Ethical Artistry: Does Any of This Really Matter? If So, What Practical Steps Can I Take?
The change we seek in our new music ecosystem isn’t going to occur by spouting off in anger on a Facebook thread. We have to take this passion and conviction we feel, and carry it through with real-world projects that directly engage others.
This is the final post in a four-part series looking at concert curation and some of the larger ethical dilemmas we all face as artists as a result. If you want to jump back, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 are here.
The first three parts of this series consider a wide spectrum of topics related to ethical artistry. Part 1 discusses the conviction with which we approach our work and who it benefits; Part 2 considers aspects of the artistic process where ethical issues arise; and Part 3 suggests that we evaluate our work both quantitatively and qualitatively, helping us adjust and adapt over time.
Thinking through these many topics, two lingering objections come to my mind:
- Many subjects I’ve discussed (e.g. what pieces you program, what venue you present at, etc.), are pragmatic and relevant for artists, but not necessarily of ethical consequence.
- Even if these areas involve ethics, it’s just art and music, so does it really matter?
Here in Part 4, I’ll try to persuade you that these issues really do matter in important ways. I’ll also suggest some practical steps we can each take, if we care about confronting ethical artistry more critically as a field.
Does Any of This Really Matter?
The short answer: if you care that your art affects others’ lives, then yes, this all matters.
The main takeaway from Part 1 of this series is that our artistic conviction can inspire and transform those who encounter our work. If you reject this idea and feel that art and music are, perhaps, objects or experiences we appreciate (in the same way we appreciate, say, a table, or a lamp, or a stroll in the park), but that the art and music (or the table, or the lamp, etc.) aren’t meant to provide a deeper transformational experience, then many of the concerns I’ve raised may not have ethical implications for you.
Essentially, if your artistic project is being created purely for its own merit in your mind, or if it is intended more as entertainment or a commercial commodity, not aspiring to reach and transform others in a deep way, then your careful planning of each project step may be of pragmatic concern, but not of great moral consequence (to you), since your project’s outcome on others was never of particular concern. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing, by the way! When we build a table or a lamp, we might want it to be useful to others and be something they’ll enjoy in their lives, and we might want to sell it commercially, but we are not especially concerned that the object we’ve created will have a deep moral impact on another’s life.)
However if, like me, you intend and indeed hope to have an impact on others’ lives with your work, or if you feel a sense of obligation to a larger artistic community regarding the types of projects you pursue, then each step along the way seems to have greater ethical relevance.
For me, art not only has the ability to affect others, this is in fact its essence and what makes it particularly redeeming and socially relevant.[i] If I hope to reach others with my conviction, and to be a conscientious member of my artistic community, aspects of my artistic process—everything in Part 2, from the type of music I program, to what composers I include or exclude based on a theme, to what venue I present at—is relevant with respect to my ethical intentions of reaching others. In fact, even beyond what I have intended, my art and process is ethically relevant on some level, because choices I make will invariably affect others.
Not all ethical categories have the same weight. I think we can agree that excluding a set of composers based on their gender, ethnic heritage, or musical style, seems especially troubling, whereas issues of venue lighting may not be that big of a deal one way or another. Yet, then again, as we think deeply about each stage of our artistic process, we realize seemingly innocuous issues—such as venue location, or lighting, or concert order—can end up limiting access to our event or affecting those who experience our art in powerful ways.
If we have a deeper overall commitment to considering and executing small details, and if this can result in more powerful artistic experiences for those who encounter our art, don’t we, as individuals and a community, have a moral imperative to consider these issues on some level?
What’s At Stake?
As an individual artist, you may feel a varying sense of personal responsibility towards others in your work. I don’t want to tell you what artistic and communal goals you should aspire to, and I believe deeply in this “broad view” idea, where some projects we pursue are centered on our personal goals, while others become a platform primarily for us to reach others. Regardless of where you stand on these issues, as NewMusicBox’s own Molly Sheridan emphasized so eloquently to me in our discussions on this series, we all play a role, both individually and communally, in the “new music ecosystem” and our commitment to ethical artistry impacts this ecosystem.
As I mentioned in Part 2, I believe new music is alive and well, and it is finding support in corners far and wide across the U.S. and abroad. Yet, even in its most generous description, we can acknowledge that our work as contemporary musicians and artists is often more “fringe” than “mainstream” in terms of broad-scale popular culture. This is a major reason we have taken it upon ourselves as a community to advocate for new music, to run conferences, to start ensembles that better fit the needs of composers, and to create a culture where artists can be taken seriously even if their passions fall outside traditional paradigms.
The fact that we are largely creating this community for new music together, as individual artists and ensembles, makes our ecosystem somewhat fragile. There is no uniform set of guidelines we follow, and no corporate policy being passed down from on high. If we have competing interests, we sometimes detract from one another, and if we are not holding ourselves to high standards, the tenets we aspire to uphold may be easily eroded.
