by Norm Strauss
I get to travel quite a bit in the course of my work as an artist and it never ceases to amaze me how N.American music in particular has had such a profound influence in the last 60 years globally. And I don’t mean on just the music people like to listen to but even extending to political ideologies (or response to ideology) but also faith, philanthropy, philosophy and even science and technology. Aristotle insisted that poets were more important than politicians. It has often been said that the artists are more in tune with what’s happening in our nations than the government leaders. I think this has some truth in it, especially in our more globally aware age.
A few centuries ago the local folk music that had evolved through the centuries in each culture was pretty localized. There was some cross pollination of course, like when one country conquered another for instance..but the artistic spread was at a much slower and less encompassing rate. For music there was no recording industry and so the songwriters sang their songs as traveling troubadours or simply around the family hearth. Starting around the mid 1700’s music started to have influence throughout the civilized world by way of copied music notation and large public performances called ‘concerts’; a word developed around that time from Italian concentare (to sing together).
The center of the universe for music became Europe and in particular Germany, Austria and Italy. Bach, Handel, Mozart, Strauss ..let’s make sure we mention Strauss, Beethoven….these were in the influencers and a lot of the music exploration was funded by the church, or from wealthy benefactors. It was not dependent on how well many ‘units sold’, at least not initially. The result of this fostering was an explosion of incredible art and music that rocked the civilized world.
However in the mid 20th century it wasn’t so much the contemporary European songwriters that were influencing global politics and fashion but it had shifted to the United States. Why? Was it because American mothers gave birth to better and more creative writers and musicians? Of course not. I have another theory (shared by many others I am sure) and I think history backs me up on it. That is this; when governments, private benefactors or even churches understand that (good) art has high value beyond its immediate commercial value and seeks to responsibly undergird art without controlling the artists..really cool stuff happens. When those same agencies seek to control it through pressure of finance (record labels take heed).. really bad stuff happens. When they are indifferent …good stuff still happens but much more slowly and with much pain.
I have a songwriter friend in Germany whom I have often heard remark on the stunting of the evolution of Germany’s musical influence during the world wars. During the 30’s and 40’s the Nazis especially were uber controlling of the arts and were experts at turning art into propaganda. Any serious artists were either highly controlled or deported or worse (obviously not the first time in history this has occurred). However in stark contrast to Germany during this time was President Roosevelt’s New Deal Arts Program which went for 11 years in total starting 1933. This was a government financed initiative that was put in place during the great depression to bolster the American moral. What a daring thought in a time of great troubles!
Under Roosevelt’s multi-faceted plan millions of Americans went to a concerts, arts exhibits and plays for the first time. There were 225,000 concerts to audiences totaling a budget of 150 million. Plays and performances to audiences -total budget 30 million. 475,000 works of art and 276 full-length books were commissioned. Many artists became famous and had their careers launched during these days. Many of these works of art are still viewable in national archives and museums.
‘There was a time when the people of this country would not have thought that the inheritance of art belonged to them. . . .A few generations ago, the people of this country were often taught. . .that art was something foreign to America and to themselves—something imported from another continent, something from an age which was not theirs—something they had no part in…’
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dedication of the National Gallery of Art, March 17, 1941.
Did it work? Yes. It boosted moral I am sure (hard to quantify) but it also had further reaching effects.
There may be other factors, but I believe this is the primary reason why, only a decade or so later, American-birthed music such as swing, jazz, blues and rock and roll started to take the world by force while the former seminal music ‘wells’ like Europe dried up. This happened also in theatre and literature. Because someone with some money, insight and courage decided to act on instinct and thereby greatly enhance the artistic community in a time when that community was needed the most.
I have known several wealthy people in my lifetime who don’t even know this history but who feel the principle by instinct and have acted upon it. The result is that I have seen artistic and cultural ground plowed and re-planted while lives have been enriched. I am always amazed at this principle and like to observe it in action. I only hope our governments are also able to remember this.. but then I guess that’s our job to remind them as well.
Artists need time and support in order to explore and break new ground. It doesn’t work in a vacuum. Inventing new melodies, movement, color combinations, poetic rhythm, storylines.. all that stuff is risky and risk is not financially viable most of the time. Art has to be communal and valued within that community or it will suck. Not a new concept, but that part of the support process is often overlooked or misunderstood in the shadow of record deals, image making machines and financially forced artistic output.
As one important artist said once; Roll over Beethoven….