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The Art and Music Worlds, Compared

Posted by Josh Rothman  March 28, 2011 01:54 PM

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A few months ago, Alex Ross, The New Yorker's music critic, lamented the way that audiences have embraced modern art, but spurned modern music. People flock to museums to see challenging modern visual art, like Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollack -- so why is it that, in concert halls, "the mildest 20th-century fare can cause audible gnashing of teeth"? This month, writing for the American Music Center's online magazine, New Music Box, the composer Colin Eatock offers an answer: Where the art world has been open and omnivorous, the world of high-brown music has been snobby and exclusionary. "As the modern age progressed," Eatock writes, "the classical music world stood firm in its rejection of anything that lay outside its own grand recit of cultural history." Its inflexibility doomed it to irrelevance; the world of visual art, by contrast, loosened up.


Norman Rockwell, The Problem We All Live With: As close as you can get to "popular art."

The worlds of art and music, Eatock argues, began the 20th century with the same mindset: critics and the public were willing to accept a certain amount of experimentation, but ultimately dismissive of anything too crazy. (Eatock cites the 1913 Armoury Show of modern art in New York City: a Times critic wrote that the paintings, by Monet, Van Gogh, Degas, and others, ought to be "swept into the rubbish heap.") Soon, though, they diverged. Art critics came to a kind of tacit agreement that "sooner or later every new 'ism' would be accepted." Music critics, on the other hand, manned the barricades. The result is that, today, the music world is fractured: the vast majority listens to "popular music," highbrow conservatives listen to "classical" music, and almost no one listens to contemporary high-art music. Meanwhile, the art world, instead of fighting a civil war over what counts as art, just lets everyone into the party. Every year, the party gets bigger, and forms of "popular art" -- comic books, say -- join in.

There's a lot of truth to Eatock's story: the art world, as conventional as it is in some ways, is remarkable for its openness: in fact, curators and critics are always on the lookout for new, heretofore unknown kinds of art. But Eatock underestimates, I think, the degree to which music and visual art are irreducibly different from one another. Curators can be adventurous because their exhibits and museums can juxtapose and connect the tame and the adventurous. A museum-goer, if she doesn't like some piece of conceptual art, can just walk to a different wing of the museum. And much of the modernist art that was once deemed offensive was offensive only on technical grounds: Pointilism may have seemed like a bizarre technique at one time, but now that the shock's worn off, a pointilist sunset is actually, in a way, quite conventional pretty. Music is more recalcitrant. A concert-goer can't just walk into another auditorium if he decides he doesn't like Ives. Music is, oddly, monumental: it demands total, undivided attention, sometimes for hours at a time. Nothing in the world of visual art makes the same demand.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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