Relevance in the arts

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John F
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Relevance in the arts

Post by John F » Wed Aug 15, 2018 6:31 am

This long interview was edited for publication in Smithsonian magazine. I've edited it some more. Jay Nordlinger is not a deep thinker, far from it, but here it is for what it's worth.

What Does it Mean for Art to Be “Relevant”?
Music critic and National Review writer Jay Nordlinger discusses why it’s okay for high art to be unpopular
By Brian Wolly

Q: Where does great art fit into the everyday part of society? Or really not even the everyday, but more the grand machinations of sort of how society fits together?

A: Well, there are people who respond to high art and people who don’t. I think most people don’t. To take music: I often say that people who work in classical music are always trying to make classical music popular. I always point out, “There’s a reason they call it pop music, you know: It’s popular.” Classical music will never be popular. It will always be a minority taste. But it will be loved and nurtured and furthered by a minority.

Some people are artistic-minded, and other people aren’t. Just as some people are math- and science-minded, and other people aren’t. Some people are attuned to the natural world, other people aren’t. Woody Allen said, “I am two with nature.” And people always want other people to like what they like, right? But I learned long ago, you can’t have it your way, necessarily. And that’s okay. Certainly in a free society.

I don’t really sweat over the audience, as so many people do. The audience for classical music, for example. It will always be there. It will never be big. Never has been, never will be. But it will always be there. And that’s okay.

Q: Does art need to be relevant to a person’s life in order to be appreciated?

A: That’s the buzzword of the day, “relevant.” I think it’s one of the great nonsense words of our time. What does it mean? The Bach B Minor Mass is great. Is it relevant? I don’t know. Is greatness relevant? Relevant to what? I think art can be liked and loved and appreciated. It instructs us and consoles us and thrills us and lifts us up. But this mania, this fashion, this fad for relevance is bizarre. It’s a perversion of art.

I think it goes hand in hand with attempts to politicize art. A lot of people think that if something isn’t political, it doesn’t really matter. What’s the relevance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? Brotherhood? Well, that symphony is a lot more than that – beyond our power to put into words.

Q: But that is art that was created centuries ago. For art that is being created today, do you think there is?

A: It’s always “today,” right? I mean, that Ninth Symphony of Beethoven is as fresh as the day it was completed – just as immediate, communicating all those wonderful, indescribable things.

Every generation, every era, has the conceit that this time is different, that art has to be different, that art has to speak to today. The best art speaks for all time and is timeless. It’s beyond time and place. Western classical music, the canon, is more popular in China and the rest of East Asia than it is anywhere else in the whole world.

Q: What is the impetus then for artists that continue to create today, if the greatest works are done already?

A: You build from your forebears, right? A real artist can’t help making art. He can do no other, right? He has to get up in the morning and do it. That’s a real artist. Lesser artists, they choose to do it. They could be doctors, lawyers, insurance salesmen, teachers, whatever. Some intellectuals choose to make art when they could be doing science or anything else. I know of many such people in music. But I think the genuine artist, the bona fide artist, the best artist, just can’t help himself.

Q: In your view, there’s not a societal need to have arts in someone’s life. It is something that they can either take or leave as they feel?

A: Society in general would be poorer without art, because art enriches the soul, or at least I think so. But it’s a matter of individual choice. There will always be art lovers in a society. But you can’t make everyone conform to your tastes -- that’s what a lot of people don’t understand.

Q: Outside of the world of classical art, more in the painting, sculpture, fine arts, popular music, film, television, there are a number of artists who see it incumbent on themselves to respond to the politics of the day and to make directly political art. Is there such a thing as political art?

A: There’s art with politics in it. Most of the time, I think it’s pretty boring. Because somehow, the art takes a backseat to the politics. Politics is often a spoiler of art, because it often has a hectoring, “eat your peas” quality. It’s just another way for people to lecture.

There’s plenty of art that’s infused with politics that’s very good. I think of books, I think of novels in particular. There are political themes in Verdi operas. But a lot of self-consciously political art is really bad, just dreck.

