by Michael Miller, September 24, 2007
In recent months local arts organizations have had their share of controversy. One has attracted interest in the outside world, and the other, fortunately, not. A third should be attracting more.
Mass MoCA, after the collapse of its project with the important Swiss installation artist Christoph Büchel, made itself unpopular by exhibiting the unfinished work, “Training Ground for Democracy,” under tarpaulins against the will of the artist, who promptly sued the museum. A Springfield court has ruled that Mass MoCA does indeed have the right to show the work, as long as the public is informed about its unfinished state. Boston Globe art critic Ken Johnson called Mass MoCA’s action “sad, dumb, and shameful.” Roberta Smith, his counterpart on the New York Times, said, “When a museum behaves badly, it’s never pretty. But few examples top the depressing spectacle at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.” Since the debacle has been covered amply by these and other writers, I’ll add little. Money has been wasted, and an opportunity missed. Americans will have a long time to wait before they see a work by Christoph Büchel on home ground, if ever. Mass MoCA’s reputation has been damaged, but so has the Getty’s and the Met’s, and life goes on. Mass MoCA will survive to mount other installations. Artists with any clout at all will now exercise extreme caution in entering in to such projects with museums, especially with Mass MoCA, which would be well advised to take extreme care in all future installations to observe the artist’s intentions to the letter. They should raise enough money to do things right and spend it wisely. (Surely they could have found a cheaper house in North Adams, of all places.) As usual the only people to come out ahead are the lawyers. It is not the first time nor the last that a museum has botched the installation of a work of art, wasted money, or behaved badly.
No sooner did the Tanglewood season come to an end, than the Berkshire Eagle launched another one of its attacks on the venerable institution. According to the Eagle editorial, the Boston Symphony is letting down its audience and dooming itself to obsolescence by failing to create a shoulder season devoted to popular bands, nothing disruptive or subversive, “respectable,” “artistic” groups, like Bright Eyes or Dave Mathews, suitable for Tanglewood, unthreatening to the lawns and unchallenging for the local police. The idea is to compensate for the BSO’s 6% deficit by hosting events which will provide an opportunity not only to charge high admissions, but to charge for parking and to over-charge for the execrable beer and hot dogs customarily sold at those events. Of course these policies would never be applied during the regular season. The assumption is that the Tanglewood brand and all that empty grass should be exploited, not to mention all those willing suckers. Who are these people with so much money to burn for the benefit of the Berkshires? Are they kids spending their rich parents’ money? Or are they middle-aged “baby-boomers,” eager to recapture their youth by milling around in a big crowd, while a band, surrounded by electronics and neon Budweiser and Coca Cola signs, lip-synchs music they are too old and worn-out to produce from their own lungs?
Can you believe it? These local boosters are openly promoting the exploitation of summer visitors—however easily they may be able to afford it—but they are also trying to get Tanglewood to do their work for them. If these people believe that the Berkshires needs a vast pop event, they should undertake the responsibility and expense of developing it themselves. Why couldn’t they take the grounds recently used for Bob Dylan’s second coming and use it for an annual pop festival? But to begin with, shouldn’t a resort area, especially a relatively posh one like the Berkshires, at least preserve a veneer of hospitality?
As far a Tanglewood is concerned, it’s a question of context. I’m not against pop music in general, rather a concept of it which comes more from the world of marketing than music, the idea that music which has been identified as appealing to a certain demographic is appropriate for Tanglewood. There is SPAC, on the one hand, where an array of pop events coexist—I am told—with the Philadelphia Orchestra. On the other, there is a Bard Summerscape, a varied program planned around the Bard Music Festival. These include family events in the afternoon and a cabaret in the evening—hip events designed to appeal to a sophisticated younger audience, Iva Bittová, Trio Loco, Martin Creed, and so forth. (Now that’s more like it, I say! Perhaps the tent-dwellers will be back for the opera next season.). Note, however, that audience numbers and financials are on an a much smaller scale than what the Eagle has been proposing for Tanglewood—quite unrealistically, as BSO general manager, Mark Volpe, pointed out to Andrew Pincus, music reviewer for the Eagle, in an August 24 interview.
At Bard I could see the symbiosis of the different Summerscape offerings, when I was in Sosnoff Hall one evening to see the Zemlinsky double-bill. A cool young couple, apparently up from New York sat behind us for the first one-act opera, A Florentine Tragedy. They seemed interested enough to exchange a few words about it during the performance, but they didn’t come back after the intermission, presumably going back to the Spiegeltent. Of course it’s a Good Thing if people can shop around at festivals in this way. But the younger people around Tanglewood aren’t the same kind of people as the New York City students who can buy sharply discounted tickets and come up to Bard on the Metro North. Neither the Bard nor the SPAC solution would do for Tanglewood, where the culture is rooted in Dr. Koussevitzky’s high-minded plan developed in the early twentieth century. Opponents will say that this is the twenty-first century. Who cares about outmoded missions? That is the very point. Institutions like Tanglewood and the BSO exist to pass on the best values of one generation to its successors. The Bard Festival began in 1990 and reflects the values of its own time, just as Tanglewood reflects the values of the 1930’s, and we need them both.
