A response, of sorts, to Jonathan’s “Poppy Ott” post the other day. Particularly this line:
We have far less trouble with the actual music and culture than we do with cultural spoon-feeding and implications that X is higher or better than Y—the originally well-meaning Women’s Club, it’s-on-us-to-civilize-our-New-World-savages approach.
My question is, who exactly constitutes the entity, this “well-meaning Women’s Club, it’s-on-us-to-civilize-our-New-World-savages approach”? Do we know these people? Who is engaging in this long-protracted act of culture shaming? Is there a club somewhere? Who are the classical-music types telling everyone else their music is stupid?
It’s not any one person. You may know someone who has taken it upon herself (usually a “her,” in the popular imagination) to civilize the New World, but I have not. I suspect “she” is mostly myth, a figure from old Garland-Rooney and Marx Brothers movies, the matron poised for the whoopee cushion. She is the concrete personification of an abstract force or process, sort of the way deities or demons were accounted the rulers of wind or pox.
It’s coming from somewhere, though. I find myself in institutional situations where that civilize-the-natives narrative is implicit, if not actually come-right-out-and-say-it overt. It’s where a lot of conversations (online or IRL) go when art-music scholars and performers get to talking about some kind of vernacular music, like hiphop, that has yet to claw its way to some official regard for its native artistic complexity. At some point, someone will say something like, well, it’s OK that someone makes this music or even cares about it, and what the hell, we could talk about it for five minutes in the undergraduate music history survey, but just as long as we’re all clear here: the great works of the western art music tradition are and will always represent a higher form of culture. I have often wondered why so many who love art music have this neurotic itch to assert the superiority of their music, and to have it generally acknowledged. It’s not just that they think their music is superior; pretty much everyone thinks his/her music is superior. It’s about selling the music with the idea of superiority, or more generally making the music be about superiority. This, and not some finger-wagging Margeret Dumont type, is the problem.
I’m not pointing fingers here; what I’m interested in is institutional or collective rather than individual tendencies. Whatever it is, it isn’t unique to classical music: you find it in jazz as well. It’s always a short way from a righteous love and pride in our music, which is what I take it to be what Jonathan is after, a kind of This Is Our Music thing (the cover of the Ornette album summing up for me the basic attitude of music — fuck yeah!), to “this is our music, which is on a higher social and cultural level than your music.” And once you get to that point, the conversation is over, because this is America and no-one ever says “I’m better than you” and gets away with it.
We are scholars and practitioners of a high art music tradition; we uphold and preserve that tradition. No apologies there. But we’re at a point in American cultural history where the legitimating stories that justified large-scale funding of that tradition (endowments for orchestras, state university funding for music centers, etc.) no longer carry much conviction. One potent old line of justification was what Lawrence Levine called sacralization: this difficult, labor-intensive, and thus costly music should be protected from brute American market values by a generous subsidy, and it should be so protected because it embodies our culture’s highest spiritual values. The problem is, what is now “our culture”? Who’s the “us” here? What are “spiritual values” anyway? We are famously post-consensus on both questions.
Much as I love Parsifal (and I do), a Saturday afternoon broadcast of it nowadays will likely meet with discontented grumblings from those who feel excluded from its ponderous mysteries, which let’s face it is most people, especially when said mysteries spill out over 5+ hours and take out a whole weekend afternoon.* You need a reason that this broadcast is sitting squatly in the middle of a valuable chunk of radio real estate, when people are out doing errands in their cars and listening to the radio. The traditional answer — because this represents the greatest art our civilization was produced, and it needs to be preserved — will likely be met with a response something like, well, it’s not my civilization you’re preserving here. This has nothing to do with me. And for the most part, those of us who uphold the western art music tradition get stuck here, because no answer to this objection will satisfy. But this is your civilization. You just haven’t been educated properly. Uh, no, that won’t work. We don’t care if this music speaks to you or not. It’s great. Acknowledge the greatness! Neither will that. But if the Met isn’t broadcast, then all that’s left is the crappy music that ordinary dumb people like. Again, no. But opera belongs to everyone! True but vapid. It doesn’t answer the question, why should I care? Why should we, as a society, invest in this art?
Ultimately, this isn’t just about classical music. It’s about the arts and humanities more generally, which (have you noticed?) have lately become the targets for one of those odd waves of American prosecutory enthusiasm. Why should our kids study the arts and humanities? Why should parents pay for it? Why should our taxes pay for those departments? We need good answers for these questions, and appealing to cultural uplift and so on isn’t going to work. But at this point this becomes a much larger conversation than I can attempt in one blog post. More later, maybe.
I do think there’s an answer. It has something to do with this wonderful interview between Nardwuar and Questlove. (It’s 45 minutes long but well worth your time.)
*The reason I bring this up as an example is that my local radio station, WFIU, has decided to stop the Met broadcasts. I bought a couple of books at Caveat Emptor, a local used-books place run by a couple of serious music-lovers, and they asked me to sign a petition against the banishment of opera from Saturday afternoon, which (not wishing to be rude) I did. But to be honest I can see both sides on this one.