This time I'm writing on a much lighter theme: the release of the much - anticipated movie The Hobbit. This being the follow-up (though not sequel, maybe a prequel) of the great Lord of the Rings, expectations were soaring, and all fans were a-buzz. In such circumstances, the situation is ripe for disappointment, but this time, if anything, my own expectations were in fact not only met, but exceeded.
When I heard some months back that P. Jackson has decided to make not two but THREE movies, I wondered how would he manage to keep the tension in all movies. I mean, there are plenty of adventures in The Hobbit, but... THREE movies? And yet he has done it! An opening sequence which connects the Hobbit to LOTR neatly, without overdoing it; followed by an account of the dragon's attack on Erebor which was nothing short of stunning. And don't expect to see a great worm flying above - PJ is showing us just the results of the dragon's attack, not the dragon itself. Way to keep up the anticipation :)
After which, the real movie starts. Each scene is extensive, maybe sometimes a bit overdone, but nevertheless it fits well into the story-line and creates a good rhythm. I'm gonna try to evade spoilers here, but I'll hint that the Rivendell scenes were much more interesting than I expected, thanks to a meeting which is hinted at in the book, but never fully described. And after that - there's an unending adrenaline rush, all the way until the stunning final scene,where the group is staring at Mount Erebor, rising in the distance over Mirkwood.
The movie is faithful to the book, and although some plots were added, it's nothing that goes out of line and is outside Tolkien's world. OK, maybe Radagast is a bit too ridiculous for a Wizard, but then again, according to Tolkien's own concepts, Radagast was indeed considered weird by his colleagues. Saruman has a great comment about this at some point, which I won't specify - just prepare for a good laugh.
The visual magnificence was expected, of course, but even I (big fan of LOTR - books AND movies) didn't expect so much of it. The style is different from LOTR - there's much more color in general, much more 'fantastically'- looking things, but after all, the Hobbit is a much lighter story than LOTR, and I think it was justified to make it more.... childish, in a way. This also goes for dialogue and acting, although the movie isn't without its serious scenes. My personal favorite for this (serious scene) is the moment when Bilbo has the chance to kill Gollum and doesn't - I was literally holding my breath while Sting was almost touching unsuspecting Gollum's throat....
Speaking of acting, hats down for Ian McKellen, AGAIN, who makes a Gandalf the Grey such as we've never seen in LOTR. He's magnificent at moments, a real wizard, but for most of the time, he's just as the Hobbit describes him - witty, energetic and mysterious at times. His very first appearance, in front of Bilbo's door, is funny as hell. His schemes here don't appear to be moving the story (although they're doing exactly that), and his concern for the 'bigger picture' doesn't become apparent until very late in the movie, and I suspect it will bear a lot of development in the other two movies.
Martin Freeman also rocks the world as Bilbo - a dignified and respectful hobbit, who finds himself in all sorts of ridiculous jams, but deals with them in his dignified and respectful way. Point to the trolls scene, where his serious arguments of how it's best to cook dwarves cracked me up.
R. Armitage was also good as Thorin Oakenshield, although he's more of an Aragorn - fighter kind, and as such not very interesting, beyond looking scary and brave in battle and honorable the rest of the time. And the rest of the cast is as usually up to PJ's high standarts.
But the best part about "The Hobbit - An unexpected journey" for me was the feel that I'm watching a movie, created by a master director who not only cares about making 'a blockbuster movie', but about a Universe - specifically this one of the great J. R. R. Tolkien. Just as in LOTR everything, even the deviations from the book were inserted in Tolkien Universe context, here in the Hobbit every single scene dripped with understanding and care for the spirit of Tolkien. Starting with the not-so-obvious hint of King Thror's corruption by his Ring ("He started caring for gold, etc. etc., and darkness fell over Erebor"), passing through a great development of the ancient hatred between elves and dwarves, reflected in Thorin's behavior towards Elrond, and the corruption of the Greenwood by an 'unknown' Necromancer. I almost jumped when Radagast called the spiders 'some spawn of Ungoliant', as I'm sure all you Tolkien aficionados will.
