Stop using history to justify dumbing down the arts

back when audiences had a more ‘participatory’ role, or so we’re told

There is a dumb debate in the classical music world involving the proper role of audience applause. As you may know, the modern custom is to clap only after an entire piece is over. So, if a piece has multiple movements, as many do, then there is a brief period of silence between each movement.

According to those-who-think-we-should-change this – a crowd involving several prominent music critics – we should change the custom so that people can applaud between every movement, not just every piece. According to them, newcomers want to do this. Without examining it in detail, I would just like to note a paradox here: I thought our goal was to get people to like classical music, so that more people would attend concerts. But this argument seems to suggest that people who don’t go to classical music concerts actually really love classical music, in fact they love it so much that they need to clap between every movement and they’re staying away from the concert hall because you won’t let them.

There are a lot of other stupid arguments supporting to notion: arcane customs are intimidating, showing enthusiasm is always an unqualified good, the concert hall is already too stuffy and exclusive, and so on. But there is one argument that irks me more than all the rest: the argument that history supports a less stuffy atmosphere surrounding the fine arts.

The argument here is that the “stuffy” atmosphere of the fine arts is a modern invention. Back in the day, audiences clapped and booed and talked whenever they wanted. There are even composers who write about wanting there to be some applause between movements. And it is certainly true that the modern prohibition on applause between movements was basically invented by Mahler and other sympathetic minds in the early 1900’s who thought that the arts were becoming vulgarized and infiltrated by kitsch and the market and so forth.

All of this has been prominently in the arts news the last couple of weeks because of the Oregon Shakespeare Festivals’ announcement that they are going to translate Shakespeare…into English. I’ll leave aside the problems with this approach (and in fairness, you should read the defense of it). I mostly add my voice to the chorus of despair who think that this is a coarsening compromise with vulgarity at the worst and a boring distraction at best. What I would like to draw attention to is that once again, history is being used to defend the dumbing-down (of course with plenty of self-congratulations for involving women and “people of color”).

Again, the part of history that is invoked to defend molesting Shakespeare’s plays is the part where audiences treated Shakespeare with less reverence than today. But this is only one small part of history, and is actually pretty irrelevant to the whole picture. We need to take into account every part of the historical context, not just the one that, taken in isolation, seems to indicate that there has always been broad mandate to mess with the masterpieces that have defined Western art for centuries.

The other parts of history to consider are these: what was the role of the arts in the broader culture as a whole? What did they rely on art to do for them? What was cultural life like in general back in Shakespeare’s day? What were the cultural and political institutions of the day saying and doing about art?

Obviously, these are big questions. And this is a blog and I’m not going to quote sources about it at this point, but I’ll make this assertion: maybe every cultural institution in the past was dedicated to refinement, elegance and beauty in art. Every institution: the Church, the State, and the artists themselves. There are notable exceptions, yes. But the status quo was there to protect elevation in the arts. I think this is pretty obvious from reading anything about the western arts from centuries past.

Contrast this with this situation today. Again, I’ll make an assertion: over the course of approximately the last century or so, our cultural institutions have slowly at first and then quickly come to embrace the exact opposite of the artistic values of Shakespeare’s day. It is by no means alone in this transformation. It follows the whole of culture and society in the west for the last several decades at least (again, the exceptions here prove the rule).

So-called “elitism” and stuffiness are not the enemy of the arts. In fact, we could use a whole lot more of them right now. It is a sad state of affairs, but we need to protect the arts from an increasingly vulgar and meaningless culture, even if it means invoking a temple-like atmosphere. We should be more conservative and traditionalist than our forebearers precisely because that is exactly what is required for art to remain untouched by the meaninglessness of both market and cheap politics. It is what history tells us to do.