In what ways are the arts themselves (and our understanding of them) being shaped to serve the ethos of corporate profit-making?
By Bill Marx
We are always “following the money” in politics. But what about the arts? When it comes to culture, the popular assumption is that philanthropists, corporations, and governmental organizations are neutral or idealistic players, funding imaginative projects dreamed up by artists and institutions. But can we make this assumption so easily, particularly at a time when power and wealth is being accumulated by a smaller and smaller number of financial giants whose strategies are obsessively transactional? Whose very action is monetized, branded, and make use of metrics that measure performance as well as financial return?
I wrote about this question regarding the criminal super-bank Wells Fargo (the second-largest arts-loving bank in the country) and its 2016 advertising campaign for Teen Financial Education Day. The ‘botched’ message in the ads reflected current corporate mentality: that an education in science and math is more valuable than a career in the arts. There was an outcry and the ads were changed. But notion that the arts are valuable primarily because they are useful — they can be of service in the job market (or ameliorating social problems) — is symptomatic of a far larger problem. In what ways are the arts themselves (and our understanding of them) being shaped to serve the ethos of profit-making?
Critics and academics are examining this provocative question. A recent volume I found particularly illuminating was Dale Chapman’s The Jazz Bubble: Neoclassical Jazz in Neoliberal Culture (University of California Press, 296 pages, $34.95, paperback): it looks at the interactions among philanthropy, politics, and jazz since the 1980s. Chapman is interested in the aesthetic of neoclassical jazz and how its success (as well as its vision of jazz history) reflects the rise of an increasingly powerful corporate culture around the world.
Ian Patterson, in his thoughtful review of The Jazz Bubble in All About Jazz, sums up the thrust of the book: “Via a series of case studies that range from the music itself to record label ideology and the myriad financial maneuverings behind the setting up of jazz venues, the author joins the dots between between culture and socio-economics in an era of global financialization. For Chapman, neoclassical jazz can serve as a prism through which to understand late twentieth and early twenty first century capitalism, and the story he weaves is a compelling one.”
One intriguing section of Chapman’s argument explores why, at a time that some larger, corporate funded jazz venues are thriving, smaller, independent clubs are on the wane. Moneyed knights in shining armor, claiming they want to rescue of the arts, turn out to be homogenizers or for-profit players in disguise. Chapman writes:
We come to see cities with formerly vibrant jazz ecologies, dense networks of local venues, give themselves over to jazz monocultures based upon a small handful of upmarket jazz institutions, each of these bankrolled through “speculative urbanism” of redevelopment agencies and public-private partnerships.
Chapman, an Associate Professor of Music at Bates College, is writing about jazz, but a number of his ideas about cultural commodification apply to what is happening in the performing arts. I sent him questions via e-mail, asking why corporate funded culture is so dangerous for subversive art making, how big money, a champion of the conservative, is transforming our understanding of the history of the arts, and if Chapman sees any solutions to the problems he points out.
The Arts Fuse: The Jazz Bubble explores a puzzling cultural paradox, On the one hand, there is hefty support for a certain kind of jazz (neoclassical) by large corporations in large venues in big cities. Well financed jazz performing arts centers in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New Orleans tout themselves as ways in which state and corporate entities can treat jazz as a “site of urban philanthropy.” Yet jazz struggles to survive on a grass roots level — from the increasing closure of small clubs to a dearth of commercial appeal. What is going on?
Dale Chapman: In my view, what is happening in the contemporary urban context is that jazz is presently understood less as a commercially viable expressive form in its own right than as a symbol of something else: as an artistic practice that is seen as both “legitimate” (in other words, as inoffensive to established institutions), and as contributing to multiculturalism, through its links to communities of color. Thus, jazz becomes the kind of genre that can give an imprimatur of both respectability and social inclusivity to a large redevelopment project, even while it may be of little interest to a prospective for-profit club owner, looking to cover the significant expenses of operating a venue in an expensive urban center without the benefit of grant money or transformative donations. As Marty Khan has observed, the kind of venue that might have been found even in mid-sized cities several decades ago — the kind of small, for-profit jazz club that is able to pay mid-range artists while still covering its overhead — is now in quite short supply, particularly outside of affluent metropoles such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.
