Why Play Concert Piano?

Concert pianist James Rhodes on the nobility of his lifestyle:

I went a little extreme – no income for five years, six hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental hospital, most of my dignity and about 35lbs in weight. … My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising, lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews, isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, …

And yet. The indescribable reward of taking a bunch of ink on paper … and emerging a few days, weeks or months later able to perform something that some mad, genius, lunatic of a composer 300 years ago heard in his head while out of his mind with grief or love or syphilis. … And I did that. I do it, to my continual astonishment, all the time. (more; HT Pete Boettke)

For me, he then ruins it with his ending:

The government is cutting music programmes in schools and slashing Arts grants as gleefully as a morbidly American kid in Baskin Robbins. So if only to stick it to the man, isn’t it worth fighting back in some small way? So write your damn book. Learn a Chopin prelude, get all Jackson Pollock with the kids, spend a few hours writing a Haiku. Do it because it counts even without the fanfare, the money, the fame and Heat photo-shoots that all our children now think they’re now entitled to because Harry Styles has done it. … Suicide by creativity is something perhaps to aspire to in an age where more people know Katie Price better than the Emperor concerto.

Alas knowing that it is usually easier to motivate people to be against someone than for something, Rhodes doesn’t stop at saying his life is hard but satisfying to him. He also suggests we share his anger that others do not financially subsidize his favored arts, and that other kinds of musicians get more attention.

Me, I can admire his dedication, but I can’t see much net social value from subsidizing his favored art over others, via money or status, or even from so subsidizing art in general. I can see the point of subsidizing innovation, at least innovation that can accumulate to benefit many future generations. But by great practice getting nearly as good as the best at intuitively understanding a 300 year old composer? How can that accumulate? Pop music at least somewhat more clearly accumulates over generations, though it isn’t clear that’s a net gain over the losses from fighting for top pop status.

Just because something is impressive, even at a very deep visceral level, doesn’t make it worth subsidizing.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/lukeprog Luke Muehlhauser

    I consume high art more than most people I know, but yeah — it seems silly to subsidize it when far more valuable things are available to spend money on.

    • komponisto

      If so, then it’s likewise “silly” to spend money on most things that people spend money on. Beware of privileging the question!

      • http://twitter.com/tjic tjic

        There’s declining marginal utility. Thew very first dollar a society spends should (and will be) on food, water, and shelter. By the time the trillionth dollar is spent, an incremental dollar spent on video games may do more good than an incremental dollar spent on food.

      • Stephen Diamond

        Even at the margin, other things no doubt can seem more important. I don’t think failure to consider value at the margin is Luke Muehlhauser’s fallacy, which actually involve the standard oversimplifications of rationalistic technocracy:

        1. Only crediting what can be measured;

        2. Extreme political naivete (total lack of understanding of the left-right political dimension ( http://tinyurl.com/6pt9eq5 )).

        On the second, the way to defend spending on “more valuable things” isn’t to support cuts to spending on the arts. The same forces that want to cut one want to cut the other: for example, general spending on education.

  • John

    The mad, genius lunatics who composed out of love, grief, or syphilis are in the 200-years-ago range. The ones living 300 years ago were more like craftsmen who worked on commission and were paid reasonably well by their patrons.

    • komponisto

      Also, the piano barely existed 300 years ago, when the dominant keyboard instruments were the harpsichord, clavichord, and organ. He really should have said “200 years ago”; it fits much better. (“100 years ago” fits better still.)

      • gjm

        150-200 is pretty much the right range, I’d have thought. Schubert died in 1828 (certainly of syphilis), Schumann in 1856 (possibly of syphilis), and that was pretty much the heyday of the romantic ideal of mad geniuses.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.gregory.106 Chris Gregory

    In Australia there’s a fair bit of arts funding. It’s partly because there’s such a small potential audience, partly to fend off American culture (which is cheap to come by but considered lowly and degraded, and not suitable at all for the chatering classes), and I think ultimately as a way to better control what does get produced and to make sure that it fits a bureaucrat’s ideals of what art that reflects the country and values should be like. The funding has a very negative effect, I think: not only do artists need to produce art that fits committee ideals to receive funding, they waste much time applying for and generally competing with each other for scarce resources. Gaining some slightly increased financial stability versus losing the freedom to express what you want to is not a worthwhile sacrifice.

  • froginthewell

    For every James Rhodes there may be 100 other pianists who tried to some degree but did not succeed. Subsidizing would only seduce such folks (or aspiring graduate students in related disciplines) into thinking that they could make a living like Rhodes (or in academia), and thus ruin their lives.

    The subsidy set up suits one group of people very well, namely the academics. This way they get grad students and keep a graduate program running, yet it is disastrous for the students who are misled by isolated success stories like that of Rhodes.

    On the other hand, those who sacrifice a marriage, sanity, food security etc. for the sake of “art” would anyway continue regardless of any subsidies.

  • Doug

    For those on the margin between high art and low pop culture it makes more sense to subsidize the latter more than the former. Copyright law makes art and entertainment a monopoly good, and hence under-supplied.

