Tuesday, October 4, 2016

What makes the arts different from sports? (Snobbery in Classical Music, part 3 of ?)

A few weeks ago, I posted a response to an article in the New York Times which asked, “Why Not a College Degree in Sports?” I had no problem with the idea itself, since a sports program could be structured in a way that introduces students to the humanities. I did quibble over Roger Pielke, Jr.’s misconceptions of Victorian culture. Recently, the Times published a response from the President of The Juilliard School, Joseph W. Polisi, which serves as the basis for another installment in my series on snobbery.

Thanks to Eric Saylor for this
splendid image of Elgar playing golf.
As I also did, Polisi attacks Pielke’s assumption that sports are for the masses while the arts are for high society. He points out that buying tickets to a sporting event can cost more than attending an opera, which is a casual conflation of money and class. (The two are related, but they’re not exactly the same issue.)

But if Polisi is willing to admit that this imagined class barrier between sports and the arts doesn’t actually exist, doesn’t that work in favor of Pielke’s point? I think they’re talking past each other. Both are arguing against the perception that “arts = highbrow, sports = lowbrow.” Polisi probably wants to assure people that the arts are for everyone, whereas Pielke’s original article hinges on whether sports deserve a higher cultural status.

Polisi argues that sports should not be granted the same status as the arts, however:
Although perfection of technique is necessary in both, the arts operate in a different sphere by communicating profound intellectual and emotional truths.
Though I would word it differently (being a post-modernist, I wouldn’t call these “truths”), I mostly agree with Polisi’s statement. I champion the arts because I believe they challenge people to think differently about the world around them. In so doing, people become open to experiences beyond their own day-to-day existence. Indeed, it is about communication, allowing people to live outside themselves. This is important for building empathy.

But Polisi doesn’t expand on this idea. Instead, he scoffs,
If we have to ask “what really is the difference between a Shakespeare play, an orchestra concert and a basketball game,” American higher education is in worse shape than I thought.
That’s not addressing the question; that’s belittling the asker. It’s snobbery. That comment does nothing to persuade the unconvinced; it’s an appeal to the emotions of people who already agree with him. It’s saying, “If you don’t already know, it’s not worth explaining to you.” That’s a horrible attitude for a discussion, particularly from an educator.

It’s dangerous to assume that everyone just “knows” the value of the arts. It’s dangerous to believe that the arts occupy a separate, eternal realm and thus require no protection from the shortsightedness of mortals. The arts need champions, evangelists, people willing to engage the unconverted, not embarrass them. “The arts are special because you should already know they are,” is a feeble defense.

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you like classical music, or at the very least you’re interested enough to learn more. When someone asks you what makes it different, or what makes it matter, don’t close off the discussion. Challenge yourself to come up with reasons, even if you have to question your assumptions in order to communicate. You may not convince the other person, but you’ll have practiced another art—the ancient art of rhetoric.

Thanks to Jake Pietroniro—a musician and sportsman!—for sending me this link. 


“Arts Aren’t Like Sports” by Joseph W. Polisi, in The New York Times 

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