It was time for a letter to the editor, wrote Lisa Hirsch. The New York Times Magazine had neglected to include any classical musicians in its audio collage of musicians who had died in 2012 (save for Ravi Shankar, and ‘you know he’s there for his pop-music connections,’ wrote Hirsch). Action was required.
The snub was particularly insulting, wrote New Yorker critic Alex Ross, as two giants of the classical world had died that year: Elliot Carter (a composer) and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (a baritone). ‘This annual insult to people who love classical music deserves a protest,’ wrote Ross.
It was almost as bad as when the Grammys gave out their final award for Best Classical Album in 2011. Despite similar protests, the classical music world was told that classical albums would just have to fight it out to be nominated under the broader Album of the Year category in the future – an event that even the most ardent of classical music enthusiasts admitted was never going to happen.
The fervour with which these (and other) events are seized on is revealing. The problem here is not just the New York Times Magazine’s unreasonable exclusion, or the Grammys’ lack of depth. The problem is that the world no longer cares about classical music.
Purportedly dwindling attendance, shrinking press coverage, and unenthusiastic government funding leaves classical music in the unenviable position of – along with its relatives, opera and ballet – being the art form that had it all and lost it. Once the very image of enduring artistic achievement, classical music is now often only invoked as a salve for modern maladies: for stress (Classical Lullabies for Babies) or for stupidity (Beethoven for Babies: Brain Training for Little Ones ).
Yet the defensiveness with which classical music is often engaged with in public is deeply surprising to me. The profoundness of my surprise needs a little context. I am an ardent lover of classical music both old and new – from Thomas Tallis to John Luther Adams – but most of my work is related to videogames.
At first glance, you surely could not pick two forms further apart in terms of perceived legitimacy than classical music and the videogame. One is an institutionalised form, handed down by bewigged white men over centuries. The other is a gauche and unripe medium that still struggles for cultural legitimacy despite being wildly popular.
Yet both are seemingly obsessed with policing their public image. For both the classical world and for videogames, you can find a shared insecurity, a deep-set fear that they are not valued by the wider world. The pattern is shockingly familiar: insular communities that watch for and seize on external criticisms with comment-thread nightmares, sarcastic tweets, and protective essays (I should know: I wrote one such piece on videogames for this very publication).
In both cases, such defensiveness seems to stem from a very personal place, as though individuals feel judged along with their chosen media form. This is the crux of the issue. It is played out every day, and with media forms above and beyond classical music and the videogame. You don’t like the thing that I like, and that makes me mad.
It is a wonder why this idea is so very disturbing. Do we really want everyone to appreciate the same things as us? Of course not: then it would be difficult to convince ourselves that our taste makes us unique. But we seek validation that we are not lesser beings for placing so much on something others might deride or overlook.
The tragic thing about such blind defensiveness is that such opposition is the very stuff of taste. Being forced to justify love for classical music or videogames doesn’t invalidate our choices; it gives us the power of articulation and expression. Hopefully, it also gives us the means of understanding that our identities are not defined by a handful of things that other people have made. Understanding why someone doesn’t like the thing that you like is often the pathway to a far richer understanding of your own appreciation and taste.
It comes down to this: every piece of art you ever loved is hated by someone else. And that’s just terrific.
Dan Golding is a Killings columnist, freelance writer and academic interested in videogames, film, music, and most other cultural forms. Find him on Twitter.