I don’t have an especially good CD collection. Nevertheless, I can listen any time I like to great performances of some of the most challenging and profound musical masterpieces ever written. I can half-listen to Casals play his heart out while I read a book or play with my kids. I can command Horowitz to re-play the same historic concert so many times that I’m bored of it. I can use a Bach keyboard CD as a little refresher between two grand operas. If we’re more in the mood for drama, the local video store has hundreds of superb movies, each the equivalent of an excellent theatrical performance. I sometimes think this easy access to masterpieces is almost sickening, as if our walls were lined with the freshest and most sumptuous creamy ?clairs and champagne poured from our faucets; or as if we were lazy emperors with bevies of geniuses for slaves. Once upon a time, even if you were rich and lived in a great cultural capital, you could only hear a Beethoven symphony once in a while. The other day, I listened to a beautiful passage that was on the radio in our supermarket–but I left when all my groceries were in the bag.
I’m not at all sure that this is a good way to live. It makes it hard to appreciate ordinary performances or to play music (or act) oneself. It probably lowers the demand for live music and drama and thus makes it harder to earn a living in those fields. It deadens our responses to the great works of the past. And it must be a terrible burden for people who want to create new works.
(These problems seem less serious in the visual arts, since photographs never come close to capturing the impact of original buildings, paintings, and sculptures. It also seems less serious with books, because one has to devote many hours of complete attention in order to read a book at all.)