Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Make Our Garden Grow, apropos the Arts Blogger Challenge

“New York has long been considered the cultural capital of America. Is it still? If not, where?”

So asked Spring for Music’s Arts Blogger Challenge, which is having a contest to locate "America's Best Arts Blogger." (Apparently this includes a Food division.) The first challenge is to answer this question. To start with, I’ve lived in the greater NYC orbit for most of my life. I love and hate many things about New York, but don’t see the point in waving its flag over other American cities that I don’t know much about. Anne Midgette has invited non-NYC bloggers to knock us snobby New Yorkers off our high horses.  Should Brian at Out West Arts win, does LA get a shiny trophy in the shape of Gustavo Dudamel’s hair? I don’t think he’s going to play, so I guess we won't find out.

I’m going to join in. I don’t have the Wiener Philharmoniker handy for provocation purposes anymore, life gets boring. In short, I agree with Brian as well as Lisa at Iron Tongue of Midnight. What I'd like to concentrate on here, though, is why this particular question is crap (er... highly problematic?) and we shouldn’t be asking it.

Spring for Music seems to like contests, as Brian points out in the piece linked to above. This one replicates their festival, in which orchestra apply to play in Carnegie Hall and thus win FAME AND FORTUNE! Just kidding, this is classical music. A little while ago my hometown orchestra went to Carnegie Hall. They sponsored a bus for locals to go hear them conquer the big city. They said it was a monument to their prestige. But you know what? They disbanded last year, one of the casualties of the recession. What good had Carnegie Hall done for them? The youth orchestra I played in when I was in high school was dissolved along with its parent orchestra. It breaks my heart that they were abandoned. (Fortunately the youth orchestra was rescued and reconvened by the local university.)

Spring for Music’s contest is March Madness to find the blogger/city/something that has accumulated the most, excuse me, cultural capital. I have no idea what any answer to this question could tell us, and its framing plays into the American love of contests as well as the current mania for donut-shaped analysis. We love to talk about how we listen and how we watch, we love to thematize the act of looking, often at the expense of considering what it is we're looking at. But anyway, congrats, you've argued your city to the top of the Bourdieu Food Chain. You win. But we should want lots of culture for everyone, everywhere. And that’s why this comparative question is silly, even destructive. It’s not in comparison that art is important, it’s how it exists in its own habitat. It’s the difference it makes in the daily lives of its residents, how it strengthens civil society.

My hometown orchestra, and my youth orchestra as well, weren’t really the best or leading in terms of anything. They were OK. The orchestra and youth orchestra in the next city over were better. I didn’t care, I didn't live there. My orchestra was the group I saw and my youth orchestra was the group I played with, because that was home. For the art of music, the orchestra's disappearance is negligible. But the loss to the people of the city is incalculable.

Music in the abstract is meaningless. What matters is what it gives to people.

This is something that good performance studies analyses, navel-gazing as they may be, help us remember. I might be a bitchy blogger who sniffs at everything. But I know most audience members  aren't choosing between groups or cities based on trendiness. People go because it’s in their town and that’s where they live and that group adds something to their lives. Any organization’s priority should be strengthening the links between their institution and their public, from education programs to free parks concerts to commissioning local composers to setting a new opera production in a recognizable local neighborhood, whatever will make the music speak to their audience.

The vague feather in the cap of playing Carnegie Hall or assurance that your city is sexier than the other city is a lot less important than actually serving your local citizens in substantive ways. This is this kind of bond that will pay off in the long run. You have to look beyond getting people to go to concerts and think about what place music has in the lives of your audience. Particularly in a country as large and diverse as the US, this means recognizing what’s unique about your community and how your group can make it better. That's what makes your group valuable. And that’s something that starts at home.

Oh yeah, I might actually enter this post in the contest. I don't really want to campaign and I pretty much agree with most of the criticisms of the idea so far but I'm curious as to what might happen?

You can vote for me in the contest here. Please do, in fact.

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