The Arts in Our Society
Published online: 1 October 1983
- PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40374158
The following address was given by Dr. Schuller at the Twenty-fifth
Anniversary Brunch in Boston, Sunday, October 10, 1982.
I know that you have had almost three days of interesting meetings and lectures and discussions ranging all the way from Improvisation, and Be-bop, and Film Composing, to the music of Sorabaji, one of my favorite composers. And I can well imagine that the last thing you want to hear now—after 72 hours of exhausting ideological battles and concerts—is a general philosophical tirade of sorts. Well, I will certainly try not to make this a tirade.
What you have done here in the last three days is, of course, all most worthy and appropriate. It is also very specialized and scattered, so that it is virtually impossible to see how all those subjects and topics relate to each other and form some kind of "sum of all the parts"—not to say totality. You will be glad to hear that I was not asked to provide some sort of summary or overview. And I am even gladder about that than you are.
But perhaps it is not altogether inappropriate—not a casual fancy of ours—that we think a little beyond what we have wrought here in marathon meetings and lectures, beyond to those awesome questions that always seem to lie out there: what are we actually doing, and why? Or worse yet: should we be doing what we are doing? Are all those worthy interests and activities of ours really what we ought to be doing—and here I am thinking of our charges as teachers—what we ought to be teaching; and how are we or are we not best serving our students, and therefore the present and the future?
Let us begin with two dangerous assumptions: one, that everything said and presented here in these last three days was worthy of interest, well-prepared, by people deeply interested and versed in those given subjects. Second, that for any subject any of us might contrive—even the music of Sorabaji or symbolism in Schoenberg's Herzgewächse—there will always be an audience. So it is pointless to argue that a subject is not worthy or interesting—because, of course, it always is, to someone. And that gives it relevance, perhaps only relative relevance, but relevance nonetheless. It is also senseless to argue about the relative quality of a presentation, quite apart from any legitimate disagreements about a presentor's handling of a subject (even if it could be unequivocally proven that it was a "negative" or "flawed" presentation). For even that, by its negativism, would surely elicit a response, perhaps even a relative or positive one, and would in any case itself be a worthy subject of further discussion and argument. (I understand that has happened here a few times during these recent days.)
Our only recourse then for the present is to jump above all those specialized concerns, and look at the grander reality in which we perform all these wondrous functions—which are, of course, I hasten to add—considered totally irrelevant and esoteric by the vast, vast majority of our fellow humans. If we project our thoughts really grandly, then we might be concerning ourselves with such awesome topics as music's role—or roles—in our society, remembering I hope that ours is not the only society, and not even arguably the best. On the basis of such concerns we might then realize how we, as musicians, are viewed by our society, and how we are able or not able to carry out our varied functions and missions. That, of course, is also too vast and complex a subject for a 20-minute brunch pleasantry. It is, however, worthy—someday—of at least a three day conference.
So let us set our philosophical sights a tiny bit lower and look at our more specifically academic role and problems, in itself another vast and many-splintered subject. I would like to consider with you a few questions which do concern me, and I suspect concern many of you. I don't think I can put it more succinctly than to ask: What and Why and Whom are we teaching in our colleges and universities and conservatories? Actually, some educators would put the "whom" first, because that—so they say—will tell you about the "what" and "why." The other side argues that the "what" and "why" come first and that "whom" we teach should be a matter of democratic equality and in any case should not affect the content or the quality of our teaching. It is, of course, the old "élitism vis-à-vis populism" argument all over again, simply transposed into an academic terrain.
I have no absolutes to offer here, mainly because there aren't any, as usual. The issues and problems contained in that postulated question are complex and intricately related to our general economic condition and our ideological/cultural environment. I can only express to you my concerns, being those of a reasonably reasonable and concerned and somewhat experienced laborer in these musical and musical/academic vineyards. I do worry a lot about our students, and about us as their teachers. I worry a lot, because I think we have all been maneuvered into variously uncomfortable and untenable positions. The pressures from the society that surrounds us, have in myriad and subtle and not so subtle ways forced us to unthinkingly compromise, to accept the conditions imposed on us without fighting back, or being able—so we tell ourselves—to fight back.
