Art…and art

Just as people have different tastes in food, they have different tastes in the “art” they enjoy and appreciate, and, for the most part, people tend to rate more highly art and food that they enjoy. I will submit that, while people should be allowed to enjoy what they enjoy in food and art, there are food dishes that are markedly superior to what most people would claim is “the best” and there are books, paintings, performances, and musical compositions that are superior to what is popular.

This past weekend I saw two performances of the opera Little Women [and, yes, there is such an opera] as performed by the local university’s opera theatre, which, in the interests of full disclosure, I must admit was produced and directed by my wife the professor. The opera was commissioned roughly twenty years ago by the Houston Opera, and when performed by the Houston Opera in 2000, was recognized as a masterpiece by The New York Times and other critics, and a television production was then done by the Houston Opera for the 2001 PBS Great Performances series. A few hundred people saw the university production, and the audience was very receptive and enthusiastic. The professional musicians who saw it rated it highly.

Three weeks before, some of the same singers participated in a choral extravaganza in the same theatre – and the music was all 1970s rock and roll. More than a 1,000 people filled the theatre, and the audience went wild. The professional musicians thought it was “fun,” but quite a number questioned why a university’s classical music program was putting on a rock and roll concert. The chorus director replied that it was to build support for the music program, and to increase attendance, despite the fact that the music program is designed for two groups of students – those who will teach the basics of music in secondary school and those who will play or sing professionally, either classically or semi-classically.

The vast majority of the people who attended the rock and roll concert did not attend the opera. I have no problems with that. Nor do I have problems with rock and roll concerts.

What I have a problem with is the tacit admission by the Music Department, by putting on both concerts, that rock and roll is on the same level of expertise and excellence as operas, symphonies, oratorios, art song, or chamber music. While I will admit that there are actually a handful of popular rock and roll and country music performers with excellent classical training, the vast majority couldn’t do vocally or instrumentally what most graduating seniors in the good music programs across the country do on a daily basis.

Liking what you like is fine, but popularity is not excellence, and that’s something that is getting lost more and more in a culture that rewards the bottom line far more than excellence.

14 thoughts on “Art…and art”

  1. Frank says:

    I think I’m going to have to disagree with you on this.

    I’m not a musician, nor do I represent myself as a music critic or that “knowledgeable” about what is referred to as classical music and the training involved. But, I do know what I like, and I understand you are not questioning my “right” to like what I want, but you appear to be labeling what the “classical music establishment” points to as the proper methods of producing music, both vocally and via musical instruments, as “better” or “requiring a higher level of expertise” than (in this case) rock and roll.

    I don’t know your basis for this. It could be playing notes more succinctly, faster, with less mistakes. I know there are multiple facets (textures) which can be exhibited in music that take a level of mastery to be able to do correctly and repeatedly the same. If this is the basis, then I suppose one could scientifically measure the relative abilities and contents of the various forms of music and performers. But, I don’t know if I want to live in the world where this equates to “better.”

    Just as photography can produce a fairly exact image of what one sees, great (painting) art is not what is most realistic, although that is a tool of the artist, but producing an emotional reaction to be experienced by the “consumer” of the art is what, to my mind, is the final measure of the artist.

    A good amount of “pop music” whether you mean rock and roll or country or folk or blues, etc. may be mediocre at best…but to trivialize rock and roll as a genre seems arcane to the point of “stuffy” at best, and arrogant at worst. I don’t mean to offend, but I find this somewhat surprising from someone with your obvious thoughtfulness and intelligence.

    But, maybe I’m just exhibiting my own form of prejudice.

    1. I am talking about technical excellence. When I’m talking about pop music, although there are notable exceptions, I’m talking about a body of work, if you can call it that, that emphasizes simplistic music that repeats in 4 to ten bar segments, with endless repetitive choruses and over-amplified percussion. I’m talking about simplistic lyrics. I’m talking about singers who can’t stay on pitch without technical assistance. Particularly with current pop music, it’s technically overproduced, and one singer sounds almost like the next, with very few having individuality combined with technical excellence.

      I admit fully that I like some sixties and seventies rock and roll very much, and there are individual songs from every era I enjoy, but not everything that I enjoy is necessarily excellent. I also enjoy good hamburgers, but they’re not gourmet cooking. Excellence isn’t just about liking; it’s also about mastery of all aspects of the discipline and still creating the emotional impact.

