Bill Cahn  

Social and Economic Issues in 2011
and Their Impact on Music and the Arts

Bill Cahn
September 19, 2019

[This essay was originally written in 2004. It’s observations are essentially unchanged in 2011.]

In the 20th century world of specialization, artists found their position in society as the purveyors of new possibilities through open and free thought - from Picasso and Stravinsky to Jackson Pollock and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Having broken away from the intellectual boundaries of the Victorian era, their artistic direction, known as the “modernist” movement, led toward ever greater abstraction and ultimately to a disconnect of their “high art” from all but a small inner group of cognoscenti.

At the end of the 20th century, however, a new artistic revolution emerged, sometimes called the “postmodern” movement, which may be generally characterized as the rejection of abstraction, and the merging of “high” and “low” art forms - high art being the classical forms, including Jazz, and low art being the popular forms. This revolution is still underway.

Influential new ideas today are mainly coming not from artists, but from technology and global communications - via jet travel, the internet and other electronic media - giving everyone immediate access to the world’s wellspring of ideas. Whereas the artists’ challenge formerly was to open minds and lead society into new ways of thinking, now the challenge is for artists 1) to seek like-minded niche markets that are large enough to sustain their work or 2) to connect their ideas with the general public (the mass market) by having some relevance to their lives.

On Sep. 12, 2004 in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, asking rhetorically whether classical music will "regain the standing it had in society in the first half of the 20th century," Tom Strini answers, "No. Classical music and new music rising from that tradition will remain marginal." He adds, "We can take comfort in the fact that almost every cultural commodity is marginal these days. . . . Most of us are intensely interested in certain things and oblivious to many more things of intense interest to millions of our fellow citizens. We have sliced and diced ourselves--and been sliced and diced by media manipulators--into hermetically sealed demographic bits." In this environment, Strini concludes, "Classical music must embrace its marginality and make a modest nest in a splintered marketplace."

There are presently two models (or paradigms) of the arts in existence in America concurrently. The first I call “the old model” or “the European model.” It is characterized by 1) artistic freedom, 2) an imaginative artistic vision that seeks to open minds, and 3) patronage - private individuals or public institutions supporting the artists’ vision. In this model the market follows the artist. This old model, while still present to varying degrees depending on each particular circumstance, is gradually losing favor in America.

The second model of the arts I call “the new model” or “the American model,’ and it is characterized by a focus on social relevance and on technical concerns, like market size, statistics, bottom-line financial management and performance standards. In this model markets are not as concerned with the artist’s vision as with the artist’s technical proficiency in achieving social outcomes through adherence to social norms in performance. If the artist’s vision steps too far over the line drawn by audiences,

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