Wednesday, June 13, 2007

improvising economics

Marc Ribot contributes a fine (not sure what to call this) analytic-polemic on economics and music (via be.jazz). DJA and PB come up with some contrasting follow-ups. (And all the while, there’s uncertain stirrings in the funding world….) I don’t have much to add to the discussions above, except to argue that the ‘objectification’—a specific form of commodification—of musicking adds to the problems.
One of the ways in which performance and, as a consequence, improvisation is marginalized is in the treatment of music as an object by funding bodies. To put a neo-Marxist spin on it, funding organizations increasingly treat arts and musics (‘serious’, ‘entertaining’ or otherwise) as objects (product) rather than as processes (labor); emphasizing, and placing value on, the unchanging, durable, repeatable thing as opposed to the transitory, contingent, performative practice/identity.
Unless you happened to be an employee of a largely fixed institution (e.g. a symphony orchestra (although, even in those cases, the musical ‘laborers’ may be the first in line for a cutback)) which is in itself a ‘product’—a focal point of national/regional worth—funding can be hard to come by. For those of us interested in informal, ad-hoc, freeform meetings of performers, for those interested in creating spaces for practice, we’re at the mercy of occasional, specialized festivals or value/clubs, neither of which can, in this post-Reaganomic world, guarantee successful funding.
The fact that the AACM, BAG or LMC (and the love of acronyms surely dates the origins of these organizations to a certain socio-political milieu) operated in economically unfriendly environments is a testament to the tenacity and ingenuity (and perhaps a measure of good luck) of the practitioners, but I wouldn’t wish anyone to experience those same difficulties. I’ve argued in a past post (somewhat in response to the discussions surrounding the Lincoln Center) that I “want cultural participation by all (or the many)” and “economic factors stand in the way of this cultural participation”. ‘Full-time’ (following the example of Eddie Prévost, I refrain from using the word ‘professional’) participation in music, and real-time performance-based practices in particular, should not become a luxury of the independently-wealthy, nor should ticket prices be inflated to the point where only the economically privileged can be in the audience: if you don’t need state funding, I suggest you may have a neighbor who does.

an (unanswered) question

Are we willing to package our musics into a recognizable ‘brand’?
It seems to me that the successful (by measure of their financial ‘sustainability’ and relative popular and institutional recognition) improvisative traditions ‘made it’ by, to some extent, freeze-drying the process, and creating a product. For those of us in / from / around traditions that have avoided / resisted / subverted this impulse, are we now, for economic expediency in this current climate, also willing to do this? And, if we did, what would we loose? (But, hey, what do I know: we’ve already had our lists and our canons.)


peter breslin said...

Hi- You can't really sell process very successfully or widely. The Santa Fe Opera's Student Produced Opera Program, for example, while attempting to maintain process oriented values in arts education, still culminates in performances. The students revel in the performance experience, actually, probably because they are thoroughly brainwashed already to think that the end and aim of creative work is performance or presentation. (The great flattering mirror of the audience, the delicious and tangible sense that we exist, mirrored in eyes that watch us).

Accountability in the arts is no different from accountability in education. Performance-based results are just another way of commodifying what is essentially mysterious and separate from the economy of means.

What is being commodified is actually not the art anyway. It's the transaction that reaffirms a sense of self, of identity. This is where the branding you refer to comes from: artists themselves buy hook line and sinker the illusory reliability of their own identity as reflected back to them by their own products. The hall of mirrors provides a phenomenon that appears vast and infinitely unfolding, but is actually the same dull round of narcissism repeated ad nauseum.

The most fortunate thing of all for artists now is that consumers in the broader market have little to no sense of history whatsoever. This makes it possible to be 100% derivative and yet embraced as the new "new thing." "Contemporary jazz" for example, that sounds like a barely passable and rather pale ripoff of the mid-60s Blue Notes.


the improvising guitarist said...

Good observations, PB.
On the other hand, I also love that part—the public performance. I don’t have a problem with “the great flattering mirror of the audience, the delicious and tangible sense that we exist, mirrored in eyes that watch us”, but you can’t have that without the process—the practice, the community, the environment.