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Why "High Art" is in Deep Trouble

I wrote this in September 1997 as a letter to the "Philadelphia Inquirer" in response to widespread lamentation over the shutdown of Phildelphia's last full-time classical-music station, which sent many refugees over to run a half-time classical format on WRTI, the area's only full-time jazz station. Both the classical and jazz communities vented a disgusting amount of self-pity about this.

I appreciate both jazz and classical music, but I'm fed up with the whining of the people protesting the WFLN/WRTI format change. Let's face some facts here -- while the jazz and classical traditions gave us works to stir the soul in past times, they have become commercially nonviable because their communities chose to marginalize themselves.

The self-surrender of classical music to a sterile, scholastic avant-garde after World War I doomed WFLN to the status of a fading museum of antiquities before that radio station was even born. The hankering of dance-band leaders to be seen as high artists after World War II sapped jazz of its vitality. Both genres have been steadily losing market share for decades because they deliberately turned their backs on the mass audiences they formerly commanded.

I would like to see both genres flourish again. I would like to see two or three competing jazz stations and classical stations in every city. But for that to happen, the jazz and classical genres are going to have to somehow break the stranglehold of the elitist, "avant-garde" thinking that only considers art worthwhile if it is difficult, inaccessible, or ugly.

In this century the disease of avant-gardism has largely laid waste to self-conscious art of all kinds. It's time for artists, academics, and critics to face the fact that they (not the mass audiences they hold in thinly-disguised contempt) are responsible. And it's time for those of us who still believe great art can speak to everyone to dump the elitists overboard and vote -- with our dollars and our feet -- for great art that is not ashamed to be popular.

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Eric S. Raymond <>