Welcome to the blog of Miroslav Georgiev - classical pianist and conductor. Here you can read and discuss interesting stuff from the world of music, life, politics and more.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

About Music and competition


Or how Music and competition don't go together.

We live in a competitive world. Or rather, a competitive social system that would make us believe that human nature is competitive. But regardless of whether this is true or not, our society tends to transfer the competitiveness of our capitalistic system to every aspect of our life, even to some that are inherently unable to produce or support competition, like art, and more specifically - music.
I realize that someone will jump up at this point and start arguing that music is indeed inherently competitive, but I beg to disagree, and it is the purpose of this essay to prove why music is not only inherently UNcompetitive, but also why is it ultimately damaged by the introduction of competitiveness.

Let's start with the purpose of art in general. The Encyclop√¶dia Britannica Online defines art as "the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others". If we try to produce a less scientific definition, one that is derived more from everyday encounters with art, then we could say something like this:
"Art is something that we create and use to please our senses in ways that can't be found in our everyday life, may it be enjoy a painting, listen to music, or watch a theater play or a movie."
But whether we use the exact definition of the Encyclopedia, or the broader, simpler one I gave you above, we have to agree that nowhere in these definitions is suggested, implied, or even allowed that competition could enter the picture.  In sports, the very goal of the activity is to finish first, or beat another team; at work, you compete with your colleagues for a promotion (although we could argue that this isn't actually a part of your job, but imposed on you by your boss and  the system). Retail stores compete with each other by offering better prices, or products others don't have, which ultimately benefits the clients. 
But art is supposed to please us, give us some joy in a gray and repetitive world, entertain or amuse us. Not make us run against other people for some prize.

And yet, when you look at today's art world, you see competitiveness introduced everywhere. Starting by the omnipotent musical competitions, the box offices' lists and charts for music, cinema, and about every other performing art possible, and ending with the newest trend of gathering 'Likes' on social networks and using them to rate and classify most other art forms. Some will say: 'If people do it, then it makes sense'. Again, I beg to disagree, and here's why:

1. Art doesn't depend on any quantitative measures.
Surely, you can say that this music piece is longer than the other, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily better. Or it may contain more sounds (notes) per second, but that doesn't matter either. You can say that this picture is larger than the other, or has more colors, but again, this doesn't make it inherently better. Same goes for every other art form, in all their aspects.
So, while it's easy to time a 100 m sprint and pronounce the one that made it first to the end line winner, we can't do the same for art.

2. The quality of art is relative.
Another aspect we could use for rating is, of course, quality. But how do you decide quality in art?
When rating a piece of jewelry, you could measure its gold contents, or the size of its stones, etc. When evaluating a piece of furniture, or a car, you can again rate a number of elements and materials according to their quality. But what are you gonna rate in a painting? The quality of the paint used? Or the quality of the frame? Are you gonna rate the quality of the materials used for the costumes of the theater actors? Or the cost of the instruments the musicians played on?
The truth is that each art has so many variables that it's practically impossible to evaluate or rate a single art work fairly. When we listen to a piece of music, we hear the quality of the sound produced; the way the interpreter treats the different parts of the work, how successfully he performs all the notes, what pauses he makes, even the sounds he makes while playing (or the other sounds around us that are not a part of the music piece); and  at the same time our listening is affected by our own feelings and mood at the time, or by previous impressions (or lack thereof) of the performer, of the place of the performance (surely it's more prestigious to listen to something at Carnegie Hall than at the local library), of the level of our musical experience..... Suffice to say, if you gather 100 people with different background in a hall and ask them after the performance 'How was it?', and if they answer honestly, you may hear as many as 100 different opinions. And every single one of them will be justified, within its own framework.

Here's where experience and 'experts' come in play. Because the truth of it is that art is not purely a sensual experience, it is an intellectual one as well. For example, if two people hear an aria of an opera sung in Italian, and one of them speaks Italian and knows the story of the opera and all of its background (musical and factual), while the other is ignorant of all of this and doesn't speak Italian, then the first one will understand the aria much better than the second one. And while the second person will only hear pleasing (or not that pleasing) harmonies and melodies, the first one will attach to this a whole story, filled with emotions and significance - all of which will be lost to the second one. Or, if you want a more simple example, if you watch a soap opera on the TV, and you don't speak the language, you'll only be able to enjoy the superficial parts (setting, beautiful actors, etc), without understanding any of the story.
Logically, the person that has more background information about a piece of art will be able to understand and evaluate it much better than the other. But even then, the evaluation will be so complex, based on so many variables, that we could safely say that 5 different experts may give us at least 2 or 3 different opinions, all of them well founded.
Of course, the simpler art doesn't require much intellectual efforts  to grasp and enjoy - a disco song that has one beat, 3 or 4 harmonies and one melody line repeated over 5 minutes is much easier to understand and enjoy than a Stravinsky piece featuring ever-changing and interacting rhythmic formulas, tens of different melodies and hundreds of harmonies. That's why the music commerce today is scrambling to find and make the simplest songs possible, so that it could sell them to the greatest number of people possible across the globe, and art be damned.
So, what happens is that when faced with the more advanced forms of art, people are either unable to understand, much less enjoy or evaluate them, or they simply decide to follow the lead of the experts in doing so. After all, if the famous expert X says this performance sucked, than it must have - 'He's so much more knowledgeable than me'! As a result, the qualitative evaluation of the more advanced art forms of art is left in the hands of very few people that are qualified to understand them.

