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January 4, 2011

A tough battle for 2011: Fighting the anti-cultural crowd

If you want to keep your blood pressure under control, better to skip the comment sections on stories and opinion columns on most newspaper Web sites.

Comments posted on personal blogs (even this friendly little one) certainly can turn rude, crude and mean-spirited, too, but nothing, it seems, brings out the venom like a regular news story or an op-ed piece. (The few times I've been tempted to see how readers are reacting to something my favorite political writers have written, I end up getting depressed.)

One topic guaranteed to ignite angry, suspicious, resentful, spiteful types is an article about problems faced in the arts world. Just the mere reporting of an orchestra struggling with budget woes, for example, is blood in the water to the anti-cultural sharks in any community.

I was reminded of this the other day, when I checked out a news report in a Kentucky paper about the troubled Louisville Orchestra, which has been sadly sliding into bankruptcy.

Here is a sample of opinions proudly posted by Louisville citizens:

An unpopular music genre doesn't make a city 'world class' ... The phrase 'world class' is

a propaganda technique used by those who want to shove things down our throats.

Get rid of them, the Ballet and any other useless tax funded 'entertainment' that isnt self supporting.

Face it, this isn't about the music. It is about Louisville being able to say, 'We have an orchestra.' Then all the old stuffed shirts go to the concerts to be seen by other old stuffed shirts. Boring. Hire some clowns to spice things up.

Pack up your fiddles and go home boys and girls. Maybe find real jobs. Go to Nashville and vie for some sessions work. If you are worth your salt you'll survive there, maybe even flourish.

Sale all of assets to pay these people off, fire them all and get rid of the Orchestra. It isnt popular with the residents or they would have packed crowds and not have to worry about $$$.

This whole thing is stupid. The orchestra creates a product. That product has lost public appeal. Just like any business, this one needs to shut down. If your product isn't selling there is no reason to continue in business.

It makes no difference whether these are widely shared views or held only by a few (it makes no difference if they're expressed without regard to spelling or grammar, either). This attitude can be extremely powerful, extremely dangerous.

You can detect something similar to the tone of those Louisville comment writers in the current wave of anti-public servant sentiment all over the country -- the belief that government workers are all shirkers, unworthy of a decent wage or benefits (but they had better respond immediately whenever the citizenry demands a service like, say, snow removal).

Vilifying people who perform or listen to classical music, or participate in any other of the arts, is such a cheap and thoughtless practice, but it seems to enjoy amazing traction in this country. I suspect this contempt will only grow, especially since it so easily dovetails with the attitudes of those now heading into Washington to "take back their government" from, among other horrors, "the elitists."

The cultural community is going to need more fortitude and imagination than ever to combat this sort of thinking in 2011 and beyond.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:22 AM | | Comments (15)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes


The charge that "this isn't about music," and that people who attend classical music concerts do so to be seen and don't really care about the music, is inexcusable. But the charge that the government should not pay for art that is not self-supporting deserves an answer, and we should provide it in the same comments section where the charge is made. But the answer is not obvious, especially in a time of recession. How would you answer it, Tim? Could you give us a model response that we could borrow from when we see this sort of charge? By the way, what percentage of a typical orchestra's budget comes from the government as opposed to from private donations?

I understand that the goal, or dream, of nonprofits is to receive 10 percent of the budget from government grants. It's not a goal realized in most places, I believe. But remember, there are folks who insist NPR and PBS are entirely funded by tax dollars. They won't easily conceded the point about the arts. Nor are they likely to be bothered by public money spent on sports stadiums, even though there are studies showing more people attend live cultural events than live sports events. It boils down to a values. We need to get to the point where enough people understand the role the arts play in the economy -- that role can never be emphasized enough, since we're talking the "real jobs" that one of those commentators suggested musicians go out an get -- and the well-being of society. TIM

Thanks for a fine article, Tim. One thing that isn't mentioned very often is The advertising industry's role in all this. How many ads or commercials have you seen which trivialize culture in order to sell a product. The recent run of ads promoting a company which sells annuities using made -up opera music is one example. It seems the advertising industry also views culture as elitist and limited in its appeal to the general public, and this hurts our cause more than anything that appears in the comment section.

