Last week the Spring for Music Festival
, an annual New York-based concert series at Carnegie Hall celebrating adventurous programming by North American orchestras, announced a contest
to pick the best English-language culture blogger in North America. The contest involves bloggers writing responses to a series of prompts while a panel of judges and the voting public slowly whittles away the dross to determine a virtual champion. As a member of the likely target audience for this endeavor, I wasn’t particularly taken with the idea for several reasons. Chief among these was the first writing prompt. To wit: “New York has long been considered the cultural capital of America. Is it still? If not, where?” This strikes me as a proposition so preposterous that not even the most myopic Park Slope hipster would take it seriously. It smells like bait to me; the kind of thing intended to inspire vigorous debate but instead almost automatically squelches it. But maybe it’s to be expected from an organization whose mission statement touts that they “provide a vehicle for orchestras to showcase their artistic creativity in a concentrated and highly competitive format in the world’s most renowned concert venue.” And as innovative as the American Idol
model of concert programming development and online arts commentary may be, I think I’ll pass. But then The Washington Post
’s Anne Midgette is all, like, bring it
. And thus, it is brought.
I suppose I should speak as a Southern Californian, and in the great tradition of California, refuse to play by rules set out for me in advance. While I may be writing in response to this and perhaps all the other prompts, I will not enter the contest. If drafted against my will, I will not accept any prize, choosing instead to leave it like Brando’s Godfather
Oscar, unclaimed with only @FernBri
to use the occasion for their own form of protest. But on a less melodramatic note, there is the matter of that rather uninteresting prompt itself. What in heaven’s name does “cultural capital” mean? Why would someone want his or her culture capitalized to begin with? If the implication that there are places with an abundance and variety of cultural commodities to be consumed by the bourgeoisie, I suppose New York is one. It is true that if my house-arrest anklet prevented me from leaving the isle of Manhattan, I’d want for little in the culture department. (That is, something other than great opera, cutting edge theater, and a hometown orchestra that plays somewhere besides the local Home Depot.)
But I digress. Tearing down the New York arts scenes or building up some other city’s isn’t the kind of Marxist examination of political economy I care to engage in. And as much as I love the benefits of a “highly competitive format” as much as the next guy, I think there are far more important and interesting questions and considerations to make about the culture of North America. (I’ve always considered myself a Mille Plateaux
kind of guy if you know what I mean.) Still there is an invitation here to think about my own beloved, schizophrenic Los Angeles, and the way it has created itself and the rest of America–if not the world–up until recently. Although it’s an era that is rapidly drawing to an end, it is Los Angeles, in a geographic sense, and Hollywood in a metaphorical one, that has been preeminent in the latter half of the 20th century, not so much as a site of access to culture, but as the source of creation for all of the consumers of that culture to begin with. The advent of mass-oriented film and television businesses that make L.A. an industry town has done more than just create cultural artifacts to be consumed by a worldwide audience. In fact, it is the euphemistically titled “entertainment industry” that has itself created America and the Americans that inhabit if for several generations.
Of course, I don’t mean this physically, but more in a subjective, ideological sense. It is Los Angeles that has been the primary source of mass-produced images that have defined virtually every aspect of American lives psychologically until perhaps just the last few years. For example, Verdi and Wagner both had plenty to say about families that still resonates with audiences today. But I would argue for better or worse a string of images from The Cleavers to the Karsashians have exerted far more comprehensive power over how Americans imagine themselves a part of a family or not. Yet whether these images are validated or rejected by individual viewers, in the end they define the very terms of debate on a full range of sites of contestation.
This is a living, dynamic process where the means of image production and distribution have remained relatively constant for several decades. It is only recently as the mass part of the mass media has started to wane, that the relevance of these references, or better yet the increasing multiplicity of images Americans are asked to process and contend with, has started to recede. With the cultural capital of the filmed image returning less and less, the identities of Americans and their very subjectivity is being contested in new ways. There are so many more voices in an increasingly technologically interconnected world. How do we locate intellectual authority and how do we continue to know what we thought we used to? This is as true in arts commentary and criticism as it is elsewhere. And perhaps this is part of the thinking of the Spring for Music blogger contest. We’ll sort out who knows what they are talking about and who doesn’t with a panel of judges and a voting public like some televised singing competition. But I suspect the blue ribbons have already been handed out elsewhere and will continue to be so. Smoke on your pipe, and put that in.