Friday, February 19, 2010

The Blind Descend upon the Elephant

Yesterday's post began with the proposition that "when one encounters news that threatens to make one groan with grief, the best retaliation is an absurd fantasy with a decidedly cheerful disposition." In trying to make my case for that position, however, I had forgotten that no amount of fantasizing, however absurdly amusing it may be, can ever compensate for the aggravations visited upon the world by the World Economic Forum. Fortunately, when that venerable institution of the rich and mighty sticks to the knitting of economic questions, one can rely on a few voices of sanity, such as those of Desmond Tutu, George Soros, and this year, of all people, Nicolas Sarkozy, to be raised in protest. Unfortunately, rather than taking the time to reflect on whether any of those voices may be making some points, it appears that this year the Forum decided to descend from its Davos aerie and seek out new places to do damage. Alas, the venue they selected was Carnegie Hall.

Fortunately, Daniel J. Wakin, who contributes to the ArtsBeat blog maintained by The New York Times was there for the occasion. Just as fortunately, he managed to keep a cooler head than I tend to do when writing about the Forum; but, while he did his best to maintain the role of dispassionate reporter, I detected that, every now and then, he would raise his left eyebrow Spock-style. Here is his account:

The topic was weighty: how music can save the world.

The talk ranged across the role of conservatories, the definition of art and music’s capacity to heal.

The World Economic Forum convened a panel discussion at Carnegie Hall Thursday on arts leadership. The focus? “The role and responsibilities of cultural leaders and institutions in the collaborative process of development solutions to a number of challenges affecting the world.” Hmmm.

The session plunged immediately into the esoteric, with the moderator, Erwann Michel-Kerjan, a Wharton School professor at the University of Pennsylvania, asking what the difference was between art and entertainment.

“Art is a necessity and entertainment is a luxury,” Deborah Borda answered succinctly. Ms. Borda is president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Art is enduring, said James D. Wolfensohn, the former president of the World Bank and former chairman of Carnegie Hall. The standing-room-only crowd of arts professionals, musicians and patrons gathered in the James D. Wolfensohn Wing of meeting rooms at Carnegie.

Art can be life-changing, but entertainment “need not be,” said Hilda Ochoa-Brillembourg, chief executive of Strategic Investment Group and chairman of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas. But music that does not move you is “dead art,” she said.

Matthew Bishop, The Economist’s New York bureau chief, had a more pragmatic definition: People pay for entertainment. Art is subsidized.

Several people on the panel took note of the fact that the subsidies, from wealthy patrons, are tougher to come by in the United States because the recently rich are often more focused on contributing to causes like public health, where results are easier to measure. Ms. Borda said the three most depressing letters to hear at foundations are ROI: return on investment. Members of the panel noted that the return on music is hard to quantify.

They all wanted to make the case for why music is important. When all is lost in a natural disaster, say, all that is left is the spirit, Ms. Ochoa-Brillembourg said. “The arts nurture the spirit,” she said. Conversely, dictators try to suppress and control the arts, pointed out Klaus Schwab, the forum’s founder.

Now I have nothing against specializing in arts management. I even have a friend who took this as a major in a Wharton MBA program; and the last time I checked (which I am pretty sure was by way of a story in The New York Times) she was putting her knowledge to good use. Nevertheless, there is something curious, if not downright twisted, about convening a panel discussion on "arts leadership" with a focus on music and then excluding from the conversation those who are down there in the trenches actually practicing their art. In such a setting one could never expect the conversation to rise above the level of platitudes. I had considered whether or not this gathering would change my mind regarding this week's Chutzpah of the Week award. However, this was not an event of chutzpah; it was just plain dumb.

The full scope of that stupidity could be appreciated when one of the more reputable practitioners managed to make his voice heard during Q&A:

In a brief question-and-answer period, Robert Sirota, the composer and president of the Manhattan School of Music, asked how conservatories should change. “Get your students to read books!” Ms. Borda said, arguing that the world needs more rounded musicians. Manhattan and many other conservatories are making such efforts, to varying degrees of success.

I would suggest that what Borda knows about the curriculum for a conservatory education could fill the head of a grace note and leave room to spare. Here in San Francisco Conservatory students are encouraged, if not obliged, to precede performances with some context-setting explanatory remarks; and they have some members of the faculty, such as Paul Hersh, who provide excellent models for doing this. These students may not be able to discuss the fine points of the phenomenology of a music listening experience (as if Borda could!); but they tend to be more than "pretty good" when it comes to drawing upon history or literature for those context-setting remarks.

If Wakin's account was an accurate one (and I have no reason to believe it would be otherwise), then the World Economic Forum has brought to the profession of music the same kind of mind-rot against which I fulminated earlier this week in my post on middle-brow thinking. From their lofty positions as executives and managers, the panelists had absolutely no clue about the work practices of those trying to be music professionals. Lacking any realistic data, they retreated to the sorts of middle-brow just-so stories than can be traced back to those Omnibus programs that Leonard Bernstein concocted. The irony is that far more authoritative and useful data points are available. If Borda were to eat her own dog food and read some books, she might actually encounter some of those data points along with some fascinating approaches to analyzing them!

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