Meditation on the Nonessential Art

Artists aren’t surprised to be counted among the economically nonessential. If nothing else, it gave fuel to our haughty self-proclaimed cultural urgency, which has persisted through centuries and somehow pushed us to make more during a pandemic, further romanticizing the plight of the suffering artist as the “true” essential work. It’s a dying belief many can agree is based on gender, class, and racial privilege, but many are reverting to nonetheless. Shakespeare, a white man, wrote three tragedies about loss and class during the Plague, blind to the irony.

History is percentages and descriptions of eras. We believe we are smarter than the people who lived through past pandemics because we can look at their mistakes now and see their catastrophic outcomes before they could. Future history books will be just as cruel starting at 2020.  As the Allies of WWII are defined by the words of Churchill, we too are subject to the legacy of our leaders. As Toni Morrison devastatingly wrote, “It is awkward to differ from a great man, but Tolstoy was wrong. Kings are not the slaves of history. History is the slave of kings.”

Luckily, art has regularly provided counterpoint to the ruling class. In classical music, there is an odd genre of “protest music” — music that served as a large public display of dissent, involving dozens of possibly unknowing musicians and hundreds of audience members, all masked as an evening of entertainment. (Hint: in the mainstream orchestral canon, much of this music is Russian.) We tend to put the burden of speaking up to the voiceless, or whom we consider so. We want the oppressed to respond beautifully, in galleries and concert halls, so we can lift them up a foot or two after they’ve climbed brutal miles alone.

I am thinking about the art that informs another: sculptures come from symphonies, which come from novels, which come from folktales, or any countless combinations of those plus others. It’s not about preserving culture, but building upon it. Even in an apocalyptic society, scraps can be resembled, but the goal should never be recreation. More accurately, I am thinking about how we can make something new now, not something that somehow recreates what we once had. 

We continue to be a discipline that looks back. This is in part due to how we write our own history: with titles in the rear view. Postmodern. Post-romantic. Neoclassical. We celebrate the protests past and neglect the issues in front of us. Now more than ever we need to seek out and celebrate diverse music; now more than ever we need to address the uneven distribution of resources to do so. 

Our eras are named for the large-scale societal events and the art that reflects them. I’m happy to see a spike in accessible digital performance during these two months of social isolation, but it would be a waste if this was the protest music of our era. Living room concerts are in solidarity, not opposition. Both are valid and necessary, but one carries more teeth, the other forces us to address our privilege. It’s simultaneously sexist, racist, and classist to think we all live in this same era together, and not with some of us watching it unfold from the sidelines. 

This is all combined with our collective ambivalence to make anything at all. The ability to battle through that also comes from privilege. Our history of the moment shouldn’t be surveyed like a bag of rice, quantifiable data only. It’s a true lack of imagination to be blind to the inequities.