In his recent articles in The American Organist magazine, my friend Haig Mardirosian has been tackling the problem of poor concert attendance and the seeming demise of concert music. Haig always writes articles that are both thoughtful and urbane. (You can read some of his earlier entries on his website.) His articles have inspired a few disorganized thoughts in my brain.
Haig is confronting a serious question that all musicians (and artists of any sort) face today. The arts are in trouble. Concerts are poorly attended. It’s hard to find funding for music. Even in the public school system, I know of teachers who justify their position not by the intrinsic value of what they do, but by the supposed improvement involvement in the arts gives to students on their standardized tests in other disciplines. “Music class can help your math scores.”
For my part, I think we are dead in the water when we start talking like this. As my friend Lane Harder says, “Always be prepared to make the argument.” So here is what I tell my freshman. “It’s fine that we have doctors, and lawyers, and all the rest. We need them, and that’s good. In the arts, however, we are doing something that is much more important. We are about the business of changing peoples lives. We give people life changing cathartic experiences that they can’t get anywhere else. The stage is a magical place of great power. It is a high calling to be an artist, and you better work hard so that you don’t have any weaknesses because we make our mistakes in front of crowds of people.”
I was having a discussion with a colleague the other day. We were complaining about the trend of State Universities slashing funding for the humanities. I told her about a close friend on the faculty Senate. In a session, he actually heard the Chancellor of the University say the phrase, “…and that will serve to fulfill the academic portion of the Universities mission statement.” My friend said to me, “I looked around to see if anyone else was as shocked as I was. I’m mean, he said ‘the academic portion of our mission’ like it was some little boutique thing we do on the side.” She responded to my story by saying, “and yet, when something terrible and tragic happens, they always come running back to the humanities and the arts because they need someone to teach them how to live and how to make sense of things.”
It does seem like our culture is changing. I often say to my students that Western Culture is dying, and I plan on going down with the ship. There is one thing, however, that I find terribly ironic in the whole discussion. The ship has become very large.
I don’t have actual statistics to back this up, but….There are more people practicing and listening to concert music today than at any point in human history. Mozart’s Vienna had about 250,000 people, and he had a hard time making a go of it there. He wouldn’t have been able to imagine the gargantuan modern city that is home to hundreds of arts organizations. Every major city in the world has an orchestra of extremely high quality. I’m quite sure that there are more composers writing quality concert music right now than during the 19th century. To be sure, the culture as a whole does not value it as much, but the pocket that does value it is larger that the population of Paris in 1850.
I’m not sure what that means. I do know it means that we should not be without hope. Perhaps, one of the solutions is to do what my good friends in the Chiara Quartet are doing. They play in the great concert halls, but they also play in local bars. They take the music to the people instead of just waiting for the people to come to them.
In any case, I imagine that one still becomes an artist for the same reason people have always become artists. You do it because you have to. The culture might not value it, but it’s something you do anyway. You do it because it is intrinsically valuable, and as my friend said to me, “It teaches you how to live and how to make sense of things.”