Monday, November 18, 2013

The Wrong Diagnosis for the Right Illness

I just finished reading an article by Simon Johnson that showed up on the Web site yesterday afternoon under the headline:
Queen's official composer: youngsters are ignorant of classical music because of 'elitist' attitude
The composer in question is, of course, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who has taken a variety of strong positions over the social dimension of how we experience music. In this case he happened to be endorsing the violinist Nicola Benedetti, who believed that the school curriculum should include detailed analyses of the symphonies of composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Jean Sibelius, Antonín Dvořák and Gustav Mahler. Personally, I suspect that Benedetti was following my favorite of Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies, "Go to an extreme, come part way back;" but her rhetorical strategy may have been necessary. Maxwell Davies reinforced her point with the observation that "hundreds of thousands of British youngsters" have never heard of Beethoven. He then went on to note that the same is true of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. He thus envisages as future generation of a "vacuous celebrity culture and inane talent shows" (his words cited by Johnson).

Maxwell Davies attributes the cause to a government policy that sees "classical music as an elitist fringe activity." This may be true, but I am not sure that it is a diagnosis of the condition. Benedetti may have hit closer to the mark in the following observation:
Music can be fun and enjoyable, but it also provides a way to go as deep as you can into our history and our understanding of humanity.
As I have argued in the past, there are prevailing sources of authority in both government and business that simply do not want to have a population capable of such "understanding of humanity." They simply want a population of consumers that will rush out to buy every bit of stuff dangled before them as a result of operant conditioning, rather than any extended efforts at reflection. That population is well conditioned by "celebrity culture and inane talent shows," which never rise above the level of visceral instincts. What Benedetti see as a virtue of the study of listening to and analyzing music, the Lords of Consumerism see as a Cardinal Sin. The issue is not one of whether or not the activity is elitist but of whether it encourages one to seek out a path different from that of the manipulated masses.

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