      Your point is exactly what I was addressing. Your definition of better is what moves you emotionally. My definition of excellent is technical perfection that also moves one. A maudlin story can move one; that doesn’t make a good story, just an emotional one.

      There’s a reason why great works of art often aren’t appreciated, especially in their own time, because they get overshadowed by the more popular and immediately accessible. Very few, if any, of the most popular composers of Mozart’s time are played today, yet in addition to Mozart’s works being played today, his music has been cribbed as the basis for so many commercials because it’s so good both technically and emotionally. The same is true of a number of other classical composers. Van Gogh never sold a painting — except one to his brother, as I recall — in his lifetime. Shakespeare wasn’t the most popular playwright of his time. Fletcher and Beaumont were.

      1. Frank says:

        You are married to someone who has a doctorate in (some aspect of) music and you are obviously intelligent and articulate. I won’t pretend to be able to fence with you regarding the technical and/or historical aspects of music. And, you are correct, I am your stereotypical “consumer” who may be moved by what you may consider the banal or (musical equivalent) of maudlin. However, there is a point here…somewhere.

        You state that you are talking about “technical excellence.” If that were the only criteria, wouldn’t a well programed computer be able to produce the very best music? It would be flawless, technically, and, although it may take programming skills not currently available, when done it would be cheaply reproducible and available to anyone with the appropriate technology.

        But, just as the doctrine of universal causality leads one into a blind alley of determinism that seems to negate personal responsibility…or the need for it, at any rate…I think there is something else involved. I’m not offering a musical theory of “agency.” I’m not that mystical and not nearly able to argue on that level. I just wanted to make the point that although there is a whole lot of crap out there in “pop culture land,” there are occasional pearls that show up and even stand the test of time. From Scott Joplin to Freddy Mercury to the Beatles…don’t impugn the general, no matter how many specifics seem to support it.

  2. PaulF says:

    Have you considered that one reason for the Rock & Roll show might be to showcase what trained professionals can bring to different and/or limited source material? (Apocalyptica do a very interesting take on Metallica’s heavy metal songs using 4 cellos!) It could also be a way of expanding the repertoire, showing that there’s more than one route to reach an audience. And since art doesn’t happen in a vacuum, something from the rock & roll side may be the sand in the oyster shell.
    Technical perfection can also rip the emotional content out of music. Excellence in the arts has always had a subjective element to it and what moves you could leave me cold.
    My view is that there are different strands of excellence & expertise – and that ability of 4/5 people, with 3/4 electric instruments, to move me can be as as much of an exercise in technical perfection as a full orchestra doing the same.

    1. You’re absolutely right. Classically trained professionals can do wonders with almost any music, but the student rock and roll concert in question wasn’t of that nature. It was essentially a huge chorus with five highly amplified electric guitars, doing a louder version of “classic” rock and roll. That’s not either an alternate “take” nor, in my view, a particularly instructive use of student and faculty time. It was designed to put bodies in seats, nothing more… and one of the points of the blog was that more and more often the arts are being forced to extol the popular, in order to survive economically. That’s coming to be a cold reality, but I don’t have to like it… or to acclaim the merely popular as “excellent.” Some small faction of the popular is. Most isn’t.

      And yes, there is also some truly awful and horrendous “classical” music, as well as a great deal of mediocre classical music, but because of the expertise and training required to write and perform classical music, a much greater percentage of it is of quality than of “popular” music, and I’ll stand by the assertion that the greatest classical music goes far beyond the best of popular music.

      By the way, Scott Joplin also composed what is considered classical music, as well as an opera.

  3. CRM says:

    Enjoying classical music takes “work”. The length, complexity, depth, and so on of classical music requires effort and education to understand. Its relation to modern pop music could be described as somewhat like comparing “Citizen Kane” to a sit-com. Completely different forms and purposes that happen to share a medium.

    Another issue involved in this could be the effect of recorded music on our access to music. Professional musicians have always been motivated by profit, but the recorded music industry (especially with radio and music videos) is all about grabbing the listener quickly with flashy tricks in order to generate income quickly. Pre-20th century, selling sheet music made as much money as live performances.

  4. John Prigent says:

    When rock & roll started it was possible to hear and understand the lyrics – they actually made sense as a song. Who else remembers Bill Haley and saw Rock Around the Clock at its first cinema release? Compare that with the trash that’s peddled now by people who can neither play their instruments nor sing, but have good publicity machines. But it’s not all one-way – I’ve attended a concert where a classically trained top-selling soprano absolutely murdered the Deadwood Stage song from the opening scenes of Calamity Jane by treating it as if it was an operatic aria.