Q: A major topic when it comes to arts today is a question of representation. That when museums or Hollywood studios, television networks, any sort of gatekeeper of art, presents art by underprivileged groups, that that provides an opportunity for new audiences to engage. And I think -

A: I don’t think groups make art. Individuals do.

Q: Underprivileged artists, then. In essence, the argument is that it helps art matter more, or be more relevant, to people who otherwise would not have been connected with that art. How does that fall on your ears?

A: I think that, as a rule, art is independent of race, ethnicity, and sex (or gender, as people say today). If you have extra appreciation for a piece of music that’s written by a woman, that’s you. I mean, it’s entirely individual. I think music ought to rise or fall on its own. The notes don’t know who composed them.

Q: We’ll switch gears a little bit and talk a little bit about government and the arts. To what extent should government, local, state, national, fund and/or support the arts?

A: The Smithsonian is certainly a worthwhile thing; we ought to have national museums. But I think that, as a rule, the private sector handles the arts better. Government handles the arts in monarchies, dictatorships, and so on. In a republic such as ours, the arts have usually been independent of government – a part of civil society, if you will.

Also, I think of an old expression: “He who pays the piper, calls the tune.” So, the more government funding or involvement, the more government control. I tend to think that artistic organizations should be independent.

Q: The argument in a recent New York Times opinion piece was that we need the arts as a protective factor against authoritarianism. But I think you would disagree.

A: It’s ridiculous.

Q: Why is it ridiculous?

A: It’s a very nice idea that art is some sort of bulwark against tyranny, but I dropped that idea a long time ago – I guess when I was in my teens. It’s the kind of idea that children have, you know? There are a lot of bastards who are artists, even great artists. Being a great artist is no guarantee that you’ll adhere to the principles of liberal democracy.

Q: Back to funding for the arts for a moment, if philanthropy is the answer, then how do the gatekeepers change what art is funded and what art is not?

A: I am for a proliferation of presenting organizations. This country is so big, and so prosperous, you know? There are 320 million people in it. People usually find their thing. So, I’m for letting thousands of flowers bloom, and letting free people do what they will in a pluralistic society, without too much control or direction from the top.

Q: Do you ever fear or wonder if that means that certain groups or certain artists won’t get the opportunity because they just don’t have the connections?

A: The opportunity to perform?

Q: The opportunity to make a living, or just-

A: Oh, there’s no guarantee of that. There’s no guarantee that I’ll be published, that someone will want my next book. It’s not an entitlement, it’s not a right. So yeah, we all have disappointments in life. But the United States, I think, as a free society, has done pretty well, including by the arts. I think that’s why so many people from all over the world seek to come here to live, and work, and pursue their dreams.

Of course there are people who are disappointed, in every society. I’ve been pretty disappointed myself, from time to time. I know of no paradise here on Earth. But I don’t think the government should be picking winners and losers...

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John Francis

maestrob
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Re: Relevance in the arts

Post by maestrob » Wed Aug 15, 2018 11:26 am

A: I am for a proliferation of presenting organizations. This country is so big, and so prosperous, you know? There are 320 million people in it. People usually find their thing. So, I’m for letting thousands of flowers bloom, and letting free people do what they will in a pluralistic society, without too much control or direction from the top.
He may not be a deep thinker, but he's right here. In Europe, governments fund the arts a great deal more than ours does, and look at the constant flow of nonsense Eurotrash opera productions as a result. Depending on private funding means that the MET (for example) must offer what pleases the public more than European companies that are freer to "experiment" with ugly and disgusting productions.

