Mahler and Diva Recitals

Nosing around the Washington Performing Arts site, I noticed that classical vocalists are almost completely absent from the 2017-18 line up. (There is a master class with Denyce Graves, and some singers in orchestral programs, but the solo recital by a big star is nowhere on the ground.)

Whether this is lack of audience in DC or supply of name brand talent is unclear–opera singers are rarely public figures no, and except for Renée Fleming and Placido Domingo, I doubt any classical singer could sell out a large D.C. venue. And Domingo is past his solo recital days by decades.

This is probably the way of things, and perhaps just a change and not a lamentable one–there is still a lot of wonderful singing in D.C. just not this particular dimension.  Still it was reassuring to me to see that NYC still has a robust series of big names and up and commers at Carnegie Hall (three cycles in fact). Most of the names are familiar (many having bowed on Vocal Arts DC stages in previous seasons). Ruby Hughes’ name was new to me so I checked her out on YouTube. Here she is singing Mahler’s ‘Ich bin der weld abhanden angekommen’ Radiant, and jaw-dropping in its poise. (Doesn’t hurt that it’s one of the most gorgeous of Mahler’s stunning songs.)


Books as Luxury Goods

TechCrunch has an interesting piece on the difference between print and e-books. It is written by Chris Lavergne, identified as “the CEO of and the publisher of Thought Catalog” both unknown to me. (And visits to the sites are a bit mystifying–I think I miss some of the context, or are so far from the core audience that it goes over my head.)

But the bit of the article that caught my eye was a discourse about electronic publishing versus real books:

“The medium is indeed the message

We were surprised to learn that print books and digital books were almost two distinct businesses with totally different operating models. While a print book and an e-book share identical content, they reflect diametrically opposed media formats. Print books are luxury goods and e-books are utility, and this has real implications in the strategy and workflow behind the marketing and production of each.

This technical distinction is also present in consumer behavior. E-books — with their instant access and cheap prices — sell generally 6x more quantities than print books for us. That said, a print book will generally generate 7x more revenue than an e-book. It’s hard to generate revenue on an e-book because the whole premise of the platform is: I want this quickly and at the cheapest price possible. The premise of a print book in the digital age is driven by luxury: I read better on paper… or… I like the feeling of turning a page.

You can’t create much markup on utility, whereas you can create a great deal of markup on luxury. This has been perhaps one of the most important insights driving Thought Catalog Books’ growth. The print books department needs to be run like a luxury goods company, while the e-book department needs to be run like a technology company. The content is the same, but the medium dictates an entirely different business model.”


This seems plausible (if arguable) to me. I’m not much of an e-book reader, not because I’m opposed to the format, but just because of the long habit of print books, and more cognitive comfort and personal efficiency with them. (But I do read them once in a while, because I don’t buy them they tend to be oddball classics I can get off of Project Gutenberg. Currently it’s Three Men and a Boat, and previously I read News from Nowhere on my IPad, a singularly inappropriate title for an e-reader, given William Morris’ attitudes about technology).

Books aren’t luxury items for me–luckily enough, but I can see that for somebody who was born digital, books, magazines and eventually newspapers too, are prestige items (like the encyclopedia sets of my youth, or the solemn, and generally unread, volumes by Will and Ariel Durant). It’s an odd thought: a once dominant (and for me still far more companionable and effective) medium is now becoming a prestige lifestyle accessory. What could that status mean for libraries and for publishers? And how might ebooks with their different business model (if the article is correct) find an incentive to address access and literacy world-wide, given that more people have access to electronic devices now than have access to toilets according to the U.N.

Arts Advocacy Day

Although I eschew politics on this blog– that is content that is readily supplied elsewhere on the web, today is Arts Advocacy Day, an annual push by the American Arts Alliance to make the case for public support for the arts in D.C. Arts types from all over the country come to visit legislators, attend events, go to trainings, network etc. The date has been set for some time, so the proximity to the release of a budget that calls for shuttering the NEA, NEH, and CPB is probably coincidence.

Over the years as somebody avocationally and professionally involved in the arts, I have been caught up in the fights about the NEA, a perennial target for budget cuts or closure.  A lot of well-prepped advocates are defending the case for the endowment, but fwiw, here are a few arguments and counter arguments that get trotted out on the chance they are of use.

Claim: We should abolish the NEA to save money and set budget priorities straight on the things that are essential, like lowering the deficit.

Response: It really isn’t about the money, which is a trivial amount in the context of the federal budget. Even if all federal arts, humanities, and cultural organizations were shuttered, the savings is so small as not to be noticeable. An analogy would be saying, “I want to pay down my mortgage faster!” And deciding to forgo 3 coffee shop lattes a year!  The $7 you save on your debt won’t make a difference.

