race and the arts


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Barack Obama’s speech on race was one of those rare political occurrences where the discourse was elevated. If you haven’t yet read it, you should.

While the speech and the subject is being discussed and dissected virtually everywhere you turn on the net, it isn’t surprising that the arts neighborhood is uniformly silent. It’s just one sign of how so many aspects of the arts, especially music, are disengaged from culture.

I’ve just finished reading Alex Ross’s excellent book, The Rest is Noise. Ross compellingly shows how black composers were systematically denied opportunities at the beginning of the century in the U.S. Most either became bitter (and)or migrated towards popular music. Once white America took notice of successful blacks, and invited them to their classical world, many blacks declined.

Paul DiMaggio has written (“Cultural Entrepreneurship in 19th-Century Boston”) about how the upper class developed arts institutions in this country as a means to isolate themselves from society at large, particularly the growing immigrant population.

As composers continue to struggle with the notion of relevance in terms of broader culture, most turn to binary discussions of whether popular is good or bad. The bigger issue for me is how we can become relevant when we (historically) have done so much to be exclusive.

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