The Dumbing Down of Culture

I’ve long understood the connection between visual art and music. To me the musician and artist are kindred spirits, and music has always fanned the flames of my own creativity. Naturally I’ve always been an avid music fan, and since my childhood I’ve enthusiastically collected music recordings. In fact when I was 7 years old in 1961, the very first record I purchased was a classical music recording, the Peer Gynt Suites by Grieg, and my obsession with music continues to this very day.

In essence, I listen to everything—but I have a predilection for what’s not on commercial top forty radio. Having been deeply involved in LA’s original 1977 punk explosion as an artist and active participant, it might surprise some to learn that I’ve always had an intense and profound love for European classical music. When you think about it, there’s nothing more “punk” than Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (Rite of Spring).

Its first performance in Paris on May 29th, 1913, drew jeers, catcalls, and whistles from the audience, followed by insults, shouts, and fistfights in the aisles. A full blown riot followed that was only barely contained by the Parisian police.

So it was with some interest that I read the words of UK conductor and composer, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who on April 24th, 2005, gave the annual lecture at the Royal Philharmonic Society at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. His lecture titled, Will Serious Music Become Extinct?, addressed the dumbing down of music as a result of political and commercial pressures.

Davies’ speech did more than touch upon the slow demise of classical music due to the corporate onslaught of commercial pop radio. His words indirectly targeted the problems encountered by visual artists. Here he speaks of Franz Joseph Hayden, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but he could just as easily be referring to Michelangelo, Jan Vermeer, and Delacroix.

“… the vast majority of people are unaware of this richest of possible listening experiences: not only unaware, but often actively antagonistic towards it, deeming it elitist, the exclusive domain of the elderly, or even of the semi-moribund, irrelevant to contemporary life, the product of a long-dead European white male.”

Defending the high art of European classical music makes Sir Davies a target for those who decry the form as “elitist”, and his detractors are many. He is cast as a reactionary for being a stalwart advocate of classical music. Likewise, visual artists who have not jumped upon the postmodern bandwagon of conceptual art are also thought of as “out-of-date” and “behind the times” for insisting on painting—and realist painting to boot!

I’m happy to be “out of vogue” in my approach to art. I’ll pick Caravaggio over Christo any day of the week. To hell with fashions, what was once good will always be good. That truth notwithstanding, my own chosen path of creating works of realism is not dictated by market trends or this year’s fad, but by my own heart. I fully agree with Davies when he tries to provide some clear answers as to why contemporary music (and by extension, visual art) has become so utterly vapid. Davies wrote:

“The main influence on most people’s lives now is television. With a huge choice of commercial channels, aiming to make as much money as possible out of as many people as possible in the shortest possible time, the lowest common denominator prevails. One can look at circulation figures for the ‘popular’ papers in comparison with their so-called ‘highbrow’ stable-mates and realize that most people leave school with a restricted active vocabulary of just a few hundred words, and that the very act of thought is thereby severely restricted. Perhaps not only our children but all of us are being educated to become good, docile consumers, so that we become incapable, or perhaps just unwilling, to question the status quo.

There is a history in folk music, and in some fairly recent pop music, of social and political criticism, but the only music most people know – pop music – has become a big business beyond anything ever imagined in the musical world, playing its part in drugging constructive, creative thinking. In rare circumstances where this music does give rise to controversy, the lyrics are even more rightwing than our more extreme politicians, inciting racial or sexual violence. It can come as a shock to realize that the majority, particularly of young people, are unaware that music can be ‘abstract’ – that is, without ‘vocals’ – and that a musical work can last longer than a pop single.”

Visual art, music, poetry, dance… in a word, culture, is one of the defining characteristics that makes us human. Creating and appreciating art is a liberating experience, and in my opinion it represents humanity’s noblest self and highest achievements. But culture can also be controlled or manipulated from above. When a man of Davies’ standing talks of contemporary culture “drugging constructive, creative thinking,” you better start paying attention.

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