Action for Art

  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40373369

The years 1975 and 1976 have more than a little in common with 1939, the year of my graduation from the Eastman School of Music. At that time the country was still suffering from the effects of the Great Depression, and already the ominous march of Hitler and Mussolini's armies could be heard in the distance. Our commencement speaker was Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior in Roosevelt's cabinet. He began his remarks by saying that he knew it was traditional on such occasions for crusty oldsters such as himself to give out windy advice to the new generation. But as he thought about the mess his generation had made of the world, his only words of wisdom for young musicians were, "Don't follow the advice of the older generation." Remembering this, I try to refrain from giving any advice. Instead I would like to write briefly about several aspects of our musical life which have changed significantly in the past forty-five years.

It may be hard to believe now, but up until the 1930s the musicians unions were very weak. Such power as they had was in the locals rather than the national organization. During the Depression and after the war the unions grew rapidly under the leadership of tough "Saturday night" musicians who had no small streak of the Mafia in them. They wanted more money and better conditions for musicians, and were willing to employ whatever tactics were necessary to achieve that goal. They cared little and knew less about music as the "long hairs" (that's us) knew it. They were totally incapable of imagining or evaluating the long range effect of the technological revolution which was to change completely the pattern of our musical life within thirty years. Radio, phonograph records, the sound film, television, and tape recording in turn extended almost to infinity the audience for a single musical service. And now we have the sound synthesizers which can produce a kind of ersatz music with no traditional performers at all.

The response to all of this by the union leadership, which was dominated by a "fast buck" philosophy, was to impose high hourly rates for recording or media use, tack on a union slush fund tax, and make a set of regulations which greatly favored the established organizations and the pop field.

The results of these short-sighted policies were predictable and tragic. The high rates drove all but the most commercial producers to record in foreign countries. The direct cash loss to American musicians may be reckoned in the millions of dollars, to say nothing of the loss of prestige. It is a situation which can be changed only by (1) the adoption of entirely new policies involving royalty per record payments, (2) a grant of residual rights to performers, and (3) perhaps some substantial revision of our copyright laws.

To bring about such change, we must embroil ourselves in some political activism in our unions and within our legislative bodies.

The other aspects of our musical life which bear close watching and perhaps require some well-timed political action involve our two largest present sources of subsidy for the arts.

Over the past twenty-five years, grants from foundations and corporate donors have begun to rival private contributions to arts organizations. The size of these grants and their tax-free aspect have not gone unnoticed by some of our legislators who are, in any case, not much interested in the arts. If we are not vigilant, we could wake up one morning and find our philanthropic foundations subjected to taxes which would greatly reduce their distributable income. This loss would be felt first in the pay envelopes of the professional musicians.

Finally, a word about the newest subsidy of all: that which has been appropriated by federal, state, and local governments. By now the amounts have become significant; and for this we owe a great debt to Nancy Hanks, who has with one hand accomplished the feat of greatly increasing the National Endowment appropriation when almost all other appropriations were being cut, and with the other hand fended off those who would envision NEA grants as just more political handouts. In the Music Section she has been most ably assisted by Walter Anderson, whose sensitivity and deep sense of responsibility are altogether remarkable. Here again we must take our civic duties very seriously by retaining qualified and dedicated people in the key positions and supporting them through the exertion of the right kind of pressure on our governmental representatives.

For the past seven years I have had to engage in considerable political activity as part of administering a state institution, and I guarantee you that there can be no more frustrating activity. The mentality of some of our legislators is perhaps exemplified in a remark made by one of ours from North Carolina when the first appropriation establishing the North Carolina School of the Arts was passed.

"Wahl," he said, "I never thought I'd live to see the day when the great state of North Carolina would give a half million dollars to fund a school for tippy-toe dancin' and banjo-pickin'." It is important to add, however, that the majority of this same legislature has continuously increased support of the school to show concrete pride in the rapidity of the growth and fame of its experiment.

"What has all this to do with music?" one might ask. "Nothing and everything," is my reply.

Nothing in that, during the hours of rehearsing or performing or attempting to compose a great piece of music, our preoccupation with that effort must be complete and must involve our highest ideals. I do not need to amplify on the superb satisfaction of these moments for readers of this journal. But unless the institutions which sustain our musical life are maintained and the regulating organizations make sense, we may have less and less opportunity to bring the beauties of our art to the public.

In this sense, our political activities and our work as responsible citizens, boring and frustrating as it sometimes is, has everything to do with music.

And so I say to all musicians who have heretofore lived on peaceful shores in an artistic ivory tower, so to speak, "Join us in battling the rushing political currents. Come on in, this water is our very lives. Fight for the survival of the arts in every way open to a good citizen. Sometimes you will find the water hot, sometimes icy cold, and sometimes a bit dirty. But with survival, there will always come those moments when the water flows clean and the current runs smooth and fast; and those moments may be possible in the future only if you exert yourselves politically now."

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Last modified on Monday, 12/11/2018

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