Battle in Print: Should music be a tool of social policy?

Alan Miller, 5 November 2010

We live in a strange world today where many of the ideas that formed the basis for how we understood the world have been corroded. So, dedication to goals, authorship and authority, expertise and excellence are often seen as problematic, egotistical elements and sometimes even representing human hubris.

It is with this in mind that I come to the question that we are addressing today. It was generally accepted for a long period of time that to become accomplished in an area, artistic or other, would require enormous amounts of dedication, application and hard work. It was viewed within society and promoted by the ruling elite that beginning to master a musical instrument was something of value in and of itself regardless of any specific ‘outcomes’. That learning the piano would sharpen one’s ear and mind and senses and appreciation of culture and through that one would have gained something significantly and in that sense, become a fuller more developed human. To attempt Bach on the cello, or to be in an orchestra and play as part of an ensemble was something that would leave a mark for life. This experience could tell you more about the vital relationship between an individual and the group, working as a team and being responsible and doing the best you possibly can than any lecture possibly could.

Devaluing civilisation

However, the result of a combination of the ongoing so-called Culture Wars, where Western society has become disillusioned with the achievements of civilisation – a term that itself has become significantly challenged – decreasing funding for the liberal arts in education and a climate where it is seen as unhelpful to push young people beyond their expectations and set highbench marks that requires them to really stretch, has meant we have arrived at a point where a significant impact has occurred on music, both classical and contemporary in Britain and beyond. 

Married alongside this has been the ever decreasing popularity of mainstream politicians, a sense that they are ‘all just the same’ and that politics and thus politicians are all pretty much untrustworthy, greedy, generally liars and often corrupt. Leaders seem to have lost their way, in fact even the idea of leadership is seen as a troubled concept. In the post-ideological climate where politicians have become bureaucratic tinkerers, they have been desperate to cling to things that seem popular with the general public. Hence the dreadful Cool Britannia moment of the 90s and even more worrying the slow relentless encroaching of instrumentalist outlooks and objectives that are stamped on music today.

A key point here is that music should be held up, loved, criticised, experienced for the splendour, ardour at its best, incredible epitomy of much that is special in the world – but on its own terms. It should not be that it serves to promote campaigns for anti racism, for equal opportunity, for reducing poverty or street crime or solving other issues in society. That is called politics and for that we need transformative ideas and people willing to implement them to overcome obstacles. Imposing this on music only erodes music of its importance – and does little more than pay lip service to society’s problems anyway. Which is why it is a problem that on the Youth Music homepage, a collaboration with DCMS we are told that ‘92% of Youth Music projects assist with the behavioural needs of young people, specifically building respect, confidence and self esteem.’ We need a bit more of Leonard Bernstein’s outlook, that we should be playing music ‘more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before’.

Don’t flatter young people

The fashion to flatter young people and students today does nothing to help promote a vibrant and dynamic musical scene. Rather, it patronises them – rather than showing them a glimpse of who they can become by putting in the tough work – and experiencing first hand the pay off that is not financial or celebrity driven but spiritual perhaps in its truest, secular sense - we often find that adults are so compromised by the sense that our cultural canon is one comprised of ‘Dead White Males’ who raped and pillaged the world and they do not have the vocabulary – or cultural back up of their colleagues and society – to declare what is so great about great music and hard work needed to achieve excellence.

So it was, when visiting a London University a while back to give a talk, I was greeted by the Chancellor who excitedly informed me that they were aiming to be more like The Vibe Bar at the University, with DJs and cultural happenings – when he saw my look of horror he was surprised – I told him that I thought he should leave it up to us to do entertainment and the University should be a place of education. This was met with a befuddled outlook, him maybe expecting me to do some body popping or something…point being our cultural leaders are embarrassed about our culture and history and often are desperate to be “relevant”, but all too often this is like your uncool uncle dancing at a party.

Contemporary popular music has also suffered dramatically within all of this – where once bands would struggle and tour and record labels would sign up for 6 or 8 albums and they would cut their teeth and improve gradually, the descent of record labels and their feaverish attempt to hit big on the first track has resulted in enormous pressure to have the first single hit millions. While there are of course still talented artists, the fact that classical music has suffered in education and lost its recognition as important and worthwhile in its own right has had a major impact on musicians: it is one thing to challenge a form once you have become well versed in it – it is entirely another never to have understood it and simply aim for being a celebrity pop artist without learning your craft. We are hard pushed to find the kind of great musicians of the 60s, 70s and even 80s today…that’s got a lot to do with the collapse of classical music training and being prized.

Prizing hard work

While the cultural gatekeepers sometimes mouth the words of ‘great art’ and ‘excellence’ the core beliefs betray the reality. Popularity and immediate success is seen as proof in the pudding whereas diligence, hard work, application and persistence are less attractive.

Many have pointed to the successes of El Sistema in Venezuela. (It is made up of 30 symphony orchestras, and it has hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan children involved in learning serious music. A great number of these children – around 90 per cent – come from poor communities.) However, while I would welcome investment in musical education, the more the better, we need to tackle the other issues that are specific to Britain and the west around the issue of the culture of low expectations, a fear of standards and quality, anxious leadership and tick box mentality.

A final note on this: it is impossible to apply for any Arts Funding of any kind without having to go through the motions of ticking boxes and making it appear correct that you as an arts organization are handling a range of social issues from equality to social inclusion. This is an outrage, where the politicians have been unable to win arguments or change society significantly and instead have us all sign off on platitudes that do little to change reality, but place enormous pressure on the arts. Let’s have more music for its own sake, to relish the beauty and the wonder of it and then if we want to change the world – go off and do that separately.


Alan Miller, co-director, NY Salon; co-founder, London’s Truman Brewery and Vibe Bar; member, London Regional Council, Arts Council England.

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