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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 It’s been replaced by individualism run amok.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 email@example.com.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.