If You Like Classical Music And Are In A Movie, You Just Might Be The Depraved Villain

This past weekend, Artsjournal.com had a number of articles on the benefits of the arts.

One in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked if Mozart could make you a better runner. The basis of the author’s argument was more about beats per minute helping to set your pace than attributing any special benefit of classical music. You could do worse than downloading the suggested classical music playlist to accompany your exercise routine.

Another piece in the Pacific Standard discussed a recent study in Florida finding the benefits of integrating arts into classwork. I write a lot about the problems associated with valuing the arts for their instrumental value. I won’t reiterate it here. Apparently pairing having students sing, etc lesson content helped students who struggle retain content for a longer period.

“Overall, the researchers found no significant differences in the amount of content the kids retained, regardless of which version of the lessons they received. But the arts-infused approach had a positive effect on “struggling readers.” Ten weeks later, those kids “remembered significantly more science content learned through the arts” than those who were taught using conventional methods.”

The article I wanted to draw attention to today was the observation that movie characters who listen to classical music are often the central villain. This has been pointed out before, but in The American Scholar, Theodore Gioia, has an interesting theory about why that is.

Evil is a byproduct of brainpower. The implication is that aesthetic sophistication and psychopathic violence spring from the same mentality, a decadent hyperintelligence that becomes so cultivated that it savors homicide as a refined pleasure like Baroque cello. Slaughtering civilians and appreciating Vivaldi are depicted as two forms of the same psychosis, a connection hammered into the popular imagination in film after film, scene after scene, for the past quarter century.

[…long snip…]

Why do our films depict sociopaths murdering to Mozart and not Metallica? Why must master criminals always time their nuclear strikes at curtain time? The answer runs deeper than box-office populism and derivative filmmaking. How a society pictures its villains is a revelation of its own anxieties. Opera-house assassinations, while a familiar trope, still strike a chord of Everyman angst deep in the American subconsciousness: a vein of populist paranoia that suspects the shiny trappings of high society—galas, gowns, orchestras—exist to disguise the brutal source of its wealth. Decorum is an accomplice to depravity. That we imagine secret cabals planning world domination at Tosca rather than Davos exposes something about our unspoken apprehensions, tells us that the public does not fear perversity or power so much as deception. These scenes materialize the phantom suspicion that the real threat to the Common Man is not the raving lunatic in the streets but the polite psychopath in the opera box. We mistake malevolence as sophistication because it’s wearing a suit and a tie.

Gioia goes on to relate a “we need younger audiences” conversation he had with a front office employee of the San Francisco Symphony. Gioia says they covered the usual culprits of cost, lack of diversity, strange rituals, no arts in schools, etc,. In retrospect, he wondered if a shift from classical music accompanying Looney Tunes cartoons to decades of accompanying depictions of maniacal criminality might be fueling a subconscious distrust of the music.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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