Thursday, July 10, 2008

"Art lives by devouring her own offspring"


I came upon a passage on the music blog Soho the Dog from a book I loved as a young girl, Twenty Years at Hull House by the great social reformer Jane Addams. Addams writes of the music classes offered at her pioneering Chicago settlement house:

From the beginning we had classes in music, and the Hull-House Music School, which is housed in quarters of its own in our quieter court, was opened in 1893. The school is designed to give a thorough musical instruction to a limited number of children. From the first lessons they are taught to compose and to reduce to order the musical suggestions which may come to them, and in this wise the school has sometimes been able to recover the songs of the immigrants through their children. Some of these folk songs have never been committed to paper, but have survived through the centuries because of a touch of undying poetry which the world has always cherished . . . .

Some of the pupils in the music school have developed during the years into trained musicians and are supporting themselves in their chosen profession. On the other hand, we constantly see the most promising musical ability extinguished when the young people enter industries which so sap their vitality that they cannot carry on serious study in the scanty hours outside of factory work. Many cases indisputably illustrate this: a Bohemian girl, who, in order to earn money for pressing family needs, first ruined her voice in a six months' constant vaudeville engagement, returned to her trade working overtime in a vain effort to continue the vaudeville income; another young girl whom Hull-House had sent to the high school so long as her parents consented, because we realized that a beautiful voice is often unavailable through lack of the informing mind, later extinguished her promise in a tobacco factory; a third girl who had supported her little sisters since she was fourteen, eagerly used her fine voice for earning money at entertainments held late after her day's work, until exposure and fatigue ruined her health as well as a musician's future; a young man whose music-loving family gave him every possible opportunity, and who produced some charming and even joyous songs during the long struggle with tuberculosis which preceded his death, had made a brave beginning, not only as a teacher of music but as a composer. In the little service held at Hull-House in his memory, when the children sang his composition, "How Sweet is the Shepherd's Sweet Lot," it was hard to realize that such an interpretive pastoral could have been produced by one whose childhood had been passed in a crowded city quarter. . . .

It has been pointed out many times that Art lives by devouring her own offspring and the world has come to justify even that sacrifice, but we are unfortified and unsolaced when we see the children of Art devoured, not by her, but by the uncouth stranger, Modern Industry, who, needlessly ruthless and brutal to her own children, is quickly fatal to the offspring of the gentler mother. And so schools in art for those who go to work at the age when more fortunate young people are still sheltered and educated, constantly epitomize one of the haunting problems of life; why do we permit the waste of this most precious human faculty, this consummate possession of civilization? When we fail to provide the vessel in which it may be treasured, it runs out upon the ground and is irretrievably lost.

16 comments:

Robot Boy said...

Why indeed? It's terrible to see talent blasted by poverty. Although less-talented people shouldn't have to spend their lives working in factories either.

Pentimento said...

I'd like to blog about this more when I have time. The problem these days is that there is an educational industry committed to creating virtuoso classical musicians, and no structures to support those musicians' earning a living.

Pentimento said...

And many wonderful artists you and I know have been picked dry by the exigencies of having to make a living.

Robot Boy said...

"For a long time individuals have been trying to free themselves from alienation through culture and art. While a person dies every day during the eight or more hours in which he or she functions as a commodity, individuals come to life afterward in their spiritual creations. But this remedy bears the germs of the same sickness: that of a solitary being seeking harmony with the world. One defends one's individuality, which is oppressed by the environment, and reacts to aesthetic ideas as a unique being whose aspiration is to remain immaculate. It is nothing more than an attempt to escape. The law of value is no longer simply a reflection of the relations of production; the monopoly capitalists — even while employing purely empirical methods — surround that law with a complicated scaffolding that turns it into a docile servant. The superstructure imposes a kind of art in which the artist must be educated. Rebels are subdued by the machine, and only exceptional talents may create their own work. The rest become shamefaced hirelings or are crushed."
- Che Guevara

Robot Boy said...