I am not even talking about Reaganomics here, or this year's budget cuts, or declining enrollments, although these are all part of the picture, part of the pressures upon us, to be sure. But I am much more concerned about the gradual change in our functions as educators. I am very worried about what is now apparently expected of us as teachers by our administrations, and by our students. And I am worried about the expectations that motivate them, the students, to become students. I am much more worried about these questions than about Reaganomics, because these problems—and I see them as deteriorations—have been encroaching upon us for a long time, indeed long before Reagan ever thought of running for the presidency.
What has happened in the last five to ten years is that our colleges and universities and conservatories have gradually been turned into vocational schools, in which we are supposed to take variously gifted and not-so-gifted students—really our clients—and turn them into productive functionaries in our musical establishments. We are asked to take all this raw material, mostly ill-prepared by our high schools and early-school systems, and turn it in four or six short years into well-functioning, financially flourishing career musicians. And by now a large proportion of our students believes that that is what we colleges and conservatories not only can do, but should do.
Of course, we all know that the real musical talents we needn't worry about. They usually make it, either with or in spite of our help. But I am deeply concerned about the invasion of mass concepts that have infiltrated our academic environment. And I truly believe that right now too much is expected of us—ironically precisely at a time when we, as the arrived teachers and artist musicians, are first becoming aware of the myriad specializations of musical interests and topics and traditions and philosophies that abound in this vast musical universe of ours. As institutions we are perhaps just beginning to come to grips with global concepts of music, rather than the narrowly-defined and prejudged stuff of our standard curricula—a subject about which I have been preaching for decades, obviously not to much avail and with only marginal success.
My point is that precisely at a time when, through modern technology and research, all kinds of musics (plural!) are becoming available to us to study, and to teach—at precisely such a time we are forced by our environment and our constituency to narrow our teaching down to those elementals that will most readily and assuredly enable our charges to go productively into the work force.
To suggest that we should not be teaching such masses of students, regardless of the variability of their talent, is of course considered heretical, politically radical, and undemocratic by lots of people. And indeed, I am the last one to propound élitist theories, because I deeply believe that it is every American's virtually constitutional right to become involved with and educated in the arts. By my life philosophy we dare not deny any individual an entrée to the world of culture—hopefully, cultures—in order to enjoy their pluralistic riches.
But why must they all become performers, musicians, practitioners, career-bound and equipped with all the right degrees that will allegedly guarantee them a good American living? We should really be thinking a lot about that—we, all of us—because surely nobody else is doing so.
Of course, the numbers have all been wrong for at least a decade or so. We now all cry about declining enrollments, forgetting that the enrollments of the recent past were tremendously inflated. Even now, as enrollments shrink, we are still producing far too many musicians for the available supply of jobs and financially viable positions.
It is interesting to me that these recent and present developments have their exact parallel in the recent and present economic situation of our country. Similarly in the field of music there is now, after years of inflationary activity, bound to be a gigantic wrenching of the system—which half of us welcome and see as a necessary "correction in course," and which the other half sees as life and career-threatening, and institution-endangering. We educators are caught in a terrible squeeze play. Most of us do not have, as individuals, the force, the power—often not even the inclination—to buck the system. And even when we do, we are facing hordes of students already fed into the system expecting miracles from us.
In another sense, too, the numbers are all wrong. Despite the enormous influx of people into the ranks of career artists—musicians, composers, dancers, what have you (many of you know my mind-boggling statistic that there are between 30,000 and 40,000 composers alone in this one country of ours, not even counting jazz and pop composers)—despite such influxes, we in so-called "serious" non-commercial music are still a tiny, tiny minority in our larger culture with an even tinier, tinier audience. And right now television is making sure that that potential audience that we could have but do not have, is limited in its cultural tastes to the commercial arts; and that we continue to have our national tastes dictated to us by the criteria of mass communication, and by the criteria that steer and control those mass tastes. The stranglehold that commercial music has on the fine musics—be they classical, jazz, folk, or ethnic—is truly frightening. They win over our potential audience before we can even get at them, all the Sesame Streets notwithstanding.
