The tumult over the financial affairs of the Minnesota Orchestra reminds me that Americans once held classical musicians and other artists in high regard. Private philanthropy protected those with exceptional talent and the training required to win a place on the concert hall stage.
How we use that word — exceptional — has changed over the years. The new American exceptionalism is code for individual achievement. We admire winners, not losers, and pity the runners-up. Orchestras demonstrate a different kind of exceptionalism. They embody the outdated idea that the whole is sometimes greater than the sum of its parts.
So how did we get from there to here? I wasn’t alive when American exceptionalism was in its heyday. That would have been the 19th century. But I do remember the 1950s and ’60s. We didn’t flaunt our exceptionalism in those days.
In the mid-1980s, I tried to express my ambivalence about the change in an article I wrote for a national magazine. The topic was a new plan to desegregate public schools, a consumer-driven model called choice. Forced busing was out; the free market was in. My first-grader attended a school as innovative as school choice. Teaching was tailored to individual learning styles. The result was mayhem. Happily, her number came up on the gifted-school waitlist.
This was the story I was asked to tell. It sounds straightforward. It was not.
It seemed to me that the emphasis on both individual learning styles and free-market forces were at odds with the values — sometimes crudely executed, I admit — of old-style democracy. The melting pot had given way to the salad bowl. I regretted that. When I was a kid, assimilation was an essential part of the American dream.
But I had to ask myself: If I was so in love with egalitarianism, why did I send my daughter to a school she had to pass a test to get into? Did choosing the gifted magnet expose my inner elitist?
My editor, Nelson Aldrich Jr., happened to be a direct descendant of John D. Rockefeller. He came from old money. By coincidence, I did, too. By that time my family’s wealth was mostly a memory, but WASP ways had been ingrained. Aldrich taught at a Harlem public school to assuage his Protestant guilt. I joined the ’60s student movement. We both had a love-hate relationship with WASPs.
Aldrich was educated at Groton, FDR’s alma mater, before going on to Harvard. The exclusive prep school was then a bastion of WASP liberalism. It served another purpose as well. Because members of the upper class received the finest education, they were the natural heirs to European taste and refinement, and its stewards. They believed — pretty much everyone did — that orchestras and other such institutions preserved the classical foundations of Western civilization. What’s more, classical music was deemed uplifting to rich and poor alike. WASP philanthropy kept orchestras in business and ticket prices low.
Schools like Groton made new money old, even as they helped protect the social hierarchy that kept WASPs at the top. Whereas English lords trace their lineage back centuries, in America, if you were a WASP, one or two generations was all it took to be regarded as an aristocrat. In keeping with melting-pot values, the term WASP came to include all white Europeans. There were even Jewish “WASPs,” such as the Rosenwald family, founders of Sears Roebuck, and Catholic “WASPs,” most notably the Kennedy family from exclusive Hyannis Port.
Groton trained the ruling class to lead by example. WASPs were supposed to be generous, fair-minded, honest and discreet. Bragging was strictly taboo. WASPs had excellent table manners. They were polite partly because they knew they were nothing special. WASP privilege was an accident of birth. Rumpled Oxford cloth shirts signified old money’s indifference to wealth.
In a way, it was WASPs who emulated the average American. They drove Ford station wagons and voted for Democrats or moderate Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller, who was named (as my editor was) after Nelson Aldrich Sr., a prominent U.S. senator. Old money saw both public service and philanthropy as the duty of their class. WASPs fully expected that someday the children of unexceptional people like them, only less rich, would be better off than their parents.
Ordinary Americans didn’t object to aristocrats’ wielding disproportionate political clout, because they trusted them. They didn’t mind that only the rich had the time to fully appreciate the fine points of, say, a Beethoven symphony. One day their children would, too.
Was WASP beneficence a political calculation? Was their generosity just another way of keeping their kind safely ensconced in the top 5 percent? (Remember, this was decades before the .01 percent had as much power as old money used to.) Was this why they drove cheap cars and didn’t mind paying high taxes and spent lavishly on orchestras?
