What's music good for, anyway?
In her most recent article for The Scotsman, sociologist and cultural commentator Tiffany Jenkins takes Britain's Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Maria Miller, to task for what were, in Jenkins's opinion, wrongheaded statements on the purpose of the arts in a speech Miller delivered earlier in the week. To quote Jenkins's rebuke:
The speech began with the right noises – “culture educates, entertains and it enriches” – but quickly took a wrong turn, concentrating on what culture can “deliver”, specifically for the economy, using sentences such as: “It allows us to build international relationships, forging a foundation for the trade deals of tomorrow.”
That goes against what Jenkins believes to be the truest, highest purpose for arts:
Hers is a very different understanding of the role of culture from that of the exploration of truth and beauty or questioning that I believe to be central.
It is a philistine approach that misses the value and point of culture. It is true that the Edinburgh festivals, for example, bring a strong financial return. There is a significant influx of people who eat, drink and are merry in bars, restaurants and shops, as well as buying millions of tickets.
But even in this case, the financial return is not the best thing about the festivals – or why people come back every year to perform or to watch. They do it because they love it, enjoy it and are driven to participate in something meaningful.
If we were to nurture only that which contributed to the economy it is likely that the safe, the tried and the tested would be funded. It is likely that the new, the risky and experimental would be avoided because the question would not be is it interesting, or good, but what is the expected return?
All the wrong questions of a piece, a writer and a producer would be asked. Accountants would do the programming. The bottom line would dominate.
I'm not so certain that, if asked, Maria Miller would indeed say that "the financial return is the best things about the festivals." And I question the notion that when the economic impact of the arts are emphasized, the "accountants would do the programming" as Jenkins predicts. After all, we've all read, with some degree of sympathy, attempts by arts supporters to bolster their cause by pointing out the economic benefits of symphonies, theaters, museums, etc. Were we as concerned as Jenkins about the commercialization of the institutions in question?
But commentators exaggerate the dangers of their opponents' positions all the time in order to place themselves on a higher pedestal, so I can dismiss Jenkins's hyperbole as par for the course. There's also some English/Scottish neighborhood thing going here on that I don't know enough about to weigh in on, so I'll butt out. I have some pretty strong opinions about whether there should even be a Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, but will keep them to myself until I've retired from NEPR. And far be it from me to tell someone else what he or she should get out of the arts. It's really none of my business.
What I can say is what my intentions are when I present music on the radio and in concert. To use the two women mentioned above as exemplars of opposite ends of the debate, I select music neither to enhance the bottom line nor to promulgate truth and beauty. Now, if something we play on NEPR convinces you to support the station, it means we've reached another listener with some classical music. If you find some truth and beauty in something we played, it means the same thing. Either way, it's all good.
All I really want to do, and all I have ever really wanted to do, however, is to entertain. If the music I select tickles your fancy, sounds good, alleviates boredom and adds even a little happiness to your day, I've done my part. If you then want to take the music and run with it, either to the Elysian Fields or to your checkbook, that's up to you. But If I had been burdened with either the need to bring in the big bucks or to be a beacon of truthful beauty and beautiful truth, I'd have quit long ago. For me, music and the arts are about pleasure, first, foremost and forever. And if they don't start there, by providing pleasure, they'll never get to the places Ms. Jenkins and Ms. Miller would like them to go.