Art is not a democracy.

A friend and I have been e-mailing back and forth about some issues at her church — the usual sort of thing, some members of the congregation being unhappy with the style of music chosen by the organist, others being unhappy about it in the other direction, trying to keep everyone happy. Harsh words have been exchanged, and the organist has been accused of undermining the church by “driving people away” with the choice of music. The reality is that in order to have music that is coherent with the liturgy and appropriate for the musical resources available, keeping everyone happy in a very diverse congregation is going to be pretty much impossible. There is an art to good liturgy and good choice of music is part of that. Those who choose the music don’t always get it right, by any means, but it’s certainly a situation where one person should make most of the decisions. I can tell you right away that if you try to choose hymns by purely democratic means, you’ll end up with an awful lot of “Be thou my vision” and not a lot of anything else. That’s a great hymn, but I don’t want to sing it every week, and if it were the only thing a congregation ever sang I imagine people might not find the music attractive.

This morning I read a Comment is Free piece in the Grauniad by one James Mumford, in which he accuses the television programme “Rev” of undermining the church (content note: ableism). As far as I can tell, his reasoning is that it doesn’t represent the church he knows and loves, but something else which he doesn’t recognise as being properly church. In voicing his complaint he manages to come pretty close to implying that those who aren’t miraculously healed might not be experiencing God or faith properly, which I actually find downright offensive. But it also strikes me that if nobody were watching Rev he wouldn’t be so upset about it; and that if it did contain the miraculous healing and positive depiction of certain styles of worship that he so desires, there would be rather fewer people watching.

As a choir director, from time to time I encounter singers who want to make suggestions about the choice of music, or how we sing it; a certain amount of this is healthy, of course, but if someone were to persistently criticise my decisions without offering any constructive advice, I would be pretty much forced to ignore them for the sake of still having any choir left at the end of the year.

As a composer, the same thing applies; it’s just harder for people to tell me exactly what to write. Constructive criticism is great, but not everyone is a composer and the vast majority of people don’t understand enough about choral music to say much more than “I like that” or “I don’t like that”. It would be hugely counter-productive for me to write music by polling every member of a choir and asking them what they want and then including all those elements in a piece with no regard to structure, capability, performance context and so on.

Art has an amazing power to unite people in shared experience, whether that is laughter or worship or song or contemplation. Collaborative art exists, of course, and it can be wonderful. But shared experience and shared direction of that experience are not the same thing, especially when an individual or small group are doing the lion’s share of the work which is then shared more widely or even broadcast. It seems to me that confusion about this causes a lot of unhappiness.

I don’t have to love every hymn to experience a church service as shared liturgy; I don’t have to relate to every aspect of a television programme to enjoy it, and if I just don’t get it that’s all right too. I don’t have to like every piece a choir sings to benefit from all the joys of choral singing, I don’t have to like all a composer’s work. If I don’t like something it doesn’t mean it’s harmful, or undermining anything, it just means it isn’t to my taste. An individual work of art is not a democracy, and it doesn’t have to be. There are people better qualified than I am to do certain things, there are people more passionate than I am about some things. I don’t have to lead all the time.

Neither do you.

3 thoughts on “Art is not a democracy.

  1. Whereas at St May’s it would undoubtedly be “Shine, Jesus, Shine”. The person leading the service chooses the hymns for our services, but the music ministry team (read: invariably Jonathan & I and whoever shows up to sing) get to choose the hymns we sing just before the service and for during Communion. I usually sway more towards the old Methodist hymns, the other singers are more into their Hillsong numbers. It makes for an interesting mix, but given the broad spread of ages and musical inclinations there’s usually something for everyone.

    Then again we only have a small music team rather than a choir so the logistics are very different. We generally find out what the hymns are for the order of service about 15 minutes before the service starts. Having the music planned out more than a day or two in advance and actually getting rehearsal time only happens for the monthly evening Restore music service (nearly all contemporary stuff) or the Christmas & Easter concerts. I think things would be very different if we had a regular weekly choir.

    1. Yes — but even if the decisions are made mostly at the last minute, and have some flexibility, that’s a bit different than asking each member of the congregation to vote… essentially, you still have specialists making the decision, even if it’s a mix of professional and amateur specialists.

      I think I’ll take “Be thou my vision” over “Shine, Jesus, Shine”: I don’t mind the words to the latter but the tune isn’t my favourite.

  2. Hi,

    I’m reminded of the strict discipline necessary to achieve a high level of playing skill. There is more than one path to excellence, but placing yourself in the hands of an experienced artist teacher is a whole bunch easier that lifting yourself by your own boot straps.

    At some point the student will no longer need the supervision of the teacher. At that point, they have the right to begin to “speak” with their own “voice”.

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