Commentary Magazine


Music and Art

To the Editor:

In “The Performer’s Predicament” [Music, January] Samuel Lipman misses an important point in trying to explain why the professional performing artist today plays almost no contemporary music. The composer rather than the performer has created the problem. There is almost no audience for that music—certainly no audience large enough to support many performers in much style.

Like poetry, serious music produced today has lost its audience. Both arts had enormous followings in the 19th century when they spoke rhythmically and melodically to the soul of the listener. The visual arts of the 20th century have fared better because, I suspect, they have physical substance. They are there to be seen and re-seen. Rarely is music given a second chance if it isn’t appreciated when first heard.

All arts are public. To survive they need enthusiastic, not polite, acceptance. Art is creating something new. The public either responds to it or does not. If even the most enlightened public fails to come back to listen or look, artists who want acclaim must speak in ways more moving.

Jerome Marlin
Norfolk, Virginia

____________

 

Samuel Lipman writes:

If Jerome Marlin were to confine himself to stating that contemporary music has no wide public, no one—least of all I—would deny the truth of that observation. But he goes on further, to assign blame. He ascribes responsibility to the composers, and he advises them, if they “want acclaim,” to mend their ways. Such counsel would be meaningful if one were dealing with a normal market situation in which satisfaction of consumer desires is both the goal and also the criterion of success. However, music, as high art, is different in that (at least for the Western European romantic tradition of which we are a part) the artist pleases others only as a by-product—often, it is true, one devoutly wished—of pleasing himself. The miracle of it is that so much great art, as supremely with the music of Beethoven, has managed to be both moving for the audience and true to its creator. One can lament that so little contemporary music seems to satisfy these two requirements. One may try to find the reasons for this failure. But to demand that artists write music which will be moving is not only to ascribe to them a kind of choice they do not have, but also to misconstrue the process by which art is made.

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