Still, the arrogance of pop promoters is astonishing. Shaken by the virtual disappearance of the record market and tepid to non-existent interest in over-hyped and overpriced tours by superannuated pop stars (Even Britney is letting us down!), they see the classical world as sicker than it is, and, desperate for a solution to their own problems, they self-servingly offer themselves as “saviors,” hypocrisy worthy of a government which attempts to terrorize its citizens and then remind those citizens of how they, the administration, are protecting them the people, from terror. Young audiences are fed up with the inanity and commercialism of the pop industry, and digital technology has given them the means to seek out performers who speak to them more personally.
And not one of theses self-appointed gurus mentioned Morrissey!
They also seem to be unaware that the name Tanglewood is inseparably linked with pop music through the Tanglewood Conference of 1967, which was repeated at Williams College this past June in commemoration of its 40th anniversary. One of the determinations of this famous conference of music educators was that ”currently popular teen-age music” should be included in music curricula. Another, the very first in fact, was that “Music serves best when its integrity as an art is maintained.”
As for “shame” and “disgusting,” the exclusion of the musicologist Nalini Ghuman from her place of work and her fiancé continues, as I have discussed elsewhere, according to an article by Nina Bernstein in the New York Times, strangely and unfortunately buried in the NY/Region section. (I understand that the article stimulated quite a few letters to the editor. None have been published.) Many members of the musical community are outraged and disgusted by the summary revocation of her visa at the border, as she attempted to reenter the United States on August 8, 2006 after a research trip. Still, a year later, in August 2007, she was prevented from presenting her paper at the Bard Elgar Festival, even after months of Kafkaesque applications up and down the U.S. government hierarchy. The rich intellectual life that has flourished in certain sectors of American society since the 1930’s is largely due to this country’s open reception of scholars from abroad, whether as visitors, émigrés or refugees. As Americans become increasingly ignorant of the outside world at a time when this knowledge is vitally necessary, it is all the more crucial for our academic institutions and media to welcome international minds and voices. Otherwise, the consequences will prove harmful to the way of life we have come to take for granted.
Many of the issues at play in Christoph Büchel’s abortive installation came to the surface in Washington last week (that of September 16, 2007). Congress, having failed to put the slightest check on the administration’s pursuit of the war in Iraq, devoted their valuable time to debating and voting on not one, but two proposals to condemn MoveOn.org for their New York Times ad, in which there appears a black and white photograph of General Petraeus standing behind an array of microphones and a veritable billboard of decorations, staring somewhere above a horizon (surely invisible in Congress building), and speaking—testifying—into the microphones, and below this the caption “GENERAL PETRAEUS OR GENERAL BETRAY US?,” and below this the phrase, “Cooking the Books for the White House.” Four paragraphs follow, warning readers about why they should be wary of the general’s testimony. These were based on published, thoroughly discussed facts. As childish as the ad was, the most disgusting thing in it was the Pentagon’s bizarre set of criteria of what constitutes violence, surreal non-definitions worthy of Hasek or Orwell.
The next day President Bush said at a press conference, “I thought the ad was disgusting. I felt like the ad was an attack not only on Gen. Petraeus but on the U.S. military, and I was disappointed that not more leaders in the Democrat party spoke out strongly against that ad. And that leads me to come to this conclusion: that most Democrats are afraid of irritating a left-wing group like MoveOn.org, or more afraid of irritating them, than they are of irritating the United States military.” Reports on this in various newspapers inspired public responses which listed many other disgusting things in the public eye, from Guantanamo and the erosion of the Justice Department by Bush apparatchik Alberto Gonzalez to the Patriot Act.
What is truly disturbing, apart from the Defender of Civilization’s assumption that it is better to fear the military than “a left-wing political group like MoveOn.org” and his abuse of the English language, is the Senate’s use of the word “liberal,” a concept which has manifold meanings and connections throughout the history of the educational and political institutions which give us what freedom and dignity we have today. (I refer you to the relevant chapter of C. S. Lewis’ Studies in Words.) It is also interesting that Bush sees MoveOn.org as something to be feared, perhaps as Bolsheviks were once feared.
I was about to attribute the phrase “It’s a free country.” to Groucho Marx. Somehow it seems that if he didn’t invent the phrase, he made it his own through frequent exercise and well-honed use. But it turns out that this isn’t true. Groucho has no pre-eminent right to the phrase. In any case, through much of the ongoing hearings about the war in Iraq, our elected officials behave as if the phrase were a joke—a dead man’s joke, but not Groucho’s, nor even W. C. Fields’.
If these senate hearings were a machine it would have been running backwards and forwards at the same time. In fact, Americans like to think of their democracy as a smoothly-running machine. I believe I received my first lessons in civics around the same time I learned about the workings of a grandfather clock, and they are linked in my synapses. I visualize checks and balances in the form of weights, counter-weights, flywheels, and the stately pendulum swinging so dependably back and forth. Yes, something is broken somewhere in the works. The founding fathers believed in logic. The logic behind this farce is that if there is sufficient anticipation built up, people will believe anything. In contemporary American “civilization,” belief is as dangerously overrated as generals, but if one’s ambition is to gum up the works, it has its uses.