The Art World That Isn’t (And the Music World That Is)

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“If there was a time when Norman Rockwell’s homespun scenes of American life might have seemed out of place in museums, that time has now passed.” (Visitors viewing Norman Rockwell’s Freedom From Want—which originally appeared on the cover of the March 6, 1943 Issue of The Saturday Evening Post—at the “Four Freedoms” gallery at Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of Berkshire Visitors Bureau. All rights reserved.)

The classical music world is jealous of art. Viewed from classical music’s perspective, the art world is wealthy, vibrant and au courant, with a remarkable ability to sell itself to the public.

Last November Alex Ross wrote (in a guest column for The Guardian) about the popularity enjoyed by art—even challenging modern art—noting that 327,000 people attended a Mark Rothko exhibit at London’s Tate Museum in 2008. By comparison, he argued, “A century after Arnold Schoenberg and his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern unleashed their harsh chords on the world, modern classical music remains an unattractive proposition for many concertgoers.”

Such comparisons are problematic, however, because the art world today doesn’t much resemble today’s musical world. If it did, it would look very different.

“Popular art” would be a thriving multi-billion dollar industry. This art would be accessible (both conceptually and economically) to all—in fact, it would be deliberately created to appeal to as many people as possible. As a result, it would be consumed by millions of enthusiastic fans in blockbuster shows worldwide. The artists who create this art would be largely self-taught, eschewing formal technical training or education in art history. Their art would be ephemeral—enormously popular one year, but forgotten the next. Nevertheless, these artists would be millionaires, their wealth acquired in the free market, without recourse to government subsidy. They would have fan magazines devoted to them, and they would appear on talk shows. Paparazzi would pursue them relentlessly. The presence of this popular art juggernaut would be so pervasive a cultural force that most people would have only a vague sense that any other kind of art existed.

However, there would be other kinds of art. “Classical art” would be admired by a small minority of connoisseurs who believed strongly in the intrinsic superiority of Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and other long-dead artists. The works of these artists would be exhibited in small, subsidized museums catering to rarefied tastes, but would be economically dwarfed by the vastness of the popular art world. Even though classical art would enjoy a high level of prestige, it would be largely ignored by the mass media, and would remain remote and unfamiliar to most people.

And there would be yet another, even more obscure, kind of art. The “contemporary high-art” world would be populated by living artists who position themselves outside the popular art world. They would knowingly achieve un-popularity by creating art that is incomprehensible to the masses (while envying the popular art world for its huge following and great financial rewards). These contemporary artists would be academically trained and would view themselves as the rightful inheritors of the noble traditions of classical art. Yet their art would meet with a cool reception in the classical art world, which would tend to view them as unworthy pretenders to the vacant thrones of the great masters. Lacking any kind of economic basis, contemporary high-art could not possibly exist without extensive government subsidy. And no matter how loudly these artists insisted that their creations were the real and true art of our era, they would simply be ignored by just about everyone.

Of course, this isn’t a very good description of the way the art world works nowadays. There is no multi-billion dollar popular art industry, eclipsing the classical and obliterating contemporary high-art. Yet it’s an accurate model for the musical world: utterly dominated by rock, rap, country, and other popular genres. Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are relegated to an elite yet modest position; and those twentieth-century modernist composers who saw themselves as the inheritors of the classical tradition—Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Elliott Carter, et al.—are reduced to cultural irrelevance.

So how did music come to find itself in this dire situation – and how did the art world avoid it? Why is it that 327,000 people attended a show by Rothko, when concerts of the “equivalent” music (György Ligeti? Toru Takemitsu?) often attract only a handful of listeners? This is a recent development: a mere 100 years ago, the art and music worlds would perhaps not have seemed so divergent. Most educated people accepted the cultural authority of the great art museums and concert halls. Let’s look at how the art world and the musical world took separate paths in their responses to the twentieth century.

As the modern age progressed, the classical music world stood firm in its rejection of anything that lay outside its own grand recit of cultural history: emphasis was placed on preserving the purity of the tradition, and innovation was viewed with suspicion. One early challenge to this rigid ideology was jazz—and the idea that jazz should be taken seriously was fiercely resisted for decades. Here’s an excerpt from Pierre Key’s Music Yearbook, an annual directory of (classical) music and musicians published in New York in 1925.

Your true jazz consists of unmusical, vulgar, even licentious sounds,” he fulminated, “conjured up to be played upon a few wind, stringed, and percussion instruments. Exaggerated rhythms also are freely employed; and the entire effect is of raucousness, and of suggestiveness carried to the indecent point.

Yet despite such condemnations, jazz increased in both popularity and sophistication—spreading around the world and carving out a cultural space for itself independent of the institutions of classical music. As a result, two separate and mutually exclusive musical worlds soon ran parallel to each other. Jazz flourished despite classical music’s contempt for it.

It’s ironic that today jazz seems to find itself in the same—or at least in a very similar—boat as classical music. While few people nowadays would deny its value as a cultural voice of the mid-twentieth century, it has acquired the status of high art: admirable, but a little too sophisticated for everyday use. Jazz is no longer a popular art form, and it survives in large part on the support it receives from educational institutions, foundations, and arts councils.

