08 November 2014

Reports of My Demise (vi)

It's telling that the popular saying "The customer is always right" is seldom uttered without a hint of sarcastic contempt. That's because, as anyone who has actually sold goods or services of virtually any type has learned, the customer is almost always wrong. Wildly, comically wrong.

Why is this? We become customers when we need something we don't have, and even where "services" become reified into "goods," usually this something is, in part, knowledge. You seek out a mechanic to determine that your car needs $1500 worth of work, but because you are a Customer, you respond that you can afford $800 to get it marginally drivable and that they should be happy to have your business goddamn it. You want to know what you really need, but you will take less in order to pay what you intended to pay from the start. And so, when you sit down at conferences with your children's band teacher and this teacher insists that Johnny and Susie really need to practice more, that receiving one-on-one instruction from an established professional player would greatly help to focus this practice time, and that in the broadest sense these children will "get out of it what they put into it," you are apt to say to yourself, "Gee whiz, Mozart, it's not like we're training professional musicians here. Music is for nourishing mind, body, and soul, for helping my kids get into Yale, and for tickling their neural pathways just so, leading to success at, you know, real life jobs, like stockbroker and financial analyst. And besides, they already have soccer Mondays, youth group Tuesdays, quilting Wednesdays..." Maybe you think these things to yourself, or maybe you go out and write an op-ed to this effect for a major dead-tree media outlet. Or, if you're really ambitious, maybe you install yourself at the helm of an arts non-profit in order to spread the wisdom of protracted dabbling and gross overcommitment. Hey, you and your kids all turned out great, didn't you?

Those of us who have, perhaps ill-advisedly, chosen to devote the entire fabric of our being to music know better than to think that any student, no matter the modesty or grandiosity of their ambitions, musical or otherwise, could ever reap the benefits these people constantly namecheck from the kind of distanced, half-suspicious quasi-engagement their actions tend to beget. And yet most customers simply will not buy real musical education. Many will not or cannot accept it even free of charge; I know because I and those around me have tried to give it away on more than one occasion.

In news to no one, the idea of music moves the needle for parents and students while the reality of music does not. Vendors know the reality, customers only the idea, but it is the customer who is, in our society, always right. Exceptions are not unheard of, but they are rare. I have done my fair share of sales-pitching in committee meetings and planning sessions, in conversations with prospective parents and job interviews with prospective employers, for the kind of intense, no-holds-barred, academically rigorous and intellectually stimulating music education that has made me who I am both on- and off-stage. I typically face little or no dissent as to the abstract value of what I am proposing, but all manner of fierce resistance to its implementation. This is because customers will not buy it, administrators know that customers will not buy it, and, well, you know the rest.

The ostensibly charitable segments of the arts economy upon which virtually all practicing artists today rely directly or indirectly to support themselves financially, and which, perhaps more importantly, essentially serve as the last remaining justification of our very existence, replacing aesthetic- and morally-grounded cultural consensus which has fragmented well beyond retrieval, are in spite of their loudly proclaimed "not for profit" legal status nonetheless profoundly consumer-driven enterprises. These are milieus where the heat and light of constructive competitiveness and the pursuit of mastery look just animalistic enough to turn the stomachs of the Bourgeoisie upon which they disproportionately rely for support and validation. They are where uncompromised, unmediated, untriagulated musical pedagogies and traditions go to die. And all of that is to say that they are, at least if you buy the analysis of contemporary gender constructions seized on by Hanna Rosin in The End of Men, profoundly and intrinsically feminine structures.

Certainly for those of us more or less on the outside looking in, its feminine construction explains several facets of the arts education job market: the inverse correlation between the number of teaching opportunities and the age of the students; the flooding of popular music into a socio-aesthetic-epistemological space formerly reserved exclusively for art music; and a willingness to compromise away rigorous pedagogies, the ones which might actually help justify so many public policy battle cries that that The Arts are core academic subjects, but which customers inevitably balk at on account of what is demanded of them in return to make good on this promise.

As I try to recall some of the specific places I have heard or read the core subject battle cry, I in fact can conjure only images of women, a useful reminder that the structuring of an institution or body of knowledge as masculine or feminine, as many theorists have argued, does not mean that only one gender participates in the structuring, or even that the majority of participants will be of that gender. And it most especially does not mean, if I may take this opportunity to preempt the obvious potential for misunderstanding of what I am getting at here, that people born with vaginas are inherently and irrevocably inferior to those born with penises when it comes to "rigorous" or "uncompromised" scholastic arenas. What it means, rather, is that the undue polarization of certain types of thought and behavior along gendered lines creates arbitrary burdens of expectation which mediate our ability to become our authentic selves. And so the facts on the ground leave me to wonder if the "core subject" trope has not become just one more marketing tagline that few of the men or women who might utter it out of self-interest would actually be willing to fight for.

Are you?

No comments: