24 October 2009

Hidden Tracks (ii)

As long-time MFEDI readers know, I've been fixated for some time on the question of the inherent value of art considered apart from it's content. This comes as a direct consequence of the frequency with which I encounter people, institutions, theories, philosophies and public policies alike that take art to be an inherently positive thing simply by virtue of its being art. The most obvious flaw in this idea is that we, collectively, cannot seem to agree on what is and is not art in the first place, and hence, a rational debate is impossible because we cannot agree on a definition of our terms. But what if we could define our terms, proceeded to have the debate, and reached the conclusion that all art is, in fact, wholesome, constructive, and valuable (i.e. the way many seem to have concluded anyway, but which I personally disagree with)? Where would that leave us?

More recently, what fascinates me about this idea is the matter of supply and demand. How much of a good thing can we have before that good thing becomes a mediocre thing, or even a bad thing? Is there anything about art that would lead us to expect it to be immune to this mechanism (other than the fact that because we can't define what it is, we can't really know the answer)?

Supply and demand is an economic principle, but there are parallels to this idea in every conceivable facet of life. There's the physical aspect of it, seen in the principle of diffusion; the geographical/migratory aspect of it, seen in people going where the jobs are, where the resources are, or simply trying to get farther and farther from each other (i.e. suburban sprawl); the biological aspect of it, where practically any element in its purest form is toxic to living things, where we know it is possible to die from drinking too much of the substance most essential to survival (water), and where overpopulation ultimately leads to near extinction.

I lack the formal Philosophical grounding to know if there's an established global term for this idea outside the realm of economics, but one can clearly see that it is everywhere, both in nature and in society. It is not only possible to have too much of a good thing, it is virtually always the case that having too much of a good thing is 100 times worse than having just barely enough, and only marginally better than having none at all. Hence, even if we cannot define art, it would be silly to believe that its case would any different. And so I worry about it. A lot.

Art is everywhere. There's more music available for free online than a person could listen to in a thousand lifetimes. It would be a chore to find a vacant storefront in a bad neighborhood to fix up and turn into an art space because most all of them have already been bought up and turned into art spaces. And then there's the relatively recent idea of finding beauty in everyday objects or sounds (i.e. from Cage, et al), something which I embrace wholeheartedly, sometimes against the complaints of acquaintances and colleagues, but which also scares the living crap out of me as an artist because it would seem to render my work irrelevant, even to myself.

Digging even further, there's the "music is for everybody" issue. There's scarcely a saying I feel more conflicted about than that, since, while I (and everyone else) would just love to believe it solely for it's power to validate what we do, we all know it's not true. Speaking in absolutes is a death wish in rational debate, and this saying manages to do it not once but twice, first with "music" (i.e. ALL music? Music generally? What?) and, more obviously, with "everybody." More relevant to the present discussion, though, is that us musicians are literally putting ourselves out of business with this phrase. This is a brutal irony considering that it is most often trotted out as a marketing tool aimed at getting more kids involved in music, and hence yielding more income both for the music teachers who teach them and for the performers whose concerts it is assumed they will then attend for the rest of their lives. I've bellyached before about the soulless cynicism inherent in that thinking, so I'll leave that issue alone for now. The point is that in aiming to create more and more of a good thing, we inevitably create too much of it, and that it's equally inevitable that this will leave us worse off in the long run than we were before.

Some would (and do) argue that we're not creating the same good thing here, since the vast majority of these students don't become professional musicians, and hence don't offer a competing product (i.e. "professional level" performances). In a world with any justice whatsoever, that would indeed be the case, but we do not live in such a world, for in practice, audiences don't choose "professional level" performances over less-than competent performances; they're more interested in their friends' bands than anyone else's band simply because it's their friends, and they largely can't tell the difference in musicianship anyway where there is one. The retort to that is that more music education creates more astute listeners who can tell the difference. Perhaps, but it also creates more friends who continue to perform at a less-than-professional level as adults, creating a product that friendless professional musicians simply can't compete with, no matter how good they are. Further, it is demonstrable that more and more of these students are pursuing professional careers insofar as that entails majoring in music in college. That's the crown jewel of the "music is for everybody" battlecry, and one which is responsible above all else for its exceptional power to induce the opposite of its intended outcome.

Why the extreme cynicism? Because if there's one thing I wasn't prepared for when i left school, it was what audiences everywhere do and don't notice about musical performances. We've all had the experience of playing a less-than-stellar show and subsequently receiving a warm compliment from an oblivious audience member who couldn't tell the difference. That's not really what I'm talking about, though. I'm thinking more of identity: age, gender, dress, manner, politics and social group all seem to have more to do with success than musicianship does. I won't even tack on the seemingly obligatory "...these days" to that last statement, since "these days" are the only ones I know. Who can say if it's ever been any different? I do have a theory, though, which is that the age of musical plenty we live in has made this even worse than it could possibly have been before. Indeed, it would mark a rather momentous break with countless observable phenomena in nature and human society alike if this were not the case.

It's fun (and very blogospheric of me, I must admit) to list off economic, geographic and biological principles as if I know something about them, whereas in truth, I have only a cursory understanding of each phenomenon I listed. Nonetheless, allow me to attempt to spin this cursory understanding into a halfway compelling recommendation for the way forward. As I understand it, the word "sustainability" is on the tips of a lot of people's tongues these days. This is because we're slowly realizing that economic growth is not mediated solely by our desire to make it happen, but by factors beyond our direct control, like the non-renewability of certain natural resources, or the impossibility of technology replacing more workers than there are left to replace. Hence, instead of continued economic growth benefitting everyone, we are finding that the costs of maintaining a certain rate of growth are so severe as to defeat its utilitarian purpose.

It's more than a stretch to lump modern-day arts advocacy in with fascistic global capitalism, but I don't think it's debatable to say that growth-for-growth's-sake describes the philosophy of one as well as the other, or that there's a tipping point right around the corner in both cases. As we know, too much of something portends that thing's imminent starvation or diffusion or migration or explosion. So-called sustainability isn't so much about surviving that endgame as it is about achieving a kind of equilibrium that prevents the situation from ever getting quite so dire in the first place. So what does sustainability mean in the economics of art? A good start would be to abandon citing extrinsic benefits as the primary method of establishing art's value in the public arena. Nothing could be less sustainable than that smoke and mirrors act. A related action would be to embrace the idea of exposure over that of proselytizing, or in other words, to present music one believes strongly in to new audiences without a hint of superiority or moralization. This ensures a sustainable (if small) influx of new listeners who haven't merely been fooled or seduced into showing up. And last, of course, is to abandon the conceit of music being for everyone.

How could I write such a thing? Besides knowing it not to be true, the idea terrifies me, and not because I'm some elitist snob who'd rather be poor and unknown if it means getting the better of my aesthetic enemies. Sign me up for fame and fortune yesterday, but I'm afraid that what's keeping me from getting there isn't a lack of a musical awareness in the world at large, but rather a heaping, volatile, unsustainable pile of it that just keeps on growing, rendering my contribution to it more meaningless by the hour.

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