The resignation this month of Osmo Vanska from his decade-long role as director of the Minnesota Orchestra over salary disputes with the board spurred John Halle, director of studies in music theory and practice at Bard College, to argue at Jacobin that “the virtues of classical music are inherently hostile to [the] neoliberal mindset now dominant in all sectors of society.”
Hundreds of my own conversations with middle-class youths in classrooms, bars and cafes around the country—compared with conversations with members of elder generations—suggest that Americans are increasingly uncomfortable with distinctions of high and low forms of art, particularly with classical music. Halle points to a time when this was not so, and suggests that difference has to do with support ruling elites offered the arts in the past. In the 1930s, he writes, “while there was some competition from popular music … a clear division between high and low musical forms remained accepted across the board, with what was universally regarded as the precious legacy of concert music claimed and lavishly supported by both fascist and Soviet regimes alike.”
“What has emerged in recent years is the exact opposite,” he continues, and the abdication of economic control to mindless markets by states around the world, with its subsequent selfishness and inequality, is a primary cause. “On the one hand, government lavishes unprecedented economic and social privileges on its elites, taking an axe to programs benefitting those who fall behind. At the same time, the distinction between high and low artistic culture having been erased, the result has been a single standard for qualitative judgments derived from the commercial marketplace.”
It’s hard not to avoid making a connection, Halle writes. “[T]he decline of musical literacy and the large-scale forms which they make possible, the increasing demand for immediately catchy tunes, striking sonorities and flamboyant stage presentations pairs with the impatience of the elites classes” in “the demand for investments to show an immediate short-turn return. Elites have long since jettisoned the expectation for steady growth embodied in the now retired Goldman-Sachs slogan, ‘long-term greedy,’ having come to accept and even embrace … ‘the erosion of the planning function, and any rationality beyond the most crudely instrumental.’ ”
In the present era, austerity is taken as the panacea for both the economy and the arts. “The solution to a supposed ‘culture of poverty,’ ” Halle writes, “consists of work requirements and benefit reductions to break the ‘cycle of dependency’ and promote ‘self-reliance.’ The longstanding crisis in classical music is treated by the imposition of market discipline requiring institutions to devise ‘working business models.’ This means in practice supporting themselves predominantly by ticket sales, something which virtually no major orchestra or opera company in history has done successfully and which would require jettisoning most of the defining virtues of the medium.”
In the past, the high arts have helped the capitalist class legitimize its place in society. “Disparities in wealth and privilege have been justified, or at least tolerated, insofar as those benefitting from them are seen as fulfilling a necessary role in preserving artistic and cultural traditions of unquestioned sophistication, subtlety and refinement.” But today’s elites consider their acquisition of tremendous wealth as “not only justified but self-justifying. Exercises of noblesse oblige, whether investments in the arts and culture, generosity or even simple decency towards others are no longer necessary, by now viewed as sentimental archaisms, vestiges of a pre-meritocratic elite.”
Furthermore, Halle writes, “what is by now an unshakeable faith in the transcendent wisdom of the marketplace not only justifies the withdrawal of elite support but demands it, based on the rationale that they should not ‘pick winners’ or ‘put their thumbs on the scale’ in so doing corrupting market mechanisms taken as omniscient arbiters of value.”
This brings us back to the plight of the players and artistic leaders of the Minnesota Orchestra. US Bancorp CEO Richard K. Davis, also head of the orchestra’s negotiating committee, is demanding sharp wage and benefit reductions from the orchestra’s musicians. “His own yearly compensation of $14.4 million could easily make up for the orchestra’s budget shortfall, by itself, as could a small fraction of the tax breaks, subsidies and bailouts gifted to Davis’s fellow board members over the past two decades,” Halle writes. But the ideologies of neoliberalism and economic austerity, which I regard as confidence tricks used to conceal criminal acts of deliberate greed, “dictates that any such exercises in generosity would be dismissed as counterproductive.”
The orchestra’s audiences appear to think differently, however. At his farewell concert, resigning conductor Osma Vanska asked the audience to hold its applause. As is barely audible in the recording of the encore available below, Vanska said, “I have to say that the situation here is terrible and the orchestra is [in an] almost hopeless situation right now. And that situation doesn’t need any applause.” The New York Times reported that “listeners filed out quietly, many in tears,” when the orchestra finished playing the Jean Sibelius piece, Valse Triste, which Vanska described as a dance of death.
Of the situation, Halle writes: “What Minnesota audiences were mourning went beyond the destruction of one of the world’s great orchestras engineered by a team of bean-counting plutocrats. … For many, classical music, its refusal to engage in high-volume harangues, its reliance on aural logic rather than visual spectacle, its commitment to achieving often barely perceptible standards of formal perfection, all serves as a repudiation of late capitalism—a refuge from hideous strip malls, the 24-hour assault of advertising copy, and marketing hype. Ultimately, it is a protest against the cruder, meaner and self-destructive society we have become.”
“Achieving this recognition is not easy, nor are most things worth doing. That’s the underlying lesson learned by a child confronting a Mozart sonata. And it will need to be relearned by adults if we have much hope of surviving the century.”
Read the full piece at Jacobin here
—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.
Robin Dude; Used with permission