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A serious article about serious art

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Ari put up this link on Links, but I wanted to put it here, too, for discussion.

Peter Plagens in Newsweek writes In Defense of High Art

Newspaper after newspaper, and magazine after magazine retires the art critic or classical-music writer and replaces that hidebound elitist with nimbler, less specialized people who can flit among the gallery scene, fashion runways, rock clubs and hangouts of callow movie stars with equally distributed aplomb. A reading audience big enough to justify retaining specialists in ballet, serious theater from Shakespeare to Joe Orton, or—ye gads!—poetry, just ain’t there. The real numbers are the ones telling you that state after state and city after city is going after the public arts budget with a vengeful meat ax (all while they still cut tax breaks for sports stadiums and movie companies filming on their streets). And they tell the bigger story: “high art” is, if not an outrightly endangered species of human enterprise, is at least a comparatively forlorn one.  

        Any defense of high art first has to define what high art is and, next, point to exactly what its problem is (other than being forlorn compared to, say, videogames). Neither of these is easy. Maybe they’re both impossible. But I’ll take a shot. High art includes sculpture, painting, modern dance, poetry, ballet, opera, classical music, some jazz and certain heavyweight novels which are intended to be: un-sugar-coated, perhaps a little difficult for the uninitiated, seriously contemplated after the fun of the first encounter is over, and of some accrual value in strengthening and refining one’s esthetic sensibilities. There are lots of holes in that definition, for sure, and if pressed, I’d probably have to fall back on Judge Potter Stewart’s famous remark about pornography—that he couldn’t define it, but he sure knew it when he saw it.

I certainly have no problem with either Plagens' definitions or observations (although I'd say that much of the new ballet and modern dance I see is much more pop than fine art, and many of the pressures to be Kewl and Non-Elite are being played out within the fine arts too).

What do you all think of this? Are we trodding down an eternal Pop Art highway? Is there a way to save fine art? Does anyone here ever have to apologize for liking ballet, or opera, or reading serious books?

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Yes, I've had to apologize a lot to my parents for liking the arts. They have absolutely no interest whatsoever, and whenever I tell them I would like to see an opera or ballet, we have to go through this big fuss. They think it's a big waste of time, I should be home studying academic school subjects, the theater district is too far away, etc. Their list of complaints is a long one. If I suggest they come see something with me, they laugh it off and say they don't like that kind of stuff. That's when I become really disappointed. I'm trying to introduce something to them that they're not familiar with, and they've already made their judgements about it. I tell them listening to opera on radio or watching a ballet on tape is a completely different experience from being there in the theater witnessing the real thing. There is not much I can do about it until next year when I will be able to drive myself downtown. :(

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I think it only scratches the surfaces of the issue, and it isn't going to win us any new friends.

Plagen's right when he says that it takes some sort of education (or experience or indoctrination or what have you) to get High Art. But I felt like he was preaching to the converted and pretty much satisfied with arguing his right to like High Art without defending its virtues.

I'd argue that High Art is at its best when it's a distillation of the culture and the times. That doesn't mean Pop Culture; my pet theory is that every generation gets to contribute to classicism and high art, to find the the thing that generation has to offer up and pass down. Watching Balanchine, one sees what his times contributed; the fascination with the future, with technology, the timing and rhythms of jazz. With Robbins, there's a different viewpoint (and I'd personally argue a somewhat less easy marriage) that comes from being born a few decades later on a different continent. Robbins brought the culture of American musical theater to ballet, and for me what's interesting is that I don't think it meshed easily in his works. I don't think it's because those aspects (a brash open quality, innocence and the big band jazz sound so different from the one Balanchine grew up with) can't integrate into ballet, but I think the way Robbins used them depends much more on context. I don't really need to know about the twenties to enjoy Apollo or even Kammermusik No. 2, but it adds to it. When I watched Interplay this week, I felt like I had to think about the mid-forties for it to make any sense. I needed to know how a boy would have related to a girl, where they would have gone out on Saturday night, what dances they would have done. The dance did not step outside of time.

