Jody Nagel
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What does "Fine" mean in the name "College of Fine Arts"?
What Should it mean?

 
 
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What does "Fine" mean in the name "College of Fine Arts"?
What Should it mean?

by Jody Nagel
Opinion
 

(Address to the dean of the Ball State University College of Fine Arts
and the college's pre-tenure tenure-track faculty, February 20, 1997.)
 
 

As a composer, I am limiting my remarks to the realm of those compositions performed by ensembles in the BSU School of Music (SOM). I am in no way commenting on the performing or conducting skills of those persons involved in playing the music. Nor am I commenting on art, dance, theater, or sculpture (etc.), of which I know not enough to remark on anything. If, perchance, my remarks have an applicable analogy in these areas as well, so be it.
 
I will begin by stating my philosophical base. I agree with Harvard Philosopher Hillary Putnam on several points concerning the topic of "relativism", the notion that all beliefs are equally good and purely a matter of subjective opinion. Firstly, a passionate opposition to all forms of political, moral, and intellectual authoritarianism (which most intelligent people feel) does not logically require a philosophical commitment to relativism. (H. Putnam, Reason, Truth and History, Cambridge University Press, p.149.) Secondly, we would not at all be better off in the long run if we abandon notions of "impartiality," "consistency," and "reasonableness," even if all we ever do is approximate these qualities in our life. The opposite notion, that there are only "subjective" beliefs about such things, with no "objective" reality about values, is a critical error. (Putnam, p. 164.) As Putnam so aptly puts it, "If any point of view is as good as any other, then why isn't the point of view that relativism is false as good as any other?" (Putnam, p. 119.)
 
I want to discuss "quality." What is it in musical composition? (Or, at least, what isn't it?) I will begin with an analogy. Mexico City is the largest city on Earth, with over 20 million people. Half of them, 10 million people, live in cardboard shacks in a 10-mile swath of abject poverty encircling the city. Yet, in spite of the vast numbers, schools of architecture around the world do not teach "Mexican cardboard-shack design" as a form of human fine art. A social worker, using desperate measures, may try to improve upon "cardboard shack design" for the purposes of survival, but no one refers to the resultant structures as works of art. Now, in spite of the vast numbers of artistically and musically illiterate Americans living within the current pop music ghetto, there is no basis for considering this type of (what-is-to-me trashy) music to be "fine art." This music, found now in every human establishment, and from which everyone lacks the freedom to escape, has created (ironically) the "new ability" people have developed for "tuning out" the music, something unheard of in earlier centuries. According to Homer, Odysseus almost went insane and many a sailor were drawn to their deaths because of the beauty within the music of the Sirens. To go to the other extreme, a modern American in a shopping mall probably does not even notice there is any music at all. Surely the automatic ability to "tune out" music represents the death of music as a life-enriching form of art.
 
Plato said that the character of a nation is determined by the type of music that it listens to. How can our nation solve its political and economic problems, its problems of crime, education and the environment, when the average person is incapable of comprehending relationships, thanks to the mind-deadening music that it hears. The ancient world never separated the study of math and music, because the two are both nothing if not the study of relationships, cognitive as well as perceptual. The art of music is dying in this country, and is being replaced with mindless entertainment. As far as I am concerned, this is the death of society. (Certainly, at any rate, such a desensitized person is unqualified to be a true musician, and has no business being a "music major.")
 
Within the BSU School of Music, the poverty of aesthetic worth, the limited range of expression, static feeling, and non-intellectual interest in the "compositions" played by the Marching Band, not to mention the commercial pop music played by virtually all the secretaries and staff on their radios in SOM offices and the college's computer labs gives students a false idea that what they encounter in the SOM (just as they do in the other areas of their lives) is legitimate fine art. And to make matters worse, some ethnomusicologists around the country, like most anthropologists that have completely bought in to philosophical relativism, would have us believe that Eskimo whale-hunting chants are of equal worth to a Beethoven symphony. In principle, I am in favor of multi-culturalism; (note that I am married to a Korean woman, and have a strong personal interest in traditional Asian forms of art music.) But I am interested in encountering the great art of various cultures, and am unwilling to use musical trash from around the world just to be "multi-cultural." The cardboard shacks of Mexico City, Mexico are not of equal architectural worth to the Taj Mahal mausoleum in Agra, India. And the vast majority of human musical activity is not fine art either.
 
To resort to relativism and make the claim that all musical aesthetics is simply individual taste is philosophical nonsense. Of a Beethoven Symphony (to use one good example) it can be analytically demonstrated that the work has superior formal design, and a vast range of expression by use of different melodic, harmonic and rhythmic motivic designs, etc. The compositions of Beethoven, or, to use another example, the electronic masterpieces of Stockhausen, represent immense human achievement. A whaling song, or an American pop song, does not. And before anyone objects that this can not be appreciated before one learns the language and vocabulary of the music, you need not bother. I quite agree, and thus we have schools of music... to teach young minds the great language of those who came before (firstly of their own culture, and secondly, if possible, of other cultures) so that they may be offered the potential of developing a great individual voice of their own... not so that they can have affirmed that what they already have encountered in their lives is just as good as anything else. Realizing that all students certainly will not become great, I nevertheless tell my students that attempting to be great, and failing, is infinitely better than attempting to be mediocre and succeeding.
 
