I wasn’t there for Baltimore’s World Premiere of John Adams’s Saxophone Concerto. I had my own pitifully small musical career to attend to. But it seems that the music itself did not draw a tenth so much attention as an interview he gave with the New York Times shortly before in which he had some none-too-nice things to say about composers of my generation:
“We seem to have gone from the era of fearsome dissonance and complexity — from the period of high modernism and Babbitt and Carter — and gone to suddenly these just extremely simplistic, user-friendly, lightweight, sort of music lite,” he said. “People are winning Pulitzer Prizes writing this stuff now.”
Acknowledging with a laugh that he might sound like a curmudgeon, he added, “If you read a lot of history, which I do, you see that civilizations produce periods of high culture, and then they can fall into periods of absolute mediocrity that can go on for generation after generation.”
On the subject of commercialism and marketing in new music, Mr. Adams said, “What I’m concerned with is people that are 20, 30 years younger than me are sort of writing down to a cultural level that’s very, very vacuous and very superficial.”
This has got to be one of the oddest moments in recent music history. John Adams, John Adams (!!!), the composer who was accused every day for a quarter of a century of selling his musical soul to easy access tonality, is now the undisputed summit of his profession, and is using his soapbox to accuse his successors of dumbing down with precisely the same invective that was used against him. It’s still only five years ago that Pierre Boulez called one of his operas “bad film music.”
But the truth is that John Adams’s complaint isn’t wrong, it’s just completely ridiculous. Adams is right that there are plenty of composers who pander to crowds. But it’s as true of every generation as it is for mine. In Adams’s generation, composers pandered to the American Modern Art crowd. For so many composers of the Boomer and pre-Boomer generation, the goal was to create an aural equivalent to abstract artists who paint in a manner pleasing to the eye without concessions to representational artwork. Fifty years after composers began making inroads to the modern art community - it still hasn’t occurred to many of these composers that the vast majority of modern art’s audience is made of pseudo-sophisticates who don’t know what they like unless it’s told to them, and even now don’t seem to like any equivalent music with the same passion they reserve for art which few people enjoy outside their ghetto. I’m certainly no expert on the Art World, just an enthusiastic outsider to it who has far too few problems calling a spade a spade, even if I too often realize later that the spade is actually a club.
America has produced a number of indisputably great artists in the 20th century whose work either is or should be universally beloved, from George Bellows to Joseph Stella to John Marin to Edward Hopper to Andrew Wyeth to Robert Colescott to James Rosenquist to Ernie Barnes to Eric Fischl to Kerry James Marshall - and that list doesn’t even begin to cover the much more relevant and dynamic world of graphic art. But within the difference between graphic art and the old plastic arts lies the fundamental problem of the Art World - for generations whose conception of art begins with comics, and animation, and photography, and cinematography,and video games, what spiritual purpose is there to painting or drawing or sculpture or printmaking that can’t be derived more relevantly from art forms with far less history and definition?
Like classical music, the traditional visual arts never came to terms with the fact that they no longer holds a prime position in Art’s ‘Temple.’ The worlds of painting and sculpture come to us like vestiges from another age - a series of painstaking techniques that have no greater guarantee of a quality product than visual genres whose production is far more expedient. And since the slow processes of painting and sculpture can’t possibly keep up with the high-speed vitality of electronic media, the world of the old plastic arts retreated into irrelevance decades ago, with its practitioners ignoring the wider world instead of embracing it, and best rewarding those artists who confirm most readily the prejudices of its decadent naval-gazing.
Neither talent nor genius is any guarantor of fame, and still less in the Art World. None of the aforementioned artists, not even Hopper, inspires people’s passions the way duller artists do - artists like Warhol and Rothko and Basquiat and Schnabel and Rauschenberg and Jackson Pollock and Jeff Koons. None within the former group is spoken of as often as just one within the latter, and certainly none of them have generated as much ink. The contemporary art world has been so blinded by its dogmas, so paralyzed by its attempt to answer the question ‘What is Art’, that its members seem more concerned with finding art which justifies the continued production of art itself than in celebrating any artist that demonstrates true vitality. Within the art world’s basic polarities, art has been made to either forswear the world and everything in it - a la Rothko and Pollock, or blandly reproduce the contents of the world as though a profound statement is being made by doing so - a la Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons. And from those two polarities emerged an obvious third. Since visual art was more preoccupied with the questions of art than questions of the world, it was only a matter of time before some clearly incompetent artists would be lauded. Neo-expressionists like Basquiat and Julian Schnabel and Damian Hirst were not honored in spite of the fact that they clearly didn’t possess the most basic technical knowhow. Many artists of striking vision have all manner of terrible technical weaknesses which they can turn into strengths. But it’s difficult to escape the thought that many artists from the ‘postmodern’ era are lauded not in spite of their technical difficulty, but because of it.
The Art World’s problem was that it’s been a world unto itself, cut off from the wider one to the very best of its ability. So when an American artist appeared who took the world upon himself and created work that reflected the world in all its extraordinary energy, nobody cared. The modern Art World has starved America of images. Because they continually asked the question ‘what is art’, the question ‘how good is it?’ never really occurred to many people. The result was a lot of overrated art which is endlessly discussed only because people have been told to like it so often, yet can’t.