Friday, March 23, 2012

Cultural Competition

Despite some very good arguments against it, I have decided to enter the Spring For Music blogger competition.  I'm not bothered by the idea of a contest.  I've been in countless orchestra and military band auditions, and several concerto competitions. The winner is not necessarily the best performer overall, but the person who did the best to impress the judges on that particular day.  I also enter slightly different contests regularly, otherwise called attempts to get published or presented.  When I submit a paper proposal for a conference, my writing gets judged by a panel of experts, who determine by both my qualities and the qualities of fellow applicants whether I should be allowed to present my paper at the conference.  When I submit an article for publication in an academic journal, I am judged by an editorial board and outside readers, on whether my article will be accepted, rejected, or encouraged to be revised.  Likewise with books being shopped to publishers.  Even with blogging, I get judged by readers who decide whether or not to continue following my blog, by fellow bloggers who decide whether or not to link to my posts, by journalists that decide whether or not to use my blog as a source.  So why not have fun seeing what I can do with the writing prompts?

The first writing prompt is: New York has long been considered the cultural capital of America. Is it still? If not, where?

First we must unpack who long considered New York as the cultural capital.  New York City is the second most populous city in North America, barely behind Mexico City.  New York proper has well over twice the population of the next closest US city, Los Angeles.  It is also the fourth most populous metropolitan area in the world, with Tokyo and Seoul joining Mexico City in the lead.  People have a tendency to vote for themselves, so it is not surprising that New York would get more "votes" for cultural capital than any other contenders in the US.  And given US dominance financially over Canada and Mexico, plus US attitudes of self-importance, alternative candidates like Mexico City or Toronto are discounted.  One could argue that the reason New York has so many people is because of the great culture there, but I think that ignores the historical development of New York, especially the large port that encouraged economic development.

Second, what is meant by the cultural capital?  Is it the main source of cultural products that pervade America?  Is it merely the location of the highest number of artists, or the highest number of art consumers?  Or does "cultural capital" mean that this location serves as inspiration and goal for the majority of artists in America?  The first definition is somewhat close to Pierre Bourdieu's concept, except writ large.  Rather than being the skills and cultural products that an individual personally owns, New York was (is?) the location of the country's majority of cultural products, from the large number of theaters and concert halls, to the visual artists in the Village and writers in their brownstones.  Comedians, actors, journalists, they all lived in (or wanted to live in) New York.  That is a perspective that lends to the view that New York was/is the cultural capital of America.
But to accept that conclusion is to accept that cultural capital is measured by the number of artistic bodies and number of artistic products that reside in a particular place.  Should it rather be determined by the ability to access artistic training and artistic products?  If so, then the internet wins out with YouTube videos, TED talks, iTunes and Spotify, online media that is growing at scary fast speeds.  Patrick Vaz already anticipated this conclusion during his rant against the Spring For Music contest.

I assume one of the reasons this topic was chosen for bloggers is so that we can make the obvious points about the digital world breaking down these geographic barriers etc etc. But I think maybe what it's done is just create new power structures, ones which are perhaps less easy to figure out than the old "go to New York and work for the Times" sort of power structure. I'm not so sure this is such a good thing, at least for people like me who always have trouble figuring out power structures, which is why I don't like things that obscure the already shadowy structures even further from view.
I'm not sympathetic to Patrick's worry that things have changed.  It used to be that really good musicians could audition for an orchestra, an opera company, or other big institutions.  If you didn't have a job right away, going to New York was a good place to be, because the large size gave more opportunities for gigs, because there are more consumers and more artistic density for collaborations.  But the institutions are dying.  Orchestras are folding, dance companies have stopped using live music, audiences are growing older.  This is the circle of life, except with symphonies instead of lions.  The models of success are small chamber groups that can perform all over the country, like eighth blackbird or So Percussion.   Flexible in repertoire and in concert dynamics, these groups are winning over younger audiences, without being locked in a place like New York (though So Percussion is now based at Bard College-Conservatory, near New York).  Connections don't have to be made in New York.  So Percussion met at Yale, eighth blackbird met at Oberlin.

In fact, I would argue that the cultural capital of America is in our academic institutions, spread throughout the country.  Successful chamber groups are associated with them, either through short residencies or long-term programs.  Composers usually are supported through the academy, as are performers, painters, sculptors, playwrights, and authors.  The internet allows the contributions from these institutions to be shared at the speed of meme (not quite as fast as the speed of light, but more Lolcats).  Anyone can be conducted by Eric Whitacre in a virtual choir (Eric is based at Cambridge University).  YouTube created a symphony from music students trained around the world.

So at the end I would say New York is not the cultural capital of America.  I can tell, because I used to be very intimidated by anyone I knew who lived in New York.  They had access to all these great events, things I could never experience in Wisconsin, or Ohio, or Indiana.  But now I don't feel that loss.  I can see and hear things in New York, and in Boston, and in Los Angeles, without ever leaving my house.  I can listen to my students perform a brand new piece they discovered on the internet, composed by someone in Tallahassee.  I hear great live concerts in Indianapolis, and Bloomington, and Chicago.  I read online newspapers from New York, London, Washington, and San Francisco.  And one of my favorite authors lives in Bradford, Ohio. Our cultural capital is spread all throughout the world, with less gatekeeping by large city institutions.  This is the change in power structures that Patrick laments.  It can be scary, the number of choices we have to make on what art to consume.  But it is also exhilarating, to ride the artistic winds that blow from every direction.

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