the infrastructure of cultural politics
By William Osborne

Monday, October 15, 2007

Thank you for your comments, John. I can well understand how the generality that American new music has lost its intellectual capacity for creating political music might seem ridiculous, but as a larger historical trend, it is painfully true.

You mention a few groups performing at John Zorn’s The Stone, but their obscurity is notable and illustrates my point. Obviously, just about anyone can write something political, but a *culture* of political art is something entirely different. And in comparison to the 30s, America has largely lost its cultural and intellectual capacity for this kind of art. This also deeply affects our profession and abilities as composers.

First, political art requires an infrastructure to support it. There must be a spectrum of journals to cover, discuss and encourage political art; there must be theaters and concert halls to present it; there must be librettists and composers experienced in the creation of political art; and there must be a public with the political sophistication and experience to intelligently participate. Our country as a whole, and our composers (for the most part,) have largely lost this capacity – especially in comparison to Europe . Political culture cannot be pulled out of a hat, it develops over time.

You are quite right that the political culture of European new music has weakened considerably, but it is still much more healthy than in the States. In fact, it is almost impossible for European new music to avoid politics, because it is almost entirely funded by governments. In Munich , for example, approximately 11% of the city’s budget is devoted to culture. This leads to an enormous amount of political debate around cultural politics, with corresponding reports and articles in the papers, magazines, State radio, and State television networks. Correspondingly, the public follows these debates closely, and the results deeply affect political careers. These political discussions are continued in the journals and festivals devoted to new music. There is nothing in the States that compares to this. We do not even have the infrastructure. (In fact, as your comments seem to illustrate, Americans are often not even aware of what they are lacking. I wouldn’t know either, if I hadn’t lived in Europe for the last 28 years.)

I might also mention that Munich (pop. 1.2 million) also has close to 40 small private theaters that are deeply devoted to political theater. That sort of theatrical culture, especially in terms of the number of theaters, also does not exist in the States. In addition, the State and city run three large theaters that also often present very political works. And Europe ’s infamous “Regietheater” in Opera is also often overtly and provocatively political. Similar productions would be quickly forbidden in any of the larger American opera houses as politically and/or morally offensive to the wealthy patrons who support them.

Americans should realize that without an appropriate cultural infrastructure, the capacity for political art is lost.

I hope this will make by perspective clearer, though I doubt we will ever fully agree, because my views as an expat are far outside the norm.

I just deleted a couple paragraphs devoted to Santa Fe (where you live) and this topic, but I will save them for another time. Maybe we can chat when I am home in NM in the summers.