So, 10 out of 10. And I can barely wait for the other two movies, now sure that they'll fulfill my great expectations and be worthy of the great heritage of Tolkien.
Saturday, October 6, 2012
Our civilization is obsessed with consumerism. But more than that, it is obsessed with ownership, something so unnatural, that if you really think about it, you'll start laughing at the whole concept. We are born owning nothing but our body, and after we die, it is only our body that disappears physically from the universe, nothing else. The only material things we really need personally from the world surrounding us, are food and clothes. All the rest of the stuff around us we USE. But go tell this to an average, well-indoctrinated into capitalist concepts person... they'll immediately call you 'socialist', 'anarchist', and a couple of other '-ists', or they'll simply dismiss you as crazy.
Let's reflect what does ownership really mean in our current cultural paradigm: The exclusive rights of use of objects, land/real estate, and intellectual production.
That means that a single person (the owner) has the right to determine the use of everything he owns. Or the misuse, or non-use of it. We've all seen, for example, vast patches of land, or abandoned buildings, that are not in use in any way, simply because their owner doesn't know what to do with them. We've seen objects lying around houses, on the street, or stuck in attics, for the same reason. Most shockingly, we know of the products of the so-called intellectual 'property', for example the works of composers or writers, whose production didn't require material resources, apart of the author's intellectual labor, and whose 'use' won't require absolutely nothing of the author, but which are protected' by copyrights, and thus unavailable for use because of the metaphysical and completely unrealistic concepts of ownership.
And we've also seen objects, lands and ideas which are being misused despite all the great precautions instituted by our civilization. What use are all the century-old laws protecting private property, when you're faced with a masked bandit with a gun? When the latest song you've composed and uploaded on YouTube for promotion is taken by some anonymous jerk and altered in a hideous way for his own purposes?
We see that the concept of ownership is valid only as long as everyone agrees to it. Which tells us something about how much we really need to OWN anything we use.
Let's imagine the impossible for a moment: that you don't OWN anything around you, but the clothes you dress, but on the other hand, you have the right to USE everything you need:
- You use a home for you and your family that needs or wants to live with you. At home you use cutlery, furniture, home appliances and all that, but they are all a part of your dwelling - accessories, if you will. If every dwelling comes already with the furniture you want, the TVs and appliances you ordered and you'll never take out of home.... Or you insist on taking the TV with you outside ?
Of course, you might decide you don't want to live in this home anymore, in which case you are free to go and choose another currently available home in a place of your choosing.
- Cars. Whatever we discuss, whatever the topic, it always comes to this, doesn't it? But wait, what is a car but an overrated means of transportation? Oh yeah, our culture tells us that the car is an expression of yourself, it reflects your status in society, etc. But if you leave all that crap aside, the car is just a means of transport. If a car, or a similarly comfortable and effective means of transportation, was available at all times to take you wherever you want to go, wouldn't this be enough? Why do you need to 'own' it?
- Cell phone, watch, iPod, and all that you carry with you - isn't it enough to have one of all these, if they work well and are of a style you like? Why do you need to 'purchase' the latest new models of each of the above, which come with shiny new exterior, but otherwise little else which is new?
We are coming to the point when there are public computers almost everywhere we go. There are TV's, music appliances, etc. Why would we need to 'own' everything, if everything we need is readily available for us to use wherever we go? For example:
- You go to have some fun with your family. You take a suitable transport, and you go to the nearest place where the desired fun is available. You can check in advance on your home system if there are too many people on the specific place - in the ideal situation you'll always be able to find a place for fun with not too many people.
At the place, everything you use is for free, including drinks, food. Because the place is specifically designed for that purpose, and outfitted with all the necessary appliances. Would you want to own a restaurant, bar, a theme park, only to be able to use it exclusively?
