Greg Sandow on Art vs. The Arts

A few nights ago I caught a late night re-broadcast on CNN about the NY Philharmonic's "historic" (read: trying too hard) concert in Pyongyang, North Korea. It struggled to explain -- through various melodramatic story lines -- how this was a moment for Art. But I kept wondering if it was actually just a moment for The Arts?

To understand the difference, I ask that you read this wonderful essay just posted by critic, musician and arts consultant Greg Sandow on a BLOG for this year's National Performing Arts Convention in Denver, CO. (The convention kicks off in early June.)

It's a bit long-winded but remember this is a BLOG not a formal printed essay -- there is a difference -- and that this is a point that has to be hammered into the brains of arts presenters and classical music aficionados in much the same way that you might struggle to explain punk rock to your grandparents.

So why am I telling this story? To introduce my thought that art and the arts aren't the same thing. Art is an activity, sometimes sublime, and also the result of that activity. By now we know - or certainly we ought to know -- that it might be found anywhere, in vacant lots, in silence and graffiti, in overheard remarks (see the poetry of Jonathan Williams, an advocate of outsider art, who died not long ago), and in popular culture. The arts, by contrast, are a set of interest groups, whose claim to glory (and to funding) is that they speak for art, which is only partly true. They don't speak for all art, and when someone speaking for the arts - by which I mean for the interest groups - says that only the arts can offer meaning in our society, we've strayed so far from reality that we might as well be jumping off a cliff. Especially if we're looking for a younger audience!

Here's an example. Dana Gioa, the chairman of the NEA, gave a widely circulated commencement speech at Stamford, in which (among much else) he longed for the good old days, when art was in its glory, and opera singers like Robert Merrill could be heard on network TV. But Robert Merrill didn't have a brain in his head. I can say this affectionately, because I love opera, and Merrill can ravish me with his voice. But he had nothing to say in his singing (something that certainly was noticed back in the day), and to imagine that putting him on TV brings art in all its glory to an audience of millions is really pretty funny. Contrast what happens now, when we have pop stars like Bruce Springsteen, who write their own words and music (something Robert Merrill couldn't do), who sing about serious things, who both reflect profound things in our culture, and influence them (see for example the book about Springsteen - Springsteen's America: The People Listening, a Poet Singing -- by Robert Coles, one of our most profound and literate psychologists). And who go on 60 Minutes, talking about society and politics, in a completely serious, compelling way. Is that a step backward? I'd call it a big step forward, at least if you want art to mean something, and to help form both our consciousness and our reality.

But wait! How can Springsteen be an artist, if he's a pop musician, and therefore (horror! horror!) commercial? To me that question is based on a misunderstanding both of commerce and of art. Or at least of the history of art. My field is classical music, and you can't study its history without noticing that many great musicians of the past were commercial, including many of the great composers, or maybe even most of them. I've just been reading a lively little book - Liszt: My Travelling Circus Life, by David Lee Allsobrook -- about one of the greatest pianists of the 19th century, Franz Liszt, and his two tours of England in the 1840s. He made those tours purely for money, flacked for a piano manufacturer, whose pianos he endorsed, and packed his programs with popular opera arias and comical songs, all to please an audience that would have run away from more serious music, by the likes of Mozart or Beethoven.


... Why was commerce, for an artist, OK in past centuries, but bad in this one? Someone's going to say that our culture has degenerated, but I don't buy it. Things were better in the days of slavery? Should we look back with admiration at an age when women were their husbands' property, just because people (or so we think) liked better music then? Picasso knew exactly how to sell himself. Should we condemn his art?


... Orchestras and opera companies, not to mention big classical record labels and classical radio stations, are terrified of their audience. They're afraid to program things that their audience won't like. Yes, they do it sometimes, but they always know that some large part of their audience might not like anything new or adventurous - and that it would be commercial (that word again) suicide for them to do too much of that.

After the jump, more proof that Art can be found in the places you'd least expect!


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