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In the arts — and certainly in classical music — we spend a lot of time talking to each other, and I’ve just about typed myself blue in the face trying to say that we need to talk to people from the outside world. Especially if we want to reach a new young audience!
One of the people I’ve long thought ought to be invited to talk to the classical world is J.D. Considine, a veteran pop and jazz writer whom I’ve known for some years, and currently writes about jazz for the Toronto Globe and Mail. He likes classical music (we used to talk about Baltimore Symphony concerts when he was pop critic for the Baltimore Sun),.and just sent me an e-mail that everyone who wants to extend the reach of classical music should read. I’m reprinting it here with J.D.’s permission. Note two important things: the parts about the audience liking difficult music, and about the limited appeal for this audience (“limited” being an understatement) of musical beauty. These are things the classical world doesn’t understand at all (beauty, after all, being one of its favorite selling points, just as J.D. says).
Last week, I had the chance to hear (and cover) a performance of Cage’s HPSCHD. It wasn’t quite the “standard” performance, as it only ran only three hours and relied on just five actual amplified harpsichords (the other parts were covered by a Yamaha digital piano and a Hohner D6 Clavinet). The quality of the players was wonderful– Eve Egoyan corralled the group — and they did a great job with the pre-recorded electronics and the projected art. But the smartest thing they did was to stage it less like a concert than a happening, encouraging people to walk around the room, or even in and out, instead of sitting solemnly and stoically for three hours. (They stressed the freedom of movement in the pre-concert publicity, too.)
And it was amazing. People wandered through the room, listening to the various harpsichords, occasionally chatted with the players, sipped wine or beer, and had a terrific time. The crowd was also mainly young boomers and older X-gens — just the people symphony boards pray for — as well as a smattering of seniors and 20- somethings. I swear, I even saw a kid wander through carrying a skateboard!
Now, you and I both know that this isn’t the sort of thing a major orchestra can do three times a week. Still, three times a season wouldn’t hurt. And this program (which was part of the SoundaXis Festival) pulled a pretty good crowd despite minimal publicity and a major competing arts festival (Luminato).
This made me think about something else. A big part of the attraction for the crowd at HPSCHD was that the music was difficult. Now, I ask you — would a symphony programmer ever imagine that offering challenging, difficult, abstract music would be a marketing plus? My sense is that most of ’em still believe that the way to bring in new listeners is to emphasize the beauty and melody of classical music.
Here’s the thing, though: For anyone who grew up in the rock radio era, the aesthetic “strengths” suggested by such thinking evokes nothing so much as Easy Listening Music. And can you imagine any serious music fan who’d pay money to listen to that crap?
Maybe that’s why much of the classical music that has crossed over, like the Kronos recordings or the Gorecki 3rd, hasn’t been sweet and lovely, but emotionally powerful and aurally challenging. Just like the rock and jazz also adored by such listeners. (Of course, this is where I’m drifting into stuff you already know.)
But I think the thirst for adventure is there waiting to be exploited. The internet hasn’t killed classical sales — it has helped it, in part I think because people can find what they want or discover new things, instead of having to paw morosely through a limited selection of the same old same old. And I know a lot of people fear the net because of file sharing and the notion that music should be free. But what if an orchestra decided to see that as an advantage, and offered one or two free concerts per season? Concerts full of daring and contemporary music? Concerts they promoted the way rock gigs are promoted (postering isn’t just for kids)?
Or am I just nuts?
He’s not nuts at all, of course. He’s talking about a market (to put this in business terms) that I’ve identified, too, a market of younger people who like challenging music and would respond to challenging classical programming, as long as that doesn’t smell like the concert hall. In New York, as I’ve noted (most recently in my post about this year’s Bang on a Can marathon), they do respond, but the mainstream classical institutions don’t seem to notice. I’d love to see an orchestra flexible and aware enough to give standard concerts for their standard audience, and indie concerts for the indie audience (not that he uses that word) that J.D. describes.
During the recent Association of Arts Administration Educators conference here in Madison, the increasing proficiency and professionalism around our collective conversation was both a source of pride, and a cause for pause. As a field of educators, researching and teaching cultural management and leadership, we’re clearly growing in reflection, connections, and success. But what if we’re doing so at a time when the profession, as we’ve defined it, is changing rapidly? What if we’re all getting increasingly proficient at a decreasingly relevant part of the ecosystem?
Consider, for example, the three-word phrase that often crops up at such conferences: ”professional arts organization.” This phrase captures, in shorthand, the specific category of cultural endeavor we tend to be discussing. Professional arts organizations require professional management, aesthetic integrity, curatorial control, and stable but responsive structures to hold them together while moving their mission forward. These are the standards that drive our teaching and learning about the field.