- You're at home and you're bored, but you don't want to leave home to have fun. But your home already came with a TV, computer with Internet... you want to read? There are e-books for downloading from the PC, Kindle or similar device. You want to watch a movie? On-demand movies from the TV network. You want to play a game? The same. Nowadays is possible to use literally everything which is made available on the network. Why do you need to own a disk with a movie, or a game, when you can watch/play it everywhere and anytime you wish?
Another basic problem with ownership, I think, is the concept of luxury. Something that is branded 'luxurious' leads to a great desire to own it, because this way you 'stand out' in society, and have a higher self-esteem, or whatever. You own a Rolex - so you must be a well-off man. But what really is 'a luxury item' ? Let's elaborate:
- A luxury item is one that is either made of very precious materials, or made in limited quantity. Nowadays, even well-made items are not considered luxurious anymore, they're just the result of using better materials and good design. And of course, not cutting back intentionally on production costs. A real luxury item, for example, is a watch made of gold, platinum or similar precious metals, or an item of which model there exist only a limited amount (for example, 100). But does the fact that a watch is golden change its function? No. It doesn't affect its effectiveness either. You could just as well use a steel watch. And you could always make more of the limited items, if there wasn't the artificial attempt at raising the price by limiting the amount available.
So, if ALL watches were produced of good-looking, high quality materials, there wouldn't be any real difference between a Rolex and a normal watch, would there? Also, if nobody restricted the production of anything, there wouldn't be artificially-induced scarcity. The solution is obvious:
- On-demand production. A person will get something only if he ORDERS it from a catalogue. This thing will also be made of the sturdiest materials, will use the best available technology and, if possible, even be upgradeable. This way we save resources, because there is no low-quality mass production that stays unused on the shelves, and we don't discard appliances all the time to replace them within an year or two. We get the exact model that we like, because we ordered it. Since everything is gonna be produced by machines according to a general database specifications, this shouldn't be a problem.
- It is also considered 'luxurious' to live in a special building, near the beach in Malibu, on the French Riviera, or whatever. But wait! Not everybody 'loves' to live near the beach, it's just that the current fashion dictates that you have to live near the beach! So, if people are free of this cultural 'stamps', not everybody will want to live on the beach - some will live in the mountains, some in forests, some in cities. As long as there's transportation handy, and all services readily available in the near distance, it shouldn't be a problem to distribute people dwellings around the globe. We won't have the imperative to live in city X because there's where we work, and we have to go to a particular place to work every single day!
As long as 'luxurious' dwelling is concerned, what the hell does this mean? A house with 50 rooms? Built in Colonial style? Furnished with nice furniture? Everybody could get this if the dwellings and furniture were constructed on-demand.
- Finally, it is a 'luxurious' life to go to fancy places, drink insanely expensive drinks, eat insanely expensive foot, etc. No one I've met can rationally justify why all these places are so insanely expensive, apart of them featuring very nice design, atmosphere, and good quality food and drink. But a designer could help create any sort of place, with any sort of atmosphere, without any charge, if he wanted. Any food and drink could be very good quality, if the raw materials are good, and mixed right. You could make a great quality drink right at home. The truth of it is, just as the rest of the 'luxury' concepts, these stand out only because of the mediocrity of the general places that surround us (McDonald's, WalMart, etc), and because of the cultural paradigm which not only glorifies and celebrates them, but actually creates them in the first place.
We come inevitably to the conclusion that both the concepts of ownership and luxury are products of our culturally-induced delusions. So, if the culturally-induced desire to own 'nice and 'expensive' stuff were gone, there won't actually be anything considered luxurious! We would have the stuff we need and use, without owning it. And let me just hint at the amount of criminal distortions which would be made void if the whole concept of ownership were discarded.... I think you are able to come up on your own with some examples.
Of course, I realize very well these ideas are still Utopian - our whole society is based on ownership, and the whole production chain, too. We would need an entirely new production and distribution system to institute a property-free society, but my point with this post is to prove to you, reading this post, that such society is not only possible, but viable. And more: I think the current path of technological development actually leads to exactly such society. We need to embrace the idea, not fight it, because it will improve vastly our lives, not to mention saving us and the planet.