So the numbers and the proportions of the picture are at the moment all wrong. We are overproducing the wrong kind of product: more musicians instead of audiences, instead of loyal, intelligent consumers for our product. And at the same time, with a success and vigor unprecedented in the history of the world, our would-be audiences are being drained away, out of our reach, in alarming numbers. Then to make matters worse, some of us academics buy into the system by even teaching how to become proficient in the commercial mass musics.
To make matters even worse and more complicated, in that vast audience out there, who could be our customers and clients, there are quite a few who are way ahead of us in their thinking. They are not now in our camp because they perceive most of our institutions—be they colleges, or symphony orchestras, or opera houses—as hopelessly anachronistic, narrow, and self-serving. And I am afraid that about many of us, they are right.
We are, ourselves, among the victims of these mass pressures, imposed by a mass culture that does not even know what we are talking about when we say "Brahms," let alone "Sorabaji."
We all maneuver around these multiple and many-directional pressures as dexterously as we can. But like some gigantic avalanche, the totality of our arts educational system has shifted over lopsidedly and downward to one side, settling in for a long winter, frozen in and impacted.
What to do about our overall general cultural environment is a national problem, and one which we, as individuals or even as individual institutions cannot affect very much. But within our own academic system, we could do a lot of adjusting, responding better, and at the very least thinking about the issues that I have exposed.
We must become more honest with our students. We must not, even under the real pressures that beset us, feed them illusions that we can offer them careers and security and the "pursuit of happiness" in the music professions. And we must be, I believe, much more industrious and ambitious in inventing curricular environments that project career possibilities (even within the field of music, let alone outside of it) other than playing first oboe in the Boston Symphony.
Despite the severity of our situation and my concerns about Whom and What and Why are we teaching, I am not a gloom-and-doom prophesier; I am not a pessimist. I am optimistic about our culture, first of all because of the vast talent, both in quality and quantity, that we seem constantly able to produce, and I am even optimistic about our potential to adjust to the pressures imposed upon us, without abandoning the best of our traditions and the best of our values. The struggle is, of course, constant and never ending; inertia and bureaucracy have their well-entrenched ways of impeding sheer progress. But surely that struggle is worth engaging in, worth committing to. Indeed, I feel that we must because, as I suggested earlier, insofar as we are already part of the system, we are also part of the problem. But we can change that, in small and perhaps even in large ways, if we but address our attention collectively to the larger and long-range cultural educational issues that beset us.
When I hear and see the talent that has, for example, performed for you in these past days, I am happy that I am one of them, and I am happy that I am one of you. But then I modulate quickly—and recently ever more inevitably—to the next question: Where are they all going to go and practice the artistry that we have so diligently taught them and helped them to accomplish?
I believe that we in America have achieved in the realms of higher education unquestionably the highest standards available in the world, especially considering the vastness of our geographic and statistical size. We must, of course, maintain those standards. But as I see it, in the next half-decade or so we must address the problems of what we now do with the products of our over-generous activity. I think we must come to grips with the imbalance between what we produce in the way of performers—in other words, further producers—and what we do not produce in the way of consumers of those products.
I know that we can do that, and that we will—because we have to! I hope you will forgive me for talking so idealistically and non-pragmatically, but perhaps you will agree with me that idealism sometimes leads to some excellent pragmatic results.
Question by CLAUDETTE SOREL: I wish to congratulate Gunther, on one of your most stimulating talks, which gives all of us some courage. I know that all of us in this room belong to the category Gunther mentioned, that exemplifies the highest idealism for our profession, and Art. We are grateful for Gunther's words.
However, I would like to bring up one of the problems which I fear has become primary and evident as the economic situation tightens up, namely, the problem of administrators. Some are not even good musicians, even though they profess to be, and some are business graduates. A hilarious and very sad commentary appeared in SYMPOSIUM, Volume 21, No. 2, Fall 1981, entitled "Why Mozart Lost the Job" which can easily be transferred to the third quarter of the twentieth century. I do realize that today's administrators have to contend with the economic structure. The essential subjects are dealt with first, but when it comes to music, drastic cuts are made, and the quality of the music departments disintegrate.
