Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Musicology and the Entrepreneurship of Ideas (I)

by Christopher J. Smith
Part 1 of 2 parts.
It is a truism that traditional support networks for both the “highbrow” and “lowbrow” performing arts are disappearing; that organizations’ social and financial models are shifting. Those of us who teach in universities and conservatories are confronted with the responsibility of conveying to passionate young artists and scholars that the traditional avenues toward sustainable employment—even if defined as “subsistence wages” rather than “bourgeois comfort and health insurance”—are narrowing. Different institutions manifest different philosophies regarding their responsibilities toward graduates’ employability in this changing landscape, but unless or until such time as we arrive at a perfectly-balanced arts ecosystem, we have an ethical responsibility to be truthful about the steepening odds, while simultaneously providing tools for improving those odds.

Twenty-three years ago, in an issue of the Historical Performance newsletter published by Early Music America, I wrote a short essay describing the new “phenomenon” of the Internet and ways in which Historically Informed Performance might use this tool in entrepreneurial ways. Drawing upon my own experience in the worlds of folk/trad music and punk-rock, I suggested that HIP might employ the Internet with something of these other communities’ DIY (“Do It Yourself”) attitude. I had learned from punk rockers and folkies to haul my own gear, phone my own networks, contract my own vinyl, subsist cheaply, and perform rough roadside repairs on a Toyota Corolla or a GMC van. I suggested that perhaps the World Wide Web might represent for historical performers a similarly inexpensive yet powerful DIY tool. Even in 1992, I had an intuition that these new tools could be used to enhance the sharing—not merely the capturing—of performances, because sharing has been the constant in performing arts for roughly 40,000 years, all the way back to the sacred cave paintings under Cantabria and Lascaux.

Sharing about performance is likewise one essence of what musicological research can contribute in the world of 21st-century discourse—local, regional, national, and global. At least since the Middle Ages, and the myth of a “Dark Age” which supplanted and risked eradicating a prior “Golden Age,” scholars have experienced conflict between time spent recovering knowledge and creating scholarship versus time seeking wider public engagement with that scholarship. Systems of patronage, economics, intellectual advantage, class-based knowledge, and the corporatization of education have all nudged we scholars toward emphasizing scholarship (reading, writing, discourse and—one hopes—teaching) at the expense of engagement (though I am convinced that even Boethius moaned, at some point, about “not having enough time for my own research”).

Of course musicologists and cultural critics have advocated on behalf of works, creators, or genres, but entirely too often, and largely because both universities and public media have had to sell ideas in order to survive, scholarly and critical advocacy has advanced one art form or idiom over another, often—at least since Hoffmann—on the basis of inherent, inchoate value in the “Thing Itself”: the contemplated art object whose inhering aesthetic value enriches simply by being experienced.

But what happens when we become advocates, not just in service of a selected canon of objects, individuals, or genres, but for the wider cultural value of our skills? What if we more widely, consistently, flexibly, and intentionally assume the role of “public scholar” engaging with public discourse? There is a growing recognition of the value—the literal employability—of the critical reading, writing, thinking, and speaking skills which a “classic” liberal arts education creates. The transmission, value, and potential positive impact of this skill-set are situated directly within our day-to-day wheelhouse. Under the wider umbrella of the “liberal arts,” can we more widely engage public discourse around the values of historical insight, clear and cogent expression, sophisticated pattern recognition, and strategic intentionality?

The self-evident response is “Of course we can.” And so the follow-up question might be, “How do we remove barriers to doing public discourse even more effectively, with even greater engagement?” I suggest that, beyond the simple pragmatic consideration of necessary 21st-century job skills, entrepreneurship can also help us think about our engagement in public discourse.

The word “entrepreneur,” from the French entreprendre (literally, “to undertake”), is defined by Merriam-Webster as “one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise.” In the world of university “fine” arts, we have come to realize that advocacy, teaching, and research can all encompass “entrepreneurship.” There is a recognition that entrepreneurial thinking is both strategic and idealistic, enhancing students’ ability to operate in the 21st-century intellectual economy and as part of wider networks of advocacy and engagement. There are not only practical but also philosophical justifications for learning and using these tools and perspectives. Entrepreneurship is not relevant only for incipient performers or promoters: because its skills center on how to seek, identify, and target communities of readers and listeners, they have relevance to the new arenas in which musicological discourse occurs—including both within and beyond the confines of university campuses.

Christopher J. Smith is Professor and Chair of Musicology and director of the Vernacular Music Center at the Texas Tech University School of Music in Lubbock, TX (webpage HERE). Enjoy the following sample of his work.

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