Does art need to appeal to everyone? To Jay Nordlinger, a writer for the National Review, he'd almost prefer it wouldn't. He is passionately dispassionate about others gaining an appreciation for his beloved form of art: classical music. With a "to each their own" attitude, Nordlinger sees the art offerings available as varied enough that all should be able to find something they like. And even if they don't, that's okay too.
In this wide-ranging conversation with Smithsonian Second Opinion, Nordlinger addresses why he hates the word "relevant" when it comes to art, what drives artists to create, and how much role the government should have in funding the arts.
This conversation has been trimmed and edited for clarity purposes.
Let me just start broadly. What makes a work of art, in your view, truly great, and what role does great art play in society?
What makes a work of art truly great? Well, most people would say durability, right? Something that lasts. Art ought to touch the heart, and touch the mind, and touch the soul, if you will. Also, I think that great art often points to something higher, or deeper.
And so, where does that art fit into the everyday part of society? Or really not even the everyday, but more the grand machinations of sort of how society fits together?
Well, there are people who respond to high art and people who don't. I think most people don't. To take music: I often say that people who work in classical music are always trying to make classical music popular. I always point out, “There’s a reason they call it pop music, you know: It’s popular.” Classical music will never be popular. It will always be a minority taste. But it will be loved and nurtured and furthered by a minority.
Yes, people encounter art every day. Popular music, certainly. And buildings. Some people are artistic-minded, and other people aren't. Just as some people are math- and science-minded, and other people aren't. Some people are attuned to the natural world, other people aren't. Woody Allen said, “I am two with nature.” And people always want other people to like what they like, right? But I learned long ago, you can't have it your way, necessarily. And that's okay. Certainly in a free society.
I don't really sweat over the audience, as so many people do. The audience for classical music, for example. I don't sweat over it. It will always be there. It will never be big. Never has been, never will be. But it will always be there. And that's okay.
Does art need to be relevant to a person's life in order to be appreciated?
That's the buzzword of the day, “relevant.” I think it's one of the great nonsense words of our time. What does it mean? The Bach B Minor Mass is great. Is it relevant? I don't know. It's great. Is greatness relevant? Relevant to what? I think art can be liked and loved and appreciated. It instructs us and consoles us and thrills us and lifts us up. But this mania, this fashion, this fad for relevance is bizarre.
It's a perversion of art. I think it goes hand in hand with attempts to politicize art. A lot of people think that if something isn’t political, it doesn’t really matter. I suppose that’s what they mean by “relevant.” What's the relevance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony? Brotherhood? Well, that symphony is a lot more than that – beyond our power to put into words.
But that is art that was created centuries ago. For art that is being created today, do you think there is?
It's always “today,” right? I mean, that Ninth Symphony of Beethoven is as fresh as the day it was completed – just as immediate, communicating all those wonderful, indescribable things.
Every generation, every era, has the conceit that this time is different, that art has to be different, that art has to speak to today. The best art speaks for all time and is timeless. It's beyond time and place. Western classical music, the canon, is more popular in China and the rest of East Asia than it is anywhere else in the whole world.
Stravinsky said that you need 50 years to tell whether something is great. It has to hang around for 50 years. Well, I’m not sure I believe that. I think some things are quickly recognizable as great – while other things, to be sure, take more time.
Do you think that this idea carries over to other versions of art?
The best novels are readable in any era. Sometimes, I have to look stuff up, figure out what the heck the writer is talking about. Those things are a little different, it's true. But paintings? Sculpture? The best of that is timeless, I think.
So what is the impetus then for artists that continue to create today, if the greatest works are done already?
You build from your forebears, right? A real artist can't help making art. It's an impulsion. A a real artist must do it. He can do no other, right? He has no choice. He has to get up in the morning and do it. That's a real artist. Lesser artists, they choose to do it. They could be doctors, lawyers, insurance salesmen, teachers, whatever.