"Those who play by the rules of the game are showered with honors — such honors as a monkey might get for performing pirouettes. The condition is that one does not try to escape from the invisible cage."
- Che

Pentimento said...

Oddly, the corrupt system of art dictated by the corporation that Che describes sounds a lot like the performing arts educational system in the old Soviet Union.

We live in a fallen world. Beauty is one of the only consolations we have. (Actually, it was you, Robot Boy, who once quote Lukacs to me, that the novel is the epic of the fallen world.)

There are complicated reasons - few of them good - that the beauty of the classical arts is concentrated mainly in the elite aeries. Everyone should have access to this kind of beauty, but few are interested these days.

Robot Boy said...

The marginalization of 'high' culture is a complex phenomenon. Have you read Adorno's 'Aesthetic Theory'? He addresses this issue at length. And of course, he's with you in the ivory tower.

Robot Boy said...

Well in the USSR the chains were visible; here they're invisible.

Pentimento said...

Adorno wasn't teaching Music 101 to students born in the ghetto.

Do you think our chains are invisible? I'm going to have to think about that. Do you know that Pope Benedict XVI said that the ravages of capitalist consumerism on the soul are worse than those of communism? "And I sang in my chains like the sea."

Robot Boy said...

Adorno should have been teaching music to ghetto kids. Maybe he is in hell.


Capitalism is both a more subtile instrument and a more powerful one than Stalinism - infecting every aspect of life under the guise of the order of things.
Dylan Thomas has some great lines but I can't say I love his poems.

Tertium Quid said...

I wish I could see a way out of this one. Many years ago I was told that one piece of evidence for a hereafter is our desire to read more books than we can possibly read in a lifetime.

I think our desire to create art, participate in art, and enjoy art is similar. Something tells us during our daily grind that we would rather be listening to someone sing beautifully, or perhaps singing beautifully ourselves.

I think one of the joys of the hereafter would be knowing that we actually have time to perfect what God put in us to do.

There is no perfect environment for art. The Soviets tried to create one but stifled creatively and innovation so thoroughly that they had to deal with the embarrassment of defections by people who wanted more. In the USA, we reward the elite and starve the rest. Some Western countries subsidize artists liberally, but in many cases, they subsidize politically-connected mediocrity.

When God kicked Adam out of Eden, He told him he would have to work. So here we are.

Pentimento said...

"One piece of evidence for a hereafter is our desire to read more books than we can possibly read in a lifetime."

I love this. I suppose it's a holdover from my utopianist days that I actually think I will one day get to those books.

You make good points, T.Q., about art and the systems that neglect or support it. Mozart died in poverty and was buried in an unmarked grave because he tried to reject the patronage system of his day and make a career as a freelancer in Vienna; the first musician to be able to do so was Beethoven, a few years later.

In the 1980s, it was very common for American singers to get "fest" contracts at German opera houses. This meant that they were attached to that particular opera house, and employees of the state, with benefits, etc. These were considered very desirable gigs, because you could work as a singer and get paid for it, even if it meant singing five times a week - really hard work. You couldn't do the highly-paid "guest" gigs, but you could live and work for years in a small German town. Every town has an opera house, all of them are state-supported, and American singers could settle down and raise families - combining the lives of a freelancer and a parent are incredibly challenging for both mothers and fathers. The prevalence of American singers in Germany was partially due to the fact that American singers were considered the best in the world. We have the best technique, the best training, and the most versatility: the ability to sing in all national languages and styles, where German singers specialize in German repertoire, Italian singers in Italian repertoire, etc.

In the 1990's, however, after the fall of communism, the German market was flooded with singers from Eastern Europe, who were just as good as Americans, but willing to work for far less money, so Germany dried up for many U.S. singers.

