Whenever I hear words like “relevant” or “important,” I always want to ask, “relevant or important to whom?” When that detail is left out, these words become codes or shorthands: “important” means “important to Serious Art People,” and “relevant” means “relevant to Real-World Audiences.” But “Real-World Audiences” is a code too, because the people who use the phrase seem to have a pretty narrow idea of who counts as real. Other musicians? Not real. Artists in other media? Not real. College students and faculty? Not real. People over 40? Not real. You can sell out a huge concert hall, but if everyone there falls into one or more of the above categories, you’ll still have people citing your show as evidence of classical music’s imminent demise. Because when people say “culturally relevant,” what they really mean is “relevant to young people with mainstream tastes.” And “mainstream tastes,” unfortunately, doesn’t include classical music.
In the past several months I've begun to obsess about the idea of "what it is that we are selling?" Not only for music, and classical music in particular (I'm on the boards of a chamber orchestra and a classical music concert series) but technology, culture, advertising, and all the things this site covers. We are all selling something. The words "relevant" and "important" are frequently heard in all those circles. So and so is an important designer, this is or that is a relevant technological innovation.
And yes, I too keep coming back to "to whom?" realizing that today those words in particular are mostly marketing tools to sell to niche markets. To deem something important is a way to sell to people knowledgeable in the field the item is a part of, it is a shorthand, a cheat that today has less to do with the actual work and more to do with how it is sold. To deem something relevant is just a way to try to convince the demo of "24-35, tech savvy, mobile connected, with expendable income (or at least income they are willing to spend)" that there is something out there they should not miss for missing it would render them uncool.
Which is why I obsess, about what it is that people buy when they consume classical music (especially live), how can we re-boot and improve on the ticketing system when in reality what people are buying is access to an experience they themselves are probably incapable of creating themselves.
In meetings, about websites, apps, advertising campaigns, orchestra concerts, music series, I am sometimes asked why am I so persistent about looking at what we are making, how we are selling it, how it is remembered. I always answer, because I want it to be art, not important or relevant art, but art made with respect for the past and a profound curiosity for the future. Art that brings wonderment, satisfies, art so compelling and human that its very existance can not be ignored.
One last thought: if classical music is not culturally relevant to "young people with mainstream tastes," then why is it so frequently used on ads, on tv shows, on film, and everywhere as a shortcut to expressing emotion in the process of selling them something?