  5. darcherd says:

    What you’re discussing here is the distinction between “high art” and “popular art”, and the argument that the latter doesn’t constitute “true art” undoubtedly date back to the beginning of art itself.

    It is certainly true that much High Art requires greater technical proficiency than Popular Art, but not always. Was Jackson Pollock more technically skilled than Norman Rockwell? Most people would say no. Even in music, while it does, indeed, require years of training and practice to successfully sing Classical music or Opera, does that by itself mean that Maria Callas was an artist while someone with a completely untrained but nevertheless powerful and unique voice capable of moving our emotions like Janis Joplin was not an artist in her own right? Again, I think most people would consider them both artists, just ones working in different styles.

    So technical skill, however laudable, isn’t the entire sum of what constitutes art. It is one of many aspects of a work or performance of art that factors into our overall appreciation. The ultimate definition of art thus must be in the mind and heart of the beholder. Does the work or performance mean something to the person viewing or listening? Does it change their ideas or their perceptions, or their way of looking at the world? Do they feel inspired or otherwise moved to respond in some way?

    And because appreciation of art is so individual, it means that some kinds of art will be completely unappreciated by some individuals. I can recognize the technical skill needed to produce a rap song, and I know that I certainly couldn’t come up with the spontaneous poetry on the fly the way a good rapper can, but I still can’t bear to listen to it, because the only emotion it engenders in me is annoyance. I respect it as an art form, but I accept that it isn’t one I appreciate, and I accept that I’ve made a conscious decision not to try.

    Similarly, there is much in the visual arts that is considered Modern Art that I find ridiculous and baffling, but I understand that there are those for whom such art is meaningful, and that’s fine. I once saw a piece in the British Museum of Modern Art that consisted of a toilet with petrified turds in it – I kid you not. Yet that was considered meaningful art by the museum curator, so as long as I’m not compelled to purchase it and display it in my home, my opinion of it remains just that: an opinion.

    Another factor in the High Art vs. Popular Art debate is that Popular Art often arises in direct response when High Art becomes too arcane for a broader audience. Mozart, whom LEM cited above, was indeed one of the great composers of any age, but the style of music he composed (what we now refer to as Classical) arose because the preceding style, Baroque, had become increasingly complex and difficult to comprehend at the same time that Europe’s first middle class was emerging and able to pay for music that it liked, which turned out to be the much more melodic and approachable Classical style. And while that style remained popular for nearly a century, most of the composers of it were what we today would call “hacks” and almost universally forgotten. Outside of Mozart and Hayden, few beyond musical scholars and devoted aficionados could name another major composer from the same period (and before you throw Scarlotti and C.P.E Bach at me, my ear perceives their music as Late Baroque and not much like Mozart, so I’m not including them). When it emerged, Classical music was in fact Popular Art. A similar shift came in the early 1950’s when Jazz, which began as popular art, was becoming significantly more experimental, technically difficult to perform, and much less approachable for a broad audience. The fact that Rock and Roll emerged in the same period is no accident. It was in part reaction to the unapproachability of modern jazz, and in part generational rebellion.

    Which brings me to my final point. Art, and our perceptions of it, shift over time. What is now considered some of the finest art of all time was notably unappreciated in the artist’s lifetime. Van Gogh’s works were already mentioned above. The most popular of Beethoven’s music in his lifetime were his 1st Symphony (now rarely played except to complete a collection) and Wellington’s Victory (a blatant attempt to produce a commercial hit which was indeed very successful due to the patriotic and political currents, but which is almost embarrassing to listen to now). His greatest works such as the 3rd or 9th Symphony or his later string quartets were almost universally not understood at the time. And the near riot that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring produced on its first performance is legendary, yet it is now considered one of the greats and is in every major orchestra’s repertoire.

    So the final consideration of whether a work of art is truly great is whether it stands the test of time. Does it continue to provide new insights every time a person experiences it? Does it speak to successive generations, albeit with differing messages depending on the circumstances and values? In other words does it have lasting human value?

    So will the opera Little Women stand the test of time? From your description, quite possibly. Will a choral extravaganza of 70’s Rock & Roll be equally appreciated in a few more generations? It seems less likely.

    But whether or not technical skill was required to produce the work of art is not sufficient to define or reject its claim on greatness.

  6. Wine Guy says:

    A professional rock-n-roll guitarist or drummer should be every bit as technically proficient as a midlevel. Most of those kids in the garage bands have their “10000” hours by the time they “make it big.”

