Let's talk about Great Art. Readers respond to Joshua Fineberg's "Classical Music: Why Bother?"

By Salon Staff

Published October 11, 2002 11:56PM (EDT)

[Read :Classical Music: Why Bother?: by Joshua Fineberg.]

Joshua Fineberg's piece makes excellent points. However, he misses an important difference between composers like himself (and myself), and composers like Beethoven and Mozart.

The public of those composers' times was more responsive to their art, because, among other reasons, their musical language was drawing on traditions, styles and vernacular musical languages that, for whatever socioeconomic or cultural and historical reasons, it was familiar with.

Fineberg seems to argue that Great Art requires work and thought, and that a basic (and apparently growing) unwillingness on the part of the public to engage in that thought and work is responsible for decline in its appreciation.

But, after all, Beethoven, Mozart and Bach were all regarded as "too complex" in their time; yet people were able to connect with their music because there was a fundamental common musical style/language/vernacular (call it what you will) underlying both the popular and "serious" "high art" music of the time.

I believe there is a similar thing starting to happen today: "functional" dance and popular music's materials are being crafted by many lesser known artists into complex, intriguing and expressive music; I could name a few such artists whose work I enjoy: Bjork, DJ Shadow, DJ Spooky, Freight Elevator Quartet, and so on. These are artists whose work is clearly more than "functional" -- in most cases, you'd be hard-pressed to dance to them -- yet the connection with more "functional" music is there, and the public can hear that.

Whether or not these artists will become "Beethovens" is not certain, but I believe the possibility is very much alive. My argument is not that "all art is equal" or that there is "no such thing as high or low," but that ultimately, the great art of the future is probably going to have to have some connections to, and will probably have to arise from, the "low" and "functional" musics of the time -- just as did Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

-- Christopher Bailey

His piece on classical music and intrinsic value in art was the most thoughtful piece on the subject I've read.

As a violist playing in a local symphony, I believe the ideas laid out in the essay are seeds that need to be planted widely across our uneven cultural landscape.

-- Christopher Naze

I would like to thank Joshua Fineberg for his insightful article about the current state of new classical music, and I would also like to thank Salon for printing it: The very fact that some publications are still willing to give press time to this subject demonstrates to us that there is still relevance to this troubled art form.

Mr. Fineberg makes many excellent points, but I am particularly impressed by two of them. First, the notion of surrendering oneself to another's vision is not only an excellent way of describing the goal of art, but also pinpoints the problem of art in American society in particular. In a society that is built so strongly on ideological principles of freedom and self-determination, it is exceedingly difficult to convince an audience to surrender itself. Second, Mr. Fineberg quite rightly points out that popular taste and intrinsic value are completely separate entities. A work of art exists outside of the current trends and preferences of everyday society and also the artistic community. To say that a piece of music is invalid because it is successful is ridiculous, and we composers would do well to remember that neither is it our sworn duty to create "difficult" music for the sole purpose of securing its unpopularity. Art must build and expand upon artistic traditions, but at the same time it must be created in a societal and cultural vacuum.

-- David Arbury

OK, here's your problem: "Classical" art is based on the premise that there's some sort of eternal truth and beauty, in the Platonic sense, from whence we can derive our sense of aesthetics. We Gen-X and Gen-Y types find Kurt Cobain or Jim Thirwell far more enthralling simply because we've realized that, honestly, there's no such thing. We listen to raucous, disturbing music because that is what we feel represents our chaotic, random world, a world where we might be the CEO of a dot-com one week, and a McDonald's employee the next.

Point 2: Peter Gay, in his "The Naked Heart" (Volume IV of his monumental "Bourgeois Experience" series) points out that appreciation of "classical" music as something personal, emotional and spiritual was a particular of 19th century bourgeois culture. Honestly, we don't conceive of music in the same way, and haven't since the Jazz Age. Music is, for us, a social message (à la Bob Dylan), or as it was for 18th century aristocrats, either part of a social activity, or symbolic of a social activity. "Sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll" are inextricably linked for a reason.

Classical music is wonderful as a historical text, and it can set a mood nicely. But I'm afraid we've moved on as a culture.

-- Ken Mondschein

Mr. Fineberg's long meditation on what is wrong in the classical music world misses one essential point. Some types of music or art have an historical "high" point -- and when that point passes, it's uphill from there. Does anyone think there really are Beethovens or Mozarts or Bachs out there? Does Fineberg? To put it on a more popular plane, are there anymore Beatles or Elvis or Grateful Deads?

How about Michelangelos or Van Goghs or Picassos? Asking the question answers it. No. Classical music, rock music, even painting, seem to have hit historical high points. This is certainly due to the deadening effect of capitalism on the arts and human beings, but it is also due to a natural cycle of artistic development. Novelization seems to be still going strong -- present writers are almost as good as past ones, though there might never be another Joyce or Proust. Classical music appeals to older, upper middle-class people and that won't change until classical music reaches the working-class population, like it did 200 years ago. Aaron Copland was about the last person to try that, and he's dated 50 years. Am I going to sift through 10,000 works of music? No. That is what critics are hired to do and if they find another Beethoven, I'll be there.