Modernistfan
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Re: Relevance in the arts

Post by Modernistfan » Wed Aug 15, 2018 12:32 pm

Although the statement that the arts are a protective factor against authoritarianism is a drastic oversimplification, to say the least, it is still noteworthy that virtually every authoritarian government winds up suppressing and censoring the arts, although they might not start out doing so; Lenin's Bolshevik regime and Mussolini's Fascist regime did not start out suppressing the arts or dictating a national style in conformity with the political philosophy of the regime, but they, or their successors (Stalin in the Soviet Union) certainly eventually did so. In Italy, futurism flourished in the early years of the Fascist regime, while in the Soviet Union, modernist art and music was encouraged for the first few years; artists such as Malevich and Chagall got support, while composers such as Mosolov and Shostakovich (in his early, radical, period, perhaps most characterized by his absolutely wild opera "The Nose") were given free rein. This didn't last long in either country. By the late 1940's in the Soviet Union, so-called "socialist realism" was demanded, and works such as "The Nose" were completely verboten and banned as "bourgeois formalism." It is interesting that essentially the same music was banned in Nazi Germany as "cultural Bolshevism" and in the Soviet Union as "bourgeois formalism"; this included any twelve-tone music, most other forms of modernism such as Bartok or Stravinsky, any music employing jazz, and any music employing Jewish references. In the Soviet Union, the Shostakovich Second Piano Trio, with clear klezmer references, got one performance, and then was promptly banned. The Nazis went somewhat further, however, banning relatively conservative composers such as Felix Mendelssohn merely because of their Jewish origin. The same phenomenon occurred in the visual arts; when we visited the Neue Galerie in New York, we saw examples of works that met Nazi cultural standards in contrast to much more significant works banned as "degenerate art" by artists such as George Grosz, Otto Dix, and others. For the works that met Nazi cultural standards, all you needed to do to convert them into perfectly socialist realist works would have been to remove the swastika and replace it with a hammer and sickle.

John F
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Re: Relevance in the arts

Post by John F » Wed Aug 15, 2018 2:00 pm

maestrob wrote:
Wed Aug 15, 2018 11:26 am
In Europe, governments fund the arts a great deal more than ours does, and look at the constant flow of nonsense Eurotrash opera productions as a result. Depending on private funding means that the MET (for example) must offer what pleases the public more than European companies that are freer to "experiment" with ugly and disgusting productions.
Actually, I take this as showing that government funding is not being used in Europe as a lever to dictate to performing organizations in artistic matters. To the contrary, it frees opera companies to put on trashy productions that many in the paying public don't want to see. Increasingly the Met has been doing likewise, as Lenny Goran's objections show - and while I don't believe it's cause and effect, on average the house is only 2/3 full.

What government support does do is enable performing organizations to sell their tickets for less. At the Vienna State Opera, whose government subsidy has always been very generous, the top ticket price is just over $200. Before Margaret Thatcher gutted the British Arts Council, an orchestra (stalls) seat at Covent Garden was likewise very affordable; now it costs nearly $300. At the Met, with little public subsidy and over 40% more seats to sell, the top price is $450. No wonder they have trouble at the box office!

To Modernistfan: Of course totalitarian governments censor the arts and everything else, but Nordlinger is talking about government subsidy rather than outright censorship, not in dictatorships but in democracies. If he had done his homework, he would have known that subsidies have not been used in that way in the European democracies, for the good reason that the voting public wouldn't stand for it.
John Francis

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Re: Relevance in the arts

Post by lennygoran » Wed Aug 15, 2018 7:32 pm

John F wrote:
Wed Aug 15, 2018 2:00 pm
Increasingly the Met has been doing likewise, as Lenny Goran's objections show - and while I don't believe it's cause and effect, on average the house is only 2/3 full.
John still based on what Europe is doing at least I'm doing better than what I've read is going on in Europe-thank goodness Gelb cancelled the “La Forza del Destino,” which was to have been the debut of provocative Spanish director Calixto Bieito. Regards, Len

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living_stradivarius
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Re: Relevance in the arts

Post by living_stradivarius » Wed Aug 15, 2018 10:12 pm

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John F
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Re: Relevance in the arts

Post by John F » Thu Aug 16, 2018 3:39 am

lennygoran wrote:
Wed Aug 15, 2018 7:32 pm
thank goodness Gelb cancelled the “La Forza del Destino,” which was to have been the debut of provocative Spanish director Calixto Bieito.
Well, there you are. Gelb signed that production for the Met, and the reason given for cancelling it was not that it was going to be trash - he knew that when he signed it - but to save money.
John Francis

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