The point is: NONE OF THIS SHOULD MATTER! All people, experts or not, should enjoy art differently, according to their experience and background, no strings attached. But it DOES matters, and the only reason why it matters is exactly for competition's sake - if you want competition, you have to come up with a way to evaluate performance and elect a winner, otherwise there isn't competition.
But what about corruption? If there's one rule in democracy, it's that the fewer people make the decisions, the greater the risk of corruption, right? So why should it be different in the world of art? If the aforementioned expert X has for example been paid to evaluate a performance as poor, or if he simply happens to hate the performer? There he goes trashing the performance, and everyone follows his lead. And it doesn't matter anymore if the performance was actually bad, or if this was purely a political trick - because of the unconditional reactions taught to us by the system, the damage has been done, the word spreads, the 'unlikes' on YouTube pile up, and the unfortunate performer sees his image go down in the drags. All because of the opinion of one expert.
Well, of course, there are certain margins for evaluation: if a pianist can't play half the notes of the piece right, then he certainly sucks. If a ballet dancer moves like a wooden doll, then he sucks. If a painting has two colors only, then it might suck. Although in contemporary art you can't even depend on that anymore - some composers write pieces where there are no definite notes; some choreographers make the dancers dance exactly like wooden dolls to make a point, etc.- there are endless permutations of art expressions possible, after all. How do you know the 'poor' performance you just saw wasn't actually the very intention of the author?
That's why it is impossible to rate art the way we rate sports, or industrial performance, or the price of an apartment. Or at any rate, it's impossible to rate it fairly. There are no quantitative measurements to be applied, and the qualitative measurements depend on personal opinions based on so many factors as to make fair evaluation impossible. And if it's impossible to rate something, then competing about it also becomes impossible!

Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut............................................................................

As I said in the opening sentence of this essay, we live in a 'competitive' world. If they can introduce competition in art, then why not do it? It all becomes so much more interesting, if you pit 20 - 30 artists against each other, and watch each one trying to come on top. Oh, the tension, the passions, the blood!
And because fair evaluation is virtually impossible, the outcome of these competitions serves purposes entirely different than the ones stated:

1. The winner gains fame. Or, in fact, money - at the end, it all comes around to a cash prize and money. The more clicks you have on your YouTube video, the more it is worth for advertisers and such. The more competitions you have won, the more you'll receive offers for performances.

2. Someone gets on top, be it a competitor, or one of the judges, whose favorite won. It is a sad, sad and well-known (although well concealed) fact that in deciding who's to win a competition, the members of the jury fight between themselves as much as they evaluate performances. The winner wins prestige, and prestige means more students in the future, more fame, more respect in the respective circles, etc. The sad truth is: there are no less deals in art then in politics.  

3. The organizers win renown, the place of the event wins trade and fame, etc. This is well-known for sports, of course, or for political events, but it is valid for art events as well.

Of course, we can say that it's only a part of the game, a more 'fun' side of the art - as an artist, you don't need to go to competitions if you don't want to. Just produce your art and let people enjoy it. Or, as an art 'consumer' (yeah! such a fashionable word!), you don't need to pay attention to charts and 'likes'.
Unfortunately, competition in the arts and the inertia it has created has made such attitude impossible. A whole system has been created, where artists, producers and media are all tied together in an unbreakable bond. The artist has to win a competition of some sort to get the producer's interest, without which he'll never appear on the media (or concert halls/theater stages) to reach the public. If the artist tries to skip the first step (competing), then regardless of his skill and talent, the producers and the media will simply ignore him/her, so the public will never know of his/her art and be able to enjoy it. This is especially true in the so-called higher level performing arts, like classical music, theater and ballet, but you could also notice it in pop music, cinema and even painting and sculpture - the most 'absolute' arts.
The truth is that as many other things in life, art has been completely derailed into a narrow hole, where it remains under the strict control of the powers of the day, to be used as means of control. Where does the true purpose of art fit into this whole scheme? The joy and entertainment that art is supposed to provide everyone? It all turned into business, just like about everything else in today's 'modern' life.

In the next article, I will discuss a bit more extensively the damage that competition does to art in general, and to classical music specifically.