Twenty-five years ago, a particularly un-mellifluous acronym was making the rounds in business schools, management consultancies, and C-suites: BHAG. This was short for “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals,” which were meant to “excite and energize people in an authentic way” in “visionary companies built to last” (which was the sell). A fair number of those firms are now history, but the idea has since infected the culture generally with a coronavirus-like insidiousness, mating up with cultural Marxism to form a virulent new strain of utopian aspiration. Three manifestations are front and center today: racial justice, the carbon-free economy, and a world without borders (and a fourth, soon to come: life without death). “Fixing racism” is the all-consuming BHAG of the moment, and a lot of people are certainly excited and energized about it. Who knows what will come of their enthusiasm. In the short term, it usurps the agendas of our most august cultural institutions.
Symphony orchestras from New York to Waynesboro are now finding themselves in the crosshairs. Up there on the stage, they look very white. Optics nowadays being everything, this is offensive and must be “corrected.” In the fix-it-now spirit of the moment, The New York Times’s music critic Anthony Tommasini recently weighed in against the blind audition, once thought to be a remedy to discrimination, which has now, he contends, become an obstacle to racial justice in the musical arts. I am neither a music critic nor much of a musician, so I must steer clear of the merits of “the screen.” Apparently the blind system has done some good, accompanying if not enabling the enormous increase in the number of female performers in recent decades, now half of the New York Philharmonic and a third of the Boston Symphony. It has not done much for black performers. Why that is I cannot say.
Arguments over the screen issue are bound to run the gamut, from the we-must-get-on-the-right-side-of-history crowd on one end, to the it’s-worked-pretty-well-so-leave-it-alone crowd on the other. In between, there have already been detailed practical proposals for a program of keeping and fixing. Consider, for example, Leonard Slatkin’s measured thoughts on a sensible way forward. Wise men and women are still out there, and their counsel ought to command attention and authority.
There is a larger problem here, not only in the arts, which we skeptics of the racial/social justice crusade engulfing the land are reluctant to state outright. Before getting into the nuts and bolts of “making a difference,” “repairing historic inequities,” etc., it would be prudent to ask if the premise is right. Problem precedes solution. Is there a problem? If the problem is “underrepresentation of minorities” in symphony orchestras, what does underrepresentation mean? This will sound incredibly naive to some, but I do not understand and would like to. Blacks are thirteen percent of the population, so is that the right number for orchestras? Or maybe in New York City, which, as Mr. Tommasini reminds us, is twenty-five percent black—is this the proper number? Out here in the catchment area of our local symphony, where few blacks live, does that mean we don’t need to worry about it at all? Judgments in the arts are subjective, and we find ourselves obsessed with quantities. If quantitative proportionality to population is the gold standard for “justice,” then, and I am certainly not the first to remark on this, there will need to be some changes made in the NBA, and a number of Asian and Jewish doctors will need to find new lines of work.
One of the ways in which “justice” and race are talked about these days is in terms of the imperative to make our institutions “look like” America. It was Bill Clinton, I believe, who first trotted out this trope in connection with the color and sex of his cabinet. It is essential, we are told, that orchestras reflect their community. There are two problems here. First, orchestras are not mirrors. They are by nature, like much of high culture, elite, self-contained, and intensely driven from the inside by the artistic gifts and honed talents of their musicians and conductors. What neighborhood they happen to be in is incidental.
Second is the matter of what purpose it is that orchestras actually “serve.” The audition process, says Mr. Tommasini, should be opened up to take account of “artists’ backgrounds and experiences” (down with the screen) so that the musicians who end up on stage “better reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.” Such verbiage has always sounded like political marketing talk to me. Or do orchestras serve art? Do they serve music? Or do they just serve beauty, and the truths to which beauty is a key? Why not settle for saying that elite orchestras, as unique carriers of high culture, are prima facie contributors to true diversity in communities where there is no shortage of low culture to balance them out?
Or do orchestras primarily serve their audiences, the people who buy the tickets, write the checks, and whose size and loyalty are so important to grant-givers, many of whom demand conformity to their own social justice agendas? Like it or not, these audiences are still largely white like the orchestras. Only whites are so guilty as to require compulsory visual reeducation and the flattering absolution bestowed by engineered diversity somewhere up there beyond the footlights. Or, more simply (and this was the old way of thinking), did these faithful concertgoers not simply come to the symphony after dinner at the club for a nice night out, just to hear great music and maybe even to be seen? “Serve,” in fact, is the wrong verb entirely in this context. Orchestras and other organs of high culture are not social services like your local hospital, rescue squad, or police department. Overwrought claims of social justice that dilute their mission should not apply. Our fixation du jour on the BHAG of racial justice, it would be good to remember, was not something shared by most artists at other times in history. Yet the art went on. It may not be a fixation shared by those in the future, either.
This is not really about music. It is about the ideological hijacking of precious institutions that are part of our cultural patrimony, a process that some would say is already well advanced. At this late hour, we probably can’t expect much, though I’ll throw a gauntlet down for this challenge: let one prominent symphony conductor, one prominent orchestra member, and one prominent board chairman stand up together and say: “Hey, hold your horses. This feels like a stick-up. What we do here is make great music, which is hard enough to begin with. We don’t do social justice, or social injustice for that matter. We don’t do therapy. We are a private institution, by law and by conviction open to everyone. That sounds just to us.”