A cultural terrorist by the name of Marcus Westbury dropped a bomb on the morning of October 18, 2007.
The Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald published an article by Mr. Westbury that has essentially challenged the entire notion of supporting the performance of western classical performing art forms, from symphonies to operas and beyond. His thesis is that organizations that perform works by Beethoven, Mozart, Verdi, Bach, Brahms, etc. are little more than glorified “cover bands” and why should such entities suck up so much of the available resources that are provided to support the arts?
“My argument isn't about form and it isn't an extreme one. It's about scale, equity and magnitude. I do think it would be a loss if Australians were to lose all connection with our vast and glorious European cultural heritage.
“But Opera Australia receives more than $10 million a year from the Australia Council. Sure, opera is lavish, expensive and glorious but I simply cannot think of a single sensible, logical or sane reason why one opera company is valued roughly on par with more than 400 separate organisations supported by the music, dance, literature and inter-arts boards of the same organisation.”
This thesis opens up a pretty large can of worms and challenges those of us charged with “supporting the arts in all its forms” to define what exactly we mean by that phrase.
Back in the mid-1960s it was pretty clear. “Supporting the arts” to us mostly meant providing resources to schools and arts organizations that would perpetuate art-forms of and educate audiences in western classical art forms. In America, this definition expanded over time to include distinctively indigenous forms of art—such as jazz, the blues, and musical theater—all of which represented a blending of cultural influences that, initially at least, used the instrumentation of western classical art forms.
But with the opening up of the world’s cultures through the internet, and with our increasing exposure to so many extraordinary nonwestern art forms from India, Asia, Oceania, South America, and Africa that have influenced several generations of creative people, the ascendancy of art created by “dead, white, western males” has been challenged, to say the least.
And that’s just for starters. The very nature of experiencing art is undergoing a massive shift. Those of us above a certain age (50?) expect performances to be in halls that seat large numbers of people so that the art provides an embracing communal experience. The latest trends are tracking this common experience to be dissolving to the point where performers and creators are creating works of art to engage “gen-aught” audiences of ONE. Even more perplexing, the timing, location, and media used in the presentation of the work are determined not by the creator/presenter but by the audience through its I-pod, computer, or other multi-media device.
I am not insulted at the notion that a symphony orchestra might be nothing more than a cover band. Those words are meant to be inflammatory and rile every self-respecting symphony manager, conductor, musician, and audience member out there. But all they make me want to do is to articulate why these art forms are important to support and maintain.
I believe that in order to understand other cultural experiences one must have a solid grounding in one’s own culture—which, in America, is still dominated by western-European influences.
I believe that we support opera companies and symphonies today because they have withstood the test of time and offer valuable insight to all citizens of the world (including those of us from “the west”) about western culture and values.
I believe that nothing builds social capital more effectively than sharing a profound arts experience with other members of one’s community. Theater, dance, opera, music deliver the goods again and again. They have proven their worth.
I also believe this conversation is far from over.
What do you believe?