Do We Get The Art We Deserve?

A response to an article in The Liberal on the place of new classical music in our society.

Do we get the modern art that we deserve? In a country of over 50 million people, who is to play God about what is and what is not ‘important’? A thoughtful article (Clement Power, The Liberal July 2005) noted the diverse achievements of a few of Britain’s 500 or so classical composers, but went on to prophesy the withering of the current commissioning practice whereby composers like me are paid to write music to be played before audiences. It also foresaw an end to the current major role of the BBC Proms in this process.

The article was well-informed and above polemic, but I wish to challenge its pessimism. The received wisdom is that listeners – our ‘customers’ as it were – are small in number, and that therefore this is a dying activity, perhaps even an anachronism, heading for a quiet extinction. Yet new work is never an anachronism, since it is the output of our own time. The vast body of music and other arts from our past is a key part of our historical view, a store so great that the documentation of this archaeology (in musical terms, performance and recording) still continues, completing tiny squares of the landscape that is our map of our antecedents. The fact that today’s landscape is a delta of proliferating stylistic streams should make it more, not less, important that we tend it for the future. All serious musics in this delta are minorities, meanwhile; the intelligent approach is not to let them wither but to provide education – the only ‘access’ that lasts – so that they can be shared.

I cannot disagree that the serious challenges of art struggle to be heard against the deafening attractions of popular culture, with its mass audiences and feel-good products. Why, though, is new music – rather than new poetry or even art - the whipping boy of the moment? The resources involved in mounting new drama or dance are far from negligible, yet it is today’s classical music that is pilloried for not being something it probably never was – the vernacular of a wider populace. The great flood of Western music evolved largely within a closed elite of institutions, only reaching beyond monastery, church and court to ordinary folk in the 18th century; Birtwistle and Harvey are infinitely more available to listeners with open ears from any background than were Bach or Vivaldi. Yet a fiction holds that our work represents some nerdy laboratory project, worthy of Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels. The media that tremble over the uneven efforts of the Turner Prize ignore challenging and, sometimes, beautiful creations in the concert hall. Cultural flagship programmes on television celebrate Seamus Heaney or Rachel Whiteread but limit themselves to a celebrated Country singer or Rap artist from ‘the music business’.

I believe the prejudice among our media against complex musical expression rests not only on modernism’s excesses but upon intolerance of a listenership perceived as educated, elderly and mono-cultural. Such bigotry against middle-class liberalism wraps itself in right-on multiculturalism to marginalize the culture of people who wear ties and believe in ‘learning’, but it is bigotry just the same, picking and chosing its way down the road to cultural fascism. It is also largely misplaced, since the ‘audience in ties’ image is mostly propaganda. Nothing flusters gleeful mourners for classical music more than young, working-class listeners of discernment popping up to testify that serious art changed their lives; no doubt these upstarts should get back to hip-hop where they belong, but still they attend concerts, disproving the prejudice about who supports orchestras and chamber music.

The relentless flow of pessimism, meanwhile, is staggeringly simplistic: it only counts classical music’s bums-on-seats, finding too few by commercial standards, and blames the artists. No one writes articles praising the enduring depth of the concert experience. A piece in The Guardian on 1 February by Martin Kettle put our shrinking audience down to esoteric classical output since 1910; nowhere did he consider the collapse in national music literacy or the massive availability of competing global pop musics as factors. Granted, a hundred years ago even Strauss’s ‘difficult’ opera Salome received massive interest, but there was never a popular base for most experimental music in its day (scandal sold Salome, just as it did Jerry Springer – The Opera). In our mass-communication era we are judged to have ‘lost’ an ownership that never existed in the times of Beethoven or Josquin, whose audience within the educated classes was deep rather than wide; it also had no familiar past favourites on disc, download or radio to prefer, while new work today competes with infinitely available highlights from the past. Social upheavals have had incalculable cultural implications, but it is simpler just to blame poor old Schoenberg.

Of course audiences of a few hundred look small in the Albert Hall, but the Proms are wise enough to recognize that depth, rather than size, of experience is what counts. A vast audience participates, yet this is a complex web of minorities with little in common but their enthusiasm for live music. The Proms do more now to reward such varied enthusiasms than ever before - a trend the article overlooked. Do these minorities really want to collaborate? The ‘new’ cross-cultural formats advocated by the article reminded me of William Glock’s celebrated Proms experiments in the 1960s – but then, it was their authenticity, not their trendiness, that promoted ownership.

Only concerted extension of listeners’ cultural patience will reconnect people with serious music and divert them from the commercial cycle of ‘consume/excrete’. All output in our society is currently judged by the crude dictates of mass culture, but no egalitarian platitudes will change the fact that art is something else. We should support it and should use education to open it up.