Yo Yo Ma: Art for art’s sake is dead

Yo Yo Ma: Art for art’s sake is dead


norman lebrecht

March 20, 2019

The celebrated cellist appeared with NY Philharmonic prez Deborah Borda at a Harvard talk-in.

“We have a bigger purpose,” he said. “It’s never art for art’s sake, because even if I do it for myself in my head, I have an ideal. I’m actually trying to take something — a construct, a concept, a theory — and then I want to make it visible, I want to make it audible, I want to make it tactile. I want to make it felt.”

“I’ve been in conflict all my life thinking that I did one thing that I love to do, I care deeply about other things, but the two didn’t really connect too much. For the first time in my life, I’m not conflicted.”

More here,



  • Tamino says:

    The irony is, in the US, art, on that level, is mostly entertainment for the rich. The rich pay Yo-Yo Ma’s bills, so he can make his ideas felt to them.

    • Luigi Nonono says:

      What ideas? He is quite average when it comes to depth and interpretation, everything. Listen to Ovidiu Marinescu for great cello playing.

      • Larry W says:

        It is sad when some view classical music as a competition or a zero sum game. Yo-Yo’s message of coming together with pride and dignity is lost on such people.

        • Tamino says:

          You misunderstand. It’s not lost. It’s just too exclusive.

          Btw, this statement:
          “It’s never art for art’s sake, because even if I do it for myself in my head, I have an ideal. I’m actually trying to take something — a construct, a concept, a theory — and then I want to make it visible, I want to make it audible, I want to make it tactile. I want to make it felt.”
          I find strange. Because that IS art for art’s sake. Maybe it’s out of context.

  • Caravaggio says:

    As genuinely gifted as Ma is, I stopped listening to him about three decades ago soon after he began trafficking in the currency of new age, watered down sellouts that only profited him and his handlers. No wonder, then, there is so little, if anything, to remember him by in as long.

    • Viola da Bracchio says:

      Newspeak is so much more profitable than actually playing music 😉 Gidon Kremer learnt that trick donkey’s years ago.

    • Tom says:

      This kind of new-age neo-liberalism has peddled great sounding ideals, while at the same time the architects of it, and their naive apologists/salesmen (like YoYoMa) played a large part in destroying the dignified economic livelihoods for about 70% of the western world’s population. “Idealism-Globalism” is great, when it doesn’t weaken a labor union you’re part of, or when it isn’t pushed to such extremes that it undermines your sense of cultural stability.

      Him and the affluent others who are given monopoly access to our societal loudspeakers/microphones don’t see that for most people, they aren’t participating in their utopia.

      We’ve had 30 years of this species of rhetoric, and we ended up with the human middle-finger that is Donald Trump, a middle-finger directed at the neo-liberals with all the loudspeakers and increasingly all the money.

      So yes,
      He should stick with the cello playing.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Tome writes: “Donald Trump…a middle-finger directed at the neo-liberals”

        Huh? Trump is the ultimate symbol of “neo-liberalism” whereby what is good for the rich is what drives policy…defended by inventing enemies at home and abroad (hence the wall).

  • Christopher Storey says:

    Stick to playing the cello, pal !

  • Steven Honigberg says:

    “Really it’s about coming together with pride and dignity in order to build something that’s totally fundamental.”

    Yo Yo is a great musician. Yet sometimes I simply can not follow his line of thought, his logic. He’s not conflicted about what??

    • Mick the Knife says:

      When one is forced to say something public…this is what comes out; a loose string of buzz words.

    • Anson says:

      I agree. I adore Ma as a musical talent, and he seems like a wonderfully warm person (and acquaintances who have interacted with him confirm as much), but frequently his “intellectual” thoughts about music leave me scratching my head. The ideas never quite get there, logically.

  • Anne says:

    I wish people would stop talking about music “as a force for” something other that itself. If I want to do good work “for social justice”, I would be writing papers, books, etc about that topic specifically, not composing or playing music. It seems that there is a group of “power brokers” in the music field who believe that music, on its own, is not powerful enough to stand alone. I utterly reject that idea! I shutter every time I see elements of this creep into our field.

