur of classical music, I was irked by all the gimmicks being used to pander to the baby boomers in the audience; but then, during intermission, I was acutely aware that, at 52, I was still one of the youngest people in the audience.

This is the point at which I acknowledge the truth in the Slate essay linked to above: the audience for classical music is dying. I must quickly add that it has, in fact, been dying for a very long time; as I noted earlier, those concerts I attended as a college student were mostly reaching older audiences back then in the early 1980s. I could reel off a host of reasons for this, including, as the article does, the state of music education in public schools, but I'll let you read them for yourself. The one reason I will cite is that which I opened with: to the inexperienced ear, classical music is boring. Why? Because it's high art, and it takes work to appreciate high art.

Consider whichever artistic medium you love best: literature, drama, poetry, painting, sculpture, dance; and then think about how much of an audience a great work in that medium actually has. Take, for instance, "Convergence" by Jackson Pollock:

It wasn't until the last decade that I was able to appreciate works like this. The abstraction of it is a distraction for me. And this is precisely why so much classical music is boring to the uninitiated: it's abstract, lacking in recognizable themes and references that can draw an uneducated listener in.

Another example: Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion, a sprawling mess of a novel that took me a year to read, but was, I knew as I continued to wade through it, very much worth the effort. Finishing it, I wanted to hang up my pretensions to being a novelist. There was just no way I could ever aspire to something as perfectly conceived as this, and it's no wonder to me that Kesey is primarily known for just two novels (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest being the other): there's no way to top them. As fond as I am of declaring that Notion is my favorite novel, I am unlikely ever to read it again: it was just too much work for my untrained literary sensibilities. There were times when I wished Kesey's editor had suggested he rein in his sperminess, but I'm glad he did not: every word mattered.

There's an old joke about the emperor hearing Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and saying it was fine, but it had "too many notes," to which Mozart said it had exactly the right number of notes. They were both right: for a casual listener, there really are too many notes in any extended work of classical music, and the result is boredom. To the casual reader, there are too many words in Sometimes a Great Notion. To a casual viewer, there's too much paint on the canvas in "Convergence." It can be said for any great work: it takes training and effort to appreciate the entirety of an epic. Casual audiences lack the capacity.

Learning to love classical music, literary fiction, abstract painting, or any other high art involves training, in the same way that gaining the ability to run a marathon, bicycle a century, or swim a mile takes training. The challenge for those who seek to expand audiences, whether they are performing arts development directors, publishers, gallery curators, or the artists themselves, is to convince the general public that the training is worth it, that appreciating high art is well worth the time and effort.

I believe it is, but I'm already there. I've taken the time to learn to love this art, and have spent a good portion of my life savoring its beauty, letting it transform my spirit, heal my soul, work its magic on my heart. If you're not yet a lover of great art, I can't just ask you to "give it a try." As I said at the top, giving it a try is likely to turn you away from it: you'll be bored. What I will say is that the appreciation of great art is an ability well worth having, and that whichever medium you choose to focus on, appreciating it will expand your ability to appreciate other media, as well.

The gloomy prediction of the Slate piece is that there is precious little time remaining to convince the public of the value of great art; that it is just a matter of time until concert halls and museums are shuttered, demolished to make way for shopping malls and parking lots. I hope he's wrong. And because I know for sure I've used too many words now, I will leave it to you to decide how you'll keep art alive.


  1. Good article, but you'll have to define "sperminess" for me. I couldn't find that one at

  2. It may just be the most ejaculatory novel ever written. Ant more masculine, and you wouldn't be able to see the text for all the hair.