Context: Because The cultural organizations’ budgets don’t mean a lot in the context of federal trillions, the argument is sometimes seen as a “draw”–if the money is so little, while do arts advocates squawk so much about it? The reality is that to the cultural sector this is not chump change, and requirements that organizations partner with the community, leverage dollars with philanthropy, for instance matching NEA funds with  non-governmental funds, means there is a lot of bang for the buck.

Claim: I don’t personally care about the arts, nor do I benefit from cultural programs, so why should I be compelled through taxation to pay for something that I don’t even use?

Response: You’d have to work pretty hard to live a life that was completely untouched directly or indirectly by the cultural investment from federal dollars. You can browse NEA and NEH websites to learn about their grants, and you’ll see that when you turn on your public television or radio station, go to your local library, community center, your school, or venue, and you will be partaking directly or indirectly of their effort. The NEA, in particular, does a good job of making sure every state and region is represented, and that the grants they fund are representative of community and state priorities. Also, and related to the first point about the money, the arts, like sports, but unlike other subsidies (corn and sugar come to mind), are a transparent government program and result in programs that don’t exclude anybody. You may or may not like what is on offer, but it’s available and you can see it and participate in it. When you think about it, the arts sector (say, in comparison with the financial sector) is admirably visible and economical, you see the fruits of the investment.

Context: Government is a dirty word for many: some people on principle want the least possible government and are ideologically are opposed to anything that spends one cent more than is absolutely necessary. This stance has the value of being consistent in its absolutism, but the rub is that we don’t have now, nor will ever have, consensus on just what is “absolutely necessary;” a requirement that every government dollar spent be equally meaningful to every taxpayer is not a reasonable position. In fact, governmental institutions exist in part to provide a means to have this debate and to make the best trade offs. It’s not an argument to simply assert “it is inappropriate for government to do this,” full stop. In a democracy we have a mechanism to discuss, debate, and legislate what we think necessary and appropriate. “Government just shouldn’t do this,” does not a democratic argument make.

Claim: Government shouldn’t be in arts and culture because it makes artists beholden to government influence (plague of ‘official art’ argument you hear from some lefty artists) or alternately, why should citizens subsidize what the market will judge valuable in its wisdom? (a market ideological case, from the right typically).

Response: In the first case, the government cultural organizations are not Commissariats for Culture that make some grand pronouncements on acceptable and unacceptable art (and have enforcement power). Instead, in the words of the enabling legislation, the cultural agencies offer “encouragement and support”–often seed money, but in no way prohibiting other activity in the cultural sphere. Yes, there are sometimes content questions (and contentious ones, I suffered through the soap opera of the Mapplethorpe flap a generation ago). As well, government employees are often not the main decision makers: at the NEA applications go through peer review processes (like NSF or NIH), and there is a program emphasis on the art forms  (theater, visual arts, etc.) rather than on some specific content areas, much less individual artists to be championed or not. (The NEA stopped  individual grants decades ago).

The second question is related. To me “let the market decide and stay out” draws on the faulty assumption that the only elements at play here are these reified entities of government and the free market. This misses that there is another realm of human projects, personal and collective, that fit squarely in neither of these (or a combination thereof). There are lots of things we do–cultural, athletic, social, community, religious, civic participation etc.–that are outside of either domain, yet are valuable, for some people perhaps the most meaningful dimensions of the life. So while the government has no place telling the artist what to create, nor can or should the market, which is in fact not a reliable barometer of artistic taste, longevity much less value. Arts and cultural activity certainly benefits from philanthropy and occasionally even from market success (but both of these are often exaggerated: philanthropy to the arts is a steady 5% of all giving, dwarfed by health and education gifts and for every Hamilton or Chorus Line that go from non-profit to commercial success there are scores of works that don’t or don’t in the time required).

Context: It is certainly fair to argue that government has no business in this “middle place” between federal priorities and the market. But that’s a radical claim, and would sweep away a lot of things that matter to people. Arts is a bit player in this middle place, which encompasses the entire realm of non-profits, some of which get federal funding directly (although are usually out the line of public fire because their funding is not explicit). Even more significant, all non-profits get an enormous boon (and indirect subsidy) from the exemption from taxes. This exemption comes because these organizations are working in the civic interest, something that might not be done through market means, and it is in the spirit of a generous republic to make this easier, not harder. This is embodied in the law that established the non-profit taxation policy. (That there is grousing from time to time around whether this status is open to abuse by political organizations or charities, is beside the point here. This is a component of civic society that is beneficial, and widely supported).

Claim: I really just don’t like the arts. They do nothing for me; and if I stop to think about it, seems like an upper class thing–going to a fancy performance that has nothing to do with my life, that people shut me out of. The idea that dollars are going to that world turns me off.