Some intellectuals choose to make art when they could be doing science or anything else. I know of many such people in music. But I think the genuine artist, the bona fide artist, the best artist, just can't help himself. Just like fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly, he's gotta make art. And that will happen in every generation till the end of time. It's never over.
In your view, there's not a societal need to have arts in someone's life. It is something that they can either take or leave as they feel?
Society in general would be poorer without art, because art enriches the soul, or at least I think. But it's a matter of individual choice. There will always be art lovers in a society, always, always. But you can't make everyone conform to your tastes -- that's what a lot of people don't understand.
Outside of the world of classical art, more in the painting, sculpture, fine arts, popular music, film, television, there are a number of artists who see it incumbent on themselves to respond to with the politics of the day. And to make directly political art. Is there such a thing as political art?
There's art with politics in it. Most of the time, I think it's pretty boring. Because somehow, the art takes a backseat to the politics. Politics is often a spoiler of art, because it often has a hectoring, “eat your peas” quality. It's just another way for people to lecture. It’s far better to do things subtly. I like a movie that way, for example. A movie may convey a message, but you don't have to do it in a honkingly obvious way.
Sometimes these themes or messages are neatly embedded, if you will. I guess you could say the core theme of the Ninth Symphony was a hymn to brotherhood, as I suggested earlier. But it's still a great work of music in D major.
There's plenty of art that's infused with politics that's very good. I think of books, I think of novels in particular. There are political themes in Verdi operas. You know, Duke Ellington said, “If it sounds good, it is good,” about music. And I think something like that applies to art more broadly. A lot of self-consciously political art is really bad, just dreck. But then there are talented people who do it.
A major topic when it comes to arts today is a question of representation. That when museums or Hollywood studios, television networks, any sort of gatekeeper of art, presents art by underprivileged groups, that that provides an opportunity for new audiences to engage. And I think-
I don't think groups make art. Individuals do.
Underprivileged artists, then. In essence, the argument is that it helps art matter more, or be more relevant, to people who otherwise would not have been connected with that art. How does that fall on your ears?
I think that, as a rule, art is independent of race, ethnicity, and sex (or gender, as people say today). If you have extra appreciation for a piece of music that's written by a woman, that's you. I mean, it's entirely individual. I think music ought to rise or fall on its own. The notes don’t know who composed them.
But when it comes to visual arts, which representation translates to people seeing themselves on the screen, in a museum, in the galleries, they're more likely to feel like this is a place where I am welcome, or this is a place where I can feel like I am at home, or I can feel at peace and able to better appreciate the art.
I think that art in the highest sense is universal -- and that great art can be enjoyed, loved, no matter who produces it. Now, when it comes to seeing: You were talking about pictures, you're talking about paintings? You're talking about who is depicted?
Who is depicted, yeah. Who is shown, who is in the movie.
Take a Rembrandt self-portrait. I guess I would view that as a Rembrandt self-portrait, and other people would say, Oh, that's a picture of an old, white Dutchman. I think of it as Rembrandt.
But if you didn't know who Rembrandt was, what would that mean to you?
That's a very good question. I guess I would think it was an excellent painting of a man I didn't know anything about. But look, there are people who wear sort of racial, ethnic, sex-related lenses. We're taught that way. We're taught in school to see things through the prism of race, ethnicity, and sex. It's become part of the American religion. There is a great effort to push race, ethnicity, and sex in the arts. And the people doing this have been extremely successful.
We'll switch gears a little bit and talk a little bit about government and the arts. To what extent should government, local, state, national, fund and/or support the arts?
The Smithsonian is certainly a worthwhile thing; we ought to have national museums. But I think that, as a rule, the private sector handles the arts better. Government handles the arts in monarchies, dictatorships, and so on. In a republic such as ours, the arts have usually been independent of government – a part of civil society, if you will.
