The COVID-19 lockdown has been a catastrophe for the world of live arts—theatre, music, dance—but it has given some deep thinkers in these domains a lot of time to ponder the state of their industry, and to wonder what their particular genre will—or should—look like in its post-virus incarnation.
Combine that circumstance with the swelling anti-racism momentum of the last few months, and you find stakeholders coming up with suggestions that are all well-intentioned, but not all of them particularly well-conceived.
Chief classical-music critic of the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini, for instance, has gazed upon the “appalling racial imbalance” in orchestral ranks, and decided that it can only be corrected by taking proactive steps. To that end, he has called for an end to blind auditions, long considered the gold standard for orchestra hiring fairness, in favour of a social justice approach.
There is no disputing the racial imbalance. While blind auditions, introduced in the 1970s, proved helpful to women, who have gone from single-digit percentages to, presently, a third of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and half the New York Philharmonic, Tommasini observes that “Today, in a city that is a quarter Black, just one out of 106 full-time players [in the New York Philharmonic] is Black.”
Tommasini assumes systemic racism is the reason for the paucity of Blacks in classical music. I find the assumption simplistic. After all, Blacks are well represented and successful in jazz and popular music, much of which springs directly from their own cultural experience and invention. Perhaps Blacks are on the whole just not into classical music? It’s a hypothesis worth investigating before taking drastic action – and rather hubristic on Tommasini’s part that he didn’t think to do so. Classical music is his passion. Why must it be everybody’s?
I don’t think Tommasini appreciates the rich irony colouring his paternalism in the present historical moment.
Classical music is one of the glories of European civilization—not, I’m sorry to say, a civilization in good standing amongst progressives. And its luminaries—Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Chopin—are, in the parlance, Dead White Males, a term of revulsion amongst the woke.
In universities across America, Dead White Males in the erstwhile “canon” of literature—Shakespeare, Dickens, Cervantes – have been dropped from curricula, because it is considered harmful to women and minorities to have the “discourse” of empire, patriarchy and white hegemony they represent thrust upon them. Of all oppressed groups, Blacks are the least likely to see themselves reflected in the literature esteemed by those of European descent. (The elite classes in former British colonies who grew up in English-language education systems—especially India—did, ironically enough, come to love Shakespeare.) If music were textual, the European and Russian music masters would allegedly emanate the exact same politically incorrect “discourse.”
Tommasini could easily test his racism hypothesis by comparing Blacks’ affinity for and representation in classical music against another formerly oppressed minority group as a control. He could, for example, interrogate the slew of 19th and 20th century Russian Jewish violinists and pianists, and the support the classical music world receives in general from western Jews, who populate concert audiences disproportionately (and not just prosperous Jews; love of classical music cuts across socio-economic lines in the Diaspora).
Jews in Russia had not only to contend with poverty, but also with endemic antisemitism. Russian Jews had to pay double the fees to enroll their children in culturally enriched private schools. Yet many of them managed, through sacrifice, to ensure their children had a musical education. Why? Because for Ashkenazi Russian, and European Jews as well, classical music was the air they breathed during the hundreds of years they lived in the countries where classical music was born, nurtured and revered. That is not, to say the least, the black experience in America.
Cultural appreciation can be encouraged in everyone, but we shouldn’t impose purity tests for ambition based on our own aesthetic preferences. People should enjoy and pursue those art and entertainment forms that attract them. Why should we be surprised if relatively few Blacks see the same value in classical music that cultured whites do? It isn’t even as if those white people playing classical music and attending concerts are representative of the white population as a whole. Classical music was once Europe’s popular music. Now it’s a niche taste for sophisticated palates, as poetry has become in literature.
That said, of course we should offer every opportunity and ample resources to all children in disadvantaged circumstances to form an appreciation for artistic expression, including classical music, and of course we should encourage and nurture individual talent and aspiration wherever it asserts itself. But we should not expect uniformity of response in all communities, or cast baleful interpretations where benign ones answer as well.
Mr. Tommasini has not thought through the consequences for himself, if his artificial equity program goes forward. The same thing could happen to classical music as is happening right now in university STEM departments (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) all over the West.
Women are wildly over-represented in the soft sciences of biology and psychology and sociology—i.e. the fields that deal with living beings - but greatly under-represented in STEM, which features systems, data and inanimate things. For decades, it was assumed that women were put off by sexism in STEM. What else could it be? Well, actually, they did not really inquire as to what else it could be. So extraordinary measures were taken to attract them: women-only scholarships, softened admission standards, outreach to high school girls, you name it.
The one thing they didn’t consider was that men and women are, you know, differently hardwired for different interests. By ignoring that scientifically validated hypothesis, and diligently plowing the anti-sexism furrow alone, the numbers of women in STEM have gone up somewhat. But in order for competent female students from a much smaller recruitment pool to enter these fields, a significant number of brilliant white male students rising out of a far larger recruitment pool have been thrown under the bus.
Now we come to the crux of the matter. Affirmative action for Blacks can produce an adequate number of competent musicians to fill the desired number of racially-assigned slots. But a very small black recruitment pool – and it will doubtless remain small in spite of encouragement and equity blandishments—can only produce the occasional brilliant musician. By contrast, the large organically constituted recruitment pool of white classical music students can and does produce a critical mass of brilliant musicians.
The general public doesn’t see the dimming quality of research in organic chemistry as a result of gender equity programs. But seasoned concert-goers could well hear the difference engendered by race equity programs between high ensemble competence and the unique excellence they are accustomed to.
However, for argument ‘s sake, let’s say the average concert-goer is not able to appreciate the subtle fall-off from brilliance produced by the social engineering Tommasini is encouraging. But even if that were the case, the difference would certainly be perceptible to the exquisitely refined ear of music critic Anthony Tommasini. And then what?
Then he would find himself in a bit of a quandary. Would he point to the change in his critical columns? Some people might consider criticism of an orchestra with a significant representation of black musicians racist. I believe in our present charged climate, we can count on it.
Indeed, any disapproval at all from a white male critic of a traditionally white artistic group that has triumphantly achieved racial equity might end in a Twitter mobbing and calls for his cancellation. Mr. Tommasini should consider that entirely logical outcome, and ask himself if he is willing to compromise his aesthetic integrity as a price worth paying for the racial balance he feels virtue-bound to demand.
My advice to Mr. Tommasini would be to advise doubling down on the equal-opportunity pipeline and keeping the blind auditions to ensure a level playing field—if for nothing else, so that he can pursue his own merit-assessing craft with honour.