After 9/11, many smaller U.S. opera companies simply shut down. The ones that stayed solvent canceled any new and daring repertoire they had scheduled, instead mounting the standard crowd-pleasers, on the assumption that in dangerous, uncertain times, people want what's comforting and familiar. "A" level singers started headlining at "B" level regional opera houses, and "B" level singers were out of work.

There's an interesting book that came out a few years ago, "Mozart in the Jungle," by a former oboist (I know people who played with her, and she was reportedly excellent) who grew weary of the life of a classical musician and became a journalist. In fact, her book is a bitter indictment of the whole system of arts education and arts funding in the U.S.

dreshny said...

Heck, I don't know if it counts as art, but I can tell you a little about non-union actor-singers who do touring children's musicals. I did three tours, and they're grueling. The actors wake before dawn to drive to the venue and load in the set. Then they do two (or three!) shows back-to-back, break down the set, and load it back into the truck. Then they drive to the next tour stop, often in another state, often an 8-hour drive away.

I was hired for one of these tours as my first real, professional acting job, except that I was called in as a replacement for a tour already on the road. The actress I replaced had bronchitis. Never mind that I was miscast: the role needed a dancer, which I am not, and called for a belter, and I'm a legit soprano. I had to learn the role in two days, on about three hours of real rehearsal.

After about five days on the road, I was pretty solid in the role...but I was exhausted and starting to get sick. You see, they never washed the costume between actresses, and I got bronchitis. My cough was so raw and frequent that it threatened to destroy my singing voice, so I took cough suppressant to continue working, and the medicine made me hallucinate. I rode in the actors' van with a high fever, half-asleep and talking to myself.

My very last show with this company was in my hometown. Because my parents were in the audience, I insisted on singing my own song, as opposed to lip-synching with the pre-recorded vocal track, but both my singing and my speaking voice were so gone at that point, my body mic had to be jacked up to the highest possible level so I could be audible. I was running offstage between scenes to have coughing fits, gulp water, and try to cool down.

I was fired a week and a half after starting the tour, and I went home with my parents with a fever of 104.

We work hard to hone our craft, to be the best actor or singer or musician or painter we can possibly be, and we are often exploited, even in this century, even when we are healthy and nourished and supporting no one but ourselves.

Robot Boy said...

Is there anything that says European concert deserves a privileged place in American society? I mean, I love your music but personally I'm a jazz guy which gets even less institutional support. Serious artists constantly struggle with popular obsolescence.klp

Pentimento said...

RB, you raise a really good point. Lawrence Kramer, a darling of the "new musicology" who teaches at Fordham, has a new book out called something like Why Classical Music Still Matters, which was pilloried by another famous musicologist, Richard Taruskin, a few months ago in the New Republic. Taruskin basically said that it shouldn't be afforded a privileged position and nurtured to be created by and performed for a small group of elitists.

Many of the students where I teach are jazz musicians, and this, I think, also creates a complex scenario. Kids come to my university's jazz performance program from all over the world, and they have even less a chance of having a career than the masses of classical virtuosos turned out each year by the major conservatories. Some of these young men (and lots of women too, particularly a number of Asian girls who are absolute monsters of improvisation on the piano) are amazing players, and my university is glad to take their money, but how in good conscience can you prepare a student for a life as a jazz musician in New York City, which means essentially a life as a hospital orderly or Starbucks barista, if you're lucky, a schoolteacher?

Robot Boy said...

It's funny. I just interviewed the folks at Inova Records, a non-profit avant-garde label. They sent me a bunch of CDs including, oddly enough, two by friends - Virgil Moorfield and Joel Harrison. They also publish Braxton, Partch, you name it.

I think avant-garde musicians survive today by being flexible. In his liner notes, Joel writes of his composition , which includes a bunch of classical players, 'Only 20 years ago this piece would have been practically inconceivable. It is only relatively recently, for instance, that classically trained string players have developed a capacity to improvise...' Joel is in his mid-50s and has just started having success. You just have to be a warrior.