Art versus Entertainment

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There has been an interesting thread of discussions over on Choralnet recently in response to another blogger’s claim that the Ambassadors of Harmony set ‘a new standard in choral music’ in their performance at this year’s International barbershop convention. The responses range from the enthusiastic to the disdainful, with some interesting variants in each camp – a wonderful example, indeed, of the way that aesthetic values are not static, but culturally negotiated on an ongoing basis.

Lying behind some of the comments are a set of cultural tensions that have existed in music for at least a couple of centuries if not more. One is about the purpose of cultural products: is it to uplift and enlighten (art) or to delight and please (entertain)? There are those that think that art is essentially higher in value because it has intellectual/spiritual/aesthetic content that aspires beyond the wordly. There are those, conversely, who regard the ability to reach out to all as being a more worthy attainment than a high-art approach that can seem elitist and exclusionary to those who haven’t been inculcated into its secrets.

A related debate is about who or what is important in a performance: should it be about the performers, or should the performers get out of the way and let the music ‘speak for itself’? Classical music, as Lydia Goehr has demonstrated, is deeply conflicted about this. On one hand, there is a pervading idealism that places the abstract meanings of absolute music on a higher plane than those arts mired in the concrete physicality of the real world. On the other we train musicians in a regime that sees virtuosity as an expected standard for professional performance.

The thing about these dialectics is that nobody really inhabits one pole only. Even ardent idealists recognise the value of reaching out and touching an audience in real performances, and even arrant populists like to think the fireworks carry some kind of meaning beyond being a fun way to pass the time.

The function of these dialectics is rather to guard against the fear of empty virtuosity. This is rather like empty calories – they make you fat without providing any real nourishment – or sex without love. It is pleasure without consequence, and the reason we need a cultural discourse to guard against it is because it is highly tempting, but also dangerous. (As Woody Allen put it, sex without love is an empty experience, but as empty experiences go, it’s pretty good.) The fear is that by satisfying our needs for pleasure without making us extend ourselves in any personally meaningful way to get that satisfaction, we will lose the capacity for higher emotional, moral, spiritual or intellectual engagement.

And of course, what counts as empty virtuosity is perpetually up for debate. And the performances that make us ask the question about where that line lies are necessarily both loved and reviled more than average. And this is a good thing – indeed it’s a musical case of what Kathy Sierra referred to as the Koolaid Point:


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