I wasn't going to do this at all - I really don't want to my blog to degenerate into a dump spot for rants - but sometimes somebody with a public voice says something so boneheaded and misdirected, so begging for retort, and most significantly, so seemingly directed straight at you that you feel compelled to respond. I know it's a bad idea to take on a powerful figure in your own discipline. I also know it's more important to spend your time actually making art than bitching about lameass critiques of what you make, but after reading Michael Kaiser's recent article in the Huffington Post entitled "What Is Wrong With the Arts?" (I mean, you just know it's going to be good) I was so ticked off I actually couldn't practice. So in the name of getting back to the practice room, I'd like to write a few brief thoughts both on Kaiser's answer to this question, which proceeds thusly:
"The arts are in trouble because there is simply not enough excellent art being created."
I mean, come on. He asked for it.
Really, Michael? Really? There's so much wrong with your article (every time I hear the phrase "serious art" it makes me want to tear apart a harmony textbook with my teeth), it's hard to know where to start. But at the base of it all, I feel sorry for you, cuz you're missing out, man. There's TONS of excellent art being produced these days, maybe more than ever. If you're not finding it, you're probably looking in the wrong places. I mean... Steven Sondheim? Yo-Yo Ma? Those are really the guys who top your playlist?
As a student of music, let me take you up on that one discipline, since it's what I know best. You DO "sound like the classic old-timer" when you discuss the absence of Bernsteins or Stravinskys in the current generation. I have some sad news for you, Michael: Igor's dead. Yeah... that happened in 1971. Not to say he's no longer relevant, or that we younger artists don't know about him or study him closely. To be sure, he was, is, and likely always will be a giant, but at this point, he's more like our heritage than our immediate model or inspiration. None of us were there to riot in Paris - most of us are the students of the students of the students of the students of his who did. A lot of your hand-wringing over the disappearance of excellent art presupposes a certain idea of art, a concept tied to image of the "great composer" who makes "great art;" there's nothing wrong with that, but it's a somewhat limited concept that springs from a specific place and time - 19th century Europe mostly - and certain bodies of thought - Romanticism, among others. This sort of material made sense to the people creating it, because it reflected the world they lived in; it was authentic to Liszt because he was a 19th century European Romantic, and it made sense to Stravinsky, because he was a direct inheritor of that tradition. But art - certainly "excellent" art, anyway - is too organic and personal and important to just endlessly reproduce itself across generations; it needs to completely transform with every pair of new hands, or else it's no longer authentic to the artist or relevant to the artist's world. Several generations of artists have made excellent art and thus completely transformed what art is and means since Stravinsky. Come on, Michael, get with the program.
Today: Alessandro Bossetti, Public Enemy, Jason Moran, NOW Ensemble,Carla Kihstedt... no? None of these resonating with you?
The funny thing is, the fact that you can't hear value in the stuff people are creating today also makes me question how closely you listen to the older stuff you profess to admire. Sure, the process of generating new material and new forms of art sometimes takes on an iconoclastic character, but it's often more about really listening to those who came before; listening when Stravinsky suggested new ways to treat rhythm, listening when Schoenberg freed dissonance, listening when Cage revolutionized silence. If you don't hear connections between what we're doing and what they did, maybe you just need to listen to both - and everybody in between - more closely.
Yes, Stravinsky's great, we agree. The difference between us, the contemporary artists, and you, the contemporary critic, is that we didn't stop listening when he departed from primitivism and neoclassicism. His subsequent serial pieces made sense to us because we also listened to Schoenberg and the rest of the Second Viennese School, and we paid attention to their great, doomed 12-tone challenge to 19th-century tonal harmony. Many talented composers took up this cause in the following generation: we listened when Milton Babbitt (who passed just last week) challenged us to serialize even further and make music as ambitious and challenging as possible. Of Babbitt's students, we're more interested in Paul Lansky than Steven Sondheim, because we listened when Varèse and Partch and the futurists challenged us to create music from hitherto unconventional sources, and so Lansky's fascinating forays into computer music and found sound are far more compelling than Sondheim's reiterations of musical theater. Of Lansky's students, we're interested in Dan Trueman, who does things with Scandinavian folk music we think are far more interesting than Yo-Yo Ma's multiple-platinum forays into (supposedly) Appalachian fiddle tunes and (boringly) Argentinian tango, because we listened when Steve Reich suggested that artists should look beyond the surface qualities of the art of other cultures and into their mechanics for inspiration. Of Dan Trueman's students... well, that's me, and I'm still a student, but I'm doing my best.