But each of those three words — ”professional,” ”arts,” and ”organization” — is in radical flux at the moment. That suggests that a phrase (and an assumption) combining all three could mean less and less in shorthand form.
This concern may come from my current reading matter, Clay Shirky’s new book Here Comes Everybody, about the increasing opportunities for collective action without traditional organizational structures — think Flickr or Wikipedia or iStockPhoto. But there’s something rumbling in the world that questions our basic assumptions about arts and cultural management. Let’s take a look at each word in the phrase, in reverse order:
The formal organization (social, commercial, political, etc.) evolved in response to a set of structural barriers to collective action. Work that required more than one or a few people to complete — highway systems, national defense, mass-produced goods, save-the-spotted-owl initiatives, performing arts touring networks, museums — created large problems of coordination, alignment of resources (enough money in one place under one decision system), and high transaction costs (everyone having to agree every time…exhausting). The organization resolved these challenges through formalized decision structures, consolidated resources, and persistent identity (for example, a corporation lives separately from its founders, and is endowed with many/most of the rights of an individual). There was a cost to this structure, to be sure. A significant portion of any organization’s energy is consumed by self-maintenance rather than delivering on its purpose. Since the option was to not do the thing at all, we figured the costs were acceptable and necessary.
With the evolution of digital communications networks and software, however, many of the original challenges that required an organization are gone or significantly reduced. Collective action is increasingly available to distributed groups who don’t even know each other by name, and may convene around a cause only to disburse thereafter. The cost of production and distribution has dropped to almost zero for many goods and services. Organizations are still necessary and essential parts of the mix, but they’re not the only (or even the optimal) solution to every question, as they once were.
There’s little need to go on about this particular word, which we all would agree is a fast-moving, increasingly amorphous creature. When we talk about ”arts” in the context of ”arts management” or ”arts organizations,” we still generally mean predominantly Western forms of expression, with an assumed emphasis on technical or aesthetic excellence. We don’t always mean this, of course. But if you nudge most conversations by professionals, you’ll find this assumption just beneath the surface. Evidence comes from the fact that we still add qualifiers to the word when we mean something other than the above: ”community arts,” ”amateur arts.”
Specialized organizations in specialized industries require specialized professionals — trained in the task by formal process or apprenticeship. Professionals earn the term when they are paid for their specialized work and when the nature and frame of their efforts are defined and evaluated by their peers rather than by their customers. Professional writers define what professional writers do. Professional doctors and realtors define the parameters and certifications for their peers.
But, again, what happens to the word ”professional” when works of comparable quality and skill can be conceived, produced, and distributed without expensive or centralized means of production? Flickr has millions of exceptional images, many shot by individuals with no formal training, expecting no pay, and unfiltered by a traditional gatekeeper (curator, publisher, agent).
When reproduction, distribution, and categorization were all difficult, as they were for the last five hundred years, we needed professionals to undertake those jobs, and we properly venerated those people for the service they performed. Now those tasks are simpler, and the earlier roles have in many cases become optional, and are sometimes obstacles to direct access, often putting the providers of the older service at odds with their erstwhile patrons.
So, am I suggesting that we abandon our foundational phrase ”professional arts organization”? Of course not. As long as there are complex processes, specialized physical requirements of expression (theaters, museums, even on-line forums), and a recognition of the value of extraordinary skill, vision, and voice, we will need organizations, professionals, and filtering systems to find, foster, and connect expressive works to the world.
But we may want to recalibrate our underlying assumptions as an industry (and as educators who hope to advance that industry and its goals) about the specific role of what we now call ”professional arts organizations.” These are a subset of a massive ecology available to us to achieve our larger purpose. If we stick too rigidly to our terms, we may become obstacles to the missions we claim to have.
The Artful Manager
The following comment by Dary appeared on Taylor’s posting and is a worthwhile continuation of the argument:
I actually just saw this guy speak at a… ahem… super-dorky “Web 2.0” Conference in San Francisco. He was really, really engaging and had some pretty cool viewpoints. One of his hypotheses is that our society as a whole is coming out of an age of collective intellectual inebriation much like society did prior to the Industrial Revolution. He told a story about how rampant gin was in 19th-century England – to the point where there were gin pushcarts like our current-day ice cream carts – and how society as a whole was just drunk and lazy for decades. And then it went out of fashion, people starting doing stuff, and we got the Industrial Revolution.
He makes the analogy of that gin-soaked drunkeness to the TV-soaked stupor of the past 50 years or so. He says now people are watching less television (which I haven’t checked the numbers on) and are spending more time applying actual brain power to such things as updating Wikipedia articles, tagging sites on del.icio.us and ma.gnolia, writing blogs, and twittering (brain power optional on that one).
