Saturday, April 29, 2006

In Pursuit of Passivity

Amidst all the debate about the cultural threat to classical music, few commentators seem to be addressing the causes of its unpopularity. Instead, they tend only to address the effects - and even then, they generally propose employing the self same ills that assault culture in the first place: namely fashion, marketing and advertising.

Harry Sinclair Lewis

Our value system has changed radically – there are fewer and fewer respected proponents of high art than there used to be. This is not because there are fewer orchestras, broadcasting organisations, record companies or critics than there were, but because they neither command much respect nor have much influence on the wider public. In the past, such bodies were influential - not just among the cognoscenti - but within the public at large. When a major orchestra gave a concert, fronted by a well-known conductor, it was widely assumed to be an event worth attending. The yellow label of Deutsche Grammophon was a badge of excellence, not only signifying the calibre of the musicians and their performance, but a high technical standard of recording and manufacture.

Such organisations carry little sway in the modern world. Instead, advertisers constantly extol the ubiquitous so-called choice, while passive amusement replaces traditional culture. We increasingly pass our leisure with whatever gives least bother. We no longer waste our time trying to convince the public that active participation in the arts is actually extremely rewarding; preferring instead to realign the art form to improve its passive appeal. The media and advertisers are today’s informers. They have no need for depth,

“simply multiple surfaces. But the surface is the very breeding ground of parody. "Those who go beneath the surface do so at their own peril," warns Oscar Wilde but "those who remain on the surface, however, fail to experience anything whatsoever. Dismissal, not antipathy is the real danger.”

In a recent article [from which I’ve taken the previous quotations], On the Necessity of Listening As Confrontation, Chadwick Jenkins draws attention to the decidedly active verbs that were once invoked when referring to taking or pursuing one’s pleasure. He goes on to point out that,

“… involvement is the price of desire that I am willing to pay; indeed the payment, the exertion figures into the very nature of the desire itself and becomes the essential substrate of my enjoyment. But too often we are concerned only with "receiving pleasure".

The power to enjoy and understand our culture was acquired by tradition – In his novel Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis describes a civilisation that had no tradition and could therefore only work, or amuse itself with rubbish; it had heard of the past, but lacked the power to enjoy it or understand. EM Forster warned that although life without culture will not necessarily be a nightmare,

“There will be work for all and play for all. But the work and play will be split; the work will be mechanical and the play frivolous. If you drop tradition and culture you lose your chance of connecting work and play and creating a life which is all of a piece.”

We can’t employ marketing techniques to make classical music popular when it’s these very same agents that atrophy thought and active engagement. Reward comes from participation; from wrestling with the difficulties and complexities of a work of art - not from lying back and letting it wash over us.

E.M. Forster, Benjamin Britten and Eric Crozier working on Billy Budd at the composer’s home, Crag House, Aldeburgh, 1949 - Variations on a Theme: On the Necessity of Listening As Confrontation – 20th April 2006 Chadwick Jenkins.
EM Forster – Two Cheers for Democracy - Pub Arnold 1951
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde - 1891 Ward, Lock and Bowden
Photo Sinclair Lewis - AFP/AFP/Getty ImagesPhoto Babbitt - Fenwick Library George Mason University


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