One of the things High Art does is take the temporal and place it outside time. I'm not sure we will ever solve this country's disdain for high art, but if we figure out how to take the world that's around us today and distill that into the classical mix, we'll at least have made our contribution. One problem is that the people who have the keenest observation of the world around us seem to fall short on their observation skills of the classical art form they're trying to translate to.

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I liked it that Plagen didn't try to defend high art -- doing so admits the battle is low, and he's not ready to do that yet, it seems. I think newspaper/magazine editors should be shamed into covering the arts, that those with the voice to do so should castigate them for turning Arts sections into People magazine.

I wish all of the arts institutions with education programs would, IN ADDITION TO their outreach programs for the underprivileged would try to reach out to college students, make it easy for them to get to performances, make it affordable, provide informational material to try to shore up their backgrounds. That's where the next generation of editors will come from, and they will be clueless.

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There just seems to be such a reluctance for either "high art" or "pop culture" to recognize each other and I think the article demonstrates that.

Just the name "high art" has an elitist tone. It seems to say that anything else is beneath it.

And of course, some of it doesn't transcend well into technology.

The author shouldn't be suprised at the museum attendance though, considering many are free. But they're accessible, I can go and look at something over and over in different stages, without going bankrupt. The Matisse on the wall doesn't need to update it's surroundings to appeal, no costume changes, no tweaking.

What I always find interesting is hearing sometimes who the "inspirations" were for today's artists. It says a lot.

It reminds me of when I was in school wondering why the heck I had to read Shakespeare, it didn't even seem like English to me at the time. And I confess, sometimes it still doesn't, but I can go back and pick it up at some later time and try again.

Ballet doesn't allow that in my opinion, unless you budget yourself very well, but even then, when you go back to view it, it might not be there anymore because something new and exciting was created instead

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One underlying issue is attention span. I think that today if we are not at the bottom line within five seconds we lose attention or something else attracts our attention. I notice with my own children that it takes repeated exposure to the arts, almost subliminally, to entice them to look further. They have so much that stimulates them immediately with immediate rewards. To look or listen or feel a piece of art (dance, music, drama, fine arts) requires both interest and experience. To participate in today's version of life takes none - the product makes its own interest (the Bachelor) and the experience is participating (American Idol voting).

Fortunately, my oldest (now eighteen), now is completely engaged in the high arts and actively seeks opportunities to view, discuss and review performances, art work and literature. My younger children also now look at art and listen to music and read more than the latest "escapist" teenage book. This is largely due to the parent's interest and stubborness as well as their friends and schooling agreeing that art teaches and must be a part of life.

The challenge is to engage the young, but also somehow prove across the board that high art reaches everyone at some level in one's inner being. Sometimes it does take knowledge and patience to digest (think Chaucer) yet others do not (Ode to Joy). My youngest first learned of the joys of Shakespeare through the Reduced Shakespeare Company versions - but it was in the theater, she enjoyed them and is now not afraid of the text nor is not saying no to attending "real" performances of the plays. (Is the double negative a high art?)

I am rambling a bit - but remember the Bugs Bunny cartoons always included some form of high art all the time and paid tribute. Fred Flinstone went to ballet lessons with Barney and got quite good! SpongeBob Square Pants does neither. Why?

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There's a sentence at the bottom of the article I feel needs a response:

I don’t want government subsidies for my faves (high art ought to live within the means its paying audience provides), other than providing elementary-school pupils some early exposure before they’re bludgeoned into goth zombiehood by cyberindustrial pop culture.

I'm sure people have different opinions about government funding for the arts, and I don't think Plagens is being malicious, but he comes from a visual arts background and that's a "solitary" art form. A lot of high art is institutional in nature. Cut off the funding of the state and you lose symphonies, theaters, museums, or you force them to make ticket sales their only criterion for production. It sounds nice to say that "high art ought to live within the means its paying audience provides", but it never has. It's not just for its paying audience. It's for the audience that comes after.

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Originally posted by mbjerk

... but remember the Bugs Bunny cartoons always included some form of high art all the time and paid tribute. Fred Flinstone went to ballet lessons with Barney and got quite good! SpongeBob Square Pants does neither.  Why?

