Who Cares about Classical Music, Part Two

06/04/2007 11:39 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

First, I want to thank the people who responded to my previous post, "Who Cares about Classical Music?" about concert violinist Joshua Bell's performance in the Washington DC metro. If posting here is like playing in the subway at rush hour, then those of you who commented are my $32.17! I'm delighted you stopped to listen. On the other hand, I can't resist making a point: there are three million people on this site and, as of today, 43 of you responded (41, actually, because two people posted twice). I'll offer that as anecdotal evidence for my initial claim, that "classical music has always been the taste of the minority, usually a highly privileged minority."

Leaving our relative degree of privilege on the side for a moment, I hope we can agree that those who appreciate classical music are a minority. Some of you seem aggrieved by this, while others appear proud of it. Still, it seems uncontroversial to state that we are, in fact, in the minority.

Many of you offered explanations --indeed, lamentations-- for why this should be so. The two most frequent were:

A. People didn't listen to Joshua Bell because they were rushing to work (with the corollary: A subway is no place for classical music, anyway).

B. People don't care about classical music because they have not been exposed to it.

Let's take a look at these two answers.

People didn't stop because they ride the subway to get to work.

Absolutely. Couldn't be more obvious. The only problem I have with this is the unspoken assumption that, had people not been in a rush, they would have listened. In other words, people really do care about classical music, just not in the subway.

This claim is stated most eloquently by Astigmatist (comment #19):

"this wasn't the first time Joshua Bell played the Bach Chaconne in a public place, collecting donations from passers-by. I saw him do exactly that in front of the Harvard Coop in Cambridge about 20 years ago, before he was famous. And I can assure you that in this more relaxed setting, plenty of people stopped, listened to every note, and (like me and my wife) made a point of asking what his name was. That kid was good. And I'd bet that many of those DC commuters, elite or not, would have noticed that something special was happening if they had had the time."

Boy, I envy you! I love the anecdote. But I don't buy the argument. I obviously don't dispute that many people stopped to listen, nor even that, had the DC performance been held in a park, Bell might have gathered a real crowd. It's just that this doesn't really prove anything. As in the DC metro, the people who want to listen to Bach will stop and listen, while the majority will pass by. You might find a higher concentration of people stopping to listen outside a bookstore in Cambridge, but that's about all you can conclude from this.

Which leads to the second comment:

People don't listen to classical music because they have not been exposed to it.

So Kevingan (comment #1):

"I think this experiment might actually make an anti-elitist point: that we are now seeing the fruits of the decades-long defunding of music and art education in the public schools. Kurtz's point about classical music as an elite pursuit is overstated and underestimates what a democratic cultural education can do."

That's a terrific point, and I completely agree. Much of the decline in interest in classical music can be attributed to its absence from our public life and the systematic gutting of arts education in the public schools over the last twenty or thirty years is a crime.

But I don't buy this as an explanation, either.

What, after all, does "democratic cultural education" mean? What I think you imply is that, if we taught art and music appreciation in the schools, more people would appreciate art and music.

Maybe so. But how have you decided what music to appreciate? Would you be okay with music appreciation courses about rap or Metallica?

It isn't a "democratic" taste that students today lack. On the contrary, they have thoroughly democratic tastes. They download exactly the music they want to listen to. Sadly, this does not raise the number of people who care about classical music.

No, the assumption here is that public education should introduce students to --brace yourselves-- high culture: Great music; great art; great literature.

If "democratic education" meant that all American citizens were exposed to the highest achievements of Western civilization, then "elite" culture would cease to be elite because everyone would share it. This was the great democratic ideal of the Enlightenment -- and of a brief era in American mass education.

We don't live in that world anymore -- not in any practical way. I wish we did. But we don't. And this world doesn't exist anymore, not because our culture has declined. Far more, it doesn't exist because the superiority of high culture is not a given. The Enlightenment self-destructed. (So has American mass education.)

Which brings me, finally, to my original point:

"Classical music has always been the taste of the minority, usually a highly privileged minority. What makes the members of this minority believe that their tastes are --or ought to be-- popular, or that the failure to appreciate them is equivalent to a failure to appreciate life?"

On what non-elitist basis are we going to decide which music people ought to care about, or whose taste ought to be universal?

I believe that classical music is important, that arts education should be integral to all education, that people on their way to work should pause to listen to Joshua Bell. Now how do I get from this to: "everyone else ought to believe it, too"?

That's my point:

"F. There's no such thing as 'an unblinking assessment of public taste.'"