Wednesday, July 4, 2012
In this article I will discuss the nature of music competitions, and how it ultimately damages the art.
Because music is a performing art – that is, an art which actually happens in real time life events, and is executed by people – it is particularly 'suitable' for competing. And it is true that in the history of western music, competitions have a serious legacy. However, they were initially something very different of what we see today.
When they began, music competitions were little more than show events, standoffs between two or more performers, where each one would try to demonstrate his superiority over his opponents for the pleasure of the public. We have historical records of competitions as far back as the Middle Ages; of baroque-era improvisational competitions between organ players like Buxtehude and Bach, or romantic-era virtuosos like Liszt and Czerny. But their character was much different: before the romantic era, the players wouldn't even play what today we would call 'a piece' – instead, they would simply improvise on a given theme, or they would play their own compositions. It was thus much easier to judge one of the performances much better than the other, although 'stalemates' were also known to happen. Today, in all major classical music competitions, all contestants play largely the same 'competitive' pieces, derived from the same pool of 100 or so most popular and flashy compositions of the last 250 years. It is a very rare occasion when we hear a new composition in a competition (excluding the special new pieces, composed for the biggest competitions), and it rarely brings any advantage to the candidate. In the new trend of pop music competitions, we have practically the same situation, with the candidates performing some hit from the last 20 years, although there's some more space for creativity there, since the songs aren't usually written down.
But it is not so much about WHAT is played at these competitions, as HOW and WHY it is played, and how it is judged. Before, the public would decide, according to their immediate impressions of not only the quality of the music, but also the general artistry of the performers. They would hear vastly different music, most of it unknown, see the way it is performed, and base their evaluation on what we could call an immediate and genuine impression of the senses. Today we have a jury of experts, often listening behind curtains (for supposed impartiality), taking notes on tables with standardized criteria, for example perfection of performance (whether you're playing the right notes), fidelity to the part (whether you're following the author's indications), quality of tone, etc. Sounds a lot like something a machine would do, right?
In short, where 300 years before it was all about innovation and fantasy, about creating the liveliest and most impressive performance, today it all boils down to how difficult the pieces performed were, how perfectly (without mistakes) they were played, and how 'correctly' they were interpreted. That's right, after decades of listening to the same 'standard' competition pieces, we now have definite ways of playing them, and (almost) any deviation from the standard is punished. Although, this is the least of the problems the competitions create. It is the WHY that matters most:
In the past, competitions were primarily entertaining events. The 'winner' would, of course, win fame, and count on a bigger audience for his next performances, but the importance of these events was nowhere as close to the importance of music competitions today. Today, competitions are institutions that are an imperative gateway to the classical 'big scene'. That is, if you haven't won, or at least appeared on one of these big competitions, you are simply ignored as a performer by music producers. Which means, if you aspire to a big career in the classical music business, you have to submit yourself to the competition process, with everything that it involves:
- Studying the exact pieces required. Depending on the level of the competition, these range from medium to the most difficult pieces in the repertory for that instrument/voice. Even in cases when easier pieces are accepted, they don't net you so much credit as the more difficult pieces, which means candidates are practically forced to exclude most pieces of their repertory, in order to be competitive.
- Perfecting them for years, using the widely accepted interpretation, and most of the time, studying with the professors which would eventually make part of the jury.
- Forget about everything else in your life for several months before the competition. Practice X hours a day, only the pieces you are to play at the competition. This, of course, effectively stops your artistic development, while you get so fed up with these pieces that you don't want to play them again for years after the competition is over.
- Experience nervous pressure as you've never experienced before. Whoever has taken part in a competition, even a relatively small one, knows exactly what I'm talking about. For the rest, imagine the stage fright when you have to speak in front of hundred people, even words you have practiced over and over again, then multiply it by 10. Every performer has one chance, and one chance only, to prove their mastery to this particular group of people. If you have a headache, or haven't slept well, or are so nervous your whole body is shaking (all of which happens to be caused by all the nervous pressure you're submitted to), well, that's part of the challenge! And it won't do to perform later the very same pieces 10 times better than you did at the competition hearing, because you've already lost your chance.
