Classicism vs. Classism

I took part in a place-making workshop last week in Detroit. Despite the usual negative reports, my hometown is actually receiving huge private investments from billionaires, local corporations and major foundations, revitalizing central areas from Midtown down to the river. In these workshops (my second), a cross-section of about 40 artists and civic planners heard a short presentation about how cool parks draw residents together with food, music, things to do, people-watching, and novelties that identify the city. Then we walked the space for the proposed park, (nothing more than a dirt lot at this point) to begin to brain-storm for unique ideas to make it another HELL YEAH place to visit.

One of the choices we were asked to consider was what could be done to experiment with the space, sooner than later. What were some quick, cheap and dirty ideas to see if people would come if there was something going on there? Some examples in other cities were sandlots for volleyball, simple jungle-gyms on sand, benches for parents, food trucks and picnic tables. Such flexibility at low cost could jump-start the whole chicken and egg cycle so they might plan and upgrade the location all at once when the money was in place. People would become used to showing up there.

Access granted

Well, this leads me to further justify ideas like Classical Revolution (CR), the grassroots movement that began in San Francisco in 2006 presenting concerts, readings and open jams in populist spaces. CutTime launched the Detroit chapter in 2010 and it immediately became apparent that it’s looseness, youth and affordability acclimatize people (new and old) with a casual classical, made possible by smoking bans. CR has musicians playing for non-musicians and strangers, and each chapter experiments often, cheap and dirty… to, in effect, surf what’s possible and bring a balance to the carefully-planned, traditional fine art form. It removes classy as a reason for attending. Let me tell you why that’s so critical right now.


Classical Revolution Detroit event playing Brahms Clarinet Quintet 2011

People enjoy classical concerts for many different reasons. For veteran subscribers those reasons will often be a combination of social and professional, as well as inspirational. But it is the rarity of the occasion of classical events that give us the feelings of ease, elegance, thoughtful study, even moral purpose and clarity. People dress up, are especially civil, and expect to experience some of humanity’s highest artistic achievements. Some enjoy that we can all feel classy together; enjoying a lifestyle we can’t afford. Symphony Hall and the Opera House will do that, but this has more to do with a classicism that says everyone deserves beauty, and must not be mistaken for classism that says we alone deserve beauty. The former can unite us all while the class warfare of the latter divides us.

I’m raising a host of negative associations, conscious or not, because when we make classical music about class, then we reinforce exclusivity, elitism and worse. We may not claim sole ownership over the human legacy of music such as Mozart’s; they are all public domain. Classicism means we intend to signal this-really-IS-for-everyone. If classical can show a side that is humble, open, raw, common, folk, spiritual or humanist, it can begin to fill in that buffer zone between disparate groups. I’m not usually one to speak of tearing down walls. Just like I love the walls of my house, I truly enjoy where classical is classical, rock is rock, and jazz is jazz. But having some hybrids (partnerships) that form bridges connecting cultures and people in the wider world are the drapes in the house of art.


Because of my ethnicity and crossing the cultural gap for my chosen profession, I stand firmly in the middle, and appreciate my viewpoint between classical arts and near the rest of the world. Consequently, I always took from classical music the idea of humanity;
of being part of its largest community, along with the perfectionist, European aesthetic to performing arts; of exaggerating the human condition (pathos) to the limits of our technical ability in concert.

Perhaps it is also the effect of being one in a team of 90 playing dramatic roles together with goals (sport): to make audience consider, to make recordings, to make tours, always to make music truly memorable. Perhaps society has become too individualized, too fragmented, too crowded and empowered to WANT to work and play together in harmony. But I love seeing when it does happen— only following some tragedy. The classical Greeks recommended the expression of the flow of human emotions; tragedy and comedy, but history has since added violence, revenge, transformation and recovery.

Now, chamber music, performed quick and dirty in clubs and restaurants, can become a regular presence in the lives of potentially hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Will this new presence quickly create droves of new single-ticket buyers and subscribers: undoubtedly not right away. Will it reverse the classist message this-is-not-for-you outside the classical music industry? Yes! Will it give access and permission to the masses to open themselves and their children to the possibility that even traditional concert performances offer a different kind of thrill? I believe so. Could this idea employ and train dozens, then hundreds of young classical musicians to spinoff their own creative projects too? HELL yeah!

While classical will likely remain a road less traveled, we can make a path past the minefields.


What do you think about this?