    There are two reasons to believe that low pop culture is under-supplied relative to high art. First more of it is covered under copyright law, because high art tends to be older and more in the public domain, as well as more conceptual and hence less excludable by copyright.

    Second the degree to which a monopoly good is under-supplied is related to the price elasticity of its consumers. High art tends to exhibit significantly more price elasticity than low pop culture. Observe the much higher attendance museums get on “pay-what-you-will” days, or how PBS must beg for viewer contributions because it can’t make enough from subscriber fees or DVDs.

    In contrast fans will line up around the corner for the midnight showing of a new Fast and Furious installment or Harry Potter novel. This despite the fact that waiting even a few months means they could purchase the entertainment for a substantial percent less.

    Since low popular culture suppliers hold a much higher monopoly power it would be more economically efficient to subsidize it over high art.

  • James

    Beauty should be a terminal value of the utility function.

  • komponisto

    1. Don’t confuse “what should the government subsidize?” with “what should humans (be allowed to) do?” In the real world (as opposed to the hypothetical world where everyone is a stereotypical Spock-style “rationalist”), government subsidies serve to signal which activities we consider high-status. Thus, alas, so do debates about government subsidies. Consequently, while I don’t much care whether the government subsidizes art music or people do it privately (the latter might well be more efficient), I *do* however care when people *say* “we shouldn’t subsidize art music!” because the the signaling value of such a claim (“the status of art music should be lowered!”) is directly hostile to me.

    2. I don’t think the status of art music should be any lower than it is, thank you very much. It’s fun. Lots of fun. Fun is important. It really is. Robin, you yourself once warned, in my presence, against assuming that fun (and sleep, etc.) isn’t adaptive. For my part, I wouldn’t care if it weren’t adaptive; it’s about as close to a terminal value as anything I can imagine. Look folks, all this “altruism” stuff has to bottom out eventually; unless somebody somewhere is enjoying the fruits of the “altruism” (i.e. having fun), I don’t see the point. Who wants a world full of trillions of altruistic robots helping each other (help each other (help each other(…)…) in an infinite Gift-of-the-Magi regress? Well, some people in this community speak as if they want that, which disturbs me.

    3. The following claim of yours is very strange and directly contrary to my experience and intuition: “Pop music at least somewhat more clearly accumulates over generations”. If anything, pop music seems to be shaped mostly by the random forces of current fashion; in contrast, art music is influenced by these forces too, but is deliberately designed to build on its past, and thus to accumulate. This is even more true of art music performance (what you were speaking of, as opposed to composition), given that one is specifically performing somebody else’s work from the past. What could be more accumulative than that?

    • Jess Riedel

      > For my part, I wouldn’t care if it weren’t adaptive; it’s about as close to a terminal value as anything I can imagine. Look folks, all this “altruism” stuff has to bottom out eventually; unless somebody somewhere is enjoying the fruits of the “altruism” (i.e. having fun), I don’t see the point. Who wants a world full of trillions of altruistic robots helping each other (help each other (help each other(…)…) in an infinite Gift-of-the-Magi regress?

      I think Christians would call this “everyone loving everyone”, and I don’t think they see hedonism as at all necessary (either in that utopia or the real world).

      And I certainly can think of other terminal values besides fun. Knowledge about the universe is one. Beauty in music and the other arts (in a sense that has nothing to do with fun) is another. Or beauty in mathematics.

      Lastly, negative utilitarians would see altruism at ending suffering (especially, maybe, in animals) as a perfectly fine terminal value.

    • Robin Hanson

      I can see how art music composing might accumulate, being attentive to building on its past. I just can’t see how playing it so builds. Can we really be getting better overall at playing 300 year old music? And while I might see the value in making sure fun has high enough status, I don’t see much relation between the status of fun and the status of concert piano.

      • Stephen Diamond

        I can see how art music composing might accumulate, being attentive to building on its past. I just can’t see how playing it so builds. Can we really be getting better overall at playing 300 year old music?

        Isn’t it obvious that a culture that values playing good music will be apt to be one that values composing it? If society invests in teaching music to youth, it will probably produce more players and more composers. It seems folly to micromanage the kind of musical activities, playing or composing, that you subsidize. Society may commit to “good” music or not; it can’t effectively commit to composition but not to playing. They would seem to compose too organic a whole for your near-mode analysis.

    • Daublin

      Pop music has gotten way better over time.

      On a technical level, electronic instruments and computerized mixing has made the production much better. Better materials have allowed the piano to exist; they couldn’t even be built 300 years ago. Mass production means that instruments are much cheaper, which for any but the most rich of bands, means they have better instruments to play with.

      I can’t say as much about musical composition, but my impression is there is far more than fad in that area, too. Elvis Presley and the Beatles have been enormously influential, and I don’t think it’s just because of their quirks. They’re very talented, and everything since then has benefited.

    • AspiringRationalist

      “government subsidies serve to signal which activities we consider high-status”

      I didn’t know unemployment was considered high-status.

      • Stephen Diamond

        Those who favor further reducing the status of unemployed workers favor reducing unemployment benefits (and the other way around).