Interesting point, mbjerk. I think because until recently both the popular and the serious sides of the art/entertainment divide understood each other and respected each other. There are hierarchies. Shakespeare is better -- deeper, richer, better writing, higher aspirations -- than a TV sitcom. I don't understand the point of hurling "elitist" at this viewpoint. Balanchine, Robbins, Tudor and Ashton all worked in popular theater, and respected it, but they knew the difference between what was appropriate there and what was appropriate in an opera house. I think today there are people whose background in the arts is so poor -- because of the education system, because mbjerk is the unusual parent, and because of the incessant hammering of popular culture -- ARE ill-equipped to deal with high art, and that is a tragedy. What is it now, 30 percent, 40 percent, of Americans go to college, but are they better educated? In high school you learn how to ace standardized tests, in college you learn how to make big bucks. The creators of the Flintstones obviously had higher aspirations and better backgrounds :(

Calliope, I think teachers are responsible for making Shakespeare make sense to you, or to at least impress upon students that it's important to try to find a way there. I remember being horrified in GRADUATE SCHOOL, in a seminar on Renaissance literature, a discussion of "The Fairy Queen" drew this response from a classmate (who had graduated from St. John's, arguably the most classical education in America): "He should, like get a life. Who wants to read this crap?" The professor was not nice. And when he was finished, at least half the class clapped.

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I'd like the article, I think he didn't want to educate or to fight for the sake of high art, he just stated the problem as loud as he could.

I want to turn your attention to another direction.

Of course, the education is very important, the more students will see then better. I think, an American idea about "society of equal opportunities" made a bad influence on everybody here. Most Americans truly believe that if you work really hard you can get everything. But it doesn't work with the Art at all! You have to have TALENT first and, if you work hard enough with it, may be, you will make something good of it.

Now I will go even futher. Spectators have to have TALENT too. You have to be born with this gift, which late you can train and develop. Look at Oldfashion's posts, she wants to go to the theatre against her parents wish, I assume, she wasn't surrounded by the high art in her childhood, so it's not about education, but about her own desire to fullfill her spiritual needs. I have thousands examples when people from small villages, with no museums, no theatres showed a great appreciation and understanding of the art.

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Andrei, I think that's a good point. We do think that hard work can achieve anything -- and we also want it NOW. None of this "study for ten years" stuff. And we don't educate people to be audiences. Perhaps this is part of the 18th century philosophy of the time of our Revolution -- Rousseau's idea that children will become educated when they want to.

We learn a bit about poetry and painting and music in school -- at least I did -- and we are taught that Shakespeare, Beethoven and Rembrandt are considered great artists, and we're taught at least a bit about why. But we're not taught the same rules and systems of judgment for dancing, and so we're left to our own devices -- and I think that's the main reason for some of the disagreements that ballet fans (both on or off-net) get into.

As is often said here, in one form or another, in a quote usually attributed to Balanchine: "Ballet [and this could be any art] isn't for everybody, but it is for anybody."

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Originally posted by Old Fashioned

I would like to learn how to engage my parents.

You might have better luck with your friends. My contempararies, I would imagine, are people around the same age as your parents. With very few exceptions they are not interested in ballet or opera. Some are aggressively not interested.

A few years ago in Chicago one of my nieces told me how "hip" it had become to go to the opera. Part of it was acting like adults and doing an adult thing that didn't involve alcohol, drugs or sex, part was the commotion in front of the opera house, with some people queing for tickets (the Lyric sells out almost every performance but has tickets turned in by subscribers for resale) others selling tickets they couldn't use.

But the real attraction was that they all really liked opera. There may be some people at school or otherwise that you know who would have the same interests in serious music.

And check to see if the opera company has student rush tickets available and if there is some type of outreach program that meets in your neighborhood--again, using the Lryic Opera of Chicago as an example, their "Friends" group is all over the place.

I know that running an opera or ballet company is very difficult, especially in these horrible economic times. However, few of them have real "outreach" programs that work the schools and colleges to make sure that seats are filled and that a new audience is being created.

