Richard Taruskin makes some big noise about classical music, or at any rate about the discourse around classical music, over at The New Republic. Long story (and I mean long story: it clocks in at about 12,000 words) short, Taruskin believes classical music's current crop of apologists does more harm than good. In a review of Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value by Julian Johnson, Classical Music, Why Bother? Hearing the World of Contemporary Culture Through a Composer's Ears, by Joshua Fineberg, and Why Classical Music Still Matters, by Lawrence Kramer, Taruskin argues that the crisis in classical music isn't all it's cracked up to be. What's particularly interesting to me are the parallels in the "classical music is doomed and we gotta do something about it now" debate and the whole "can poetry matter?" debate.
I urge anyone interested in the high culture / pop culture debate to read the article, which makes good use of Adorno and Bourdieu, and is well-written, too. But if you don't feel like scaling a 12,000 word mountain, the basic line goes something like this: Taruskin believes that the classical music he loves needs to be defended from its own defenders, who can't seem to write without (wait for it...) "recourse to pious tommyrot, double standards, false dichotomies, smug nostalgia, utopian delusions, social snobbery, tautology, hypocrisy, trivialization, pretense, innuendo, reactionary invective, or imperial haberdashery."
The article begins with an account of an experiment in which Joshua Bell, a leading classical violinist, was asked to go undercover as a busker. Bell was generally ignored, and the planners of the experiement took this as an opportunity to hurl curses from on high at the philistine churls of the public. Taruskin mercilessly points out the flawed methodology of the experiment (Bell had to stand in a place no self-respecting busker would have picked, for example), and argues that the experiment was no experiment at all, but a stunt with a pre-fabricated conclusion.
Taruskin goes on to tell people who lament classical music's loss of prestige that the rise of classical's prestige came about under conditions when the elite classes needed to distinguish themselves culturally from the huddled masses yearning to get down with popular songs. A return to that state ( a condition still present but not robust) is neither possible nor all that desirable. I mean do we really want to become like a snob like Milton Babbitt, who said in 1979:
We receive brilliant, privileged freshmen at Princeton, who in their first year of college are likely to take a philosophy of science course with [logical positivist] Carl Hempel, and then return to their dormitories to play the same records that the least literate members of our society embrace as the only relevant music.
"Pierre Bourdieu, were you listening?" asks Taruskin, after quoting this passage.
Taruskin also invokes the Adorno/Frankfurt school defense of high culture, a version of which one finds in the alt-poetry community to this day. He summarizes the Frankfurt position about as well as anyone can in a short paragraph:
The main tenet of the creed is the defense of the autonomy of the human subject as manifested in art that is created out of a purely aesthetic, hence disinterested, impulse. Such art is without utilitarian purpose (although, as Kant famously insisted, it is "purposive"), but it serves as the symbolic embodiment of human freedom and as the vehicle of transcendent metaphysical experience. This is the most asocial definition of artistic value ever promulgated. Artists, responsible to themselves alone, provide a model of human self-realization. All social demands on the artist--whether made by church, state, or paying public--and all social or commercial mediation are inimical to the authenticity of the creative product.
Going on to note how this position is variously trivialized, mangled, and dumbed-down in defenses of classical music, Taruskin shows the weakness of the position when it comes to accounting for the public's actual musical tastes.
The big wrap-up in the article defends classical music from a more modest and pluralist position, claiming that it can serve as one register — a rather formal one — among others; that it can function like a formal level of diction in the larger and more various musical language as a whole.
I was hipped to the article by D.L. LeMahieu, a historian who's written about the whole pop culture/high culture issue with real depth and the kind of careful research that puts people in English deparments to shame. Since everything LeMahieu says is worth printing in gold-leaf outlined letters on enduring parchment and hanging on the wall for contemplation, I asked him if he'd mind if I posted our correspondence about the article. He graciously agreed:
Picked up a copy of the New Republic and gave the piece on classical music a read. I actually didn't find myself upset (as you’d predicted I would) at all: I think Taruskin's right about the disingenuousness of the Bell experiment; I think he gets his Adorno right; I'm sympathetic to his argument in general.
I do think he buys into the idea that there's a crisis in classical music a bit more than he should. For example, he downplays the fact that classical music is the main beneficiary of online sales (people who buy classical music tend to buy whole multi-movement works, unlike pop music buyers, who tend only to want the single, and being younger and poorer than the classical crowd, generally have no qualms about illegal free downloading). He also downplays the fact that more repertoire is available now than ever before, thanks to Naxos (a label he mentions very briefly, but a huge phenomenon in the music industry) and to online releases without major label support. He's right that classical radio is in decline, but he never mentions that fewer stations are needed, since one can listen to the better ones online anywhere in the world. So part of the perceived crisis isn't a crisis of the music but of the media. This, of course, is part of the whole internet shakeup, which effects everything from newspapers to (increasingly) television. Overall, I don't think many people would want to turn the clock back, even if it were possible.
