"To teach and delight". The death of "the death of classical music”

31 Jan 2019

Recently, I came across a thought provoking article “The death of “the death of”” by Jared Marcel Pollent, who is a literary reviewer  for a number of notable magazines and publishing houses, and a writer himself. It discusses a fate of  literature in the era of postmodern, aka digital age.


The reason why this article is relevant in the musical blog, the issue within its discussion completely matches classical music (and other classical arts as well).


What is the message the author wishes to convey? 


Good news


The main point is his belief that classical arts will never die.  


The darkest predictions about the future of classical art forms began about 20 years ago at the dawn of internet, and still last in the present:


 “it seems that things have been dying for quite a long time now. Most artists share the same pessimism about the present: that the form is in decline, the best days are behind it, audience’s standards have been tragically lowered, and the stuff that gets picked up by the mainstream now is all crap. Musicians, filmmakers, photographers, all talk this way.”(The death of “the death of”)


Although these indications are often true, those who predict fatal scenarios for the classical arts are wrong, the author says. The future will disprove the death of classical arts, and will prove the death of predictions of their death. It means classical arts will always exist.


Bad news


However, this optimistic belief comes with a hefty pinch of salt. Classical arts will always exist, but not in the way they existed through history, in the pre-digital era.


The reasoning behind author's way of thought is summarized in the subtitle of the article


 “Literature  in the mainstream might be dead, but so is the mainstream itself


(“Literature” can easily be substituted by “classical music” here).


What does the author mean by this statement?


He just appeals to the changes digital technologies bring to the world - transition from hierarchical order of life to the networking one.  The point is, the mainstream as a phenomenon doesn’t exist in the network.


Hierarchy has a top, the center which is more important than the periphery. Network has neither the center nor the periphery, it is decentralized. No one is more important than the other in the network. Nothing, therefore, can be the mainstream.


The network reality is fragmented  into parts of their own importance, no sense to compare them. So is the society and culture in the digital age. Traditional ways to impose common values and tastes to the audiences are disappearing, along with the disappearing hierarchies.


The culture in the digital age becomes  an immense network of niches of interest where everyone find what they need,  not bothering about anything else.


“No taste is triumphant anymore” writes the author.


It belongs to the 20th century and prior, when the arts were in the center of public attention. Novelists, poets, classical musicians, stage actors appeared on the covers of the popular magazines, central radio and TV channels, in newspaper interviews. They had a social authority. Their voice, like their art, was relevant, and it mattered.


Such things are not possible anymore.


It is not because the public had degraded, but because of the reconstruction in the basics of society and culture brought by digital technologies.


The final conclusion that the author is trying to convey is that classical art forms will always exist, but they will exist in the form of niches, along with many other niches of human interest that are permanently generated by technologies and increasing in numbers.


“Literature is well on its way––like everything else––to becoming niche. The internet is furnishing for us an endless catacomb––like Borges’ Library of Babel––where everything will be buried and nothing will ever die.”


Ways to accept it


The “catacomb” metaphor is not quite inspiring, indeed, but the author does not seem frustrated. He shares his opinion on  “why keep writing novels when no one reads them anymore?”


“Death is unlikely. That it (literature) will become marginal is almost certain, if not already a fait accompli. The reasons to keep on writing in lieu of this should go unchanged. The 2,000-year-old mandate to “teach and delight” has always been good enough. It was good enough for the Greeks, for the renaissance humanists, and it should be good enough for us postmoderns living in a time of asymptotic decline.”


To interpret it for the classical music, musicians should continue playing and to carry out their centuries-old mission to “teach and delight”.


However, it does not mean that they should stay conservative.  It is a wrong strategy to remain entrenched in the mentality of the past, and get depressed due to the new unfavorable conditions for themselves and their arts:


“...barricading themselves in the halls of the academy and nurturing an antipathy towards the culture that has left them behind almost certainly isn’t the answer”


Digital era is special in all its aspects, not exclusively negative. That's true, the negative one manifests in marginality of arts, overproduction, stuff professional competition with all that it implies, and so on. But it is positive as well in the unprecedented freedom for creative and social initiative, in relation to information, communication, technologies, and many other important  things that arrived exactly with digital era.


The “era of postmodern’’ sounds a bit pessimistic in terms of artistic perspectives, but being taken as a “digital era”, it proves as a completely new space for the artists for continuing on their good old mission. And this is the cause for the optimism, indeed.



Photo from www.oraculodoslivros.com.br





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Violinist deeply rooted in classical tradition and concerned about the future of the genre >> more about the author 

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