Relevance

How are the higher fine arts relevant to us in the world we live in today? This is a question we face as artists everyday.

When we zoom out to examine the larger picture, classical music, ballet, and even painting are not as old and outdated as they seem. For example, my family has a tea set that is older than Bach by a few hundred years. It is only in the western world, especially in the United States, many elements of what we do as fine artists seem like relics of the past. But even in Italy, there are restaurants established well before Stradivari or Vivaldi, still serving the same dishes they’ve been serving for generations.

I like to think of the 20th century as the teenage years, or the rebellious phase, of what we label the fine arts. On one hand, we had the rebels like Schönberg, but on the other, the Strauss’ of the world were writing waltzes and other tunes that were considered “popular” music. To this day, they are some of the most popular melodies, and many symphonies still uphold the tradition of playing these favorites on New Years.

To explain the relevance of “classical” music and other fine arts in contemporary life, a few distinctions must be explained. There are two major camps: one is that art should reflect life; the other is that art should be a guide to show us all life can and should be. When applied to its relevance to actual people, it is the difference between ivory tower music written for music’s sake, and music people actually enjoy listening to. Often, human pride has us belonging to one camp or the other, blinding us from the fact that the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Many arts students are forced to read Milton Babbitt’s controversial article “Who Cares If You Listen”, yet it only furthers the rift between parties. In my opinion, it completely misses the point of art itself.

Another important distinction to understand, so we may overcome it, is the difference between foreground and background art. To be more precise, it is the difference between art and entertainment. It is only the pride of both the creator and the consumer that creates the divide. The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Who says that entertainment can’t be artistic and thoughtful, or that meaningful art can’t be greatly entertaining?

The issue, for me, is not the art forms themselves, whether it be classical music or ballet or paintings or plays, but exposure and education. Let’s face it, film is the newest and most integrated art form. It combines all of the pre existing art forms and engages more senses at once. It doesn’t necessarily make it better or worse than older forms, but it certainly feels more contemporary. In fact, the first film shot in color was in 1918, the same year Puccini wrote “O mio babbino caro”.

Now that we’ve cleared up a common misperception of time due to the nature of the art forms themselves, we can properly address what makes something more relatable. How is Iron Man so popular but even painters are unaware that there was a biographical film made on the life of Egon Schiele in 2016? Awareness is the key. And the only way to raise awareness is through proper exposure and education.

This is why I think it is imperative that artists stay active in community engagement and outreach. Recently, I made friends with a wonderful host family who lent me the book “Sing for Your Life”. The next Caruso or Segovia or Jascha Heifetz may come from an underprivileged family. The next Picasso or Hepburn may be sitting in a juvenile detention hall.

Overall, I am very hopeful we will find these gifts. Exposure and education are more widespread and of the highest quality to date despite funding cuts to arts education and in spite of the Drump’s of the world. Thanks to our friends in the tech community and many passionate young artists, we are beginning to realize that forming meaningful connections with people of all walks of life is equally as important as performing in large venues night after night.

All it takes is one individual to further our collective awareness. Like Da Vinci or Galileo or Palestrina or Bach, it takes one man or woman to break through the confines of familiarity and discover something revolutionary, a greater truth, a better way to manifest our connection to one another and to the Universe. Best we can do is to communicate what we already know to as many young minds as we can with the most generous spirit, with open minds and hearts.

Jonah Kim