Both ends of this spectrum — the disappearance of the small for-profit club, and the proliferation of performing arts centers that function as part of investment-driven, public-private redevelopment initiatives — derive from a finance-centered conception of the city, of urban centers that see skyrocketing real estate values as a result of financial speculation, and that see redevelopment initiatives as another site where investment opportunities become available to a global class of financial investors.
AF: Your book looks at how global financialization is not only shaping how jazz is marketed, but how it is made and understood. For example, corporations are attracted to jazz because improvisation is about ‘risk’ — and today’s capitalism thrives on risk.
Chapman: Yes — one of the more fascinating developments in corporate culture over the past two decades is the rise of what management theorists refer to as “arts-based” methods for cultivating workforce sensibilities, and an important subset of this development (as my colleagues Mark Laver and Ken Prouty have pointed out) is the creation of workshops and demonstrations centered around jazz as a metaphor for contemporary business strategy. I am particularly interested in the way that the risk inherent in jazz improvisation contributes to the appeal of the music for management theorists: the volatility of market forces demands from workers a nimble, flexible, and largely ad hoc approach to new situations. Consequently, jazz performance is trotted out as a point of reference in contexts ranging from workshops conducted for corporate clients to presentations at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
AF: Why are corporations and philanthropies so concerned with supporting jazz that is conservative? Why is experimental or unconventional jazz such a threat?
Chapman: In the case of large nonprofit venues, the Jazz at Lincoln Center model has been a powerful one, because of the compelling vision that Wynton Marsalis has advanced on its behalf: jazz, for JALC, is understood as a music that celebrates the importance of tradition and American democracy, that seems to embody a safe and palatable conception of musical dynamism (other scholars have pointed out its emphasis upon “swing”) — and it’s music that is seen as having a degree of proximity to Western classical music, which remains a known quantity for a certain kind of established arts patron.
There are definitely cases where large institutions are willing to program music beyond the very limited jazz canon presupposed by these parameters; the SF Jazz Center, for instance, has a more expansive vision that has seen programming curated by figures such as Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer, Bill Frisell, or Esperanza Spalding. I suspect they are able to do this because of the different “brand” that SF Jazz has cultivated in its bid to attract distinctively Bay Area audiences and donors. However, I think in many contexts, it is true that programming more experimental forms of jazz and improvised music remains a tougher “sell” for mainstream nonprofits, in part because the music’s aesthetics — its dense textures, its harmonic dissonances, its unpredictable forms — makes it more difficult to commodify. The ability to “package” music for listeners was crucial for an institution such as Jazz at Lincoln Center, which was able to find in the traditional jazz canon an analogue to the predictable, perennial “warhorses” of the classical repertory, rolled out each season for BSO or New York Philharmonic subscribers.
AF: What aspects of the history of jazz are in danger of being forgotten with the rise of neoclassicism?
Chapman: The problem with neoclassicism, as it consolidated itself in the 1990s, is that as a genre tasked with carefully reproducing and revisiting earlier moments in jazz history, its own conception of that history was sharply delimited, emphasizing certain areas and often simply excluding other ones. For awhile, I think we may have lost sight of the considerable diversity of musics on offer in the 1980s and 1990s in the U.S., where the “young lions” thing shared the stage with the music of David Murray and Arthur Blythe, with Steve Coleman’s M-BASE project, with the cluster of artists working around the Knitting Factory, with the smooth jazz / contemporary jazz radio formats, and in the 1990s with a variety of new forms that integrated elements of house, techno, and drum and bass music in jazz projects, or that treated songs by Radiohead and Nick Drake as new kinds of jazz “standard.”