SCHULLER: That is, of course, what I referred to as a national problem, indeed a national agony which we as individuals and institutions can in the short term probably do very little to affect very dramatically. When I say a "national problem," I refer again to my salvo against the commercial interests and the media and the mass-culture taste makers. Because they indeed have a stranglehold on our culture and our society, which we, this tiny minority, cannot affect very effectively, unless we can—to answer your question—reach out to those people that we now are not reaching. I, for example, as a reasonably intelligent, articulate and interested person, cannot reach personally in any way, through any medium, through any vehicle of any kind, the 96 percent of Americans who have no idea of our existence, who we are or what we do, or why we do it. They do not even know that we exist. I can't reach them, and you, Claudette, can't reach them either. None of us can, because they are cut off from us and we from them.
SOREL: If that is so, how can we ever hope for any change for the better? It seems to me there are so many administrators and people in powerful positions who actively help to perpetuate the present conditions. Isn't it all a bit hopeless?
SCHULLER: Well, I hadn't quite finished. I hadn't intended to leave things at such a pessimistic and intolerable midpoint. Let me get to the possible solutions, although they are terribly difficult to achieve. The administrators you speak of are merely a reflection of that society and of those systems that are strangling us. They are variously bureaucrats, politicians, functionaries, sometimes very well-intentioned or even intelligent people, but they are fellow victims with us. Although we all operate in different strata and functions—some of us are administrators, some of us are artists—we all occasionally do battle with each other. But make no mistake about it: even your worst enemies within your own cultural environment are also the victims of this larger corruptive and commercially oriented process, which has been going on now for too many decades.
So, what can we do about it? I think the first thing we do is to analyze and diagnose, in a very realistic, tough-minded, and even self-critical way, what the problem or problems are. I find that even that is not happening, because there are far too many people who are either comfortable in their private situations, or who have in some way compromised or accepted certain conditions as the lesser of a variety of evils, and thus are safely ensconced in their little niches, presuming to live out the rest of their lives in those positions. In other words, there is a kind of complacency and comfortableness in the music field altogether, particularly in what we call serious music or fine music. Too many of us have accepted the tenth-rank positions our society accords us. We have accepted this status for too long. We have not fought back and we have not even realized that we are all the while being inundated by this gigantic commercial avalanche. The mistake we have made is that we have said, "Oh, that's another world, that doesn't concern us. Let those people listen to their rock and roll, or let them listen to their top-40 music. That doesn't concern me. I'm safe, I've got a nice job. After all, there are 9,000 universities and 1,000 music schools, and over 1,000 symphony orchestras, etc., etc. We're doing pretty well."
Well, folks, we ain't doing very well! We and our constituency together constitute at best about four percent of the American population. And that includes all those things of which we are so proud: public television, public radio, all those marvelous institutions such as the foundations—Rockefeller and Fromm and the NEA and all the others—all the things we have created, which I call the "artificial constructs" to somehow keep all this cultural machinery going. That's wonderful, and we would be even worse off if we didn't have all of that. But we must not delude ourselves into thinking that that is somehow some kind of an answer to the problem. It is a band-aid solution for a problem that needs major surgery.
Unfortunately most people in the music field don't agree with that diagnosis yet! There are too many people and institutions who are eminently successful, floating along beautifully and not feeling endangered, who don't even want to engage in a discussion about these matters, let alone make any changes. Because they feel that if the tables are turned—even a little bit—they are going to be threatened. And they want above all to protect their territory.
So in this vast field of music, of educators and performers, there is as yet very little agreement about what in fact is the problem. Everybody thinks about next year's budget, and not the budget of ten years from now. Everybody thinks short term: where is my institution and my little position going to be next year? I say, we must look at the long-range problems: where do we want to be ten years from now? And how do we get there? If we were but to agree on that being the correct diagnosis and the right questions to ask, then we would know that we have to fight fire with fire. Unless we can infiltrate the media in an effective way, especially television which is now the prime educator of the average American, unless we can get in there in a strong, effective way, we will not improve our situation except in the most minimal ways, forever relegated to maneuvering around dexterously within the system.
