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On the Value of Art Music Today


As a promoter of the arts and arts education, in Alberta, Canada (as founder and director of Alberta Pianofest, a summer festival of concerts and piano master classes), I often have occasion to speak before audiences of music-lovers, arts patrons, and potential supporters. These audiences are sympathetic to the cause, and they understand at the basic level why they ought to donate to arts organizations such as the one I run: if they support our work, we will be able to produce concerts and other activities for the benefit of the community. What really stimulates my interest to ponder and to convey to these audiences, however, is the question of why we should feel compelled to make art music available to the public in the first place. How does this art benefit the community? Why do we care to provide children with exposure to culture of this sort, and to help those young artists and students who will carry forward our cultural heritage for the benefit of others after we are gone? In essence, what is the value of art music in public and private life today? 

My recent experience of attending a performance of Wagner's Tannhäuser at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City led me to reflect upon why it was that those four hours spent sitting in the dark shadowed me, in unformed thoughts and obscured feelings, for days and weeks afterwards: to hear Wagner's powerful overture for the first time in person; to see the pagan Venusberg themes connected to the sensual choreography of the dancers on stage; to bring the story and its music alive to a particular time and place through the magical, transporting effects of the set designs and costumes; to be moved to consider the opera's enjoinder to moral and spiritual piety by the potent emotive force of Wagner's music; to experience vicariously the tragedy of social alienation and of succumbing to personal weakness… To live our lives absent such moments seems merely to exist.

The contemporary British author and philosopher Alain de Botton asks in some of his writings "why does art matter?" and he challenges arts organizations, such as museums, for not seeking to answer this question for their patrons. In Botton's words, "[the museum] vociferously insists on art's significance and rallies governments, donors and visitors accordingly. But it subsequently retreats into a curious institutional silence about what this importance might actually be based on."1 The answers to what artworks may mean and what their purpose and value may be do not fit easily into a single thought, much less a tweet, text message, or slogan—the latter three having now become the impoverished lingua franca of modern public communication. Naturally, complexity may account for our lack of addressing the public on this topic. 

Here, nevertheless, is a very brief preliminary attempt at approaching these questions.

The nineteenth-century poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold, in his famous definition of culture, said that it is "the best that has been said and thought in the world."2 When reflecting upon those towering geniuses of the past whose contributions to our culture we most admire—whether Plato or Shakespeare, Giotto, Picasso, Mozart, Keats, or Proust—we intuitively sense Arnold's definition to be true. For most of the population, because of the often forbidding, sometimes terrible challenge of approaching an understanding of the great masterworks, the importance of their interaction with this culture remains something that may be sensed or felt by them, but is not fully understood or explainable. If it is just a question of entertainment, of diverting the mind and pleasing the senses, or, if we are at bottom, little more than "wet robots" whose mind/ consciousness/psyche/soul—whichever you prefer to call it—is reducible to nothing but physical matter and electrical impulses as materialists such as Sam Harris would have us believe, then all of us performers of art music might just as well have become pharmacists in a Huxleyan dystopia, administering drips of the right drug combinations into our audiences to produce all of the dopamine-filled happy reactions their brains desire. Art has more than just a phenomenological effect on us however. The experience of art is also a cognitive, and ultimately, a spiritual one. As the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto writes, art has "embodied meaning."3 The act of perceiving, reflecting upon, internalizing, and living out these meanings has value for us.

The answers to what artworks may mean do not fit easily into a single thought, tweet, text message, or slogan.

Jason Cutmore

We are the inheritors of millennia of received cautions about human nature and the various weaknesses to which we so easily fall prone. These insights into the human condition are expressed by religions, poets, and philosophers, and they are brought into view in paintings, sculptures, and stage works. Art music often embodies our experience of the dynamics of both the internal and the external tensions and conflicts innate to the human condition.

I wish then to suggest one simple argument for the value of art and culture. "We are what we eat," as the saying goes. If we understand that, at the physical level, all of our inputs (quality of food, water, air, frequency of exercise, etc.) are significant determinants of the physical outputs we experience, then we ought to understand this same principle to apply at the mental/emotional/spiritual level as well. Indeed, "we are what we think"—and read, see, and hear. Without the constant and continual presence of culture—without "the best that has been said and thought in the world"—we are left continually shaping ourselves, even as adults, by only those influences that are as pernicious as they are ubiquitous and mundane, such as our daily encounters with all sorts of popular media, which, as the former New York Times journalist Chris Hedges would say, divert us with celebrity meltdowns, lavish lifestyle programs, reality television, and gossip.4

In fact, as a description apt to life in the 1990s, Hedge's list of mindless distractions designed to addict us by their appeal to our baser instincts seems almost quaint. In today's "smart" phone world we enslave ourselves, keeping every potential moment of quiet reflection or sustained, deeper inquiry habitually, and unwisely, at bay. There now are so few places or occasions in contemporary life for safeguarding meaningful and uninterrupted contemplation, or even just a bit of daydreaming, that the New York Times music critic, Anthony Tommasini, felt driven to write an article titled "The Concert Hall as Refuge in a Restless, Web-Driven Era," in which he suggested that art music may now have acquired a singular, new role in society.5 No matter how self-aware, perceptive, and analytical we may consider ourselves to be, we are always susceptible to the subtlest of influences by the media. As if it were not unfortunate enough when the arts section of one of Alberta's leading newspapers, the Edmonton Journal, was called "Arts and Entertainment," thereby inviting a conflation of the two, now, with Post Media's strange and splashy new re-branding, we find that today's arts section, as displayed in the giant, garish orange box at the top of the page, is called "YOU." (How redolent of the apparent branding strategy of the United States drug store chain, Duane Reade, in its obsequious appeal to our well-fed twenty-first-century inner narcissists.) And under the banner of "Culture and Currents" in the big yellow box, we find… a political op-ed strategizing how the Canadian Tories should make their electoral comeback.6 What is Art, philosophers ask? Is it any wonder that we do not know?! Therefore, I submit that Arnold's "culture," the highest in human thought and utterance, plays an important role in contemporary society as a sort of spiritual and intellectual ballast—as a counterbalance to the forces in modern life that would keep us mentally enchained to the easy consumption of the trivial and the material. 

1 de Botton, A. (2012). Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion. New York: Random House, p. 210. The context of Botton's argument here goes beyond simply fundraising and advocacy to a critique of traditional curatorial and reception practices as well. 

2 Ibid., p. 101. 

3 Danto, A. C. (2013). What art is. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 37. 

4 Hedges expresses these sentiments in many of his public speeches (viewable on YouTube) and in books such as Death of the Liberal Class and Empire of Illusion. For example, from the latter: "We are chained to the flickering shadows of celebrity culture, the spectacle of the arena and the airwaves, the lies of advertising, the endless personal dramas, many of them completely fictional, that have become the staple of news, celebrity gossip, New Age mysticism, and pop psychology." Hedges, C. (2010). Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Toronto: Random House, p.15. 

5 Tommasini, A. (2015, September 14). The Concert Hall as Refuge in a Restless, Web-Driven Era. The New York Times

6 (2015, November) Edmonton Journal.

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