The point is, a lot has happened since the great music you idealise was produced - the independence of the "third world," globalization, a few trips to the moon, Vietnam, the collapse of the Soviet Union, 9/11, the Great Recession, a black American president, and so on, and so on. Every one of these events has changed the world, and so excellent art - not just in its character but in its very form - has also changed to remain true to its world. If it doesn't seem that there are enough Great Composers out there, here's a possible reason: reeling from fascism and World War and uncomfortable with the increasingly clear linkages in theory between "great art" and "great states" or "great races," many artists sought to erase the hand of the composer as entirely as possible, leading both to Cage's chance operations on the one hand and Boulez's total serialism on the other, as well as many of Fluxus's Happenings. If performers don't always seem to be playing in tune, that could be because the influx of ideas and traditions from other cultures necessarily led us to question not only our own intonation aesthetics but also the very idea of artistic specialization, resulting in pieces like Riley's In C that explore interaction between musicians of almost any level and type of training. If performances come out different each time, that could be that we're increasingly aware of rich improvisational traditions as well as composition-based ones, and composers like John Zorn and Anthony Coleman have incorporated both seamlessly into their music. And if you're feeling lonely in the concert hall, that may because we're increasingly interested in art that comes from other native soils entirely - Public Enemy's Bomb Squad and other definitive early rap groups tore samples from the sounds and recordings they found around them to make intricate new musical textures, just as the 20th century black American was forced to piece together a decent life out of the strange and often hostile fragments of an alien culture. Today's artists- at least the exciting ones - are the inheritors of these musical and cultural phenonena as well as Stravinsky, and they create art both relevant to the current world and reflective of this entire continuum. The youngest of us have grown up as the first generation where African-American art as produced by African Americans is truly integrated into the cultural mainstream. We're also the first generation to face an economy that may actually be collapsing on account of increasingly unpayable debt and a life expectancy that may be shorter on account of the things we eat. We are the largely unconscious beneficiaries of the civil rights movement, and some of us never experienced the Cold War. We are the first generation that grew up with mastery over the internet, and now talk to each other in newly emerging dialects through modes of communication unimaginable only a few decades ago. Of course we don't write music like Leonard Bernstein.
The question isn't why there's isn't excellent art any more, it's why excellent art isn't making it to audiences. To return to the people I mentioned earlier, why, when Dan Trueman produces compelling new music based around Scandinavian hardanger fiddle tunes is it well received within a relatively small and specialized community of listeners, while Yo-Yo Ma's most recent album "Songs of Joy & Peace," a compilation of holiday music mixed in with "Here Comes the Sun" and "My Favorite Things" presumably goes gazooble-platinum? When Trueman ups and forms a laptop orchestra, or when his teacher Paul Lansky inexplicably switches away from computer music and back to more conventional instrumentations late in his career - why doesn't it make bigger press?
The villains here aren't the artists, they're, as you say, the "boards, managers and producing consortia.... These groups are misbehaving. They are overly-conservative, subject to 'group think' and so worried about budgets that they forget that bad art hurts budgets far more than risking taking does." You said it, man! The thing is... you're the president of the friggin' Kennedy Center! If you're concerned for the arts, there's no reason to pin the blame on the artists; the issue, frankly, is more with people like you, people in positions of institutional authority, people leading the country's top performing spaces, people with blogging appointments at the Huffington Post, people with degrees in Economics and Management who do lots of good things for lots of good arts organizations, but who are also out of touch, far from the artistic vanguard, who are still so married to outmoded forms of artistic production that they can't see the great new art right in front of them. Michael, trust me, excellent art is out there aplenty, you just have listen closer. Get some new stuff in your ears. Leave the Kennedy Center and check out a show produced by one of the many young new organizations like New Amsterdam Records that have emerged expressly to support the great new art you won't. Put the Yo-Yo Ma Christmas album back on the shelf and listen to some Penderecki, listen to some free jazz, listen to some kid doing something you don't understand, try to understand it. Then once you've done that, the ball's in your court, buddy; it's up to you to revamp the institutions and "producing consortia" to keep pace with great excellent art, in all its amorphous, ever-evolving vicissitude.
In short, Michael, to quote another excellent artist, if you want to make the world a better place...