(Note: This post has been updated (1) as of 3:42 PM Eastern on 29 Aug. See below)
The online magazine Salon.com has an interesting 2002 article in its archives (readable without going through that annoying "One-day Pass" business) by Harvard assistant music professor and composer Joshua Fineberg that asks the question, Classical Music: Why Bother?. Mr. Fineberg's answer: because classical music, like all genuine art, has intrinsic worth and value that makes it worthwhile bothering about. He goes on to lay the blame for the generally sorry state of classical music in our culture at the doorstep of the present cultural climate that exists in this country vis-à-vis so-called high art which insists on the principle that no created work has an intrinsic worth and value that makes it superior to any other, but that all created works are inherently equal, and individual taste is both the determiner of what is and what isn't art, and the final arbiter of a created work's worth and value.
Which is to say, vox populi vox Dei, and the cultural marketplace rules.
What else is new. Hardly Earth-shattering news to anyone, in America most particularly, who hasn't been sequestered in a cave for at least the past couple decades. That equalitarian notion where art is concerned was born in the radical populist ferment of the 1960s, and achieved its ultimate reductio ad absurdum in PC and postmodern thinking, c. the 1980s; thinking that continues in force to the present day.
It strikes me that Mr. Fineberg displayed a certain failure of nerve in his piece, and danced around the central issue: genuine art, both in its creation and reception genuine and art as determined not by the individual tastes of The People, but by the cultural elite; those who by native intellect, education, training, and experience are competent and qualified to make such determinations is, and has always been, a strictly elitist affair where equalitarian thinking and notions have no place.
And that's the crux of the problem today; again, in America most particularly. Today's cultural elite would sooner cut out their tongues than admit publicly to their status, or even so much as suggest that the concept of a cultural elite has any real meaning except when invoked pejoratively. Understandable, actually. Being charged with elitism today is, in its degree of opprobriousness, on a par with being charged with child molestation. And so we get the absurd public stances on art on the part of those who should and do in fact know better; those such as Mr. Fineberg singles out in his piece; viz., museum directors, artistic directors, classical performers and composers, and ministers of culture. And I would add arts and culture critics, public school boards, university administrators and faculty, newspaper and magazine editors, writers and publishers, etc., etc.
So, what's the real answer and solution? The real answer is, as Mr. Fineberg correctly states, genuine art has intrinsic worth and value regardless of its reception by the public, and is distinct from trash. And the real solution is that those who by native intellect, education, training, and experience are qualified and competent to distinguish genuine art from trash even attractive, interesting, and appealing trash (there is such; contemporary commercial fiction, and much of 19th-century Italian opera, for but two examples) must be willing to stand up and declare that distinction loudly and publicly; be willing to declare trash as trash even, or rather especially, when that trash is held in high esteem by The People; be willing to declare openly to any and all species of philistine: "No, you bloody ignorant simpletons! That's not art. That's trash you're effusing over, and not worth the time and attention of a trained chimp. Wake up and smell the garbage dump you presently inhabit, or you, your children, and your children's children will be doomed to reside there permanently, and without possibility of escape."
Incredible though it may seem today, prior to the 1960s there were such stalwarts in this country, and they were unashamed of their elite status, and unashamed as well to declare genuine art as art, trash as trash, and the immensity of the distinction between the two. Today, if such in fact still exist, their voices have been muffled or stilled, either through timidity, cowardice, or by the fact that their once lofty and influential public pulpits have fallen victim or been sacrificed to the power of the marketplace, and the will of the rabble.
Let us now pray.
Update (3:42 PM Eastern on 29 Aug): Weblogger Daniel Green of The Reading Experience comments, to which comment I respond in the attached comments section of his post.