    And the Art and Art argument is encapsulated in the Music and Lyrics movie well:

    Hugh Grant: “You can take all the novels in the world… …and not one of them will make you feel as good as fast as (sings) ‘I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day. When it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May.’ That is real poetry. Those are real poets. Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder,
    Bob Dylan, the Beatles.”

    Sometimes Art isn’t about forever. Sometimes Art is about right now.

    And it pains me to think that opera is slowly fading. One of the three best musical experiences I have ever had was my first live opera: ‘La Traviata’ in the Orpheum Theater in Memphis. No idea who the soloists were, but I was 10 and had no idea that the human voice could do such a thing. I made my dad take me to the other two shows…. not that he argued one little bit.

  7. Wine Guy says:

    midlevel (soph/junior) student

  8. darcherd says:

    There are absolutely some really, really proficient rock and roll musicians to be sure, but IMHO most jazz musicians can play rings around all but the very best. But as the saying among guitarists goes, comparing rock with jazz: “Learn 3 chords, play for thousands. Learn a thousand chords, play for three.”

  9. invah says:

    I find this entire conversation hilarious because so many of your characters are not only artists in each of their crafts, their excellence is both unparalleled and widely recognized. And here you are having to attempt to convince (I assume) fans of your novels that excellence in art matters.

    What most don’t understand is that someone who reaches the pinnacle of their art form does so because of their love for it and/or their need to engage with it from their deepest self. World class artists aren’t technical automatons; you can’t reach that level without passion, without caring, without trying to transcend what you know to what could be known. The closest I can (inarticulately) describe this as a reaching for the divine. Piers Anthony comes close in his description of chasing the Llano in “Being a Green Mother”.

    And sometimes artistic excellence and popular art come together as in “The Fifth Element” and its piece from “Lucia di Lammermoor” sung by Inva Mullah. The emotional depth does not come from Eric Serra’s common/popular techno component, but from the aching and yearning of the operatic piece.

    Opera in a ‘live’ auditorium is an experience not even in the same galaxy as folk music… a c-note so pure and rich that it resonates in your physical body until you have expanded through and past it.

    Of course there is humanity and pleasure and wonder in less technically excellent music, but it is sheer ignorance to imagine that anyone who has attained technical mastery has done so without heart.

  10. invah says:

    >so many of your characters are not only artists in each of their crafts, their excellence is both unparalleled and widely recognized

    This is wrong, and I just realized why…although it doesn’t change my opinion expressed in the prior comment.

    Your characters develop excellence in their craft, and in so doing become artists regardless of whether they themselves consider their work art.

    Perhaps some of the prior comments hold the underlying premise (including mine) that a requirement of art be that it evoke emotion from the viewer of that work, or be a product of the emotion of the artist.

    I don’t know whether you believe that excellence itself is art, though your work seems to suggest that to me, but I have to agree.

    Another thing I noticed is that the majority of the prior commenters have taken the perspective of a consumer rather than a producer of art, and their perspective of the value of art is rooted in their personal enjoyment of that art.

    I wonder if part of the problem is that often great art or literature is so good in that it renders itself invisible. This comment from CRM kills me – “Enjoying classical music takes ‘work'” – because people enjoy classical music everyday; in movies, in commercials, in television, in video games, in popular music that has borrowed chord progressions or themes from classical music, in dance, IN SPACE a la Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”.

    Less technically proficient art is often widely dependent on its context – and the viewer/audience knowing that context – for emotional impact. And the best of that ‘lesser art’ leaves enough space for audience to ‘read’ themselves into the piece.

    Perhaps more proficient art doesn’t leave enough for the audience to take ownership of, and so reject it. Or they don’t ‘speak the language’ of that art.

    That may explain the phenomenon of the musician’s musician, or the writer’s writer, or the poet’s poet that inevitably crop up in every category of art.

    How invisible is The Declaration of Independence as a work of art, or the Hagia Sophia, or an ironclad contract, a meticulous blue print, a flawlessly cut jewel, a space shuttle, a computer program, or any number of works of art by virtue of technical excellence, all but invisible to those who don’t speak the language.

  11. invah says:

    >someone who reaches the pinnacle of their art form does so because of their love for it and/or their need to engage with it from their deepest self

    Or, like Lerris, due to an internal sense of integrity that demands the creator create to the best of their ability. (And the more you do, the more you learn, and see what you can to improve on what what you’ve done…)

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