22 February 2009

Government Funding of The Arts (ii)

Establishing universal health care in this country (the right thing to do anyway) would do more for art and artists of all stripes than $50 million dollars of government "support" ever could. If you don't believe me, take note of the frequency of benefit concerts for uninsured or underinsured musicians who have run up staggering medical bills. As it stands right now, any discussion of the practicality of freelancing starts and ends with health care.

I have spoken unfavorably many times of the unwieldiness of a term as broad as "The Arts," and yet if our aspiration is truly to do something that benefits art and artists across the board, then we have to identify concerns which are shared across disciplines and media. I can think of no more glaring commonality among artists of all kinds than that there are precious few full-time jobs with benefits available that allow them to focus solely on their art.

For whatever reason, talk of supporting The Arts tends to revolve around organizations rather than individual artists. Perhaps it's related to the notion of doing of what's best for the many rather than the few. But sheer numbers aside, it's hardly worth remarking upon the unfortunate condition of "institutions" per se, so pervasive and devastating are their effluents. The idea that the individual artist might avoid being burdened with extra-artistic grunt work undertaken simply because they have no other source of income or benefits is more attractive on the surface. If that is, in fact, the goal, then universal health care is a must, and until it is achieved, everything else is merely nibbling around the edges.

17 February 2009

Government Funding of The Arts (i)

Some would say that the primary importance of government funding of The Arts lies in freeing the artist from the constraints of the marketplace, hence enabling them do what they want rather than merely doing whatever is going to make them the most money. Advocates of this position can point to copious examples of artworks in all disciplines which alienated audiences of their times only to later become widely acknowledged as masterpieces.

Others (particularly detractors of the avant-garde) argue that artists can't be trusted to create anything worthwhile when decoupled from the demands of an audience. This group also cites copious evidence in the form of great works which were created out of economic necessity and/or narrow stylistic demands, essentially taking the position (though they would never freely admit to it) that the price fetched by a given work of art is the best indication of its inherent quality.

If you couldn't guess, I identify more closely with the first group than the second. However, there's a lot more to it than this simple dichotomy. If the criteria for getting funded are just as artistically shackling as the marketplace yet still without being directly tied to it, then this merely gives us the worst of both worlds. Yet it seems that this is exactly what goes for "supporting" The Arts right now: prospective grantees are handcuffed by a myriad of extra-artistic obligations imposed as a condition of getting funded (usually involving educational outreach), so much so, in fact, that the perceived quality of the work scarcely seems to matter to those granting the money to back it.

If facilitating the creation of the next great masterpiece is indeed the goal, giving grants is a bit like playing the stock market: you look at the past performance of prospective grantees and invest in the ones whose history indicates, somehow, a likelihood of success in the near future. Yet we know from history that the ratio of enduring artworks to forgotten ones is almost impossibly small, and that there are no safe bets in this realm, even among established celebrity artists. When funding thus appears to be wasted even in the eyes of the arts community (i.e. by virtue of the near total neglect of the commissioned work after its premiere), it can't possibly be seen in a much better light by the rest of society.

In a democracy, the government cannot possibly support the "right" artists, whether that be all of them, none of them, or any possible subset. This is what gets detractors of government funding so upset. By the same token, every artist is the "right" artist to support in the eyes of at least one person (themselves), and probably in the eyes of at least a few of their audience members. This is what gets arts advocates so upset.

What is conspicuously absent here is any acknowledgment of the vast diversity encompassed by a term such as "The Arts." Indeed, the political necessity of referring only to "The Arts" generically rather than to specific art and artists is by far the most glaring weakness in the current dialogue, not only because it allows detractors to ridicule government support by cherry-picking examples of frivolous-sounding projects, but because it is quite disingenuous to behave as if one believes all art is created equal in the first place.

This is where the supposed extrinsic values of various arts come into play, as in, "If we cannot agree on which of two Mozart symphonies is the better piece of music, at least we can agree that listening to either of them will make your baby smarter." Such extrinsic values (we'll save discussion of their validity for later) are seductive because they are the only sources of consensus that one can appeal to in art, for no single person truly believes that all art is good aesthetically, even if they'll say so in public to keep from offending others.