Those ’60s student radicals asked all these questions. They thought Americans had been lulled to sleep by WASP hypocrisy. It was the Ivy League elites, Democrats all, who escalated the Vietnam War.
But if old money were still in charge of the Minnesota Orchestra, my guess is that Osmo Vänskä wouldn’t have had to stick his neck out for a band of fiddlers and flutists on principle. (Vänskä resigned to protest drastic musician pay cuts but returned after the musicians accepted an improved offer from the board.)
It turned out that many of those ’60s radicals wanted to be way better off than their parents. Merit and drive replaced social connections as the path to power. Eventually, old money sold out to a new ruling class. Tax cuts sounded pretty good to a group who largely lived off their investment portfolios. Old-money aristocrats stewarded their capital as carefully as they did classical music. But now they, too, urged ordinary Americans to grow the economy by piling up debt.
It’s ironic that blue-collar Americans who joined the Republican Party during the Reagan years are now breaking ranks. The Tea Party celebrates individual liberty and hates big government, but its members sense that Americans workers are utterly powerless when huge corporations run the world.
Hypocritical or not, WASP values are a thing of the past. When the stock market collapsed in 1929, the bankers responsible leapt off buildings in shame and despair. In the aftermath of the 2008 mortgage crisis, banks too big to fail and their too-powerful-to-jail CEOs passed on their losses to taxpayers and sheltered their gains.
Most CEOs, hedge-fund managers and tech entrepreneurs are extravagantly compensated. So it’s not that new money couldn’t afford to pay the orchestra’s debts or its musicians’ salaries. These are minuscule compared with what new-money elites are paid. The conflict between the orchestra and its board was rooted in an ideological divide. The offspring of new money may go to Ivy League schools, but they take art history or comparative literature only because they’re easy. The rich urge their children to study finance on their way to earning an MBA. What these students learn is how to get ahead of the other guy. The value the orchestra embodies is no longer worth much. It’s been replaced by individualism run amok.
French economist Thomas Picketty has shown that extreme wealth disparities have always been the norm and that middle-class affluence in the richest nation in world history was an anomaly. It lasted just 20 years.
Selfishness isn’t new, either. What is new, I think, is the rise of the work ethic to unprecedented esteem. Hard work is the new opiate of the people — all the people. Gone are the eight-hour workday, equitable income distribution, reasonable executive compensation, equal access to investment opportunities and stewardship of the environment as well as the arts. Trust has been sacrificed, too.
Americans are just too busy increasing corporate earnings, or writing code for a new iPhone app or slaving away at their second shift to care about classical music. Gone is the notion of self-improvement in anything other than business or sports.
It’s interesting that Richard Davis, who helped orchestrate the lockout over “excessive” musician pay while accepting upward of $15 million in annual compensation as CEO of U.S. Bancorp, helped mastermind the successful effort to bring the Super Bowl to our shiny new, taxpayer-subsidized football palace. So what if the average Minnesotan can’t afford tickets? Most would rather watch football on TV.
If Americans don’t have the time or energy to understand the now truly imminent consequences of a consumer-driven society, if they don’t lose sleep over climate change, for example, why would they even notice the fall of a world-class orchestra?
It’s hardly surprising, given this environment, that the Minnesota Orchestra’s musicians would be viewed as slackers by their own board. There’s always a new batch of talented young people eager to fill the chairs for a relative pittance. Why should classical musicians be exempt from free-market forces? Why do they get paid for doing what they love? No one else does.
The arts have been consigned to the category of leisure. Serving on boards is just another status symbol, like that must-have Montana ranch complete with faux WASP accoutrements ordered from Ralph Lauren. Excellence in classical music is no different from excellence in golf — except for one important thing: Golf doesn’t depend on philanthropy. It pays its own way.
Bonnie Blodgett is a writer in St. Paul. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.