When philosophy goes wrong, we get know-nothingism or sophism. When our economy goes wrong, we get hedonistic materialism or the fantastical escalation and inflation of utterly immaterial derivatives and complex but bloodless financial instruments. When art goes wrong, we get a philistine welter of empty prettiness or an arid desert of conceptualism.
Engagement with the riches of a culture is a learning trajectory, not of formulae but of achievements of the human mind which may teach us what is right, what is good, what is meaningful and why, and in which context. It is a learning process which develops our capacity to make value judgments, without which no meaning can be found.
As a young artist during the 1950s, I immediately got the point of modernism – to maintain a high aesthetic without relying on traditional narrative structure. But it required some effort to remove the crust of politics that had been applied to it during the 1930s – progressively distorting its deeper meaning and importance – by communist idealists, liberals, radicals, and fellow travelers, most notably in the arts and education.
Our distorted view of the relationship between modernity and culture has much to do with the idea that culture develops like a timeline: first this, then that – development from A via B to C and so on, with the implication and the hope that it is, in general, an upward line. If this were so in culture, we would end up with some obvious absurdities.
The modernist composer György Ligeti said in an interview that he felt imprisoned between, on one hand, the past, and on the other, modernism – the avant-garde which he himself had helped into being but which he felt he had somehow to transcend, because “progress” meant to him having to “go forward” all the time on the line of historical development.
The sort of art that lives eternally is that which captures astonishing, spine-chilling, breathtaking beauty that heightens our senses and floods us with transforming thought and emotion. In this work, we hear a whisper from another world saying, “It’s all real.”
It is very possible that the music academy, if it harkens to the shouts echoing all around it and proceeds in the proposed march toward reform and “progress,” will pass by the art academy as it hastens back to that crossroads where it took a wrong turn. It is very possible that, by chasing “relevance,” our conservatories, like our art schools before them, will make themselves irrelevant.
At issue, of course, is the fact that the purpose of the traditional music education is to prepare students to participate and collaborate in “the performance and analysis of European classical repertory” at its highest levels. The modern tendency is to see that emphasis as not only a slight to those who will fail to achieve those ends, but as a real offense to those who reject that purpose and the primacy of the European classical canon itself.
Beyond getting a fair opportunity to attempt, it is now held that individuals have the right to be artists, or at least consider themselves as such. And there is a certain undeniable cachet attached to this. This approach, tantamount to a latter-day Marie Antoinette waving off the crowds by saying “Let them make art,” trivializes all art by removing distinctions of quality.
Classical music and architecture are analogous, not just because they reflect one another, but because they reflect us and the way our minds work. It should come as no surprise, then, that both music and architecture today are engaged in retrieving their respective traditional languages: melody, tonality, proportion, ornament, the classical orders—the whole lot.