Depth Perception

For people who don’t happen to read the Los Angeles Times, I would suggest clicking here for an excellent article posted on October 21 by Neal Gabler. It is headlined, “Hollywood’s perception of value versus real value [my italics]: America emulates Movieland’s way of measuring the worth of things, which teaches us to place the perception of value over value itself.”

Once again Mr. Gabler, with his customary lucidity, has identified an aspect of contemporary American society that needs to be recognized for what it is, questioned and, in my opinion, resisted. The term “valuation” refers to identifying some measurable worth of a film, a director, actor or actress, and accepting that measure as intrinsic value. He writes, “Movie grosses, TV ratings, salaries, lists of the most powerful are all ways that a society sets a valuation on things.” His point is that, through the ubiquitous translation of art and artists’ worth into monetary and commercial terms, we turn the perception and economic rewards of success into our own notion of success.

Hollywood created the film “industry,” which in turn has given us stars and the star system. It has had, and continues to have, a profound influence on our way of thinking. The article’s concluding sentence sums it up: “And so here we are, many of us subscribing to the same measures of worth to which Hollywood has subscribed for years, focusing on creating the perception [again, my emphasis] of worth and leading to a society that may know the valuation of everything and the value of nothing.”

It is not an enormous leap from the collateral damage of Hollywood’s influence on a large portion of our society’s perception (or lack thereof) of “value,” to our comparatively rarified and smaller subculture of classical music. It would be hard for any of us to claim that the phenomenon described above has not significantly impacted the way “our” music, its musicians and its institutions are perceived and promoted. Just as the concentrated listening that classical music requires has been neither nurtured by the media environment nor by education, so have the visual and marketable aspects of music-making claimed increased prominence.

“Value” and “valuation” have many definitions in various disciplines; most of them primarily have to do with identifying an object’s (or a person’s) place in a monetary or commercial hierarchy. However, it seems to me that contemporary humanity commonly uses (and misuses) the words “value” and “values” for various ethical and moral concepts. In the three definitions of “valuation” in my copy of Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language: College Edition, only the last one mentions the word “merit;” and one has to get to the seventh of thirteen entries under “value” before any non materialistic dimension is to be found. And here it is:

“That which is desirable or worthy of esteem for its own sake; thing or quality having intrinsic worth.”

Isn’t that characterization fundamental to Western Civilization’s conception of art? And isn’t that why musicians devote their lives to playing the works of Bach and Mozart–because their music has “intrinsic worth”? Don’t the nation’s symphony orchestras exist to keep alive a wealth of music (in the non-monetary sense of the word) that has attained universal recognition, while also providing a forum for new works that will hopefully survive into the future? Are opera houses not there to preserve several discrete traditions of vocalism and theater, some of which were once as popular a form of entertainment as our cinema is today?

Assuming the answer is yes to any or all of these questions, I think it is important to keep our eyes off the bouncing ball of image and attune our ears to the music in music-making. We should take heed of the insidious effects of “valuation” within, and of, the classical arts. We should be capable of recognizing the difference between art and artifice, performance and its promotion, essence and the extraneous. The central distinction between “value” and “valuation” has been keenly scrutinized in Neal Gabler’s article. For anyone interested in the health of our classical music life, it is well worth the five minutes it will take to read and the hours required to digest.

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