Acknowledging Privilege for Classical Arts

This year I gave my fifth annual talk at the Fresh Inc. Festival for young musicians. I love helping artists.

As usual, I spoke about the role of crowdfunding in the life of a young musician. But I tried to take classical music’s privilege a bit more seriously this year, and to address the differences in mentality that come out of the ‘classical’ arts as opposed to any other kind.

I spend a lot of my life living that divide – trying to help all kinds of artists, including bands, writers, performance artists, interactive installation artists, etc., as well as classically trained musicians and dancers. The divide is huge. There’s a totally different set of cultural expectations on the ‘conservatory’ side than in the rest of the world. Understanding that, and acknowledging the privilege that ‘classical’ arts still have is a key step in effectively building a career after that sort of training.

In conservatories, we define what we do as a rarefied art. It’s expected that not many people will like the music we make. And that’s justified because we’re “carrying on the tradition.” You don’t often hear “it’s okay if nobody likes your music” spoken out loud, but we often look over our shoulders at the artists who were unrecognized in life, and achieved fame only after death. We can justify any failure by blaming the audience for not being “ready yet” or not being “up for a challenge.” The culture of our art enables this approach.

If you make comics online, or a podcast, or a board game, or even if you’re a band touring in bars and clubs, you’re much less likely to think that way. It’s always easy to slip into saying that someone else ‘didn’t get it’, but the culture and institutions of classical arts enable it in a very problematic way. This is connected to the class distinctions that ‘classical’ arts have been used to reinforce.

This attitude is particularly dangerous to the careers of young artists in this time, because of another key deficit in formal training in the arts.

Classical artists used to be habitually employed by large institutions, such as ballet companies and symphony orchestras. As those institutions face pressure, the number of full-time jobs as W-2 employees is shrinking. A few conservatories are trying to adjust their training, but it’s a slow process, and lots of artists are being graduated from schools equipped only to be employed by someone else. They have no training in how to build their own audience, or how to build their own business.

This point, when an artist is forced to build their own audience for their art, is when that classical arts attitude that “it’s okay if nobody likes it” is most toxic. And it’s at this point that the difference between classical artists and other artists becomes most clear. Pretty much everyone else goes out and starts building their audience bit by bit. They show work, they gather feedback, and they’re deeply invested in whether or not people like it. Eventually, they build a community, and maybe an income.

But classically trained artists have a little internal demon saying that if nobody liked it it’s fine – it wasn’t our fault. They just didn’t understand. We might only be appreciated after death, and that’s okay. It doesn’t matter what people think, because I’m carrying on the tradition! Even if someone is carrying on a ‘great tradition,’ that’s no guarantee of being able to eat in the present.

So what’s the antidote? The best one I know is running a Kickstarter campaign. It confronts you immediately with the question of who likes your art enough to pay for it, and how you can reach them best. You’ll still probably have to do years of introspection to really understand the privilege we have in the classical arts, both how it gives us an unfair advantage and how it traps us.

But it’s a start. And it’s the best way I know for a conservatory student to fix what’s wrong with their own education.

Leave a Reply