Elitism and Its Discontents

Dedicated to the memory of Charles Hamm (April 21, 1925-October 13, 2011)

These discs behind me in my new office, which represent only a small fraction of the recently released music out there, are a constant reminder of the staggering variety of contemporary American music.

For most of my life, I have been much more immediately drawn to the rich and extremely varied contemporary artwork that has been created during the past century in this country (music, paintings, literature, etc.) than in the relatively small and seemingly insular canon of acknowledged “masterpieces” made by people from long ago and faraway. The latter, however, still seem to dominate the agendas of the most established, and usually best funded, institutions within our cultural community. Nevertheless, something seems completely wrongheaded to me about a series of recent attacks on some of America’s prominent cultural institutions.

Last week, The Washington Post reported on a series of scheduled sit-ins at major New York City art museums to protest their elitism. According to an official statement issued by the “Occupy Museum” movement:

No longer will we, the artists of the 99%, allow ourselves to be tricked into accepting a corrupt hierarchical system based on false scarcity and propaganda concerning absurd elevation of one individual genius over another human being for the monetary gain of the elitest of elite. For the past decade and more, artists and art lovers have been the victims of the intense commercialization and co-optation or art. We recognize that art is for everyone, across all classes and cultures and communities. We believe that the Occupy Wall Street Movement will awaken a consciousness that art can bring people together rather than divide them apart as the art world does in our current time.

Yesterday a report on NPR’s Weekend Edition lamented that while private donations to arts organizations are up by over five percent, those donations are being given to present work that is almost exclusively part of the “European cannon” [sic] which do not appeal to the majority of American citizens today. Ironically it was not too long ago that NPR itself was accused of appealing only to a small, elitist demographic.

Although I try to keep up with both the visual art and literary scenes as much as I can, I admittedly have more experience with music and how it is disseminated. So maybe I am misguided in feeling that the art world has struck a viable balance between presenting the old and the new and that contemporary literature seems as available as the old stuff. I am, however, painfully aware that in the more highly funded institutions for music the balance between the old and new is somehow out of whack. If I were a billionaire I would invest my personal income to get the majority of the repertoire of symphony orchestras and opera companies across the country to be music by living composers from around the world. But in our capital-is-everything economy, if there are people who donate a million dollars to ensure that operas like Tosca or La traviata get performed year after year (or that, say, paintings by Rembrandt or El Greco are on public display), who is to say that they shouldn’t? The problem is that there haven’t been enough people stepping up to the table to support new work on an ongoing basis, not that these older works of art continue to resonate with people who are able to keep them present in all of our lives. (And indeed they are available to all of us. Many museums offer free admission or have free days. While admittedly in most venues they are not cheap, concert tickets are often more affordable than tickets to professional sporting events. Much music is also presented free of charge through a wide range of outlets which now include web streams and still include radio broadcasts—that’s how I first heard Tosca and La traviata.)

I deeply value history and am well aware that even today’s most cutting-edge, ahead-of-their-time creations will one day recede into the past and they do not deserve to be forgotten as a result. In fact, as soon as a work of art is declared completed and is seen, heard, or otherwise experienced by someone other than the person(s) who created it, it is arguably already part of history. Attempting to destroy the effective mechanisms for preserving certain significant works from the past will not make room for a new work. But ever being mindful of expanding the canon of what is actively promoted and supported to additionally include the artistic achievements of people who have been marginalized by the accepted interpretation of historical relevance (e.g. women, people from all ethnic backgrounds and social demographics in countries on all six continents as opposed to just a select few from one part of the world, and work from all time periods from the dawn of history to the present day) could.

One thought on “Elitism and Its Discontents

  1. dB

    Maybe I’m naive (and I admit to not knowing before reading this that there is an “Occupy Museum” movement), but that quote didn’t strike me as an attempt “to destroy the effective mechanisms for preserving certain significant works from the past” as much as an attempt to make sure contemporary art is equally represented. That attitude doesn’t strike me as particularly revolutionary or all that uncommon with living artists.

    That said, your point about what donors choose to support is well taken. I can lament that the art I want to see or hear isn’t being supported, but lamentations aren’t going to get me (or those artists) anywhere. Art that rich people like is being supported. Why they seem to prefer the canon (with all its history of patronage and classism) is perhaps the real issue to be addressed.

    I guess I’m with you, Frank, in not knowing much about how funding in the visual art world works. I guess I imagined that most public funding was going to living artists, but that could just be wishful thinking on my part.

    Reply

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