    • Sigivald

      […] government subsidies serve to signal which activities we consider high-status.

      More accurately, they serve to signal which activities State bureaucrats either personally prefer or think will get them more votes or more power.

      (This may, of course, relate to what “we” evaluate as high-status, but it’s not isomorphic.)

      The State is not “us”.

    • Daniel Carrier

      1. I don’t like the idea of the government taking my money just to show something is high status. Besides, why should I care what’s high status?

      2. Lots of things are fun. Should the government subsidize video games? Fun is important, but it’s not something you have to be altruistic to do. People do fun for it’s own sake.

      “Look folks, all this “altruism” stuff has to bottom out eventually”

      It will, but we’re nowhere near that. More accurately, we personally are nowhere near that. There are people that are poor enough that the best thing they can do is help themselves. We can worry about that when we get there.

      • http://www.facebook.com/peterdjones63 Peter David Jones

        > . Besides, why should I care what’s high status?

        If you are anything like most people, you don’t want foreigners sneering that your nation is a bunch of cultureless barnarians.

      • Daniel Carrier

        Assuming I cared about that, it sounds like a zero sum game. If my nation gets more cultured, it will raise the standard, and some other nation will now look like a cultureless barbarian in comparison. I’m certainly not willing to pay money to change the pecking order. Besides, this way I can laugh at foreigners and call them overly-cultured snobs.

  • Robert Koslover

    “Just because something is impressive, even at a very deep visceral level, doesn’t make it worth subsidizing.” Right on.

  • http://www.facebook.com/martinL.epstein Martin Epstein

    I think this relates to Rhodes’ feelings about music programs in schools; suppose the government decides that college professors are a vital resource, and so in an act of generosity gives 50,000$ to every American professor except those in economics departments. Do econ professors think:

    a). Whew, things almost got pretty inefficient there.
    b). What do those jerks have against economics?

    edit: Of course, there may be a difference between what they would think and what they should think.

  • Mickey_disqus

    I read the Guardian article I assume this is based on, and I don’t see that he suggests anything about subsidising his favoured art over others, or anything about other musicians. I think you could, at a stretch, read that into his reference to Katie Price, but it’s a real stretch. Is there a chance you’re reading your own bias or preconception into this?

  • Daublin

    There’s a bigger disconnect: the lifestyle he is describing has very little to do with music programs for kids. Music programs for kids are about screwing around with something vaguely musical for like 1-3 hours a week. This can benefit people’s lives, but it has very little to do with the tens of hours per week of practice that professionals do.

  • Stephen Diamond

    I wonder if Robin actually knows anything about music. I don’t, yet I think the claim that music doesn’t “accumulate” is suspect, in that music “develops.” For example, commenters note that classical music 300 years ago prepared the way for (arguably) better music 150-200 years ago.

  • IMASBA

    “Me, I can admire his dedication, but I can’t see much net social value from subsidizing his favored art over others, via money or status, or even from so subsidizing art in general.”

    What do you tell a depressed person who asks you for a reason not to commit suicide? Do you tell him he should continue to live so he can accumulate wealth for the sake of accumulating wealth, or do you try to inspire him with tales of exploration, passion and triumph? Human beings want a purpose in their lives, something to inspire them to get out of bed and work hard for relatively meagre pay. I mean why innovate to lengthen life if you feel there’s no purpose to life, no inspiration? You can’t just assume life being intrinsically precious and “worth it”, in practice people struggle with it because in the end it doesn’t follow from the laws of physics. Things like manned space programs and the arts exist largely to inspire people.

    • Daniel Carrier

      I research to see if there’s any good treatments of depression that he hasn’t tried. If there are, I suggest he try them first. If not, I tell him to go for it.

      Back to your point: If classical music is so inspirational, why won’t people pay for it? Pop music isn’t exactly hard for money.

      Come to think of it, the problem is probably that we’re subsidizing it. People would pay for it, on a smaller scale. Sort of like how we’d still grow corn if we didn’t subsidize it, just less of it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.marshall.9 Robert Marshall

    Art and music SHOULD be a part of education. We subsidize every other part of education.

    • Daniel Carrier

      Why do we subsidize education?

      I’m actually against subsidizing education, but I’m willing to pay for education because it’s an investment that will pay off. How will getting an education in art pay off?

      • http://www.facebook.com/peterdjones63 Peter David Jones

        > How will getting an education in art pay off?

        In the sense that money isn’t a terminal value. If you learn to appreciate the finer things in life AND learn how to make money, you will be able to spend the money you make on the finer things in life, instead of putting into a pile and looking at it.

      • Daniel Carrier

        Why not just enjoy the more blunt things in life? That is, why not just enjoy the things I don’t need training to enjoy.

      • http://www.facebook.com/peterdjones63 Peter David Jones

        Why not earn the minimum amount of money necessary to prevent starvation while you are at it? What I am trying to establish is whether you don’t care about status (or self actualisation) at all, or you are being selective).

  • Old OddJobs

    Wow, “sticking it to the man” has really lost its punch. Now one sticks it to The Man by whining about not having a big audience and asking to be subsidised by tax-payers. What a rebel!