The claim that this all merely represents my value system of intellectual education, is to imply that those who embrace ignorance and stupidity (as seemingly do many of my students) are equally deserving of their unformed opinions within an institution of higher learning. I personally deplore and despise this scenario. One may choose to become educated, or one may choose not to become educated. But one may not call the state of being uneducated, "being educated."
 
The College of Fine Arts must embrace a love of "rationality" for choosing what is "fine." As Hillary Putman implied in his book Reason, Truth and History, this may produce absolute non-agreement among the most rational of faculty as to what is fine. But the attempt to live rationally and with high expectations concerning the very stuff of art and music, is necessary and is a much superior state of affairs than to resign ourselves to an embraced relativism.
 
If the College of Fine Arts (at least as I see it in the School of Music) continues to hold its relativism-based orientation (with such statements as "Well you just don't like pop music. [or marching band or show choir music, etc.] I do! I have a right to my opinion, too!") and continues to cater to the political/economic winds that allow half of the music majors to be would-be marching band directors, believing, therefore, that they can claim to be "musically educated people," while they are certainly not, then the College has, of course, the freedom to make that choice. If this is what everyone wants, then I humbly submit that the name of our college be changed to "The College of Popular Arts," or "The College of Commercial Arts," and that we simply disregard any pretense of being a college of fine arts. We already have too much corrupt "NewSpeak" in our language, and I, for one, will never call bad "good." At least, let us use language properly and describe ourselves as to our true attempted intentions, whether that be with the terms "fine" or "popular." (Or, logically-speaking, both.)
 
I would like to say a bit more. One usual accusation against those that defend fine art, is that they are elitist. Elitism is a term used to describe people in power deciding which aspects of the culture are to be given access to the remainder of the people. (The Random House College Dictionary defines "elitism" as "the practice of or belief in rule by an elite.") The Esterházy court for which Haydn composed his music from 1760 to 1790 was elitist, to be sure. The many peasants, through whose sweat was paid Haydn's Kapellmeister position, never would have had access to hearing those works. Now, however, we have libraries and PBS radio and TV for the taking. They cry out for people to partake of what they have to offer, with very few takers. At the same time, the commercial music business decides in advance which music will become "hits" and how stylistically it is to be written. They decide what must be played by which commercial radio stations. They in power decide which music people will and will not have access to, and be brainwashed by, based on their notions of making profit. So I say, who is the one who is elitist? It is not the late-20th-century American defender of fine art. Elitism is about power. I am discussing quality, the quality of the art objects themselves, not power. Stupidity, ignorance, mass brainwashing, and aesthetic trash is still what it is...(to me, bad); even if those possessing such values dislike that fact about themselves. Trash is trash, regardless if someone misuses the term "elitism" and applies it to us.
 
Finally, I wish to mention one of my particular areas of teaching within the School of Music. The Music Engineering and Technology (MET) program is one of several of the areas in the SOM that maintains the traditional academic values of mind-expanding curiosity and musical exploration; as opposed to the opposite value of mind-numbing, thought-stopping "entertainment." Yet while the Marching Band in December, 1996, was given many thousands of dollars to transport its compositional nothingness (again, my assessment of the compositions, and not the skill with which they were performed or directed) to Las Vegas and back, representing Ball State University, the MET program was being deliberately sabotaged as a refrigeration plant that outputs a 120Hz frequency, at over 90 decibels, was constructed 15 yards in back of the MET facility. There is no other location for the MET program possible at this time. It would have become impossible to teach in such an environment, and it would have been even much less possible to audio record anything at all, except for the fact that, at the last moment, a cement enclosure was built surrounding the noise and a bank of earth was plowed in between the two buildings. Even so, it is very loud when arriving in the parking lot. Furthermore, this almost unique cross-disciplinary program is, apparently, now being required to have over 30 credit hours cut from it. Some sense of a desire for national standardization of the content of schools-of-music is presumably to blame. So, the MET program dies either way, while the marching band flourishes. The SOM will most likely lose about 20% of its undergraduates over the next year or so, if the MET program ceases. And those will be the statistically brightest 20% with, according to Dr. Cleve Scott, the highest SOM sub-group's average SAT scores. All the performance studios, who detest electronic music, nevertheless do not mind the 20% extra MET students they teach that they get to document as justifying their existence. The cessation of one program and the flourishing of another is not in-and-of-itself philosophically wrong. What would be wrong would be to continue calling our college a College of "Fine" Arts if this is how we will continue to make decisions in the future. I, for one, desire the BSU School of Music to represent Fine Art.
 
 
Dr. Jody Nagel, February 19, 1997
 
Nagel was at that time Assistant Professor of Music Theory and Composition at Ball State University.
He is now Associate Professor at BSU.
 
 
 

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