I don’t propose that we draft a “New Music Constitution” to govern the arts, but for those of us who do care about these issues, to what extent are we committed to making a difference in our work? Are we having serious conversations with other ensembles and groups in our sphere of the world? Are we willing to put in some long-term planning, and try to gradually evolve, aligning the execution of our artistic processes with our stated intentions?
Or, are we content with talking a big game about things like stylistic diversity, equality of opportunity, representation of composers from various demographics, and so on, but not actually following through in a way that is ethically consistent or impactful?
The change we seek in our new music ecosystem isn’t going to occur by spouting off in anger on a Facebook thread, or even in writing an article series like this. We have to take this passion and conviction we feel, and carry it through with real-world projects that directly engage others. For me, that has been artistic endeavors like Intricate Machines and Refractions and helping curate the American Voices project; outreach efforts with Chamber Music by the Bay and the Opportunity Music Project; and pedagogical efforts to discuss socially relevant texts like Alex Ross’s “Invisible Men” or Nancy Rao’s Chinatown Opera Theater in North America. For you, it may be other areas and ideas you are passionate about.
Some of us care deeply about these issues and have been looking for ways to make a difference; some want to get involved, but are seeking guidance for how and where to start; and some remain indifferent. In the new music community we foster together, if we only care about our personal careers and gigs, or if we are so caught up in a parochial view of the musical world that we are blind to a larger picture of what is out there, we won’t create the type of meaningful change that many of us are calling for today.
What Pragmatic Steps Can I Take?
Let’s say you are motivated to try and make a positive impact with ethical artistry. Here are some specific pragmatic steps you can take to keep these issues in mind in your career:
– Program with conviction
– Think about who your projects benefit
– Think deeply about the complex layers of the decision-making process
– If you see a problem, come up with a measured response, don’t just take the “easy way out”
– Keep in mind the big picture of your artistic work and try to find a balance in your efforts
– Use tools like statistics and data to help evaluate the steps you’re taking
– Always keep in mind the quality of your work and initiatives, not just their quantity
– Are my repertoire choices consistent with my larger artistic goals?
– Am I presenting a narrow range or wide variety of pieces? Is this an intentional choice?
– How does any one project fit and balance within the larger scope of my work?
– Am I favoring or neglecting composers of a specific demographic?
– As I look at data, have I had a blind spot about certain demographics or styles?
– I don’t have to change things overnight; I have a long career and can work to evolve.
– I can make some short-term changes, and also keep in mind other long-term goals.
– Is my curriculum promoting egalitarian thinking about different musics, styles, and ideologies?
– Are my syllabi/courses/ensembles promoting or neglecting composers of specific demographics?
– As I look at data, have I had a blind spot about certain demographics or styles?
– Does my institution support a narrow or wide swath of artistic thought? Is this intentional?
– Can I teach a course specifically looking at issues related to ethical artistry?
– Can I weave issues of ethical artistry into other courses like composition, entrepreneurship,
theory, music history, etc.? Can I involve non-music professors in the discourse?
– Are we actively discussing and encouraging thought about these issues with our students?
– Are we actively discussing and encouraging thought about these issues as a community?
– Do I work with living composers regularly?
– Does my ensemble provide audiences with access to living composers?
– Am I able to commit to ambitious and high-quality dissemination of contemporary music?
– Am I balancing quality and quantity in my approach to new music programming?
– Are the contemporary works I feature often varied or often similar? Is this intentional?
– Am I promoting or neglecting composers of a specific demographic or style?
– Am I making time in my routine to actively listen to new works?
– Am I soliciting suggestions from others about new composers I can discover?
– Is my ensemble promoting educational initiatives for young composers?
– Through these combined initiatives, am I creating a culture for the appreciation of new music?
– Can we commit to thinking deeply about these issues, and not settling for “the easy way out”?
– Are we making time to reach out to colleagues and have discussions about these issues?
– Are we (individually) in a position of power where we can shed light on these issues?
– Are we (as a group) able to advocate to those in power, so we focus more on these issues?
– Are we listening to broad viewpoints with an open mind, or are we tuning out those who differ?
– When we do voice our opinions publicly, are we trying to thoughtfully affect positive change?
[i] I might add that while some find this notion of art’s transformational power too idealistic, its echoes are found in a wide swath of material: everything from pop-culture references about “the beauty of music” in movies like Shawshank Redemption, to articles like “We Need Music to Surive” by musician Karl Paulnack, to the notion put forth by Gustavo Dudamel that “music is a universal human right.” In fact, going back as far as the ancient writings of Plato’s Republic, we see the argument that music is important in strengthening the moral fabric in society and that music can uniquely bring people together because “rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul.”