Sunday, April 15, 2012

Great Arts Blogger Challenge: Capes, Kryptonite, and Other Things

Please read this, hum The Final Countdown, and VOTE FOR ME IN THE FINAL ROUND in the Spring for Music Great Arts Blogger Challenge!             

           Two nights ago, I went to a concert focusing on the composer John Kennedy. He has been the resident conductor of the Spoleto Festival for years, and also directs Santa Fe New Music. There were premieres of a few of his pieces, including his “iPhone 4tet,” in homage to John Cage for his centennial. But my favorite of the pieces was his string quartet “To the Power and Beauty of Everybody,” a melting, warm piece based off the poem of the same name by Kenneth Patchen, the beat poet who influenced people like Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. The first paragraph of the poem goes like this:


And then there was a stanza like this:

          In the purest thought
When vanity and desire of all mortal ends
Have been submerged
We may join the thinking which is eternally around us
And be thought about
For the common good
We can only be humble before it
We can only worship ourselves because we are part of it

He later goes on to describe that this “it” is the silence after art, “the singers and dancers,” “coming from where it came from.”
            So when I read this poem after receiving the question for the final round of the Spring for Music blog challenge:

“Save the arts? Really? Why do so many people think the arts need saving? Do we need to save the arts, and if so, what does ‘saving’ them mean?”

…I thought, while in good nature, something seems wrong here. With this idea of “saving the arts.” It seems exaggerated, in a way, like that idea shouldn’t exist. But when the silence after Kennedy’s piece was so thick and overflowing with those little sighs people always give off after impactful sounds or certain phrases in spoken word, I realized the question just needed to be turned around.
            The reason so many people think we need to “save the arts,” if that accomplishment is even possible at our own hands, is because the arts save us.