His views are, of course, open to debate and there’s some intriguing counter-arguments to the seemingly pristine virtues of collective intelligence.
Anyway, in terms of how Shirky’s theories and the new communal web apply to Professional Arts Organizations, I’m not exactly sure what exactly you’re getting at. With “Organizations” the web makes it easier to schedule things and get in touch with people. Of course. You don’t really redefine anything with “Arts” in terms of this new landscape except to touch on the fact that Professionals think Amateurs are lame. And with “Professional”, you argue Web 2.0 makes it easier for non-professional artists to have their material discovered? Yes, of course, again. I dunno.
What’s more interesting to me is how a larger pool of available pieces of media changes society’s collective agreement on what is worthwhile and valuable in the arts and in general. Colbert jokes about “truthiness”, but it’s actual a valid point of philosophical debate within this new worldwide, social move to open up human knowledge. It’s especially pertinent to music I think, not just in terms of what a society consumes, but how they consume it. And I go back-and-forth between whether these new aspects are wonderful and free or troubling and insulting.
Ask someone how many concerts they’ve been to vs. how many YouTube videos of concerts/pieces they’ve watched in the past year- my ratio is deplorable! And the idea that it’s now easy to create music – for $500 you can build a moderately decent home studio and create recordings of moderately decent quality – so professionals aren’t as necessary anymore is worrisome.
It’s all happened so fast I don’t think people in general have really stopped to think about what this means for our society’s appreciation of the arts and value system for judging works.
So I’m thinking out loud, but clearly this is a contentious point for me. Thoughts?
Scientists have developed a computerised mind-reading technique which lets them accurately predict the images that people are looking at by using scanners to study brain activity.
The breakthrough by American scientists took MRI scanning equipment normally used in hospital diagnosis to observe patterns of brain activity when a subject examined a range of black and white photographs. Then a computer was able to correctly predict in nine out of 10 cases which image people were focused on. Guesswork would have been accurate only eight times in every 1,000 attempts…
Gallant said it might be possible in future to apply the technology to visual memories or dreams. “Probably the visual hardware is engaged and stuff from memory is sort of downloaded into your visual hardware and then replayed,” he said. “To the extent that that is true, we should be able to reconstruct imagery in dreams.”
We have a special prejudice about materials. The Japanese have Zen words to describe the beautiful way in which stone, wood and other natural materials age and patinate, acquiring charm and character as they deteriorate. We lack that. No one has yet coined a term, at least not a favourable one, to describe the way man-made materials grow old. There are no haikus about plastic. There is not much Zen in an old Ford Mondeo. There is even less Zen in an old housing estate.
This is specially so if it is made of concrete, the fashionable hate material of today. The only words that concrete attracts are ‘grimy’, ‘stained’ and the ones they tag with aerosol paint. Right now culture minister Margaret Hodge has taken very badly against concrete. The particular object of her vengeful, twin-set loathing is Robin Hood Gardens, a failing social housing megastructure near the north end of London’s Blackwall Tunnel that was completed in 1972. Mrs Hodge does not have council household taste. She wants it demolished. It does rather remind us that nothing dates quite so quickly as visions of the future.
Robin Hood Gardens was designed by the husband-and-wife partnership of Peter and Alison Smithson, a couple fully possessed of a vision of the future which seems as quaint in our day as John Betjeman’s soppy idylls about honey on the vicarage lawn seemed in theirs. The Smithsons were the great intellectualisers of British postwar architecture, but that is not meant to sound as faintly praiseworthy as it does. British postwar architecture needed it. In the same drab landscape of beige rissoles and rationing which inspired Elizabeth David to discover the exoticism of lemon, oil and garlic, the Smithsons sensed the excitement of a future designed by architects…
The Smithsons were great connectors. Alison wrote an appreciation of the Citroën DS that was as sibylline as Roland Barthes’s, even if it did not become so famous. They were often criticised for this unrepentant, lofty, continental-style intellectualism. But the pair saw architecture and design as part of a whole cultural continuum.
The influential 1956 exhibition This Is Tomorrow was where Pop Art was launched into Britain’s grey spaces. The Smithsons showed a plastic house and proposed a self-cleaning bathroom. The mood is brilliantly described by JG Ballard, one of their collaborators, in his new memoirs. One of their other collaborators was the architectural historian Reyner Banham who later gave the world the term ‘Brutalism’. This is how, and however wrongly, the Smithsons will always be remembered.
Brutalism was not originally a term of opprobrium, but because of a prejudice about concrete and the debatable, one-dimensional ‘failure’ of Robin Hood Gardens, it has become one. As teachers and polemicists with an eye to European fashion, the Smithsons were among the most articulate champions of le Corbusier. Robin Hood Gardens is a development of the Swiss-French architect’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille. This was designed as a whole city within a single building: with shops and schools within an apparently simple, but subtle, structure. Before Mrs Hodge and her elfin helpmates condemn the sinister influence of Corbu on the British idyll that was life-before-concrete, I suggest she visit Marseille. I have stayed in the Unité d’Habitation and it is magnificent: an architectural masterpiece and a social success.
