...is when they don't deal with music. I'll grant an exemption to politics given the dire events of the last several years, but that's it. I'll pass on literature, film, sports, literature, food, literature, literature, and most of all, the freaking LITERATURE!!!
For pretty much my entire life, I
have had what could fairly be described as a
pathological aversion to literature, or at least to
fiction. I can only guess at the underlying reasons,
but one might be that I do not desire nor have I ever
particularly desired to escape reality. That's not to
say that I'm content with the state of things, just to
say that I generally struggle with the willful suspension of
disbelief. Actually, I hated music from an early
age also. It was a sheer accident that I ended up
playing music in the first
place. I've been hooked from the start, yet I've
since had more extensive exposure to literature and
theater without ever shedding my aversion to either. Not surprisingly, abstract visual art is the only other medium I feel a natural affinity for. There something about twisted piles of scrap metal and arbitrary smears of color that appeals to me much the same way that music does.
Maybe it's not so important to know why, but I do wish I could offer an explanation if for no other reason than that it is hard to defend a narrowly focused interest in abstract art. It has always irked me that whenever the "value of the arts" is under discussion, the last thing out of people's mouths is anything about enriching our lives aesthetically. No, instead it's always about making kids smart, keeping kids off drugs, keeping kids off the streets...come to think of it, it's almost always about kids period, always portraying "the arts" as the means to an end rather than an end unto themselves.
What is missing from the picture is any discussion of the mechanism by which the kids are to be engaged by the art. Is it too much to assume that this is accomplished through aesthetic means? And if it is accomplished some other way, what is the value of art, then? Nothing! Any old diversion can occupy (detain?) little Johnny and Susie, including knitting, bridge, and forced manual labor. If the results are any different with art, then there must be a reason.
The function of art as a means of keeping kids out of trouble or of clarifying or commenting on some social issue is indeed valuable, but it tends to overshadow the fact that any of these secondary functions of art are dependent on the art itself appealing to and engaging some audience. Would we be debating Wagner's anti-semitism today if his music had been average? We wouldn't even know who he was if that had been the case. (How many mediocre composers can you name who were active in the 1860's?) Whether or not it is acknowledged as such, the aesthetic experience is the source of all interest in art. Trace your way back from the co-optation du jour and you will arrive there every time as if tracing Earth's energy resources back to the sun.
Speaking of co-optation, the value of art may be an entirely separate discussion from the value of the arts at this point, the latter phrase being not only too broad to have any real legitimacy, but also having come to stand for something shallow and dishonest. If we really are willing to embrace the whole unwieldy collection of "the arts" as a unit, it follows that there is something for everyone hiding somewhere in that massive pile crap. That is where their eminent value lies. The trivial whiling away of the hours can be accomplished equally well by means of any old diversion, but where there is the potential for the unique form of engagement known as aesthetic experience, the arts have contributed something unique and important to the world. Artists themselves should be the last people to take that for granted.
We all know that the reason this value is never emphasized in any public arena is that granting agencies and elected officials are unimpressed by it. Hence, as a mere survival skill, artists have learned or been groomed to fall back on all of the secondary functions of their art, especially the ones involving kids. (What can we say? Everyone loves the little buggers.) My questions are: how much longer can we go on living on a little white lie? And with so many people in the art community actually believing this themselves, what is the value of "the arts" to the people who actually shape them?
Sadly, the kids don't dig my atonal orchestral pieces or my free jazz excursions. If I'm going to keep them away from drugs (and I might be the only musician I know who's actually capable of doing that), it's going to have to be some other way. Not only is it better for them that way, but it also gives me the freedom to continue wallowing in the realm of the abstract. There is no intuitive certainty strong enough to guarantee that our artistic output is valuable enough on its own to excuse us from any other efforts towards leaving the world in better condition than we found it in, and in fact, most of the time its probably more tenuous than we'd like to admit to assume that any old person in need would even like what we do. It is all too convenient to think that we can simply tie other obligations in with what we "really" want to be doing by giving our latest masterpiece a provocative title. Unfortunately, that only works if the work is world class, or if it has mass media hype behind it.