Saturday, November 19, 2005

Leavin on a jet plane

First things first: a moment of silence for that sweet-ass flying bed. Gravity can bite me.

So, I'm heading to Prague to see my schwester who is on study abroad, and will, as J mentioned, be checking the Don Giovanni in the house where Mozart conducted it, which I imagine runs nearly year round because that is just very cool. While there, I am tempted to see the Rusalka playing elsewhere in town, but don't know it. Worth it?

The real temptation, though, which gives me that warm feeling in the midsection which only unrequited opera can give, is hopping a train to the Vienna Staatsoper and checking out either the Flieglende Hollander, Ariadne, or Lohengrin (hopefully not still this one) playing next week. Lordy, it burns. I'm told its only like 3 or 4 or 5 hours on the train. There has to be somewhere to crash in Vienna right? Right?

In other news. A.C. Douglas reopens an old wound about whether classical music is 'elitist' or not, based on this latest Sandow missive.

Oddly enough, I'm going to turn to our friends in the vast right wing conspiracy for some enlightenment on this troubled word 'elitist'. There, of course, the project of many years has been to extract the economics from the 'elite', in a ploy to get the angry and red state based to turn their fury on the great coastal yuppie enclaves, thereby ignoring the corporatist oppressors who happen to also benefit from their votes--i.e., the shorter Thomas Frank.

While it is a devious strategy that all right thinking people should call out, there's an undeniable kernel of truth there. In modern industrialized democracies, high culture has grown unhinged from high wealth. And this is a big, freaking change with which we have yet to come to terms.

But what hasn't changed are the qualities of the elite past that made it suitable for a particular kind of high culture: education, leisure time, the inclination to intellectually engage with a tradition, and in many cases an eagerness to engage the craft itself as an amateur.

I would challenge anyone to describe how classical music, as we know it today can survive or thrive without an audience built on these principles. When you think about it for a minute it becomes clear that this is absurd on its face. A classical audience entirely composed of people who like Mozart's tunes and no more would mean a radically different, if not altogether unrecognizable culture supporting classical music.

Now, by saying that I don't mean that everything has to be Mozart. Far, far from it (personally I am slightly dreading the year of Mozart). This isn't a distinction about content, per se, but rather a distinction about process. The process and dialogue that are necessary to sustain high culture are just fundamentally different than that needed to sustain popular culture.

Is that elitist? Not in the way that word has been used before. Classical music, if it could be cheaper in some instances, is not a luxury good in the sense that couture clothing is a luxury good. A cheap seat at the Met is the cost of two CDs. And honestly, except for a few nights in a few cities each year, its claim to fame as an exclusive status symbol is a sorry shell of what it was in Edith Wharton's time.

We're going to have to start confronting the fact that the qualities which define cultural 'elites' today aren't tainted with the stink of wealth and privelege they once were. Are the better off still more likely to engage with high culture? Of course. But I think its safe to say the average listener has grown closer to the middle. That means 1) we have to revise our notions of exclusion and 2) we have to reconsider the values associated with 'populist' culture. (By that token, its worth mentioning that the 'people's music' isn't being driven by some pure demand, but by the profit motives of multinational corporations.)

It's a little too late to do all the steps in between, but I'll finish with the basic conclusion all this leads me to. Capitalist democracies must nurture and encourage the values and content of a robust liberal culture, as promoted through a mix of public education, government support, and civic spirit. This is where classical music belongs in the United States, at least partly sheltered from market incentives that have no patience for the values and process which a tradition such as classical music entails. So thinking that this problem can be solved by appealing to that market is a war of attrition that will only end up debasing the tradition.

Right now, the United States obviously has a strong bulwark of liberal culture in place, but it is too dependent on holdovers from an earlier time and constantly in jeopardy. And it's not just classical music either. The fact that the biggest story in science education of the last half decade has been whether or not we should make science compete with not-science is perhaps the best example.

As far as I can see, there is no other way to slice it. The cold fact is that the classical tradition as we know it will, in rough terms, rise and fall on the success of liberal values at large in this country. In sum, we can deal with that and the long-term project it implies or we can fuck around with marketing plans.

End rant. Good night.

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