The essence of democracy is variously said to lie in rational thought, in compromise, or simply in what's good for the 51%. This is anathema to art. Where artists and audiences compromise, where aesthetic judgments become rational, and where a simple majority opinion is good enough to claim the establishment of a broad consensus, art is no longer itself and has become something else. Whatever conclusion we arrive at through these means with regard to whether or not the government should fund The Arts, we can only hope that art remains in such a condition that either position is problematic. This may be a headache, but it's also a sign of life.

14 February 2009

Just Call Us "Other"

You can't make this stuff up...

From the Department of Poorly Written Program Notes, co-presented with the Department of Inadvertently Displayed Ignorance, and with promotional consideration provided by the Department of Midwestern Artsy-Fartsy Cuteness, I give you the blurb on George Benjamin's At First Light from the SPCO's "Program at a Glance," the condensed program notes that accompany the regular length program notes so that people who kind of care but kind of don't can learn something about the noise that is about to be foisted on them without taking too much time away from coughing and whispering to each other about how much they hate new music:

At First Light

This piece, written when Benjamin was 22, was inspired by Turner's painting
Norham Castle, Sunrise, an early precursor to impressionism. The music is itself a pastiche of gestures and abstractions. Fourteen musicians play more than 30 colorful instruments, including a bass trombone, whip, and a large newspaper.

Where to start? The appeal to age-based novelty is hardly uncommon, nor is the use of the term "gesture" as a backhanded compliment to a piece of new music, nor is the gratuitous use of an adjective such as "colorful" to distract listeners from the dissonance they're about to encounter. The crown jewel of this blurb, however, is the implication that the bass trombone is on par for novelty with a whip. A whip?!

It's true, I'm a low brass player myself, and hence a but biased, maybe even more than a bit insecure about our always tenuous status as "standard" members of the orchestra. That point aside, to categorize the bass trombone as novel is one thing, but to lump it in with whips and newspapers is completely absurd and ignorant. Not that I have anything against whips and newspapers (or rocks or sirens or bowed crotales...actually, I do have something against bowed crotales, but that story will have to wait for another time) being used as musical instruments, but I don't think its a stretch to say that the bass trombone has historically played a more significant role in the orchestra than they have.

In larger orchestras, the instrument is quite standardly used as the 3rd trombone, even if "bass" trombone was not specified by the composer. In case those of you who write program notes haven't ever actually been down to a concert since people got audacious enough to start sticking valves on trombones some several decades ago, this is because it sounds pretty damn close to a tenor trombone most of the time, and sounds even better in the lower registers by virtue of its larger bore, this despite being pitched in the same key as the tenor.

When one refers to a bass tuba, people are often curious as to how and why anyone would make a tuba that was even lower than normal, not realizing, of course, that the tubas they've seen and heard were, in most cases, contrabass tubas, and that bass tubas are actually smaller, not larger, than the instruments they're most familiar with. I suspect that, although the bass trombone is, in fact, larger than the the more commonly encountered tenor, the same dynamic is on display here, namely that the modifier is what catches people's attention first, along with the expectation that a bass version of an already low-pitched and heavily caricatured instrument must be something to behold. When this comes up in conversation with an avowed novice, I'm always happy to offer clarification, along with a good-natured, self-depricating low brass joke to help the medicine go down. When I read something like this in program notes supplied by a first-rate professional orchestra, the good-naturedness takes a hike. Writing program notes ought to consist of more than merely scanning the instrumentation for novelties, but when it must, a good handle on what exactly constitutes novelty in the first place is a must.

The poetic justice here? The trombonist played the entire part on his tenor (or, strictly speaking, "tenor-bass" trombone, a tenor trombone with one valve which lowers the pitch a perfect fourth, or less if the slide is out further at the time). Sorry, folks, you didn't get to hear bass trombone after all. If it's any consolation, at least you got to hear a nearly identical sound coming out of a nearly identical instrument, and at least the piece was actually written by a 22 year-old, albeit a 22 year-old who is now nearly 50. As for my consolation, I, probably alone, got to have a good chuckle at the status (or lack thereof) enjoyed by those of us who blow into big metal things that no one can name. It's not the first time, and I suspect it won't be the last.