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.

A Good Community Is An Asset To An Arts Organization

I frequently urge people not to focus on the value of the arts in terms of economic impact on the community. Not only do the arts bring other forms of value to the community, but what is frequently un(der)mentioned is that the community provides reciprocal value to the arts organization.

We had the tour of a Broadway show come through a couple weeks ago. I was speaking with a local store owner who I know is a big fan of Broadway musicals and had attended the show. He mentioned that a number of cast members had come into his store and he had been thrilled to engage in some pretty lengthy conversations with them.

In fact, on the return visit of one person, the shop owner almost inadvertently revealed the purchase of a Valentine’s Day gift in front of the customer’s wife who was accompanying him at the time. The shop owner reveled in the experience of quickly changing what he was saying mid-sentence and sharing a knowing look with the husband.

The shop owner had mentioned local attractions, including a national monument, which the visitors were excited to learn about.

Based on this anecdote, I figured there must have been numerous other interactions with individuals and businesses throughout town and posted a general thank you on social media to everyone in the community who had shown the cast and crew kindness and hospitality during their visit. I mentioned the shop owner had directed some people to the national monument and tagged both the shop and the monument. At the very least, I thought it was good PR to employ outwardly focused messaging.

I didn’t necessarily think that the cast members had visited the monument.  They apparently did and identified themselves (or were recognized) because the folks at the national monument replied about how nice the cast and crew members were and their interest in information about the monument. The shop owner also posted his delight upon learning they had taken him up on his suggestion.

I have had similar experiences in other places I have worked. Local residents have been thrilled to have conversations in passing on the streets and coffee shops. I have had visiting artists express how friendly and helpful local residents were to them without knowing who they were.

One of my most favorite stories is from when a flamenco group and the guest services manager of a hotel struck up such a strong friendship, the guest services manager went to visit them in Spain a few months later. I never had any problems with getting performers early check in for years after that so it was a big win for everyone.

Bottom line though. As much as great events can bolster the reputation and appeal of your organization in the community, a good community can bolster the reputation and appeal of your organization among performers. A pleasant neighborhood with a wide choice of shops and restaurants isn’t just an asset to promote to attendees who want to grab something to eat before the show, visiting performers value those amenities as much, if not more.

Don’t think word and personnel don’t circulated among artists. I was trying to describe our wardrobe facilities and green room to a company we had never worked with before in an email and one of the guys responded that he had been here before and sent pictures he had on file of our wardrobe facilities and green room.

Every little thing counts.

History of Public Libraries & Questions Cultural Orgs Face Regarding Inclusion

Check out this visual storytelling piece on CityLab about the history of libraries in the US.  As arts and cultural organizations struggle with the question of inclusion of under-represented communities in our spaces and on our boards, the efforts people to which people went to gain access to books may provide some insight into the issue. Especially given that the meaning and value of libraries today is no longer directly tied to books. (In fact, 150+ years ago the role of libraries was already expanding beyond a source of books.)

It is generally acknowledged that Ben Franklin started one of the first libraries in the United States, but it was privately funded and by invitation which excluded white women, blacks and poor people.  According to the graphics in the CityLab piece, this just lead those groups to form their own clubs like the Phoenix Society of NY established to, (I love this phrase), “Establish Mental Feasts” and “Establish Circulating Libraries for the Use of People of Color on Very Moderate Pay.”

Women’s Clubs were established along the same lines, and when they excluded Jewish, black and working class women, those groups created their own clubs.

I think I may have mentioned before that I currently work in a historic theater that has the dubious distinction of possessing one of the best preserved Jim Crow balconies in the country.  A few blocks away from us is a theater established by a black business man to serve the black community due to the lack of access in my building. Reading about a parallel history in libraries is pretty relevant to me.

Before Andrew Carnegie started to endow libraries across the country, many of these library projects were already embracing social issues like literacy, anti-lynching, and suffrage. Bookmobiles were bringing books to rural communities.  Even with Carnegie’s funding and the expansion to public access, according to the graphic, it was women’s clubs that helped drive the construction of libraries to the point where having one was a staple of every community.

Even still, there was a lot of exclusion by race:

As I was reading through the CityLab piece, I saw echos of many of the questions arts and cultural organizations need to face regarding their identity.

For example, at one point the stated purpose of many libraries was to promote “desirable middle class values.” While this isn’t as explicitly stated by many arts organizations these days, it is present quite implicitly.

First Rule Of Arts Club–Talk To Everyone About Arts Club

I came across a study conducted in the UK where the researchers found some benefit to new attendees of arts and cultural events having the opportunity to participate in peer-lead audience exchange conversations.

They were pretty particular about excluding someone with (perceived) expertise from the group as including such a person either led to people deferring to the person’s expertise or feeling too intimidated to contribute to the conversation. The researchers drew comparisons with book clubs, but encouraged arts organizations to facilitate the formation of such groups since people rarely organize themselves. (emphasis from original)

Deborah (DX): “It’s really nice to talk about it afterwards. Rather than just sort of taking it all home with you”.

Bridget (IKG/BCMG): “[…] at the contemporary music thing, it was quite nice to sit down at the end and talk with other people about the experience [agreement] because otherwise you sort of wander away with a couple of inane comments, and sort of forget about it. But sitting down with people is an interesting way of reflecting –” [Doris: “It can add to the experience.”]

This deepening of experience through conversation was also evident in the group discussions themselves, as participants wrestled with their own responses to an event and sought insight and reassurance from others in the group. They emphasised that the particular kind of discussion they had enjoyed in the audience exchange was not the same as the conversations with performers sometimes offered by theatre or concert providers, where Doris (IKG) felt she “would feel a bit intimidated about saying something not terribly deep and meaningful – but this doesn’t intimidate”.

Some of the commentary the researchers recorded was very interesting to learn. I was trying to figure out how an arts organization could go about capturing this data without being there. An obvious answer is to record it if that doesn’t impact what people are willing to say. Otherwise, asking someone to take notes. Among the comments the researchers recorded were ones about the marketing materials organizations were putting out.

Even while the new audience members struggled to find a vocabulary to talk about their response to a concert, some felt that the language being used by the arts organisation also failed to capture their experience, with too much of an emphasis on analysis and not enough on the emotional impact of the music:

Bryony (E360A): “For me that description of tonight doesn’t make it sound very exciting – it makes it sound a bit rubbish!” [laughs].

Adam (E360A): “Especially the Martinů one, like that was my favourite one, and it says it ‘exhibits the flute to great effect’ [laughter] but to me it was the violin that was really interesting, and the variations in the music”.

These sort of discussions can be helpful for new attendees because they can validate the reactions they have. Some of the discussions revolved around feelings of guilt about being bored or having one’s mind wander. Someone else in the group piped in defending her “’right to daydream’, expressing the view that if the music encouraged her into personal thoughts and memories, this was in itself a response to the performance and not one for which she should feel apologetic.”

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