- Experience huge disappointment when you don't win (which happens to 90% of the candidates). After all, you know that so much is at stake.....
And because we know that there is corruption most of the time, you may have to also forget you have any conscience or artistic integrity and try to buy your way to winning.
There are, of course, some positive effects from competitions, and according to our current system, these make it worthwhile all the pain and suffering the artists are experiencing:
- Participating in competitions builds strength of character. You need to develop really good discipline if you want to prepare well for a competition - sacrifice free time, concentrate, organize your day-to-day activities...
- Playing in front of a jury is the ultimate test for a musician - if he can withstand this nervous pressure, he can withstand everything the concert stage throws at him. And the opposite - if he bends under the pressure, he's not worthy of the concert stage.
- Playing the same pieces every day for months at a time helps the musician reach the deepest level of detail of the piece, understand it better, and consecutively, interpret it better.
Lastly, but most importantly for the competitive capitalistic mentality:
- The competition process invariably produces the best and most worthy musicians, to join the ranks of professional concert performers and yield the producers the most money.
Well, let's analyze the positive and negative sides and try to come with a verdict: are competitions really doing what they are supposed to do and are they worth it?
First of all, the professional musician, as every serious craftsman, or every grown-up man for that matter, needs indeed to build strength of character. Competitions help here, there's no question about that. But it's even more important for a performing arts artist to be able to withstand nervous pressure, so he could do his best every time he's performing, no matter the circumstances. Stage fright is a very real and very important problem for musicians, and they really need to learn how to deal with it.
Again, competitions help with this. But so does every public performance, every concert the musician does, be it in front of hundreds of people in a concert hall, or just in front of some friends and family at home. And then, we have psychological techniques and training that help too. Do we really need to subject the artist to the torture of competitions, just to prove he has guts to play in front of people?
Secondly, the notion that a piece of music could ever be perfected is deceiving. Yes, you could learn the right notes, you could learn to play them fast and sure, and to produce tone and dynamic differences at will. But that's about all the level of perfection we need from an artist playing a piece. All the rest is standardization, not perfection – playing the piece in the same tempo every time, playing the same dynamics in the same places of the piece every time, the same rubatos, accents, etc. If we go that way, we may as well delegate the task to robots, which will be much more apt to play something according to a certain standard every time.
Music is an art. Like every art, it needs creativity, and creativity is strangled by perfection. In fact, the very definition of perfection excludes creativity, since achieving the perfect state of something locks that thing in place, excluding any further change. And creativity is all about change. So, when all these competitors work toward perfecting the pieces they'll be performing, and when they pass beyond the invisible like separating musical perfection from standardization (unfortunately that's what happens with 98% of the performers), they are actually working against the very idea of art. You can't win a competition, unless you struggle to be perfect – to play all the right notes and perform all the right dynamics – but in doing so you deny the whole basis of your art.
Thirdly, working on the same pieces for months at a time does indeed help you delve into details and understand the piece better. However, a time comes when another invisible line is crossed, and the level of detail becomes too deep – and you may lose the big picture of the piece, the same way as you lose the vista that you had from the top of a mountain when you descend to its base. Not to mention the tedium that sets in after playing the same music over and over again, and kills all creativity.
Me personally, I've found that time also gives a new perspective to musical pieces I've played before – a new level of understanding which I didn't have before. Every time I pick an old piece from my repertory after a year, I find myself looking at it in a new way, seeing in its text things that I've never seen before, interpreting it in a different way.
Fourth, the choice of pieces – it is true that the big competitions include a vast selection, covering all musical styles from the last 300 years, thus forcing the musician to learn and build a diverse repertory. However, how does it happen that 90% of the candidates perform the same pieces???? (Just take the brochures of the last 2 - 3 big competitions and compare the repertories of the candidates – I bet you'll find more than 50% of the pieces are the same!). The truth of it is that there are established, 'secure' competition pieces, proven to be impressive, not that risky, and yielding good points, which most candidates choose. Yes, they are mostly some of the most difficult pieces written for the instrument or voice, and if you can play (sing) that, you can play anything.
