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Saturday morning quotes 8.13: Cost of re-creation

March 13, 2021

We live in a jaded age that is bereft of truly original artistic innovation. The concept of “retro” is embraced wholesale as a marketing angle because it is generally accepted that today’s dependence upon technology only undermines creativity, forcing users of technology to overload their minds with memorized menus, keystrokes and passwords. In a world that places the gathering and monetizing of data first and foremost, we are compelled to look to the past to explore and re-create older forms of artistic achievement if we care to identify as culturally literate.

Attempts to rediscover the soul of our shared cultural heritage after decades of rampant industrialization was a primary motivation for the early music movement that first began more than a century ago. But what happens to an art form when it is studied as an historical curiosity from the detached perspective of a later age; when cultural heritage is wrested from its original context and subjected to classification and categorization for the convenience of scholarship? When priceless instruments—like those pictured above from the Henry Ford museum—are taken out of circulation and suspended as silent and listless objects in glass boxes, they no longer produce sound and therefore entirely lose their significance as musical instruments. The items in the display case might just as well be a hammer and sickle as musical instruments.

“[Henry Ford’s historic Greenfield Village] represents the American world which Ford’s revolutionary achievements destroyed. Adjacent to the village the immense museum deepens the paradox still further. Inside a one-story building fourteen acres in extent—its façade, features a replica of Independence Hall—stands one of the world’s finest memorials to the Industrial Revolution. Here an astounding array of tools, engines, machines and devices record the progressive mechanization of agriculture, the evolution of lighting, of communications, of transportation, and most important of all, the great record of modern man’s efforts to harness mechanical and electrical power.”

“Henry Ford’s museum, in short, is a monument to all the great technical achievements that put finish to the life represented in Ford’s re-created American village. There is no resolving that contradiction and no reason to try. It is nothing less than the grand contradiction of modern American life, the San Andreas Fault in the American soul—the schism between our faith in technological progress and our profoundly gnawing suspicion that the old rural republic was a finer, braver and freer place than the industrial America that now sustains us. If that contradiction runs through Henry Ford’s titanic reconstruction of the American past, it is because no American ever experienced the contradiction more intensely than Henry Ford himself.”

– Walter Karp, Indispensable Enemies: The Politics of Misrule in America, 1980.

Henry Ford (1863 – 1947) was overseer to the destruction of a way of life, a fact that dawned on him later in life and, like his Robber Baron contemporaries, he established a philanthropic organization in what has been cast as an attempt to pay society back for laying waste to a rich cultural landscape. The Ford Foundation was established in 1936, and during its early years was under the leadership of Ford family members who allocated their resources for “scientific, educational and charitable purposes, all for the public welfare.” The Ford Foundation was responsible for contributions that helped establish several symphony orchestras, and their alignment with political figures promised that high culture would “rid our society of its most basic ills–voicelessness, isolation, depersonalization–the complete absence of any purpose or reason for living.”

Following the lead of philanthropic organizations, the federal government established the National Endowment for the Arts, which sparked the growth of new orchestras from 58 in 1965 to 225 in 1988. But we know now how all that happy cash was destined to dry up by the 21st century, funneled back to the one-percent who simply lost interest in sharing. Upon closer examination, it turns out that the Ford Foundation had a slightly different broad idea in mind, and its close connections with the CIA allowed for the advancement of ulterior motives, nefariously disguised behind the smiling façade of philanthropy.

When we delve into the more substantive areas of early music, we feel a connection—not just with the sounds—but with the entire context of the music, its creation and its reception. As performers, we find that there is very little opportunity today to present intimate music to receptive listeners who might be affected in the same manner as our ancestors: Singing the music of Josquin for the Latin Mass is about the nearest we can come today to the original context of historical music. We have little commentary to offer to the growing tide of performers who feel as though they must turn early music concerts into multimedia circus acts, except that such gimmicks only rob the music of its dignity and leaves us with the feeling of having visited the very equivalent of Henry Ford’s museum.

We are obliged to point out that some modern approaches to early music only succeed in creating a false impression of the true value of our shared cultural heritage, and we believe that value lies in the depth, dignity, intimacy and intensely personal nature of the music. And we are obliged to point out that Henry Ford, the man who was responsible for setting fire to a way of life and then collecting artifacts from the ashes to place in his museum, was the driving force behind bland party-machine presidential candidate Warren G. Harding, who ran successfully in 1920 on a platform of a “return to normalcy.” Sound familiar?

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One Comment
  1. Christopher Barker permalink

    Ford was an odd duck, to say the least. In the midst of his inventiveness he had a hateful streak. Old Henry was extremely prejudiced against Jews. Hitler gave him a medal for his “Jewish Policy”, and when war came Henry refused to return it. My observation is that extraordinary people like Henry Ford tend to be very good or very bad.

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