Also, I think of an old expression: “He who pays the piper, calls the tune.” So, the more government funding or involvement, the more government control. I tend to think that artistic organizations should be independent.
The argument in a recent New York Times opinion piece was that we need the arts as a protective factor against authoritarianism. But I think you would disagree.
Why is it ridiculous?
It's a very nice idea that art is some sort of bulwark against tyranny, but I dropped that idea a long time ago – I guess when I was in my teens. It's the kind of idea that children have, you know? There are a lot of bastards who are artists, even great artists. Being a great artist is no guarantee that you'll adhere to the principles of liberal democracy. Not at all. I mean, geez. Think of all those Nazis, think of all those Soviets.
Back to funding for the arts for a moment, if philanthropy is the answer, then how do the gatekeepers change sort of what art is funded and what art is not?
I am for a proliferation of presenting organizations. This country is so big, and so prosperous, you know? There are 320 million people in it. People usually find their thing. So, I'm for letting thousands of flowers bloom, and letting free people do what they will in a pluralistic society, without too much control or direction from the top.
Do you ever fear or wonder if that means that certain groups or certain artists won't get the opportunity because they just don't have the connections?
The opportunity to perform?
The opportunity to make a living, or just-
Oh, there's no guarantee of that. There's no guarantee that I'll be published, that someone will want my next book. It's not an entitlement, it's not a right. So yeah, we all have disappointments in life. But the United States, I think, as a free society, has done pretty well, including by the arts. I think that's why so many people from all over the world seek to come here to live, and work, and pursue their dreams.
Of course there are people who are disappointed, in every society. I’ve been pretty disappointed myself, from time to time. I know of no paradise here on Earth. But I don’t think the government should be picking winners and losers.
How is that different than a philanthropist?
There are a great many philanthropists, and a great many presenting organizations, and a great many customers.
As a rule, I don’t think government should be an arbiter of the arts. I don’t think that government should hand out goodies, including purses of money, and decide who gets them and who doesn’t. I don’t think the government should have its thumb on the scale in this way. I am wary of official art – sanctioned art, if you will. There are “official artists” in many countries. That doesn’t sound quite American to me.
I don’t even like the idea of a “poet laureate,” to be honest, even if I admire certain of the poets laureate, as poets!
I always thought the notion of government awards in the arts was a little creepy, myself. The government decides who the good singers are and the good conductors are and the good composers are? How weird.
A number of arts organizations sort of rely on a mix of federal, state, local grants to help fund their programs, their events. If someone does not have money to go to see the National Symphony Orchestra, or the New York Philharmonic, or whomever is putting on these. Yes, they can go on YouTube and listen to anything they want, thanks to the joys of technology. Or go to their public library, also government funded, and go on the Internet and do that.
But is something lost if they're not able to afford to go? Does the capitalism of it all mean that impoverished communities won't be able to appreciate art, won't be able to see the same kind of high art that wealthy communities can?
The problem is more a lack of interest than a lack of money, frankly. I don't think there's too little money sloshing around.
Let me tell you a story. Once, I was interviewing a great singer, and he was repeating the usual line that the public schools are starved of money. There’s just not enough money for the arts. I knew this was nonsense, because per-pupil spending is through the roof, but I never argue with an interviewee. I said to this fellow, “Tell me about your own music education, early on.” (He came from a small town.)
“Oh, it was great!” he said. “Our principal doubled as the music teacher. We went down into the basement for music class – music hour. We didn’t even have a piano, just a pitch pipe. But, boy, did we learn.”
And I said to him – gently, not in an obnoxious, gotcha way – “That didn’t take very much money, did it?” No. All it took was someone who cared. Someone who gave a damn. Someone willing to pass on music to the next generation.
So, money is great, but it’s not everything. What is most needed is parents, teachers, and others who simply care. That’s what will keep the arts burning, for those who want it.
(Banner image: Nam June Paik, "Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii" Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Nam June Paik Estate, Gift of the artist)