Well, I disagree. The fact that you can play a Rachmanninov concerto perfectly doesn't mean you can interpret memorably and passionately an 'easy' Debussy Prelude. You could sing the impossible coloraturas of a Haendel aria, but that doesn't automatically mean you can make someone cry with a Puccini aria. Interpretation is not always about how fast and brilliant you can play.
And lastly, the notion that the process of competition produces the best and most worthy musicians, is a lie. What does the successful competition musician look like? First of all, he practices A LOT – we could say as much as 8 hours a day – which, after considering sleeping and eating, leaves him what, 2 - 3 free hours per day to live? Furthermore, he practices all the same pieces (because repertory requirements for competitions overlap), which means that his repertory is in fact not that extensive. And because he practices that much, he can hardly think of anything else, so he's narrow-minded, with a limited understanding of world and people, with limited interests outside music. He's single minded, in that that he's always thinking of the next competition, and what does he need to do to prepare for it. When he goes on stage, the first and foremost issue is perfection – he HAS to get all notes right, or risk being eliminated. Art comes after this, if it enters the picture at all. And because the player has so limited understanding of the world and music, how is he gonna achieve accomplished and deep concepts about the pieces he's playing? Oh yes – by paying teachers to show him...
So, how does all the above qualities align with the purpose of art and music specifically? A musician's first and foremost duty should be to music, to playing his instrument in the service of others. He should be an entertainer first, and a good technician second. Meaning that he should be more concerned with pleasing his audience than with satisfying his own ego and showcasing his technique. A musician doesn't need to be perfect, he doesn't need to forget all about life and practice 8 hours a day, in short – he doesn't need to be a robot.
But it is exactly robots that our present practice of competing for music produces.
Musical competitions are a perfect example of a breeding ground for animosity, neurotic distortions and pretentions. It's 'survival of the fittest' on every level, from the basic ability to the nasty psychological tricks and the pure cheating. We see the kind of musicians it produces every day in the great concert halls – they play fast, they play loud, they play... equally. There is no creativity in their interpretation, because you don't win competitions with creativity. There is usually no passion, because passion might lead to loss of control and mistakes. They play all the same repertory, the one that goes into the competition requirements, simply because they have no time, nor desire, to learn other pieces (I think in the last 20 - 30 years this is being more obvious than ever – very few concert musicians dare or care to include new music in their programs).
And because of the system that has made competitions an imperative gateway to the big scene, no other kind of musicians ever make their way there. But it gets worse – it is actually not a rare phenomenon to see talented musicians drop the art because they lost a competition, to become lawyers, or accountants, or one of the many other useless professions we have nowadays. Many others simply decide not to bother with even attempting a concert career, knowing the kind of pressure they have to withstand, and delegate their talent to accompanying kids at schools, or ballet classes.
Then there are what I like to call 'the Craftsmen' – these people that have few or no talent, but they have enough ambition and psychological stability to practice 8 hours a day and win competitions. They then make their way to the concert scene to produce copycat interpretations of the same old pieces we've been listening to for the last 50 years. Have any of you ever wondered why in the last 20 years there are fewer and fewer noteworthy interpreters? Why there seems to be an endless stream of highly-acclaimed pianists, violinists, singers, etc. that tour the world for a couple of years, dazzle everyone with fast, furious and technically perfect performances (which you forget after you go out of the concert hall), record a couple of CDs, which don't sell very well, and then promptly disappear into oblivion?
Well, you can stop wondering, because that's what competitions produce. Every big competition has, as a part of the first prize, a number of contracts for concert performances around the world, which happen in the year after the competition – hence the tours. Also, there are music producers at every competition that immediately make contracts with the winners for some concerts and recordings – hence the CDs. And then, it's time for the next winner.
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
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 Encyclopædia 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!
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.