That's a long-standing problem, I fear. I'm always amazed at the tacky digs at culture in so many movies from the '30s and '40s, all the stereotypes and silliness. Yet even in 'A Night at the Opera,' after all the stuffed shirts were taken care of, the glory of the art form was reaffirmed in the finale. That message -- the arts are invaluable, even if some of the patrons are pompous -- could use underlining in ads. I'm all for making fun of things when we're all in on the laugh (remember Roberta Peters hailing a taxi or the cowboy on the range breaking into an aria?). I'd like to see more ads where the richness and legitimacy of the music is what hits the viewer first and foremost. TIM

Save the LO! Only thing that makes this city worthwhile.

Thank you for your comments. As a Louisville musician (not affiliated with the orchestra) I was shocked by the level of hatred and contempt towards the musicians. It all seems part of the idea promoted since the Reagan era that the arts music be profitable or they lose their value.

I think that attitude also explains the reaction of some folks to ineffective public schools -- just close 'em down. Not everything in society has an easy-to-handle sticker price. Too many people, as Oscar Wilde put it, know the price of everything and the value of nothing. TIM

Just to clarify, most of the comments left on the Courier Journal Web page are left by the same "trolls" who trample everyone from cyclists to dog lovers for their own sick entertainment seeking to insight others. It is doubtful that they represent a public view.

That's true of most Web sites, I realize. But I'd still argue that it's a mistake to pretend that such views are totally isolated, that such thinking has not or cannot spread. I'm just saying the arts world has to be on guard, has to develop effective counter-arguments. The fight could get ugly. TIM

I think this attitude is, unfortunately, an old one. The arts are politicized, and used to inflame constituents. Probably by people who have never attended an arts event in their lives. If they knew how little money musicians make (I know, being a musician and a proud former LO member) they would be shocked. Especially considering the huge financial investment we and our families have made since the time we were small children. And then buying an instrument whose cost exceeds our annual income many times over. Like any other highly skilled professionaal, musicians do not play for a hobby. Yes, we love what we do. I think it boils down to respect. I hope the LO survives. Any one outside of the state of KY who is interested in music has always heard of the LO and it's musicians and their dedication. Why lose the orchestra and be like every other city of comparable size? You have something special, and it is not just for elitists. Most of us spend much more money on a rock concert ticket or sporting event.

Christine Rutledge

Thanks for this article. I am very concerned by the backlash many of our arts institutions are receiving by society by and large.

However, by the comments you quote, not only do I recognize comments from the Far Right (tax-funded institutions, capitalist values), but I also recognize those comments clearly being propagated from the Far Left (class warfare, stuffed shirts, cries of elitism).

Yes, those on the Right have been crying for years about state supported arts programs that couldn't survive on their own. But this is the first time I have heard also the cries from the Left about it being about an elite class enjoying something that the "masses" apparently cannot access or appreciate. This is utter nonsense to be sure, but is an indication of a greater sense of classism developing in our country coming from the Left.

Great article, and a relief to read after spending too much time in the CJ comments. I have one significant quibble, however.

We arts advocates have got to stop referring to the arts collectively as "culture", or to ourselves as "the cultural community". That language is nothing short of snobby, as it implies that the classical art forms we enjoy are somehow higher than those enjoyed by "the masses". It will only serve to further alienate the audiences we need to attract. Bottom line: If we don't want to be perceived as elitists, then we have to stop believing we are elite!

It helps to remember that such comments are characteristic of the general level of discourse about just about anything on the net. I stopped reading comments after seeing one too many obscenity-laced responses to harmless, even bland, net postings (though there is some schadenfreude in watching foul-mouthed thugs turn on each other). I suspect that the anonymity of the net emboldens people to type things they'd never say to anyone's face. The remarks are destructive, but it's important to remember that they don't represent the majority, and that the venom isn't restricted to the arts.

Agreed. I'm just not sure such feelings can be ignored, simply because they seem absurd or isolated. Strong, effective counterarguments need to be developed and marketed, not just to the usual audiences, but the fringe. After all, we've just seen an election where another supposed fringe did awfully well. And, when it comes to the issue of public funding (for anything), you can see how easily both fringes could find common ground. (Yes, I can be as alarmist as the next paranoid schizophrenic.) TIM


The Classical Revolution (.org) movement is only one answer among the MANY needed. Obviously, playing classical music in bars is not going to change everyone's mind. But even if it only changed one THIRD over time ("law of averages"), couldn't that make a real difference? Let's start believing that this music, no matter HOW it is played or presented, is for the masses!