Many if not most of the students who start attending opera or ballet will continue to do so as adults. Some of them will stay in the area or return after college. A few of them will become wealthy and be able to contribute significantly to the company. One or two may become really rich (or marry someone who is) and donate a few zillions.

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Originally posted by Leigh Witchel

I'd argue that High Art is at its best when it's a distillation of the culture and the times.

I would agree--it is difficult to think of any real art that survives the centuries that, ironically enough, wasn't firmly rooted in its own time and place. One can read the Aeneid for a number of reasons. But an accurate account of the founding of Rome is not one of them, although that is what Vergil says that describes in it.

One of the things High Art does is take the temporal and place it outside time.  

Also full agreement--an example with which many will be familiar is the Mozart opera "The Marriage of Figaro." Mozart's music is as much a part of 18th century Austria as was the Holy Roman Empire. It is also as universal as any music can be.

And it is so truthful in its particulars. Take one example only--the relationship between Cherubino and the Countess. Cherubino is about fifteen years old. The Countess is in her early to mid twenties. He is completely, over the top, head over heels infatuated with her (he thinks it is love). She thinks he is a cute young boy but certainly not worth risking her already difficult position for.

He is of noble stock, since he is a page in the Count's court and is made an officer in his regiment. She is not of noble blood, a countess by marriage, although was the ward of a gentleman and is a cultured person and valuable consort to the Count.

The Count is a lout and jealous to boot. He has a tremedous amount of power over everyone, including his wife, Cherubino, Figaro, Suzanna, etc.

However, the power of Cherubino's infatuation is too strong for any of these obstacles--he needs the Countess in a way he has never needed anything or anyone before. He is being ridiculous and is a made fun of by the servants. It is dangerous and the Count is already suspicious. The object of his affection has made it clear that she is not interested in him in the way he is in her, and never could be.

None of which is important to Cherubino, of course. Anyone who has ever been in love with someone unattainable knows what Cherubino feels. Mozart and Da Ponte portray not only that someone could be in love with a person who is in some way beyond his grasp but also why he would continue to yearn and pine for the other person.

One of his arias "Voi che sapete" is a masterpiece of composition. Mozart suggests the clumsiness of youthful ardor but does so with some of the most sublime and sophisticated pages anyone has ever written.

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Sometimes, like when I read that an injured Miranda Weese spent a lot of time watching television, I wonder how many dancers ballet experience and understand ballet as high art, and how many mainly just enjoy moving their bodies to music. Aren't they too busy -- unless and until they become principals, at least -- with taking classes, rehearsing, and dancing to pursue an education in the arts even if they have the inclination? I may put things too bluntly, and I certainly put them too simply. There are dancers like this giving us rich and accomplished performances. But this tunnel vision has been noted on this board before, in where-are-the-today's-great-dancers-? discussions.

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Some dancers do get degrees by taking one class at a time, which is usually all they have time for. I don't know what they usually get degrees in, though. I know many dancers who are not interested in any other arts, possibly because they don't know anything about them. From my experience, though, the dancers who will pick up a book or listen to an aria are few. I believe some of this has to do with their education--the schools I went to didn't really have much in the way of serious music classes or anything except basic academics and ballet (and sometimes Pilates). However, when I finally went to a school in which we were expected to excel in classes comprising many arts, we students went to the opera, museums, &c because that was what we were learning about in our classes, so we were interested. It was very different from the usual ballet school setting of dance, dance, dance.

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kfw, if you're referring to the Times article on Weese, I gathered from it that her time spent watching television --not that I regard television watching as a low activity --I watch regularly myself --owing in part to a lack of mobility because of her injury.

She also mentioned that her enforced time off gave her an opportunity to examine her life apart from the all-encompassing demands of dancing and that this has helped her creative side. It would be nice if dancers (if all of us) had more time for study and reflection. But a dancer doesn't need this background to be an artist, any more than Suzanne Farrell had to read and understand "Don Quixote" to be able to dance a ravishing Dulcinea at nineteen.

