The celebrity champion
What's wrong with this sentence from the Athens and Sydney Olympics rowing gold medallist James Cracknell: "I would never claim to be more than a casual listener to classical music--I've been to a few Classic FM concerts at the Albert Hall and enjoyed them, but it's quite a hard area to get into"? On the face of it, nothing. The trouble is, the sentence comes halfway through Cracknell's testimony championing Leif Ove Andsnes's recording of piano concertos by Grieg and Schumann, a nominee for Gramophone magazine's Record of the Year award.
An authoritative approach to critical matters and CD reviewing has ensured that, since its launch in 1923, Gramophone has remained the leading magazine in the classical music market. So what is it doing using Cracknell to hawk its wares? Of the six celebrities chosen as "champions" for the nominees, Michael Portillo writes knowledgeably on music (indeed, he has specialist knowledge of Wagner), and Joanna Lumley is married to a conductor, but the others were perhaps not selected because of their bespoke musical expertise. Face facts: only one sentence in Cracknell's 449-word article addresses the playing on the disc: "There's something really spontaneous about the playing here." Sorry, James, I'm sure you're being sincere, but why the hell should I listen to or believe you? And Lumley's affidavit of Rene Jacobs's new recording of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro is mostly concerned with other productions and performances of opera that she has loved.
The truth is, in the depressingly topsy-turvy world of celebrity endorsement, no one is chosen because he or she is an expert. The Gramophone champions are just the latest exemplars of the Mary Poppins principle: a spoonful of celebrity sugar helps the nasty art medicine go down.
Art is forbiddingly elitist--or so the argument goes--and classical music is close to being the most elitist of the lot. You don't have to be Simon Rattle to know that music has been pushed so far down the educational agenda in the past 20 years that most of a generation has lost out on orchestral music everywhere except at the cinema. Here, however, audiences that wouldn't be seen dead at a Rachmaninov concert happily surrender to the giant sweep of a John Williams score. And if classical music is so intimidating, how come Handel sells everything from P & O oruises to Levi jeans and the Harrods sale? Where would Hovis be without the slow movement of Dvorak's New World symphony?
Classical music must, therefore, need a helping hand, and that cannot come from a professional expert such as a music critic, because "expert" is close to being a term of abuse, up there with "nerd", "boffin" and "old fogey". Nowhere is this more evident than in the non-specialist media, which is precisely where Gramophone wants to position its awards. No matter how entrancing the music-making, would Orlando Gibbons's 16th-century music for viol consorts (another nominee for Record of the Year) have made it on to Radio 4's Today programme if the BBC world affairs editor, John Simpson, had not been the person chosen to trumpet the virtues of listening to it on his MP3 player?
Don't get me wrong. Publicly avowed enthusiasm for classical music is both rare and welcome. My problem is with the Gramophone awards colluding in the blurring of the distinction between endorsement and excellence.
Why are the arts so craven? Why give up the self-confidence generated by experience and expertise in favour of the con-trick of hiring media-friendly amateurs to do the job? Smiling mediocrity never thrilled or inspired anyone. Sports editors hire people with serious insider knowledge and real passion. Exhibit those for the arts and you are regarded as suspect or partisan. Why don't cultural organisations and the media demand and breed skilled presenters properly dedicated to the arts? At this rate, sooner or later, everything will have descended to the triple-decker Oscar level, where a celebrity presenter introduces a celebrity envelope-reader to front up a Hollywood player.
Almost every media outlet worth its salt loudly deplores the predominance of dumbed-down celebrity culture. They are less vocal about how, at the same time, they ensure they have the best "fixers" busily currying favour and booking exclusive interviews with as many of the glitterati as possible.
The business--I use the word advisedly--of celebrity endorsement, the triumph of presentation over content, is profoundly depressing, but you can see the appeal. Endorsement lets the anxious off the hook. If you can focus on the people who are presenting art, you need never deal with the difficulties of what the art itself might mean. Not that anyone, aside from the impossibly rich, does anything as unfashionably elitist as discuss or collect art any more. Instead of collecting, we shop. And what do we shop for? Why, the things that simply everyone is talking about--and by "everyone", we mean those glamorous types formerly known as "trendsetters", the Sixties prequel to celebrity endorsement.
If such people ever were arbiters of taste, they certainly are not any longer. They are like food-tasters, but with a lower insurance premium. Terrified of making a decision, of committing to a work of art? Worry no more: here is a special someone who looks and sounds more in touch than you. These famous people are offering sales assistance. They have made up their minds so you don't have to. If time reveals their choice to have been mistaken, it is their fault--you need never be caught revealing your own lack of taste. All of which might even work if the endorsement were not more usually about mouthing a sales pitch and banking a cheque.
Alongside irony, it's all about detachment: it is, quite literally, a removal service keeping you at a distance from your own artistic judgement. And that is tantamount to the acceptance of two overwhelmingly dangerous ideas: not only is excellence no longer deemed able to speak for itself, but if it were, we are no longer being encouraged to listen.