Response: It’s too bad that we are stuck with “the arts” as a phrase, since it does evoke the Astors going to the Met, an image that is easy to get turned off by–eliciting a reflex, “really, that organization needs my money? Come on.”  But the picture is far larger and varied than that. Consider the Summer with Shakespeare program at A Noise Within Theater in Pasadena, CA.

Now you may not be as inspired and moved by that video as I am. But it is part of what the arts are about for many, and I’d ask you to see that as just as much a picture of this varied world as the swells in their evening clothes at the Met. (And for what it’s worth the NEA’s focus on making a difference in communities means there is a lot of emphasis on just this kind of educational programming, and less for what might be termed the arts one-percenters—a complete opposite to the financial sector bail out policy.)


Finally: a request not to be selfish and instead to refrain from presuming about what others should or should not find rewarding and worthy of government support. You may not find the arts rewarding, but I think watching that video you can see with a little imagination why some people do, and why this might be a benefit that goes beyond a narrow sense of what “the arts” entails.

I can give you a personal analogy in which I have to set aside my own lack of interest, and use a little imagination to see things as others might. I am not–and this will shock you, I know–much of a sports fan (despite growing up with a sports-mad father and a LOT of exposure to every sport imaginable. Hope sprang eternal in his chest, alas unrequited*). But for me to say “sports doesn’t mean a thing to me” and then to jump to the assertion that it it’s not worth a penny of tax support for those to whom it means a great deal–maybe is one of the most important things in their life–is just callous, that it can just “go take care of itself.” (And before you say that gotcha there is no “National Endowment for Sport,” sports gets lots of direct and indirect funding from federal and other levels of government–but this rarely makes the headlines that the NEA reliably does.)

But I have the ability to summon imaginative sympathy (maybe because of being an arts guy?) and I realize whether something is deeply meaningful to me is not the criterion about whether to zero it out–I can consider whether it is meaningful to someone else as well. Part of what makes Summer of Shakespeare described above in that video valuable to me is the same thing that makes a youth baseball camp valuable to another person, and the theater camp or the basketball camp should not live or die based only on the numbers and a deceptive and highly selective argument about what “appropriate” use of federal money is.  Start there, and you end up nowhere.

*Just for the record, my English professor father loved (and loves) literature & poetry more than baseball or golf, and even I can get into tennis (well, a little). As for my mother, she was an arts lover through and through, but watched golf on TV, even by herself (i.e., not with my father present), which is at least as hard to explain to a non-believer as my habit of listening to the Met Opera on radio every Sat afternoon.

Commonplace Books

A couple of nice bits encountered in recent reading: First the poet August Kleinzahler in a piece on poet Michael O’Brien.

“But [George] Oppen taught O’Brien a great deal, lessons he took to heart. Later, he described what he had learned:

A kind of plain-spokenness about inner things. Not to simplify. To know as precisely as you could just how complicated things are, and not to make them either more or less so.

Patience. That there are things you can’t rush.

‘Paradise of the real’. That it was here, if anywhere … How resonant that word ‘real’, was for Oppen, for Duncan, for Jack Spicer.

That there was no part of one’s life that couldn’t be part of one’s poem.

Clarity. That clarity was possible.

That you could employ prose or verse as needed.

That writing poems was a serious business. Not that you had to be a bloody owl, but that it mattered.”

And a quote from a piece on libraries in the Sunday NYTimes (the essay is by Manesh Rao here quoting Sophie Mayer).

“[The library is] the ideal model of society, the best possible shared space,” because there “each person is pursuing their own aim (education, entertainment, affect, rest) with respect to others, through the best possible medium of the transmission of ideas, feelings and knowledge — the book.”

The first library I remember going to, The Chicago Public Library (now a historical society) On Michigan Avenue.

The first library I remember going to, The Chicago Public Library (now a historical society) On Michigan Avenue.

And finally encountered this lovely piece ending a recital recently. Ivor Gurney’s “Sleep” (here sung by Bryn Terfel).

Library Tourism

I know I am not the only person who, on visiting a new city, checks out the library as a tourist attraction. An architecture blog has fueled the fire by proposing the 19 most beautiful libraries in the country.

Having recently seen the Geisel library at UC San Diego, it’s something else (although conventionally beautiful it is not).  But no argument with the Boston Public Library, still my favorite library anywhere.  bpl

The main reading room at BPL, a place I mostly go to write, rather than read.

Of the others on curbed list, in addition to Geisel (yes, of Dr. Seuss fame) and Boston, I have seen the Library of Congress (worked there for years in fact), the NYPL (pretty wonderful), The Peabody Library (although for an event, not to browse), The Washington Library in Chicago, The Beinecke (worth a special trip, particularly at sunset), the Law Library at UMich (which would not have made my personal list of bests), and the L.A. Library.

I would have included the Quincy (MA) Crane Public Library too, a H.H. Richardson masterpiece. And the renovated Cambridge (MA) Public Library is pretty fetching too.