Robin Hood Gardens is, essentially, two large blocks of 10 and seven storeys comprising 213 flats arranged as one-storey apartments or more spatially interesting duplexes; every third floor there are what the Smithsons idealistically called ‘streets in the sky’.
Alas, their architectural reach exceeded the grasp of the builders and Robin Hood Gardens suffered from the start with a singular lack of commodity and firmness. Worse, the unintelligent housing policies of Tower Hamlets populated Robin Hood Gardens with the tenants least likely to be able to make sensible use of the accommodation. We have to whisper it, but the Unité d’Habitation works because it is populated by teachers, psychologists, doctors, graphic designers, not by single mothers struggling with buggies…
The Smithsons were the angry young architects of their day. Concrete Brutalism suited their mood. No one among the supporters, probably not even Richard Rogers and Robert Venturi, signed up to the cause by Building Design, the trade paper, thinks Robin Hood Gardens has any more delight than it has commodity and firmness, but the campaign against is uninformed and unfair. True, le Corbusier’s style often worked badly in interpretation: the first riots in the French banlieues were at Toulouse-le Mirail, designed with streets in the sky by his disciples. Robin Hood Gardens has been a social calamity. But the architecture alone is not to blame. Its neighbour is Balfron Tower, designed by Corbu student Ernö Goldfinger (dashing inspiration for the Bond villain). When people criticised Goldfinger’s design, he went to live in his concrete tower block ‘to taste his own cooking’. That he pronounced it delicious is maybe not surprising, but its twin sister, Trellick Tower in Notting Hill, has people fighting for flats when they come on the market. As Marx asked, does consciousness determine existence or does existence determine consciousness? Or to put it less correctly, do the pigs make the sty or does the sty make the pigs?
Margaret Hodge’s remarks about concrete are ignorant prejudice. Concrete is a fine material, but needs maintenance and care as much as marble and oak need maintenance and care. Denys Lasdun once told me it would have been cheaper to make the National Theatre out of travertine, but who says this cared-for concrete on the South Bank is anything less than wonderful? Granted, these are strange times when Modernists fight the conservation cause and Labour ministers attack low-cost housing. Robin Hood Gardens is a test for lots of things: a test for taste, for intellect and vision. And a test for the government’s ability to seize an interesting opportunity which could act as a model for benign redevelopment in every city in Britain.
The Smithsons used to say that good architecture was ‘ordinariness and light’. I wonder if so fine and rare a sentiment is known to the minister…
Every now and then, someone who is brilliant says something stupid — often the result of spending too much time riding a jet stream of high praise. Steve Jobs, the co-founder and chief executive of Apple Inc., did such a thing last month when he all but declared the death of reading.
Asked about Kindle, the electronic book reader from Amazon.com, Jobs was dismissive. “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is,” he told John Markoff of The Times, “the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year.”
This is nonsense on several levels…
Reading is something else, an engagement of the imagination with life experience. It’s fad-resistant, precisely because human beings are hard-wired for story, and intrinsically curious. Reading is not about product.
For most of my lifetime, I’ve heard that reading is dead. In that time, disco has died, drive-in movies have nearly died, and something called The Clapper has come and gone through bedrooms across the nation.
But reading? This year, about 400 million books will be sold in the United States. Overall, business is up 1 percent — not bad, in a rough economy, for a $15 billion industry still populated by people whose idea of how to sell books dates to Bartleby the Scrivener…
Last year, a survey for the Associated Press found that a much smaller number — 27 percent — had not read a book lately, which means nearly three-in-four have read a book. Steve Jobs may be many things – maestro, visionary, demi-god – but he apparently isn’t a careful reader of certain market reports.
The more compelling statistic was rarely mentioned in news accounts of the A.P. story: the survey found that another 27 percent of Americans had read 15 or more books a year. That report documents a national celebration.
Most companies would kill for a market like that – more than one-fourth of the world’s biggest consumer market buying 15 or more of its items a year. And half the population bought nearly 6 books a year. If only Apple were so lucky. The latest Harry Potter book sold 9 million copies in its first 24 hours – in English. “The DaVinci Code,” a story of ideas even with its wooden characters and absurd plotting, has sold more than 60 million copies.
By contrast, Apple reported selling a piddling 3.7 million of the much-hyped iPhones through 2007. Is the iPhone dead? Of course not. But what should be dead are foolish statements about how human nature itself has changed because of some new diversion for our thumbs.
New York Times