I can almost bet that whoever is reading this article believes all modern art is garbage. Whether he admits it or not, of course, is another story.
In truth, it is difficult to believe otherwise — just as it’s difficult to say it out loud.
After all, since the rise of the socialist state in the United States, art has been the greatest pork barrel of them all, with the corollary that a lot of thought, effort, and money has gone into silencing the voices of reason who would occasionally exclaim that the emperor has no clothes, and that the American public has been swindled out of its great 19th- and early 20th-century cultural patrimony by a bunch of charlatans and impostors.
Who can tolerate those 100-foot-high runcible spoons erected with great civic fanfare in public parks and city squares, those $1 million squiggles of acrylic fussed over by the New York Times art critics — those poets and playwrights on foundation and government grants churning out indecent gibberish that should have their grandmothers washing out their mouths with soap?
As an author, I can afford not to keep my frustration to myself — you could even say it’s my business to scream bloody murder — and I have often written about the shameful racket that is modern art.
In Italy, where I live, stealing money from the public purse is the chosen vocation for a lot of people, but when our mafia bosses siphon off government funds from housing construction, for instance, it pays for their daughters’ weddings, not for lesbian awareness centers or gigantic shards of polished steel in city squares.
In more law-abiding countries, by contrast, instead of a delicious wedding cake for some, what we get is an ugly piece of art for everybody. So on balance I think the arts mafia in the United States is more harmful to society than the Cosa Nostra — and all because middle-class Americans get red in the face at the thought of somebody out there saying they’ve got no culture.
Being called a Philistine is a tricky one. Uncultured Stalin famously had the composer Shostakovich denounced for writing “muddle instead of music” — and happened to be wrong on that score – but does this prove that the label doesn’t suit modern composers, who do write muddle instead of music?
After all, just because evil Stalin called his sometime comrade-in-arms Trotsky a villain doesn’t mean that Trotsky wasn’t one, does it? I’m sure that if one digs deep enough in the archives, one can find a few things said by Attila the Hun, Robespierre, or even Obama, that are actually quite reasonable.
Music stands out among the arts because it is more invasive than literature or painting. You can turn your back on a picture, put a book back on the shelf, and even choose a different route to work to avoid seeing that giant runcible spoon smack in the middle of town, but once you’re in a concert hall, you’ve had it. There’s no escaping the “muddle instead of music,” in Stalin’s immortal phrase.
When I say “music,” of course I mean the kind usually called “classical,” though it’s hard to think of an ordeal less classical and more depressing than being trapped in a concert hall where a modern composer is having a good laugh at the taxpayer’s expense. When you get stuck in an elevator with Muzak, at least you don’t have the feeling that you are the target of a joke of federal proportions.
My story, however, has a sting in the tail. Because, like many an opinionated writer before me, I hate being proven wrong.
My Russian wife is a concert pianist. Some years ago, my father, the Newsmax columnist Lev Navrozov, described the emotional impact of her performing Rachmaninov, a “classical” composer if there ever was one.
So imagine my consternation when Olga informed me that she had chosen a 2011 work by a living composer to record for a Dutch label called Challenge Records International.
Mind you, to make a recording, a performer must learn the work by heart, and learning 55 minutes of a modern composition by heart is roughly equivalent to doing 55,000 push-ups. It would take her from eight to 10 months of study at an average of eight hours a day.
To make matters worse, Challenge engaged me to write the liner notes for the prospective CD — roughly like asking Ronald Reagan to nominate Leonid Brezhnev for the U.S. Supreme Court, or else like asking a fox to guard a chicken coop. But when I first heard the work — a piano cycle by Vladimir Genin, inspired by a Shakespeare sonnet and entitled Seven Melodies for the Dial — I was flabbergasted.
It was as though everything I had believed about modern music, and modern art generally, was turned upside down. All I could say at that point to save face was that the exceptions prove the rule.
How was I to write about that great, phenomenal, improbable exception? Even a simple phrase like “modern composer” would stick in my throat, making me think of all those charlatans and impostors enjoying themselves at the taxpayer’s expense, because this honest man, a composer of genius who lives in Germany and ekes out a living by giving piano lessons, must share the same job description.
So in my essay for the CD I said almost nothing about this “modern composer,” choosing instead to write of the spiritual atmosphere of Elizabethan England, where Shakespeare, and Genin in his wake, found their nutrient inspirations.
The arts are in a bad way nowadays, no doubt about it. But occasionally we do get a ray of hope, such as Genin’s Seven Melodies for the Dial, which I’m shamelessly plugging here.
Even if you’ve never bought a disk of modern classical music before — mind you, I hadn’t either — get this one. From one redneck, blackguard, or Philistine to another, I promise you won’t regret it.
Andrei Navrozov is a writer and author who lives in London and Sicily.
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