Perhaps, also, a consuming concentration on one thing can enrich someone in ways that others less focused find difficult to appreciate?

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dirac, I'm sure that focus enriches them in ways I don't comprehend. And as I said, there are exceptions like Farrell, and many others on lesser levels.

But what could even Farrell have been with a better education? And -- I don't have her autobiography with me -- didn't Balanchine at least take her to museums? Of course he may be something of an exception himself, given what we know of his leisure pursuits. But at least he had Diaghlev and whatever the Maryinsky gave him, including great musical depth.

And yes, I mentioned that Weese watched all that TV when she was injured. There are good things on the tube, of course, but it isn't the first place you expect lovers of the arts to turn. She didn't say, "I read a lot of great novels I'd never had time for."

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Originally posted by Hans

I know many dancers who are not interested in any other arts, possibly because they don't know anything about them.  From my experience, though, the dancers who will pick up a book or listen to an aria are few.

I was on my high school dance team for a year, and whenever we would go on a long road trip to a competition, I would attempt to play a video that I felt dancers might enjoy, whether it was ballet or a musical. The reaction I would receive would be "Ugh! Ballet!" Dancers who didn't even like dance. One of the team directors (who was reluctant to put it in in the first place) would immediately pull it out without any defense of what I was trying to share with my fellow teammates and ask if they wanted to watch "Signs" or "Harry Potter." Some of us (my friends and I) were appalled at her rudeness and lack of appreciation for the arts (especially since she was teaching one! Well- now I don't even consider what they do art anymore; I'm not sure I ever did). That was one of the many reasons I quit.

Ed Waffle- Thank heaven for rush tickets and my friends who understand the wonderful power and importance of art, and also for those friends who may not be completely absorbed in it as some of us are but are at least willing to give it a try. For some reason, the "opera is hip" trend has not hit Houston- probably the whole of Texas- yet. I have taken advantage of super cheap tickets (see my excitement in the "Renée at HGO" thread), now all I need is a car. :)

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I know exactly what you mean, Old Fashioned. Once when I went on a long bus trip with a professional ballet school I attended, the choices were a bootleg copy of whatever new Star Trek movie had just come out or Batman. It's not that I think we had to watch nothing but ballet (some of us did on our own, in our rooms), but the choice of a good movie (ie something culturally enriching, or at least interesting) would have been nice, rather than pop drivel.

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I've been wondering if immersion in pop culture might explain the director's choices for a performance of Gluck's opera "Orpheus and Eurydice" that I saw Saturday night. She substituted insanity for death and a mental hospital for the underworld, trivializing the story and making nonsense of its most dramatic and moving scene, the one where Orpheus struggles to obey the command not to look back at Eurydice. What other mindset would substitute the banal for the mysterious, go for laughs, trade on hoary clichés about heartless mental hospital staff and crazy people with hearts of gold, and think all that sabotage would help the audience "rediscover truths hidden in the myth"? I know directors have been redoing the classics for a long time, but this was ridiculous. At least the singing and playing held up. Ed Waffle, are you reading? Does anyone have any other theories?

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Originally posted by kfw

I know directors have been redoing the classics for a long time, but this was ridiculous. At least the singing and playing held up. Ed Waffle, are you reading? Does anyone have any other theories?

The singing and playing almost always hold up, even in some of the most dreadful stagings imaginable. It seems as if the conflict between the director on one side and the singers and conductor on the other (transmitted to the orchestra by the conductor) gives the performance a special edge. An "us against the world" type of attitude.

People who saw the Zembelo production of "Lucia di Lammermoor" several years ago at the Met thought the contribution of the singers was wonderful, despite them sharing the stage with piles of coffins.

One almost wishes it weren't so--that the singers and musicans would react to insanity that some directors throw their way by being distracted by it. It is a shame when the singers and musicians do well in spite of the staging.

Re-imagining classic pieces can work--the Patrice Chereau directed and Pierre Boulez conducted "Ring" in Beyrueth was a real revelation and every bit as good and as true to the work as was the Met/James Levine production a few years earlier.

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