This clip, with Stephen Colbert ragging John Zorn and showing his own “Hiphopketball: A Jazzabration,” made me laugh.

Now, I like John Zorn. I have a bunch of his albums, and besides my brother-in-law plays with him, so liking avant-garde jazz is kind of the family business. If I didn’t have a sense of humor I’d probably be offended. But Colbert’s hat-and-cane routine is funny because, let’s face it, there is something funny about the avant-garde.* You can’t help but make fun of it, even if you actually like it.

Maybe this is because the avant-garde (a vague term I have no intention of defining) has a certain seriousness of purpose that may or may not be in synch with its style or contingent form of expression. If Zorn’s “Spillane” is entertaining (in its way) and even occasionally funny (after a fashion), it  nevertheless owes its existence to a way of looking at art that is serious as a heart attack. Avant-garde art doesn’t just want to fool around with new styles; it wants to question the conceptual framework within which styles are perceived, and, so doing, it wants to force us to re-examine our relationship to art itself. Or, put another way, the avant-garde doesn’t just demand new art, it demands new people. The avant-garde is a deeply moral enterprise, then, even if the people who make up the avant-garde all seem like louche decadent punks and performance artists and free-jazz screamers. Which is why the avant-garde is always good for a laugh: moralists are always funny.

Which is a roundabout way of getting at the arguments Jonathan and our readers have gotten into over the weekend. The new musicology** of the early-mid 1990s understood itself, and was understood by its enemies, as an avant-garde, and more than its use of this or that methodology (queer theory, post-Marxism, Lacanian psychoanalytics, etc.) it seemed to be defined by a very avant-gardish desire to change our heads — to change what we think is important about music, and thus to change how we listen. Which, as I’ve said, entails a moral stance, though New Criterion-style conservatives always argued that postmodernism (with which the new musicology was allied) was highly immoral. They were wrong, I think, but their mistake was a sign of a more pervasive confusion. In hindsight most of what the “old musicology” (non-new musicology?) folks most disliked was a certain stridency, a certain tone of superiority, a certain exclusionary rhetoric (“you, as a member of the privileged class, cannot understand what we, the subaltern, are saying”). They objected, then, to being looked down on, to being judged from a moral position.

Which of course the new musicologists objected to, too. They too felt judged by alien moral criteria. They were being told that their writing was empty causistry, that their scholarly agenda was philistine and politically looney, and that the kinds of music they liked were unworthy of serious contemplation, by a bunch of people who showed no signs of having read, much less understood, the new musicology’s foundational texts. (My man Scott McLemee, reacting to Edward Rothstein’s dismissive NYT obituary for Derrida, wrote that Rothstein seemed to have “derived his entire knowledge of deconstruction from reading the back of the video box for a Woody Allen movie with the word in the title.”)

I’m making this a narrative in the past tense, which for the most part is appropriate, because the fire went out of this debate years ago, though as we’ve seen you can still get the old arguments going. But I feel that both sides are still picking fights over moral positions, or defending themselves from an implicit moral judgment, even when they think they’re talking about something else, like whether Wayne Koestenbaum is any good.***

For the record, I think The Queen’s Throat is awesome. It is one of my favorite books. I also think it inspired a rash of bad imitations, and the thing is, you have to get to the point where you can say which pieces of writing within a scholarly genre are any good. Postmodernism tried to do away with the business of evaluation, and like Terry Eagleton, I think that this was its greatest failing. But that’s another post.

*Anyway, is Colbert making fun of Zorn, or is he making fun of
boneheads who make fun of people like Zorn? Or both? Doesn’t matter,
because it’s funny.

**Which, let’s just say it now, isn’t all that new anymore, but I’ll use
the term anyway, without the scare quotes, because everyone knows what
it means.

***In trying to take some kind of responsible middle ground I’m probably just pissing off both sides here.


About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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