How can we possibly continue to enjoy Beethoven or watch touring European orchestras perform in evil, isolationist Brexit Britain?
A recent Peak Guardian article has an account of an interview recently given by the legendary pianist/conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy to the Observer newspaper, in which Ashkenazy urges classical musicians to “keep up British links with Europe in the face of Brexit”.
A distilled summary of the Guardian’s breathless spin: Brexit gravely threatens Britain’s continued participation in the international arts and culture scene, but if enough brave musicians come together in a spirit of cooperation then it may be possible to ride out the gravest threat to Europe since World War 2 and the Cold War.
From the piece:
Vladimir Ashkenazy, one of the most revered figures in classical music, has called on musicians to strive to keep up British links with Europe in the face of Brexit. The great Russian conductor and pianist, who made his name as a soloist in the 1960s and 70s, spoke passionately to the Observer about his continued faith in European culture.
“Music will win in the end,” he said, speaking publicly on the subject for the first time. “After all, music is not just an exercise in making sounds. It is a reflection of our joint spiritual endeavours.”
Comparing Britain’s impending split with Europe to other political schisms of the 20th century, such as the rise of fascism and the cold war, Ashkenazy, 79, said he was optimistic that those who love making music together will find a way to keep connections going across the Channel. “I am sorry about it, and I know it will be difficult to get used to a totally different situation, but for musicians many things will remain the same, simply because we will work to find a way to make agreements for the sake of music,” he said.
Many British classical musicians expect Brexit to set up new travel barriers and present fresh difficulties for orchestras receiving EU funding. The potential threat to free travel for working musicians has already prompted the European Union Baroque Orchestra to announce a move to Belgium this summer. It has been based in Oxfordshire since 1985. Meanwhile, the well-regarded European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO) is considering a move to the continent after 40 years in Britain.
Of course, this feeds nicely into the Guardian’s (and the entire British metro-Left’s) little conceit that by extricating ourselves from a dysfunctional and failing supranational political union we are also somehow hacking away at the cultural and historical ties which bind us to the continent, and so naturally they seize on the Ashkenazy interview as a perfect example of how enlightened artists can help to save Britain from the brutish and self-destructive decision made by the Evil 52%.
Now, Vladimir Ashkenazy is not particularly to blame for any of this. If you want somebody to play a Rachmaninov prelude in such a dazzling way that it makes your hair stand on end and brings a lump to your throat then Ashkenazy is your very man. If, however, you want somebody to give you a good overview of geopolitics and assess the relative failings and merits of the European Union, then you are probably better off turning to someone else. So the point is not that Ashkenazy is wrong (and even he is generous enough to admit that Brexit is slightly less evil than Soviet communism, which is very kind) – that much is entirely forgivable, given that he is operating far from his natural competencies.
No, the problem is the entirely predictable way that the Guardian picks up this narrative and unquestioningly burnishes and amplifies it without stopping even for a moment to consider the validity of the point being made. Where they could take a step back and actually seek to educate their readers about a whole bunch of issues touching on this story, instead they strut and pose and play to the gallery, feeding them the self-affirming story that they expect rather than the hard dose of reality that they might actually benefit from hearing.
The Guardian could have dwelled for a moment on exactly why cross-border co-operation in classical music is supposedly imperilled by Brexit (giving more concrete examples than the unspoken and unprovable suggestion that Britain would deliberately make it harder for talented musicians to tour or work here). But instead, they uncritically write about how musicians will bravely “find a way to keep connections going across the Channel” without stopping for a moment to consider the fact that British orchestras and ensembles tour numerous non-EU countries in the world without the protective shelter of political union, while many non-European ensembles somehow make it to the BBC Proms and give numerous other performances in Britain despite their musicians lacking EU passports.
But the ulterior motive soon becomes clear when the article bemoans the relocation of the European Union Baroque Orchestra and the European Union Youth Orchestra, two EU propaganda outlets funded by taxpayers to instil in us a sense of European identity which still stubbornly fails to materialise. In London, with so many preeminent ensembles already located here, did we ever really need these two explicitly political additions to our cultural scene? No, of course not – and the Guardian’s duplicitous attempts to upgrade these obscure ensembles to “major orchestra” status is straining the boundary of journalistic integrity. Their sole purpose was to indoctrinate the young and cause us to associate the European Union with benevolent funding of the arts rather than their tawdry, relentless attacks the nation state.