But in recent years, I think a lot of critics and scholars are becoming increasingly sensitive to the range of voices previously excluded from our understanding of the jazz tradition, not merely in terms of musical style (a lot of recent jazz scholarship is attentive to experimental and fusion practices in the 1970s, for example) but also in terms of the ways in which, for instance, normative understandings of gender and sexuality have silenced particular voices within jazz history. In particular, the work of writers such as Sherrie Tucker, Lara Pellegrinelli, or Nicole Rustin-Paschal pushes back against a pervasive notion of jazz as a strictly male-centered endeavor, which is a narrative that the traditionalism of the neoclassicists has both tacitly and overtly reinforced.
AF: Should we be alarmed with what is going on in terms of jazz’s future? You offer an analysis of the problem in The Jazz Bubble — but few solutions.
Chapman: I actually have at least a tentatively optimistic view of jazz’s future, seen from a certain perspective. Given the book’s focus on the 1980s and 1990s, my discussion doesn’t get into some of the more interesting recent developments: I’m thinking here of Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Ambrose Akinmusire, Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper, or the cluster of jazz and jazz-related collaborations among such Los Angeles-based artists as Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, and Flying Lotus. Many of these artists are particularly interested in the relationship between jazz, hip hop, and R&B, and see these musics as occupying points on a continuum in black musical culture, rather than sequestering jazz away from other popular forms; as a result, they’ve produced music that is both aesthetically engaging and commercially sustainable, in a context that has often understood these two things to be mutually exclusive.
Where I am perhaps a bit more ambivalent about the future is with respect to the funding models available to musicians who are not quite as visible as Glasper or Spalding. We now inhabit an environment in which the music industry has become a bit more precarious and unpredictable for everybody: the degree to which file-sharing, and later streaming, has upended the conventional business models of both major labels and independents means that artists of all kinds have to think, constantly, about how to land engagements, to cultivate fan bases, to fund projects, to locate alternate sites of revenue, and so forth — in other words, to think of themselves as entrepreneurs as much as artists. We have seen the emergence of new and interesting models, such as the ArtistShare crowdfunding platform, which has allowed an artist like Maria Schneider to fund her work by granting different levels of access to followers; even while there is much to be said for the model, there is a sense in which artists on these and other such platforms need to always be “on,” to be performing in their social relations as much as in their musical ones. Such entrepreneurial models will only become more pervasive as time goes on, and so will all the things that come with them.
AF: Many of the points you make about the unhealthy interactions among politics, economics, diversity, and culture extend far beyond jazz. Can you talk about other arts, and ways in which corporations are rewarding the safe by making it dominant and marginalizing the subversive?
Chapman: The market pressures I have talked about in The Jazz Bubble have had dramatic effects for all cultural institutions, and they manifest themselves in different ways in different industries. One thing that, in my view, tends to undermine the potential for subversive culture in a variety of contexts is the sense in which cultural production is increasingly the province of a racially and economically homogenous subset of the upper middle-class, as a result of the dramatic increase in income inequality over the past several decades (which is itself a product of neoliberalism).
In the early 2000s, Richard Florida celebrated the emergence of what he called the “creative class,” a coterie of youthful creative workers, attracted to urban centers that catered to their sense of selves. Two decades on, we can more clearly see the end result: I think here, for example, of the dramatic gentrification of New York bohemian culture, of the gap between 1970s artist squats and contemporary hipster enclaves, and of its impact on the nature of creative work. In these circumstances, economic inequality increasingly ensures a kind of homogenization of culture, as professional opportunities in writing, design, music, advertising, and so forth become available to an ever-smaller subset of creative workers. The skyrocketing expense of higher education is also very much to blame in this set of circumstances as well: for students facing the prospect of decades of onerous debt service payments, college itself ceases to be a space of contemplative exploration and becomes organized around the central fact of the post-graduation job search.
If solutions are hard to come by here — both in terms of the socioeconomic predicament of contemporary jazz, and for American culture more generally — this is because they derive from such fundamental structural inequalities. Solutions, in my view, will only derive from significant policy changes, measures that don’t simply treat the symptoms of a polarized economy but that address the very basis of inequality itself.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.