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  • Jamie McCarthy

The Artist As Servant of the Rich.

31st July / 6th August 2015.

When I was little my mum used to work cleaning the houses of rich people on the other side of the main road. Sometimes, I would end up having to go with her (during school holidays I guess – I can’t remember why now). At first it was kind of exciting to be in these big, posh houses, but after a while it got pretty boring. There was a fear that I couldn’t put a foot wrong in case I might break one of the expensive things and there was a kind of scary quietness and sense of absence in the houses that felt like people weren’t really living in them – the complete opposite of our small, noisy council house. My mum told me recently of one day when she had to leave 15 minutes early because I was sick and had to be taken to the doctor’s and the woman she cleaned the house for knocked off a whole morning’s wages as a result. (It was taken as read by the people I grew up around that rich people were stingey – that’s how they stayed rich).

A few years back I was performing at the Lyric theatre in Hammersmith in a children’s show, that even if I say so myself, was incredibly beautiful and moving in a simultaneously direct and weird and abstract way. After one of the shows I was coming out of the performance space and me and one of the women from the audience got in each other’s ways a bit as she steered her buggy with little Henry and Jacinta in tow. Neither party was at fault, but she gave me this stare – a kind of angry, entitled ‘how dare you?’ stare. I had this flash of insight – I realised that for her, even though I’d just been part of activating this amazing experience her children had just had, I wasn’t an artist, but just another servant. If she could have, I wouldn’t have been surprised if she wouldn’t have tried to get my wages docked for getting in her way.

I don’t think I’ve ever really heard much discussion of the master-servant aspect in the arts.

Classical music in the west (or as my students always heard me insisting on calling it ‘Western European Art Music’) and ballet are forms that arose out the aristocracy (as Bob Dylan might say) paying other people to supply their kicks for them. I think this is something that is often forgotten. There is a historical relationship of master / mistress – servant built into these forms and the modern forms that come out of them. I know classical music a bit better, but I do know that both it and ballet arose out of court art – entertainment performed by less well-off people for the rich. (Sacred ‘classical’ music is a very different case and arose out of a participative art form aimed at personal spiritual experience and contemplation – originally people didn’t perform this spiritual music for the benefit of others, the singers used the music as an act of devotion).

Haydn was employed as a servant in the household where he worked. One of my favourite Renaissance composers John Dowland, worked for a while as a musician at the court of the Christian the fourth of Denmark. The king had developed an ingenious method of tubes that ran throughout the household that enabled him to hear music without the musicians being seen – the music wafting up through the tubes to the rooms of the palace. Great for Christian, not so great for the musicians who spent long hours in a damp cellar with no daylight and often suffered form bronchial ailments (and no doubt depression). No wonder one of his most famous pieces is called ‘Lachrimae – or Seven Tears’.

I think I once read that in the medieval world it was thought of as wrong for the nobility to engage in performing music for others – it was alright to compose music, as this was a kind of manifestation of the platonic ideal of music. Being involved in the manual labour of playing and realising an ‘imperfect’ version of this platonic ideal was reserved for the lower classes. (I wish I could remember where I read this – I can’t, so I could be remembering it wrong). I often wonder if this contributed to the dominance of theoretical methods of composition in the classical tradition world above music that arises out of the physical manifestation of sound.

The other musical worlds I know a bit of have a very different dynamic. The Irish musicians I listened to and learned from when I was growing up, both here in England and back in Ennistymon, were from the same social background as the people they played amongst in pubs and at parties, in fact they generally seemed to be playing as much for themselves and each other as for a ‘public’ and the divide between players and listeners was very porous – someone might get up and sing, or people would join in with a song, or play a tune they knew when it came up and of course there would be the dancing too!

Pop bands I have been involved in were often people getting together because they wanted to play together – for each other. The audiences they played for were largely friends, at least to begin with. In a slightly less direct way than with Irish music, the divide between musicians and audience was less defined: people would be dancing, singing along, maybe invading the stage … With the band the Hidden Cameras I used to play with, the feedback loop of energy between audience and band was an essential part of the music-making – they may have been paying to come to the gig, but the audience were often giving as much as the musicians, at a high proportion of the gigs it was never a case of a bunch of musicians doing something to a largely inactive audience. On the one occasion I performed in a music industry showcase gig that vital two-way interaction was completely absent – it felt like a ghost gig.

I’ve been wondering a lot lately about how the master / mistress – servant relationship affects some of the art worlds I’ve been involved in and how much it informs some of the attitudes I’ve come across. For example, it’s standard, that in this kind of situation, those who come from the servant ranks, but have been promoted to have a bit more power can be more the agents of keeping discipline than the actual masters and mistresses themselves, since their situation is more precarious and they have to keep strictly within the rules of the system, to maintain their position. In the performing arts this would be directors, teachers, those who make decisions about or administer the allotting and paying out of money. I know lots of lovely, caring people in these roles who do their best to challenge and humanise things – I’ve been in some of those roles myself! But I’m questioning the dynamic of the set-up and the power structures inherent in it that all of use get caught up in – unless we consciously work against this dynamic, it just takes over. Who does the work we’re doing serve? In whose interest is it? Does it serve structures or human beings? These are questions I’ve been struggling with for a long while now.

I remember when I was at college we had a violin teacher who had three students and at least two of them would come out of their lessons in tears every week, having been in some way ‘cut down to size’. In the end I refused to be taught by him (even though he was supposed to be the teacher for the more advanced students) and got moved to a much more human, supposedly ‘less good’ teacher. I remember thinking even at the time, that this had little do with art or skill and a lot to do with disciplining me into an orthodoxy – the one that he himself had been disciplined into; a servant who had internalised so well the wishes of the master / mistress that it was an unquestioned and unquestionable part of his being. This is an extreme case and I hope the kind of thing that happens less nowadays, but I suspect there is something deeply embedded and unquestioned within the performing arts that is a remnant of this master / mistress servant dynamic, even in forms and situations that on the surface seem very remote from the ‘classical ‘ traditions.

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