I saw a link to this article on Twitter, and thought it was about Toronto! We've been experience the same sort of anti-cultural sentiments recently, especially surrounding our recent mayoral elections. We were called "Artsy-fartsy elites" more often than I would care to count (I still don't understand it). Unfortunately the person leading the anti-cultural charge is our new Mayor. And at his swearing-in ceremony the speech was given by a loud mouthed celebrity who denigrated the arts/culture community (and cyclists, and everyone on the left) with insulting and divisive comments about "left wing pinkos" and the like. Most attempts at conversation with those holding these views are greeted with "stop whining, you artsy-fartsy elitist pinko and deal with the fact that we won the election." So there is not much hope of a dialogue.

And I thought I was depressed before. Thanks for the report. TIM

The comments below were sent to me from my brother who is a professor at IUPUI in Indianapolis. He has seen the articles describing the recent events going on with the Louisville Orchestra. Both he and I were born and raised in Kentucky. He attended University of Kentucky and I attended University of Louisville. My professional career began at age 17 as a member of the Louisvillle Orchestra where I played for 4 years while a student at University of Louisville. After I left Louisville to go to graduate school at Indiana University the Louisville Orchestra went from being a per service orchestra to a full time contract. Over the years they have almost never had a CBA that was honored to completion by its board. There have been multiple cuts and concessions imposed on the players. The latest round of threats of bankruptcy are a pitiful way for this historic orchestra to be operated.

My brother's perspective as a non-musician are right on the money.
Please read below.


Having just watched the TV broadcast of the UK-UL game played at the brand new KFC Yum arena, this story highlights the sad circumstances of modern era priorities. Here is a brand new arena that is financed mainly from bonds underwritten from city taxes ($206 million over 30 years) and state taxes ($265 million over 30 years). The annual operating cost of the new arena is over 3 times that of the orchestra (~$9 million compared to $2.4 million). The events will be UL men's and women's basketball games (including a $2 tax on every ticket to the UL games), tournament games, ice shows and concerts, which probably will result in ~100 events a year. According to Wikipedia, "The arena would generate $9.2 million a year in rent, merchandise, concessions and other revenues, along with funds from a $2 ticket tax on every Louisville men's basketball game during the first 30 years of the arena's operation." Let's see, that means each event, on average, costs $90K to put on, and if UL games sell out, they generate $44K in the $2 ticket tax. They better keep winning and selling out...

I hope the LO board doesn't follow through with filing Chapter 7, but the Board sounds like it is willing to do so. I wonder how many of the board members have season tickets to UL games or their corporations have luxury box seats. Louisville wants to bring in an NBA team, but can't even support a regional orchestra. Very sad.

Robert V. Goodlett, II
Assistant Principal Contrabassist
Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra
QUATTRO STRING ACADEMY, Doublebass Instructor

Tim, while I agree with you that the tone of comments to stories and blog entries is generally very poor, you should check out the tone of the stories and blog entries themselves sometimes. Some of them, for example, even argue that the desire to reduce unsustainable, absurd levels of government spending, which threaten the value of our currency and the very solvency of our national finances, constitutes "anti-public servant sentiment". Or that the stupid contempt for classical music dovetails with the desire for Republican control of Congress.

I love classical music. Like all true art, it elevates us, offers a refuge from the purely present-tense focus of pop culture, and gives us a glimpse of the eternal. But I also want to avoid the coming financial catastrophe that is the inevitable result of the gargantuan growth of government spending, driven largely by public sector unions.

The tendentiousness with which you view this issue is astonishing. The federal government is BORROWING massively each year just to pay the INTEREST on what we have already borrowed and cannot afford to repay. From 2004-2008, spending by states increased 35%, about twice the rate of inflation plus population growth. Many of the blue states are facing fiscal catastrophes. California has DOUBLED its state budget in only the last 10 years. Unfunded liabilities for the pensions of California state workers are more than $500 billion. The state's annual pension payments have increased from $320 million to $7.3 billion in less than ten years. (This is not a misprint.) The state has lost 34% of its industrial base since 2001. From 2001-2009, California lost 235,000 private sector jobs, but the state government added 163,700 jobs. And yet the public sector unions are outraged at any suggestion they share the pain. This is utter madness. And you say that concern over all this is based on hatred of public employees. Unbelievable.

I like hearing classical music regularly on the radio or from a CD, but maintaining an orchestra is expensive. I would rather live without professional sports teams than an orchestra, but I realize that this is a small minority view, and politicians cater to larger groups. Classical music has lost many fans in this country to death, and maybe it has to shrink accordingly. Sad.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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