Of course in many ways I'm both a romantic and a modernist — in fact, one reviewer of my work called me "An augustan sensibility trained as a romanticist and writing in a modernist idiom during the postmodern era" (talk about aufgehoben!). So when Tarushkin veers closest to the "blame modernism" thesis, or harps on the dark side of German Romantic nationalism, I get ready to pounce on him. But even here I think he's fair -- he doesn't shout "traison!" at les clercs of modernism, so much as he sees the evolution of their aesthetic as a property of a very particular history, a history linked to the rise of bourgeois self-definition via culture (as opposed to aristocratic self-definition via landholding and ancestry) and all the rest. Since these are the issues I've been trying to get at in the chapter I'm currently writing of a book called The Aesthetic Anxiety, I can't really take exception. [Shameless plug: an essay that contains a brief treatment of my book-in-progress' themes is about to come out in Art and Life in Aestheticism. It makes a great gift, so shop early...]
There's been a debate about poetry similar to the one Taruskin traces in the New Republic, with Adorno-influenced people proclaiming their purity and political potential from one corner, while the people at the another corner demand a kind of popularization. Many on both sides see themselves as besieged and on the defensive in an environment of general decline. Meanwhile, and quite un-remarked by either side, I’m told that one of the larger online poetry sites — salt — boasts 200,000 readers of its often avant-garde content every month, a readership comparable to that of Harpers'. Where it all goes is anybody's guess.
What's your take on the article? I'm glad you turned me on to it.
I gave my copy away over a week ago so I will have to rely on memory. One objection to the article was the tone: it was a mirror image of what it pretended to refute. I was also disappointed that he cast the entire problem in terms of the high/low culture debate, about which I know a modest amount. When I researched A Culture for Democracy over 20 years ago, I read a great deal about the decline of "music" (as Classical was then called) in the 1920s and 1930s. I read the first twenty years of Gramophone, which constantly editorialized about the issue. In any case, the NR author says absolutely nothing new or interesting about High/Low, other than to presume the legitimacy of the Low, which is not the issue.
I wish the author had explored not only the technology issue, which you grasp, but also the audience issue: Classical appeals most to UMC (upper middle class) and the old, often many of whom were exposed to the music in their youth but only grasped it firmly as they aged.
Also, there is the damned issue of "art".
You're right of course about the question of audience, and the aging of the classical audience. This is the elephant in the room that Taruskin doesn't discuss enough.
You're right, too, about how most of the article just wanders over well-trodden ground in the high/low culture debate. I'm not sure Taruskin presumes the legitimacy of the low, though. When he writes, at the end, of classical music as a formal idiom or register within music as a whole, he seems to say that genres aren't so much legitimate or illegitimate as they are appropriate or inappropriate for particular situations. This is interesting, I think — not because it represents any new conceptual blockbusting (it doesn't), but because it is representative of what I take to be the emerging attitude toward what we had thought of as commercial/autonomous or low/high culture. If there's anything newish in the article's take on high-low it's this embodiment of an attitude one sees emerging, a kind of non-hierarchical pluralism about culture. In this view, high culture has less special social prestige than it did in Bourdieu's France of the 1970s, nor does it have much of a special claim on Frankfurt school political/spiritual redemptiveness. But this doesn't mean (as it seemed to mean, in early postmodernism) that it is bad or irrelevant or to be chucked away in favor of a valorized low culture. Rather, high culture becomes one of the registers in which one can (culturally) speak. Sometimes it stands on its own, sometimes it is mixed with other registers for effect (as in speech that combines high and low diction). So the high culture tradition is absorbed into a largely post-hierarchical world.
20 years of Gramophone — I envy you that!
Yes his pluralism is quite postmodern. But it eludes questions about cultural hierarchy that he presumes in other places within the article. His 'broadbrow" view was first articulated, by the way, by J B Priestley in the 1930s: at the time it was thought "middlebrow" and vulgar to assert such a view.
I devoted 12 years to thinking about this issue and I ended up asserting contradictions: an indication that the problem with judging "art" may have to do with a logic yet to be fully defined. Perhaps it dwells in cognitive psychology or Dilthey's "lived experience" which suggests inaccessibility to the views we assert, despite the best attempts at rationalization, including "disinterestedness."
I admit to having failed to unravel the Gordian Knot that is the problem of art, and the judgement of art. I've been relying on a little dodge in which I treat questions of what is better by asserting that there is no better in the absolute sense, only better-for certain tasks. I suppose that's why I'm sympathetic to Taruhkin's ending sections.
As for self-contradictoriness and the inaccessibility of our own viewpoints: I'm sure you're right. I remember when the deconstructionists built their brief empire on that insight.
Mind if I put our little exchange in my blog? I'll let you have the last word...
Your pragmatic view echoes that of Dewey, at least as I understand him.
The Deconstuctionist Empire may be decline, but the Cognitive Psychologists still rule.
On Fox, being given the last word means that you have already lost.