The only picture I can think of to go with this post at the moment. COINCIDENTALLY, this drawing is by Alex Ross, I think, the comic book artist. I would like to see him write a piece for the New Yorker and for Alex Ross to write a comic book, for a strange experiment. 
            I hope I don’t sound like a reverend or something, but I think everyone who calls themselves an artist can testify to that idea, even if the wording is dramatic. Every time humans “save” something publically, whether it’s the whales or a small business, it’s about more than that specific thing that’s being rescued. It’s about the idea that thing represents, the countering of the force that brings whatever it is down. But it’s also about how it makes us feel to “save” things. When humans want to start a campaign to save something, it’s targeted towards making the donors feel good about themselves and hitting the nerve that identifies with the cause.
            It’s the same when people try to save the arts. Like I said in my previous post for this competition, the arts are what make us human. The ability to collectively identify with one idea or moment can bring someone out of any disheartening situation. It can save someone. So when we try to save the arts, we’re doing more than being empathetic towards ensembles, composers, poets, or painters, and we’re doing more than just trying to keep sound waves in the air—we’re fighting for our own right to receive those sound waves.
            Now, the effectiveness of what humans so far have done to try to “save” the arts is a different story, and we need to think about whether or not “saving” them is possible or necessary.
First of all, what are we trying to save them from?
            The reason “saving” the arts seems like such a strange idea is because part of the answer to this question ^^right up there^^ is “time.”
            Arts and their usage in the present are probably the best mirror of our culture. No one piece of art is going to speak equally to different generations, and that’s something that I think we as artists or art lovers just need to accept. Zachary Woolfe’s article in the New York Times about three months ago about the failure of the New York Philharmonic to program enough contemporary music (as well as female composers) is a perfect testament to this fact—if you’re an organization that represents a constantly moving field, you going to be ridiculed for trying to stay in the past (and only the past). “Relevancy,” like Greg Sandow has written about, is the idea that many ensembles and institutions are riding on to stay afloat. The SONiC Festival’s multi-venued program, the transition from big opera houses to the prevalence of smaller companies like Gotham Chamber Opera or Ensemble Parallele, or symphony program-worthy orchestration on the albums of Sufjan Stevens or Sam Amidon are all examples of the virus-like spreading of the arts. The arts that some think are ending. Hell, even Pitchfork picked up on some of this (to a certain degree). (To Nico Muhly—I did read that little fine print at the bottom of your latest post, and look. I’m not saying it. I’m only linking it. No Te Deums, please?).
            The arts as an entity are not dying and needing to be saved, they’re just changing like any other aspect of culture does.
            How can we explain fine arts’ transition into the background of culture? They may not be drying up and ceasing to exist, but I think most can agree that classical music, poetry, or fine visual art are not as popular as they were centuries or even decades ago.  Philadelphia, Syracuse, Detroit, Louisville, and New Mexico have all either lost symphonies or have symphonies in dire trouble. Public radio and many of the things me and my fellow finalists talked about in our previous posts are losing funding or are being threatened with no funding at all. The Grammys don’t broadcast the classical awards on television. If I make an announcement about an upcoming concert at my school’s assembly, I can bet I’ll either get some “hipster” comments or sort-of-but-not-really-jokingly sympathetic, in a way, looks from my friends.
            So, when we want to save the arts in this regard, what are we saving them from?
            The reason that the fine arts are being labeled as either arcane or irrelevant is because of our tendencies as humans. As long as we know, humans categorize things. We get distracted. We like to fit in to one group of people. We make preempted judgments. A lot of the time, these qualities are enemies to fine arts, and all of these qualities are amplified in modern times with technology. We are now constantly entertained. The fine arts don’t always aim to be “entertainment,” and this can drive away consumers because of boredom or subtleties that aren’t in popular culture. I personally consider the electronic musician Aphex Twin fine art, and just look at this comment thread on his song “Flim” that the dubstep artist Skrillex posted on his Facebook. The commenters hated the song because there wasn’t a drop (the moment in a dubstep song when all the heavy bass comes in, usually after a buildup and quick cliff hanger). I’m not ridiculing them—dubstep is fun to listen to, and when it’s your main source of music and you’ve been trained to follow the short-attention-span path of it, other electronic pieces seem boring or, as the last commenter put it, “light.” This is one small example, but it parallels many, many others.
            Addressing our tendency to categorize brings up this Sequenza 21 article, one that has another telling comment thread. We like to know what we like as humans, and genres of music help us do that. However, for classical music and other fine art genres (let me be clear that I don’t think “fine art” is the right way to describe these types of art, but it’s the only one I can think of), genre-assigning is not usually a helpful thing. If humans didn’t categorize music and other types of art, we would be open to so many more artists, bands, or composers. I’m sure that many people who like pop music would love the likes of Tristan Perich, Tyondai Braxton, or Sarah Kirkland-Snider, but because these composers are under the giant umbrella of “classical,” they are shut out by people who “don’t like classical music.” But even when we try to create these ultra-specific genres like New Synthetists or Indie-Classical (only referencing, Nico), we just get lost in the complication of categories and classifications.
            In conclusion, “saving” the arts is something we don’t need to do, because they don’t need saving. They change, they spread out, they become something new every second. However, fine arts are receding into the background of popular culture, and those of us interested in them have felt this desperate need to “save” them for years from that position. Why? Why do we, as humans, feel such an animal-like connection to the arts that we want them to be at the forefront of everything? Because they save us. They give us life and emotion. I talked to a couple of artists I know about this question, and here were a couple of the things I heard.
David Felberg, Associate Concertmaster of the New Mexico Philharmonic, Co-Artistic Director of Chatter:
“There’s always a struggle for fine, fine art. They’re definitely worth saving, because as you said, they save us. It brings us to a higher level of plain of existence, and it transcends the everyday. People are hungry for that, even if they don’t know it.”
My friend Brennan Rose, a French horn player in the Albuquerque Youth Symphony:
“The arts gave me something to do that was really high mentally. I’m concentrating, like, 95% of my brain on music when I’m playing it. And for me, it gave me something that I can put passion into and all my focus into. In school, you’re using your brain, but you’re only using part of it. With music, it gives you something that you can focus your brain on but put your artistic side into.”
Rich Boucher, local poet who was on five national poetry slam teams:
“You want to save the arts because life is not only about going to work, it’s not only about walking a line that’s difficult to walk, it’s also about the things you don’t need but want. Without art, I actually think that it would be a very hollow experience. Imagine going into a museum and there’s nothing on the walls. Imagine going to a concert and people are sitting there and listening to nothing. Art gives so much.”
Pamela Michaelis, former owner of The Collectors Guide and board member of Ensemble Music New Mexico:
“It seems to me that the arts are kind of like the wind and air. They’re alive. The arts will survive. We have to learn how to manage the people who manage the arts, the organizers. But the arts, in spite of everything that we do to screw them up, the arts will survive.”

I’m not posting these to have others make my argument for me. I just think these show how integral the arts are, and how people can’t live without them. People ranging from a poet to a violinist. People from an opera singer to a musicologist to an opera expert to a teenager.
So how do we “save” them? We make art. We love art. We write about art. And when we deal with money or arguments for/about art, we think about the art


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