    • Jon Eiche says:

      I wonder if the disagreement here isn’t just a matter of semantics: Yes, music stands on its own. But also yes, music deepens our humanity and makes the world a more beautiful place.

      • steven holloway says:

        I agree with your view of music. It’s a shame Ma never absorbed the truth of it and just left it that. The power of music has long been a given. Standing on its own, it has tentacles that reach into innumerable places: politics, the minds of sufferers from brain damage and other conditions, child development, the psyches of those in search of the transcendant….What Ma thinks he’s adding to this, I cannot fathom. And I certainly cannot decipher what he means by making it “tactile”. Good luck with that. A large part of the blessing of music is that it is ineffable and allows the expression of what is beyond words. Even were it possible, what value could there be in making it something you can get a grip on? Leave it be to do what it does for us, for that is enough.

        • Michael Endres says:

          Perfectly said.
          Already grumpy old Ludwig knew:
          “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.”

    • CJ says:

      Thank you for saying what has needed to be says for such a long time.

    • Music is a highly social activity. It often exists in contexts that give it strong social implications. Watch this incredible performance by Yo Yo Ma of the Sarabande from Bach’s 5th Cello Suite for the 100th anniversary of Armatise Day last year before the world’s assembled leaders. This is incredibly refined and meaningful music-making:


  • CSO fan says:

    I hear the Chicago Symphony is (was?) paying him a million a year, to do…something.

    • CSO fan! says:

      He does exactly nothing! He shows up once a year to play subpar concerts, then hug everyone on stage which obviously makes many of the musicians uncomfortable including Maestro Muti last year!!! If the association simply scratched his salary they wouldn’t have to complain about deficits!!

    • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

      While I tend to be a free market, right winger on most of my arts comments, you are wrong on this one.

      Yo Yo’s salary is paid for by patron Judson Green and is not linked with the budget allotted towards the orchestral musicians.

      And he works quite hard when he is in town. He does a ton of outreach appearances, coaches the Civic Orchestra, does chamber music with members of the CSO, and plays solos on subscription concert. He is truly a dedicated ambassador for the orchestra and the art form.

      He is also a true intellectual having graduated from Harvard (not in music). Sometimes it’s hard to understand what he is saying but his approach towards art and everyday life is often framed in philosophy and social commentary which is on a very high level.

    • Confused says:

      I didn’t know that… Why don’t they just ax his salary and spread the wealth around? There are plenty of cello soloists that can play as good as him these days. Then again, there are probably people on the “board” who also probably make that much money and do even less for art.

  • Enquiring Mind says:

    If symphony orchestra leave “art for arts sake” behind, I’ll be fine with Spotify where I can find “art for arts sake”. Social justice, #me too, women conductors…STOP you corrupters of the legacy of Mahler, Debussy, Stravinsky, Webern…if their art is not enough for you, then hand the baton to the next generation! Anyway, Lynn Harrell had much more depth than Yo Yo, who postures too much.

  • Brinton says:

    Alas, words for meaning’s sake appears to be dead as well…

  • In this article, Deborah Borda, speaks about the New York Philharmonic’s efforts to engage with social issues, including gender equality. ‘We are thinking about how we can partner in other ways to broaden this conversation … because our world has been changed now by #MeToo.”
    Sadly, there are still some issues the NY Phil is NOT talking about. If the allegations and rumors are true, a woman was forced out of her job after protesting an egregious sexual assault, and another for standing in solidarity with her. Whatever happened, and even if some discretion is necessary, I think it inappropriate to bury the matter in silence.

    I also think Yo-Yo Ma’s increasing ability over the years to combine his music with social consciousness has made him a better musician and a more profound artist.

  • Harrumph says:

    The lack of understanding it takes to make such a statement is precisely what has always been missing in his playing.