Monday, May 20, 2013

On quality

The French musician Paul Dukas (1865-1935) was not only a talented composer, but also a critic, scholar and teacher, who wrote more than 400 articles. When I listened to the radio programme “Composer of the week” on the Dutch Radio 4, which presented the life and music of Dukas, I heard the following quotation from an article that he had written in the 1920s (the quote was in Dutch, which I have translated here into English):

“Every day the blasé public is surrounded by the sound of telephones and cars that transport them at top speed from one art manifestation to another. They hog the conversation but they don’t want to waste a minute. When this operation has been finished and has already been forgotten again, they do not ventilate an impression but an opinion; especially one that is elegant and that has been provided with a superior smile for the occasion in the midst of all these tortures.”

Dukas went on with some remarks in which he wondered whether music (and art in general) has to be adapted to this rising superficiality and whether society still has a need for a kind of art that follows its own fundamental principles.

When I heard this quotation, I wondered whether much has changed since Dukas wrote these words ninety years ago. Even more, hasn’t the situation become more marked in these days of the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and so on, where everyone has the opportunity and is in the position to express an opinion on who knows what – not only on art – on any moment and to the whole world? Or is this quote simply the thought of a frustrated critic who is himself blasé by thinking that there is some kind of “high culture” that is not reserved for everybody and that has to be admired with awe? For isn’t such a criticism as passed by Dukas of all times? I think it’s double: The quote contains the unreal feeling of a paradise lost but isn’t it so that we need standards of quality and aren’t they always threatened by superficiality and laziness, not only in art but everywhere in life? But what then is quality and who tells us what it is?

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