Sarah Sands: The selling is down to a fine art – but how fine is the art?

Sunday 23 October 2011 03:14

The Tiger Mother Amy Chua relentlessly harnessed her daughters to the piano and the violin and willed them into top-rank concert halls, but she may have been a little soft with them. There is no record of her squeezing them into bodices and trying to turn them blonde.

The father of the young pianist Lang Lang is thought by some to have overreacted when he told his son to commit suicide after a sub- standard childhood performance. But he never handed him to Simon Cowell for an Il Divo makeover.

The Classic Brit Awards (classic being so much more consumer friendly than classical) last Thursday was an eye-rubbing affair. There was Alison Balsom, generally now known as the "Trumpet Crumpet", Eric Whitacre, the virtuoso of choral music, hair teased in the style of David Beckham, and classic(al) music's greatest babe, Katherine Jenkins.

The determination of the record companies to make classical music appealing to a mass audience is impressive and exhausting. Last week, Anne-Sophie Mutter was whisked on to the floor to perform just enough of Vivaldi's Four Seasons to allow Katherine Jenkins a glamorous dress change. As for Il Divo I just don't know what to make of them: are they meant to be tenors or gigolos?

I sat next to a Royal College of Music student with film-star looks. She faintly remembered the days of large female opera stars and remarked on the style of voice and the appearance now required of those looking to achieve crossover to a wider audience. I asked if Maria Callas would stand a chance today as a singer. She replied that she was doubtful.

The merging of art and marketing is fascinating and bewildering to behold. The New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini is eloquent about the danger of hype. He writes of Lang Lang: "People come to his concerts now expecting a catharsis, an epiphany rather than a musical performance." This echoes Anish Kapoor's introduction to his new work Leviathan, on show at the Grand Palais, Paris. The strikingly rich and successful artist said that he hoped audiences would regard the viewing of Leviathan as a religious experience.

The market for high art can only rise in the new world order. The Americans and the British brought the world popular music. In China, 100 million children are said to study the piano and violin. Classical musicians have the status of sports stars. Lang Lang is an only child and he represents the Chinese dream.

No one should object to a greater reverence for artists and musicians. But demand may distort the art itself. It was harder to get into Frankenstein at the National Theatre than Lady Ga Ga's private performance at Annabel's. The arts are very very hot. Rumours that the era of blockbuster art exhibitions is ending turn out to be exaggerated. Those of us who saw the Gauguin exhibition at Tate Modern are not going to be put off by the queues for Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery later this year.

It would be perverse to wish anonymity and penury on artists and performers. It was tough on Van Gogh, Schubert and Keats that they did not reap the rewards of genius. But Woody Allen may have been on to something when he played down the significance of his films, saying they would not stand the test of time. Here was a man looking for a bushel to hide his light. Everywhere else, the cultural foliage fights to outdazzle the sun.

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