We probably can always find some personal advantage or make some small adjustment or compromise that makes us look or feel better. But I am not satisfied with that. I will only be satisfied when, for example, every newscast will have seven-and-a-half minutes of arts reportage, just as it is absolutely expected that we must have weather and sports.
That issue is symptomatic of our problems. We must look at the media and the methods they use to reach the audience we do not now have. And we must learn to use those same media to reach out to that audience we don't have. To achieve that will take a lot of leadership, a lot of energy, and a lot of money. The commercial interests out there have no other raison d'être than money. Call it greed if you like. So, when I say fight fire with fire, I mean fight money interests with money. You will say, "But we have no money." Actually we have money, but we don't use it as effectively as we might. We have created enough institutions (and I am thinking here particularly of the National Endowments) that have relatively sizeable amounts of money at their disposal which they are not now in any sense dedicating to the resolution of these issues. They are putting their funds into the system as it now exists. They give $300,000 to this symphony orchestra, $100,000 to that little opera company, and another $60,000 in scholarships to a school. But those are all those band-aid solutions again. What the Endowment could do is put $30 million into network—not public—television programming in one year, or $50 million, or whatever it takes; and say to those prime-time moguls who are only in there for the money, "You have Mork and Mindy, and your sponsors are giving you so-and-so many thousands per minute for that show; we'll top that; we'll offer fifty thousand or a hundred thousand more, and for that you'll put on Margot Fonteyn or the Boston Symphony or the Count Basie orchestra or Bronowski's 'The Ascent of Man.'" They'll buy it. And then, if you do that for a certain length of time—you can't just give it one little injection and expect earthshaking results, you have to commit yourself and develop a certain consistency—then I am certain you can eventually effect some change. And that is only one example of how you can make progress.
Let me give you a real, non-hypothetical example. Boston has been praised here today, and as a matter of fact we have something like that going on in this city right now, believe it or not! It is quite fantastic, and totally unprecedented. We have a major television station, an NBC affiliate and a Westinghouse station, which committed itself a year ago to a two-pronged campaign on behalf of the arts: on the one hand to raise money for the cultural institutions of Massachusetts and Boston, on the other hand to include in its primary activities as a television station a dramatically stepped-up increase in programming about and of the arts. No one asked them to do this. They saw it as a national and regional cultural issue, and they have put a good part of their budget and staff behind that effort. Mind you, this is a major station, with a major market area, one of the three or four most powerful television stations in the country. After one year, we can already see the tremendous fallout from that effort. Of course, it is just a beginning, and it is only one station. But it is a significant and happy example of what could be achieved if we but put our best efforts—and our money—in the right places, where it will have the maximum effect.
SOREL: One of the most shameful conditions is the state of classical music made available on radio stations throughout this country. For example, I was driving from New York City to Boston—250 miles—in one day, crossing four states. During the entire trip, not one radio station carried any classical music whatever, including jazz, and I went up and down the radio dial and finally gave up in utter despair. That state of affairs is truly a shame for a country that proclaims its cultural richness, and really has it, but does not utilize it to its fullest extent.
SCHULLER: But wait a minute! Why didn't you listen to that station in Connecticut that is an NPR station?
SOREL: I tried—really, . . .
SCHULLER: Well, you missed it! It's a marvelous station, it is in Middletown, Connecticut. But let me emphasize that I was talking just now about television, about prime-time or relatively accessible time programming by WBZ, Channel 4, here. It's not that they have kicked off Hill Street Blues, nor is that what I am suggesting they should do. It is more a question of balance, of what I often call a "balanced diet." It is a question of allowing enough cultural programming onto network television so that its audiences will have an opportunity to choose. Right now, except on WBZ, there is no choice. What WBZ is doing is a shining example of what can be achieved against the "It's hopeless, we can't do anything" attitude. That's one of the reasons I am still optimistic.
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