Thursday, November 10, 2011

On the Arts

Queen’s University in Ontario just announced that it will be closing its fine arts programme, citing a shortage of resources to continue to sustain the programme.

This is only another reminder of how the arts have been relegated to the sidelines in our society. In Canada and the United States, whenever there are cutbacks, the arts are always the first to suffer. In Vancouver, we spend millions of dollars just to build a new roof for the stadium, but the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, a “multipurpose” hall (which only means that it does not serve any purpose at all) that is home to the city’s opera company, has deplorable acoustics that is a disgrace to our beautiful city. Even the Orpheum Theatre, home to the symphony, is no more than a converted movie house, despite its superficial splendour and opulence.

Newspaper would devote pages to an “Arts and Leisure” or “Arts and Entertainment” section. The implication is, of course, that art and music are things that we do when we have nothing better to do, or that the arts serve no greater purpose than to entertain us. Radio stations advertise “easy listening” music – to me listening to music far from “easy.”

When will we begin to realize that the arts – music, theatre, painting and sculpture – are essential to life? Imagine a world where everything has to be “useful”, and that we are all doctors and engineers, as much as these are noble professions.

Arts organizations, in order to attract new supporters, have had to resort to clever advertising tactics and glossy brochures, in order to project an image that they are just as “funky” as anyone else. Instead of educating the public, elevating the public, to an appreciation of the arts, we now rely on marketing in order to bring people into our concert halls and art galleries. The result is that audience relies on advertising and newspapers to tell them what they should see and hear. Another result is the mass marketing of artists, something that is especially apparent in the world of Classical music. Just look at the latest album cover for pianist Lang Lang, an example of arts marketing taken to the extreme. Those who are willing, so to speak, to sell their souls to the devil, will succeed, whereas many true artists unwilling to compromise end up playing to empty halls, if they get any engagements at all.

I am a great believer in government support of the arts, something that European governments have been doing for a long time. If we devote resources to education, to sports, to healthcare, or to social services, we should, we must, devote as much resources to the arts.
Why do we have the phenomenon of fully enrolled Music Programs at universities and of an overwhelming number of young people being given private music lessons, but not seeing these same young people at concerts and other performances? Home is where the nurturing of music and arts appreciation takes place. How can we create awareness among parents to include arts in their upbringing of their children – museum visits, going to concerts, looking at paintings, even once-a-year’s attendance of the Nutcracker or plays by the local theatre companies?

Leonard Bernstein, that great musician and educator, once said to his orchestral musicians, “The art you care for is precious, treat it with care, gently.” No, music and art do not make our stomachs full, nor do they serve any “useful” purpose. But the idea of arts for arts’ sake should be something that we are reminded of more often.  

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