-- Greg Gibbs

Joshua Fineberg, in his otherwise thoughtful article on contemporary classical composers and the intrinsic value of art, attempts to clear up the "art vs. entertainment" dilemma. Instead, he muddies the water. No one can argue with the fact that only genius will survive in the long run, and that composers who merely pander to their audiences are doomed to irrelevance. What Fineberg does not confront, however, is the difference between genius that connects with audiences and genius that doesn't. He writes that with Shakespeare, "we can all feel the genius even if we are not all sensitive to its charms." The same can be said of James Joyce. The difference, and this is not a matter of taste, is that "Hamlet" reaches into our guts; "Finnegans Wake" does not. The problem with classical composition in the last 50 years is that the "geniuses" (in particular) have promulgated the equivalent of the latter work, not the former. For his later novels, Joyce was content with a tiny audience of aficionados and academics (perhaps because he'd already written more accessible works of genius). Most contemporary composers seem to be similarly contented.

-- Christopher D. Guerin, president, Fort Wayne Philharmonic

I agree with almost everything written by Joshua Fineberg regarding the state of art in general -- and classical music specifically. I can state that I continue to write "classical" music for one reason and one reason only, as a form of self-expression. I know that the odds of me being compensated for all that hard work are almost zero and that doesn't bother me at all. I love my "job" as a motion graphics designer, which allows me to be artistic and be paid for it. I also build furniture, paint, and do various other artistic things for fun.

I have a few classical musician friends who commission pieces from me and we're quite happy with the small concerts that we're a part of every year. I'd love to have a piece performed by a major symphony and still hold out hope for that possibility. I'll continue to write because I love to and it gives me immense pleasure to do so.

And while we need patrons to make classical music financially rewarding, all we need to keep it alive is musicians to play it. And the love of good music or any other art transcends the need for money.

Why else would any of us work so hard for so little?

-- Robert Guillory

What a funny little article! Especially fun and interesting is how it falls into several of the categories that Fineberg outlines as missing the point. It calls into mind several questions. Who is the "we" in this article? It seems to change from composers to artists to some seemingly wide group of people who Fineburg may like to call "society," which indicates to me a lack of clarity of thought.

Whose genes, exactly, does Fineberg's composer friend propose are diluting the pool? Fineberg is revealing here a little bit of nastiness that is part of what turns the rabble away from Art. It's a good thing that Fineberg can assure his friend that even though the lower, darker classes have intermingled with their betters, great works of art will always rise above popular dreck.

Fineberg reveals that "Art [is] the result of specific social conditions," and those conditions are deteriorating. Wow. If I believed that art is so fragile as that, I would shoot myself, Fineberg, and everybody in the cubicles around me. Regardless of what Maslow had to say, people create in some of the most oppressive, horrid conditions imaginable, including 21st century middle-class, middle-America suburbs.

There is no record book in the sky of all the truly great works of art, and despite what Fineberg may think, many of those "content providers" of pop art may actually aspire to create something that is transformative, resonant, revelatory, awesome. People will always be compelled to create those things they most wish to experience that do not yet exist, and to do so will always be a struggle.

Now, I am sympathetic to the desire to make more people able to invest themselves in works that are transformative, resonant, revelatory and awesome, but Fineberg can take his narrow, sad little definitions of art and artists and choke on them.

-- Kimberly McColl

It's hard to know where to start with Joshua Fineberg. I'm sure he read his piece after printing (and several times before.) Could he stomach it?

The worst is that rather than student or wannabe from Podunk Polytechnic, he's a professor at Harvard. Why can't I help thinking, "serves Harvard right"?

Trying to decipher whatever Fineberg said, I settled on his public declaration that he, as artist, is void of ideas.

Lou Harrison, many argue, saved Charles Ives from obscurity. Mendelssohn is alleged to have removed the dust from J.S. Bach, introducing Bach's previously unknown brilliance to the world.

And how many in the ever-pretentious "classical" community have heard of Carissimi or Buxtehude? Of the latter, J.S. Bach walked -- walked -- 400 miles to hear Buxtehude's stunning compositions and technical virtuosity.

Anyone aware that Frederick II's daughter was a violinist? That the monarch forbade her from even touching the violin? That her emotional compositions for string quartet depict physical abuse endured after the discovery that she'd violated his prohibition?

And what of Harry Partch? Ignored, demeaned. Moreover, John Cage eludes the earnest Dr. Fineberg. Cage's message wasn't "that traffic noise could be appreciated aesthetically." Listen, Cage said, what is it?

If Fineberg says anything substantive it is that "real art cannot be an act of manipulation or marketing." Absolutely. Thus the past decade's marketing maxim is invoked: Just do it.

Don't worry, professor Fineberg, about your stuffy, tweed-wearing colleagues. I ask again: Will Alan Lomax ever be "known"? A friend and, in my view, one of the more important composers living today, told me his biggest regret was not having descended to the basement of the UCLA music building "to see Alan Lomax."

Get over yourself. I wish I had the money to take my girlfriend to Yo-Yo Ma or Rene Fleming. Too often, I am the one at home, television on. ("The two hours spent in a concert are two hours we could have been eating a good meal, making love, surfing the Internet or watching TV.")

Somehow I wish I had your problems, sir.

-- John Guess

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