As another cultural season hits its mid-stride, I want to remind the creators, consumers and critics of the arts that genius isn't the ability to take simple ideas and make them obtuse, but rather the ability to take complex ideas and make them accessible. Too many artists seek effect and fashion rather than substance, immortality and a deep connection with a wide audience. The result, I find, is that the goose-bump quotient is extremely low in today's avant-garde music or gallery exhibitions.
I am a working composer who is concerned about the inaccessibility and forgettableness of much "serious" music and visual art created in the latter part of the 20th century.
For many current artists, technique is an end in itself rather than a means to an end. Being outrageous has become more important than being good. To create something different, to break all connection with the past, to be more esoteric than your colleagues, takes precedence over being emotionally tuned to the human spirit.
Such esoteric art often becomes the darling of the media. Few critics can resist championing art of such complexity that only they are privy to its inner secrets. Critics then become the high priests of that art, explaining to the rest of us that which we perceive as unfathomable. Outside of the fashionable fringe, most of us don't find much to admire in art and music that doesn't speak clearly to our souls.
Don't misunderstand, I am for experimentation. Techniques like serialism in music, Minimalism in music and art, and other "isms" are all valid approaches. But artists sometimes forget the ultimate goal: to express human feelings to other human beings.
I encourage artists to follow their souls and remind them that technique is only the tool that helps one reach the higher goal; it never takes the place of substance or communicative expressions.
I urge the public to develop the confidence to overcome the intimidation they feel when confronted with truly incomprehensible art. Write letters, withhold subscription dollars and express your opinion in the concert hall and the museum galleries and outside them.
I urge individual patrons to fund art directly, rather than relying on faceless entities--whether corporate, artistic or governmental--to provide commissions. A direct relationship between an artist and a single patron fosters accountability and responsibility--one human being responding to another.
Such relationships were the foundation for much of the great art created from the Renaissance through the end of World War I; such relationships are often missing today. (A change in the tax code would help. Now, money that goes into foundations, and is doled out by them, is tax deductible, but there is no tax relief for patrons who want to deal with artists face-to-face.)
Let's also bring back the tradition of involving working artists as critics, as in the literary field where books are reviewed by authors as well as professional critics. In the '30s and '40s (good times for connectivity in music), newspapers and other popular media weren't averse to having composers such as Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland judge new work for their audiences. Contemporary artists could no doubt benefit from hearing from their peers, from those in the thick of things creatively, rather than sideline observers.
In the end, all really great art shares two qualities: enough surface attraction to get people interested and enough depth to keep them coming back. This is why great artists of the past still speak to us. Great art also touches the nobler parts of our being; it has an immediate, graspable relationship with the human condition.
Contemporary artists need to create works that will not only stimulate but inspire and connect as well. Art should be alive, passionate and moving, not just interesting. Let's put goose bumps back into the concert hall, back on the gallery walls.