However, the classical vs. jazz culture-war established a pattern. As new popular forms emerged—country, rock, rap—the classical music world’s reaction was to exclude each and every one of them. The idea of enfolding these successive popular movements into a broader musical perspective seemed unthinkable: popular music was perceived as “opposed” to everything classical music stood for. The popular genres found themselves on their own, excluded from the prestige and support structures of high art—a little offended, perhaps, but laughing all the way to the bank. Today, popular music is economically and culturally triumphant: it is the kind of music that most people in the Western world mean when they use the word “music” without further qualification.

And what of the composers of contemporary classical music? For the last century, they have been indulged, a little, by a classical music world besotted with love for a grand tradition it would like to see somehow maintained and continued. And the contemporary classical composer has been, in some ways, a useful ally in classical music’s rearguard fight against popular music. But—except for a few exceptions that prove the rule, such as Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring—there is very little genuine love in the classical music world (or anywhere else) for modernism. Often it is despised by conservative listeners even more than popular music is.

If the classical music world’s response to the twentieth century was to oppose all challenges—scorning popular music, and paying only an insincere, token respect to contemporary high-art composers—how did the visual art world respond to similar challenges? To be sure, the art world in the twentieth century was hardly peaceful: throughout the century, pitched battles were waged over issues of aesthetics, value and legitimacy. A review in The New York Times of the famous Armory Show of 1913 made it clear that, in some circles, modernism was in for a fight. “These French painters are making insanity pay,” the artist-critic Kenyon Cox wrote. “Such art should be swept into the rubbish heap, since these men have no claims whatsoever to creating works of art.”

Yet today, Picasso, Matisse, Duchamps, and other French artists trashed by Cox hang in the world’s most prestigious art museums. When they are bought and sold, they can command prices in the millions of dollars. As with the music world, a pattern developed in the way the art world dealt with novelty in the twentieth century (although it was a very different pattern). New artistic movements might initially meet with a hostile reception, but sooner or later every new “ism” would be accepted. Whereas the music world’s battles ended in the entrenchment of permanently hostile camps, most battles in the art world ended with some kind of entente. And whereas the music world was consumed in a three-sided war (classical vs. contemporary high art vs. popular), the art world’s conflicts seem essentially two-sided. Where is a popular art, analogous to popular music, in this model? As modernists and traditionalists worked out their differences, what was the art that the Lumpenproletariat called its own in the twentieth century?

Certainly not Pop Art. To the unschooled eye, Andy Warhol’s cans of soup may look more like a picture of something than Jackson Pollock’s splattered canvasses do, but their claim to be works of art is almost as baffling. The Pop artists were playing same old game of “épater la bourgeoisie,” and the bourgeoisie knew it. As well, there was an ill-disguised irony underlying Pop Art: despite its anti-establishment stance, the movement clearly angled for high-art respectability. (And like so many other art movements in the twentieth century, it eventually got what it wanted.) Perhaps a better analogy to the popular music industry lies elsewhere.

Earlier this season there was an exhibition of works by Norman Rockwell at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Washington DC and there’s currently an exhibition of his works at the Brooklyn Museum (through April 10). He too has been granted a place in the order of things. If there was a time when Rockwell’s homespun scenes of American life might have seemed out of place in museums, that time has now passed. However, comparing Rockwell’s art with popular music has its limits. While Rockwell was a well-known artist who enjoyed authentic popular admiration, he was no Louis Armstrong, no John Lennon, no Michael Jackson. Today, Rockwell has his own museum (in Stockbridge, Massachusetts), but there doesn’t appear to be any likelihood that he—or any other popular illustrator, caricaturist or folk-artist—is about to supercede Michelangelo or erase Picasso from the Western world’s perception of what the word “art” means.

Do you know Aesop’s fable about the oak and willow trees? The two trees enter into a test of strength: each resolves to resist an oncoming hurricane, according to its abilities, and the one that’s left standing will be the winner. As the storm rages, the willow bends away from the wind, while the mighty oak directly opposes it and is uprooted. When the willow claims victory, the fallen oak replies, “Poor wretch! Not to thy strength, but to weakness; not to thy boldly facing danger, but meanly skulking from it; owest thou thy safety.”

The art world and the music world are like the oak and the willow. By rigidly refusing to accept new and challenging ideas (whether from within or without), the institutions of classical music have been marginalized by popular music—yet their response is to congratulate themselves for their steadfastness. By comparison, the institutions of the art world survived the twentieth century through accommodation and flexibility. If classical music displayed a kind of bravery, the art world was smarter.

Smarter, yes—but perhaps also a tad smug. Did the 327,000 people who attended that Rothko exhibit go because they love Rothko? What do people—ordinary, normal people—really think of modern art? Here’s something from an article written by Julian Spaulding (formerly the director of Glasgow Museums) in The Times of London, that gives cause to wonder. “I have never met anyone who told me they loved modern art,” he began. “No one ever came up to me, their eyes glowing with pleasure, telling me I just must see, say, the new wall drawings by Sol Lewitt in the 1970s, or the smashed-plate paintings by Julian Schnabel in the 1980s, or the life-size, glazed porcelain figures by Jeff Koons in the 1990s.”

Perhaps the reason contemporary art retains its hold on the public is because there is no popular alternative. Whenever something comes along that could threaten the art world, the art world simply absorbs it, and its institutions remain strong. And who cares if people really love modern art, as long as they’ll show up at the galleries and museums in droves, with their money in hand? But pride goes before a fall—and perhaps the art world would be well advised not to grow too self-assured.

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Colin Eatock




Colin Eatock is a composer and music critic based in Toronto.