Well, there’s something I wasn’t expecting! Yesterday’s posting about what I presented as the classical repertoire’s state of ‘functional extinction’ has been my most-read upload so far — and by an entire order of magnitude, too! Yes, within 12 hours that posting had gone right round the world (WordPress collects location information as part of the ‘Site Stats’) — and is still circulating and being read now! Hello, Haiti! Hello, Iceland!
And not only has it been tweeted and re-tweeted quite a few times (my grateful thanks to everyone who did that!), but a couple of pals of mine have posted the link to their Facebook pages — which has meant that I’ve not only seen their own responses, but also read a few reactions from friends of theirs. All in all, it’s very gratifying — and enough to make a man feel distinctly warm and fuzzy.
Admittedly, some of these reactions have left me a bit baffled — one or two of them in the kind of way that reminds me that, as far as topics like aesthetics and the sociology of artistic reception are concerned, there’s no widespread agreement even about what the basic facts are, let alone what kinds of interpretation we should bring to them. I’d like to discuss just one of those baffling responses today — the one appended by Randolph (who’s evidently a pal of my good net-buddy Steven, over in Virginia).
Now, Randolph I don’t know at all — in fact, I know nothing about him except that he clearly hob-nobs with some pretty clever arts-and-humanities people (I also assume that he’s located in the States; but I could be wrong). Among the paragraphs he posted are a couple which make it clear that he has a view about the causes of the situation I diagnosed — and indeed sees the situation as extending beyond the ‘classical music’ sphere:
… Drama prior to Strindberg is strictly stuff for the classroom. Shakespeare, Moliere and the Greeks are not exceptions, since they continue to be performed almost exclusively as not-for-profit cultural exercises. The year 1900 (plus or minus ten years) is a barrier between what is “relatable” and what is not. I suspect that in another few years that date will have crept forward to 1960. The gestures and posturings of the classical and the romantic periods are no longer relevant to the modern sensibility. That — not management or music education or even government or corporate support — is the issue. To attend a concert of 19th or 18th century music one needs to don one’s putative mental powdered wig.
The tragedy, it seems to me, is that 20th century music — and by that I mean serious modernist 20th century music, and not the retro composers or the minimalists — was so anathematized that it never found its natural audience. This is the music that truly reflected, and continues to reflect, the stresses and undercurrents of modern life. It recognizes and finds expression for the unconscious — and yes, Freud definitely sat at the boundary between the relatable and the unrelatable, between the antique and the contemporary.
It’s actually quite difficult for me to know where to start with this — because the entire passage seems to originate on a planet that I’ve never even visited. (Let me stress that I’m saying this in a perfectly amiable way — as an expression of simple bafflement, rather than hermeneutic outrage.) I suppose the least mystifying bit is the start: certainly I’ve never heard that London ticket sales for anyone’s Antigone or Oedipus Rex were shooting into the stratosphere with those for The Lion King or Aspects of Love. I also remember that when I myself finally got to see The Frogs, at the age of about 38, it wasn’t in any kind of professional or even semi-professional staging — but an open-air, end-of-year student production at a Cambridge college. (I thought the guy playing Pluto was particularly impressive; but then, I’ve always had a soft spot for Pluto.)
As for how all that should be interpreted, however, I’m really not convinced: I wouldn’t say problems of ‘relatability’ can be all that overwhelming when someone like me — with a very limited sensitivity to poetry and literature (and I’m really not kidding about that) — can absorb Sophocles (in translation) well enough to be able to recite bits of it (just ask Ms Condie: she’s heard me do it). Nor does historical or cultural ‘distance’ seem to be an issue for all those women of my present and former acquaintance who — very much unlike me! — can read an Austen or a Brontë for fun, or at any rate, pleasure.
What strikes me most forcibly about Randolph’s paragraphs, however, is that they omit all mention of the fact that what we see here is actually a three-handed contest: not a face-off between ‘old art’ and ‘new art’ where the result is decided by ‘relatability’ — but a situation in which, to a ‘first approximation’, the reality currently inhabited by everyone alive in the ‘developed’ world is one where both kinds of art are effectively ‘crowded out’ of everyday experience and consciousness by corporate-owned mass-entertainment products. If there is a two-handed game to be found here, it is one in which stuff designed to tell you something and to continue doing so is competing for cultural ‘breathing space’ with stuff designed to sell you something and to continue doing so — with the latter obviously free to be consciously constructed as something that is maximally approachable and gratifying psychologically and maximally persistent and controllable technologically: the motivation, of course, is not ‘expression’ or ‘exploration’ so much as the attempt to come up with whatever will generate the greatest possible corporate profits and shareholder returns in the short term and forever.
‘Strictly stuff for the classroom’? Yes — because ‘the classroom’ is one of the few arenas into which the forces of corporate wealth-extraction are not yet able to take their unrelenting struggle for every un-spent moiety of a young person’s pocket-money. And I do stress ‘classroom’ rather than ‘school’ — for as soon as the lesson ends, and students step out into the corridor, they find corporate-owned machines full of fizzy drinks and snacks — and the fight for the pennies in their pocket is back on. How can Sophocles possibly compete in a world like that — a world in which super-massive concentrations of wealth and spending-power are permitted to exert such a distorting effect on a citizen’s very capacity to perceive — let alone ‘engage with’! — the full range of choices supposedly open to them? Why look to a concept as refined and over-intellectualised as ‘relatability’ to explain the art-and-entertainment habits of our society, when what we have become — can I emphasise this forcefully? — is a society that adulterates the food it gives to its children?
A few paragraphs ago I mentioned a character from a play by Aristophanes: I’d be prepared to lay a bet that — again, to a ‘first approximation’! — everyone from the so-called ‘developed world’ who now comes to read that sentence will see the name ‘Pluto’ and think first, or second, or third, of a corporate-owned cartoon dog. You see my point…?
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