Saturday morning quotes 5.46: Wisdom
Captain Hastings: Well, there she was, as you say, a glamorous young woman, and with a bit of a wig and a few bits of make-up she could transform herself into that dowdy hag of a nurse.
Hercule Poirot: Yes, it was indeed very well done, Hastings.
Captain Hastings: But… Well, I mean… If a woman can do that one way, she can do it the other.
Hercule Poirot: Oh, Hastings.
Captain Hastings: Well, I mean then where are you?
Hercule Poirot: At the beginning of wisdom, mon ami. Now, that also is something to celebrate, n’est-ce pas?
– Agatha Christie: Poirot, “The Million Dollar Bond Robbery” (1991)
Awareness is indeed the beginning of wisdom. In our consumer culture, shaping the message is the key to selling goods and ideas, and we are subjected to the manipulation of information at every turn—even in the world of early music. This seems incongruous given that early music is considered by many to be a pure and unadulterated art form that is cleansed of the superfluous packaging of more heavily-hyped classical repertory. An apt parallel may be that of paler but supposedly more healthful organic produce offered in contrast to apparently more robust and highly-polished fruit that is conventionally grown.
But awareness of how publicity shapes the message leads us toward the beginning of wisdom. Looking slightly beneath the surface, one learns that publicity cannot be trusted. For starters, any and every recording review from certain sources (sound the trumpets) is paid for by artists or their representatives. Quotes from these purchased positive reviews seem to find their way into other publicity materials, and there you are—a message that is based upon false pretense used to shape public perception of an artist’s worth.
One longs for the good old days when musicians were recognized for their ability to move the passions of the listener. But did those good old days ever exist? Probably not. While there may be a few honest, forthright, and egalitarian public relations specialists and/or artist representatives, the baser element has always been with us, slyly shaping perceptions of the worth of their clients while demanding high fees from concert producers in the pursuit of an ever greater percentage.
But what about those of us who eschew artist representation, who depend upon unsolicited recording reviews and who rely solely upon honest audience feedback? Well, I mean then where are you? I believe “under the bus” is the proper term for those who would offer competition to the better-financed artists. Early music publicists are cut from the same cloth as any other public relations specialist, and there is a tendency to stretch the truth when aggressive marketing enters the picture. And please don’t make the mistake of confusing public relations with journalistic reporting.
“The public relations practitioner is portrayed as a paid mouth and spin doctor intent on promoting his client’s interests at the price of truth. The journalist is portrayed as someone who neither distinguishes between fact and opinion nor lets the facts get in the way of spinning a good story. In terms of public perception of both professions perhaps those images are widespread which may explain why both journalists and public relations practitioners tend to be rated poorly in surveys of public esteem.”
“The naïve view that writers must be devoted to separating fact from opinion and telling the truth needs to be qualified. Fiction writers, such as poets or novelists, may be using a fabricated story to express a truth about the human condition. In that case we may concur with Coleridge’s comment – “That willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith”. In order to gain the intrinsic value from a piece of writing we may need to turn off our empirical or common sense critical faculties.”
“In the case of both public relations and journalism the related notions of trust and truth are central to their professional activities. At a simple level most journalists require that the reader believes their story is true; most public relations practitioners aim to gain a primary public’s trust through a belief that what is said is true.”
“In the financial and commercial sector transparency is often given as a key prerequisite for gaining trust. In the fifteenth century merchants swearing an oath had to do so with their hands above board and in plain view so they could not cross their fingers.”
“For “hard” journalism and public relations transparency of the identity of the communicator is of paramount importance. That which matters from the perspective of the media user or public relations audience is the identity of the individual communicating. Audiences and publics should disregard “soft” communicators and judge the extent to which a message should be given credence from the perceived trustworthiness of the individual making the communication. This would preclude “soft” public relations practitioners hiding behind the “cleft stick” that they were simply advocates for their client’s cause and so avoiding moral responsibility for what was communicated. Public relations practitioners sometimes claim a parallel with diplomacy, that one is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country. It may be bad form to execute the herald or messenger but in a metaphorical sense to preserve the integrity of “hard” public relations it is a necessity.”
– “Public Relations and Journalism: Truth, Trust, Transparency and Integrity”, by Frank Davies, University of Lincoln, Lincoln, U.K. (PDF)
The “truth” as applies to early music lies in the performer’s adherence to historical principles in interpretation. Or at least it used to be so. Much of what is being passed off as an historical performance has as much verisimilitude as any modern production of a play by Shakespeare. Directors are forever altering the play—cutting, slashing and burning large blocks of script premised upon a lack of understanding of the original dramatic intentions or, more often, misguided perceptions of limited audience attention spans. The same is true of most concerts of early music. But publicists are paid to try to convince you otherwise. Attend and enjoy as a modern concert experience. But don’t believe the hype.