Peter Sellars on the Threat of Cultural Impositionalism

On the flight to London last week, Air New Zealand had loaded up a bunch of James Bond movies on the monitors in our seats. An appropriate gesture, I think, to get us in the mood for our final destination. Naturally, I got sucked in. I watched 007 besting bad guys all the way from Los Angeles, over Central Canada, past Greenland and Iceland, and into Her Majesty’s airspace.

In the arts world, if you want something shaken, not stirred, bring in Peter Sellars. That’s just what the LA Phil did for the world’s music educators during the recent symposium “Future Play: Music Systems in the 21st Century” at the Barbican Centre. Sellars is a natural pick for an orchestra which purports to be–and by all accounts is succeeding at being–a 21st Century Orchestra. (Not to mention, of course, his decades-long relationship with the LA Phil.)

The LA Phil’s President and CEO, Deborah Borda, has long recognized that the days of an orchestra existing solely to play music by dead white guys are over. An orchestra–any arts organization, really–must be a vibrant, relevant member of a community as that community exists in the present.

Enter Peter Sellars, who stood in front of a room full of people who work for arts organizations and told them, “Arts organizations are my favorite fascist structures.”

He was only half-joking. “At the museum, you see only what the curator allows you to see,” he said. “In an orchestra, you only hear what the conductor allows you to hear. Nothing else.”

Sellars’ point is that we have an oppressive top-down approach to the way we do the arts in this century. That extends to music education as well. We think we know what version of the arts are the best for all communities and we force our way into the lives of the members of these communities, quietly thinking to ourselves, as Sellars said, “If only we can get these brown children to play Beethoven, they’ll be fine.” They’ll somehow be more human that way. More like us. And it’ll make us feel good about ourselves.

Sellars calls this “unvarnished white supremacy.” Certainly, there is a healthy dose of shock and awe in his bravado–it’s Peter Sellars, what exactly did you expect? Borda told me recently, “His life is performance art.”

Perhaps the most difficult attributes to recognize in ourselves are our own -isms. Prejudices can stem from everything from privilege to arrogance to ignorance and beyond. Whether it is racism, classism, heterosexism, or elitism the root cause is a lack of curiosity of others. In politics, in religion/spirituality, in business, and even in the arts, all too often we fall in love with our own worldview. My way is the right way and if only I can convince everyone else of this, things are going to be all right.

But I don’t want to live in a world where everyone is the same as me. I think it’s worth cultivating that curiosity. That is the first–albeit minuscule–step to realizing that my cultural experience isn’t necessarily the most important cultural experience for everyone.

The arts cannot be a one-way conversation. We cannot use the arts as a tool for cultural proselytization. It cannot be us coming to you so we can fix what we think is wrong with who you are. After all, what right do I have to come into your neighborhood with my eyes closed and my hands over my ears, shove a clarinet in your mouth, plop a Beethoven score onto a music stand, and declare your life enriched? That’s cultural colonialism.

Perhaps I ought to instead be asking myself, why didn’t I learn about Arab music in school? Why wasn’t I taught about the gamelan until I became a music major? Where were the classes on African drumming?

The other day Gustavo Dudamel was talking to the Discover Dudamel youth orchestra that had been assembled for this symposium. He said there are as many ways of interpreting a piece of music as there are conductors. “You have to be open to all of them. I’m not telling you my way is the right way.”

The arts can teach us so much, if only we are open. The arts can teach us that, while we are just one of many, who we are and how we express who we are is important. Peter Sellars used the example of the string quartet. He said Enlightenment-era composers were members of the same Masonic lodges as the framers of the United States Constitution. Mozart and Haydn were just as interested in equality as Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were. And so these composers invented a new musical ensemble–the string quartet–which demonstrated this concept in art. There are no soloists and if you removed one of the voices, the structure would collapse. As Sellars summed it up, “Equality is not based on sameness. Each one of us has something different to contribute. Equality only exists in our differences.”

With Sellars’ bold words ringing in my ears, I thought about the often startling nature of honesty. The arts are about more than just pretty things. (Define pretty. I dare you.) The arts are honest. They are not safe. They challenge us, affirm us, provoke us, and help us come to terms with things we don’t know how to deal with. The arts don’t exist in a vacuum. When we build community while honoring difference instead of trying to overpower it, we end up with authenticity. We discover more deeply than ever who we are and who we can be.

2 thoughts on “Peter Sellars on the Threat of Cultural Impositionalism

  1. Eno is a goddamn criavete genious, I love how he remains fascinated and enthusiastic towards artistic innovation, of which he himself contributed massively in innumerous branches.Plus that sober, jolly charisma? and he becomes someone to admire.

  2. Well written – and as for Peter Sellars? What else would we expect from this brilliant, insightfull thinker 9with a flair for the dramatic!)? His examples are wonderful! Making the case for why the arts are so important, in a world that has become so ugly, so crass, so money-driven, is very hard. To those of us who appreciate the arts it is self-evident; to those who don’t, it makes no sense. This article helps me make our case stronger. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s