(The EU Baroque Orchestra has a slightly more successful legacy of seeding other baroque ensembles with past alumni, work which can continue in their new Belgian home.)
None of this is to deny the value of youth orchestras – I was a member of one myself for several years, and greatly enjoyed the opportunities for performance and collaboration that it afforded me – but the EU’s propaganda outlets are neither central to the British classical music scene nor an essential bridge to Europe. Take them away and nothing really changes.
Compare the EU’s musical propaganda outlets with a far more worthy exercise in cross-cultural bridge-building, Daniel Barenboim’s West–Eastern Divan Orchestra, and I know which I would rather preserve – the one which seeks to promote peace and cross-cultural understanding in the turbulent Middle East, not the one which uses European taxpayer funds to shore up a creaking, failing 1950s regional super-bloc.
The United States, by contrast, does not need to keep itself together by funnelling federal money into youth orchestras in a desperate attempt to inculcate a sense of American-ness. And while many pertinent criticisms can be made about funding of the arts in America, it must also be acknowledged that many of the finest ensembles and artistic companies in the world – the Metropolitan Opera, the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics, the New York City Ballet, as well as the feeder schools, companies and institutions which mould the next generation of artists – are based in the United States and do not have to suckle at the teat of taxpayer funding in order to survive.
When government does not try to do everything, private initiative and private philanthropy are often able to step in to do the job far more successfully and lavishly. They need only be given the space to do so – but the EU has no interest in getting out of the way and allowing the arts to flourish on their own, because then the results would not bear the imprimatur of Brussels and thus would have zero propaganda value.
Is the threat posed by Brexit to the European Union Youth Orchestra a good reason to scrap the whole endeavour and remain part of the EU? Of course not.
Has the European Union Youth Orchestra done anything to meaningfully shift the sense of European identity among those who are not directly involved, or the misty-eyed eurocrats who profaned Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by co-opting the final movement as their anthem? No.
Does Britain’s departure from an explicitly political union necessarily or inevitably mean that artistic links between the United Kingdom and the continent must be weakened? No – or at least, the Guardian have given us no good cause to believe that there is a danger.
(Incidentally, Vladimir Ashkenazy himself lives in Switzerland, which is also famously not a member of the European Union, and yet seems to be able to maintain a fruitful international career including many concerts and residencies in Britain).
The whole Guardian article hangs together only if one is content to take the most superficial view of Brexit, skating around on the thin ice of metro-left shibboleths about how international cooperation and peace only exist thanks to the benevolent hand of Brussels. To take the threats spun from the Ashkenazy interview seriously, one must actually drink the Remainer Kool-Aid and believe that Brexit means isolationism, and in all its forms – economic, social, cultural. To be that cretinous, one must be an unapologetic bubble dweller, proud and stubborn in one’s ignorance of the opposing side.
But then that’s the Guardian for you: a newspaper tailor-made for poseurs who believe (or at least want to signal to their friends) that they already know and understand the nuances of every issue, and that the One True Way just conveniently happens to lean in the same stridently left-wing, pro-EU direction as their pre-existing beliefs.
Among Guardian journalists and readers alike there is zero intellectual appetite to actually get under the hood of any issue and talk about the meaning of democracy and self-determination, whether state funding or private philanthropy does a better job of funding the arts or any other substantial question that is ripe for debate. They just want to take a glib headline and serve it up as red meat to their metro-left, superficially culturally literate peer group (see last year’s uncritical, months-long homage to the NHS).
And so what could have been a useful jumping-off point for a real discussion about the future of the fine arts, the best way to foster cross-border co-operation and whether existing mechanisms of funding are a) effective, and b) a good use of taxpayer funds instead becomes just another wobbly-lipped ode to the Brave Artists Resisting Evil Brexit.
The only result of this “journalism” is that everyone is left slightly more attached to their pre-existing bias, while the opportunity to enrich the public discourse is squandered in favour of yet more left-wing, pro-EU virtue-signalling and alarmist Brexit catastrophisation.
Mission accomplished once again, Guardian. Great job.
This post was originally published on his personal blog: https://semipartisansam.com/2017/03/21/what-european-identity-part-2-classical-music-edition/