Article

Faced with indifference and cynicism, the answer for art's woes isn’t in outreach or better marketing. It's not about reaching the middle, but in going to extremes in zealous pursuit of the work itself.
July 24, 2013

Photo courtesy of the artist

MY THOUGHTS OF LATE HAVE BEEN A SWIRL, sort of a noisy chatter of events and opinions. I have had a lot of conversations with friends and colleagues lately about how it seems like this is a time of particular irresolution in music. It’s a sense driven partly by the massive changes in this and other media businesses wrought by evolutions in technology. But I am sure it’s also partly due to the usual sort of uncertainties about aging every generation experiences. (While we’re certainly not old, we are no longer even close to being young either.)

All that notwithstanding, more broadly it seems that we have been locked in some kind of great American winter since 9/11. We have retreated into fear and consumerism, where risk and freedom are supplanted by buying and spying. This has been the overriding ethos of the last two (five?) presidential administrations. The message: Keep buying -- houses and cars, smartphones and cable TV -- and we’ll stay strong. The NSA and TSA, the FDA, GOP and the DFL, the NIH, the NII, the FDC, the NYSE, and even the good ol’ USA -- combined, they feel to me like that Canadian blocking front that held the Twin Cities fast in winter until nearly June of this year.

I hate politics. I hate political statements, and I won’t join the sectarian political posturing that social networks foster. I am not interested in some battle for the “heart of America.” But I am interested our hearts. I am tired of slogging through the malaise and discouragement that hides behind craft beers and clever sarcasm. (I’m talking about myself here, too.)

Now is a time for zealots, because zealotry is belief and hope. The future is not in strategy and budgets. Stay up all night painting. Work for hours on a single passage of music or line of poetry. There is no creation without fanaticism. Your zealotry isn’t just an idiosyncratic passion, it’s an investment in the future. It is the manifest belief that doing something better than anyone thought possible is its own reward, and an act of faith that the practical will sort itself out eventually.

I am aware that fanatics and zealots cause all sorts of destruction, too. But do we really believe meeting fanatical destruction with a shrug will diffuse things? Do we really believe that a hipster bon mot over brunch, or some hashtag or cause-related profile picture does anything of substance in the face of actual will to power? What’s more, I don’t think essays like this one amount to a shot across anyone’s bow either, in the absence of an accompanying and fanatical will to create and connect.

A few things have been happening lately that have served to clarify my thinking on this. First, my generation is largely over 40 now. Even so, while I feel I have done a good job at mastering the secret code of snide self-deprecation, I have not done as well with sincere mastery. And with age, I am noticing a need bubbling up to say and to play exactly what I mean; I’m finding that takes a lot of practice.

Second, I have been following the whole, ongoing mess with the Minnesota Orchestra, and I am just flummoxed by that situation. I can’t come up with a framework for understanding that gives a satisfactory answer to the question of what’s actually fueling the dispute. Is it a war on culture? Sometimes it seems to me sheer cynical financial calculation, and other times, like a desperate clinging to the past, or even just buffoonish posturing. Maybe, at various times, it is all those things. Or, maybe what is happening is more about retreat than conspiracy.

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In the face of growing indifference and cynicism, the answer isn’t outreach or better marketing. It’s not about going for the great middle at all. Rather, the answer lies in extreme commitment and fidelity to pursuit of the thing itself. 

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The relationship between art and the public has always been fraught, and it only gets more complicated with the addition of technology into the mix. We used to talk about art in relation to the mass media (I think of David Foster Wallace and his superb essays on this). But while that’s still relevant, we have to think of micro-media now, too. Maybe what is happening to the Minnesota Orchestra is part of some greater retreat to the middle.

Honestly, I’m not even sure what that “middle” really is. But thankfully, Ethan Iverson maintains an excellent blog that every serious music lover should read, and he said it better than I could. One of his recent posts there hit this subject dead-on, as did the article by Bill Eddins (which you can read here) he’s responding to. Iverson specifically addresses the idea of outreach to new audiences as the answer to the woes facing classical music. Iverson offers the following response (quoted almost in full):

The only way to move anything forward is by being who you are to the best of your ability. Take the classical orchestra. Many people … worry that the classical orchestra is dying.

If I was in charge of moving the classical orchestra forward, the last thing I'd do would be try to sporadically and superficially outreach to "new" demographics like Afro-Americans or Latinos. ("New" is in quotes out of deference to the many brilliant non-white composers and performers heard on programs featuring classical orchestras.) After all, European Classical Music was the house band for centuries of racist oppressors. Until all those years of hurt have been properly addressed, what good reason will there be for non-white communities to come out and support yet another moneyed white flagship?

Instead, my classical orchestra would be composed only of obsessives who believed in the message. All our concerts would be played from memory. No union could tell us how long rehearsals were supposed to be: we'd rehearse until we were ready. We wouldn't dare to play anything rhythmic that borrowed from Afro-American or Latino traditions unless we could really cut it. If we kept it up, interested people from all races would support us eventually.”

So there it is. It comes down to a question of zealotry. In the face of growing indifference and cynicism, the answer isn’t outreach or better marketing. It’s not about going for the great middle at all. Rather, the answer lies in extreme commitment and fidelity to pursuit of the thing itself. But listen: I’m not pointing any fingers. I am not saying that the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra are anything less than fully committed. (Certainly, a lockout like the one we are enduring while a new hall gets built suggests someone over there has their priorities, um, out of order).

This isn’t even really about the Orchestra, when you get right down to it. This might be the height of narcissism, but what I’m really doing here, I guess, is writing an open letter to myself.

See, I have always wanted to be a zealot, and to be around other zealots, for music. That is why I started Brilliant Corners ten years ago. I imagined a place where music was happening all the time, where all of us could obsess over every note as long as we wanted to.  That club went away due to certain nefarious actions of certain nefarious people -- all that notwithstanding, I never quite lived up to that vision. And I still haven’t.

I have learned and employed too well the hedge of caustic comments and low expectations. But I want to do better. Because here’s the truth: The music, the audience, and all of us musicians deserve nothing less than total commitment.

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About the author: Jeremy Walker is a composer/pianist based in Minneapolis. He has performed with Matt Wilson, Vincent Gardner, Wessell Anderson, Marcus Printup, Ted Nash, Anthony Cox, and other notable musicians. Jeremy was the owner of the club, Brilliant Corners, and co-founder of Jazz is NOW!. Walker teaches piano at K and S Conservatory in Woodbury, MN. His current projects include works involving opera, film -- scoring “Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story” – and a new jazz ensemble with solo voice and choir, 7 Psalms. Walker also authors a series of articles on culture for Walker Art Center and mnartists.org.

Editor’s note: Jeremy Walker’s friends and family are throwing a benefit bash at the Dakota for him this Thursday, July 25. Our much-loved columnist is contending with late-stages Lyme disease, no insurance and mounting medical bills, and so they’re holding a star-studded fundraising concert as a show of support for Jeremy and his family. The music starts at 7 pm at the Dakota in Minneapolis; tickets are $50. Find more information about the show, or where you can kick in a little for the kitty: http://www.dakotacooks.com/event/jeremy-walker-benefit-bash/

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