Winning Dirty

Posted: June 18, 2012 in Artistry, Classical Music, Culture, Ethics, Politics

There are lots of ways to describe a largely unnoticed continuum between winning dirty and losing clean. In many human endeavors, the righteous and virtuous are exhorted to remain above the fray, to exhibit nobility and purity in pursuit of ambitions, and to forego wallowing in the dirty, low end of the behavioral spectrum where one’s image (or self-image) may be tarnished. Even momentary lapses, such as calling someone a bad name in a fit of pique, are damning. Folks have lost their livelihoods over less (not just talk radio jocks). Meanwhile, those without guile or compunction (including talk radio jocks) operate under far more liberal restrictions — or none at all. At the extreme low end are criminals and psychopaths, though they often masquerade as good citizens and captains of industry while their dirt remains hidden from view. The difference between winning and losing positions on the continuum need not be very wide, but it should be easily observable that fortune — if not respectability — favors the wicked amongst us.

Take, for instance, one of the poster boys for badness: Genghis Khan. His name is synonymous with raping, pillaging, plundering, and marauding, yet his influence on history and genetic legacy are legion. One has to assume, however, that human motivations exceed mere biological urges, meaning that spreading one’s seed widely and using force/violence to achieve one’s aims (typically gathering material wealth but not always) at the cost of infamy can be tempered with the rational mind and a civilized moral center. In actuality, that’s a sizable assumption not borne out too well in human experience.

Sullying oneself in the process of achievement is commonplace with the political attack ad. Almost everyone agrees they would rather see another way of doing things, just like the utterly corrupting influence of money in politics. Yet the obvious effectiveness and utility of attacking one’s adversary and/or currying favor and influence through campaign donations have forestalled reform entirely. Someone made the astute assessment that to swim with the sharks or share in the lion’s spoils, one must first become the monster shark or lion, both of which are top predators. Pure, above-the-fray competitors barely even register. Similarly, reality TV encourages all varieties of fame whores to exploit themselves and lose respectability but gain notoriety and exposure. The underlying bargain is clear: sell your soul for reward, often a handsome one, unless you fail to go heavy and hard enough to make the necessary impression and are subsequently discarded or ignored in favor of some other contestant willing to do their utmost. How else can vapid, talentless idiots (names withheld, but several leap to mind) parade their lunatic antics so successfully before audiences?

What puzzles me most of all, however, is how the notion of cleanliness being close to godliness has lodged itself within several unlikely institutions and ironically ruined them in the name of purity. For me, the most egregious example is the arts. To be great, which may not be the same as being successful, artists must balance a variety of internal impulses and external influences to create something expressive and meaningful. Swing too far toward a merely salacious sensibility and the audience is offended at being goosed and thus driven away. Swing the opposite direction by sanitizing the work too completely and the audience is still driven away, though out of indifference rather than offense.

My personal frustration with soulless, expressionless art goes to the professional ranks of classical musicians in Chicago. In concert after concert, ensemble after ensemble, soloist after soloist, I continue to hear performance (recreating a work through performance being tantamount to creating it in many respects) that is respectable, accomplished, sometimes even expertly executed, yet unaccountably remote and without affect. It’s a little like meat selections at the grocery: drained of blood, guts ground finely into paste (or pink slime), and all wrapped in cellophane to render the final presentation prior to purchase completely cut off from the living source, which is obviously the body and flesh of the animal. After all, never get any on ya!

More specifically, I gave up my subscription to the Lyric Opera, haven’t heard the Chicago Symphony Orchestra live in years, and been completely underwhelmed by the Grant Park Symphony, Ars Viva Orchestra, and Lake Forest Symphony. They all play with the energy and enthusiasm of a morgue. But it wasn’t always so. The CSO in particular has a rich history of recordings that often exhibit crunchy, idiosyncratic approaches to the music. But every performance I’ve been to over the past decade has failed to launch. Nothing is ever wrong, really, but it’s all just so sanitary, despite still being ferociously loud at times (big deal! who cares?). When on occasion I’ve heard CSO members step out as soloists with other ensembles, the approach has always been scrupulously safe: secure all the notes but take no risks. But music isn’t about note counting, which the expert practitioners seem to have lost sight of. In a puzzling inversion of the games played by politicians, to get the job, musicians must become performing machines. But to do the job effectively, they gotta get a little bit on them, which is to say, be willing to get dirty. Instead, they focus on clean and tidy but lose in the process, making the whole experience exasperatingly inert.

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