Towards A New Politics Of Art Music: I

I have been meaning to attempt an explicitly political post for a long time now. As new and exciting things continue to happen in unusual places throughout the musical world, the socio-political potential of such a movement has grown both in clarity and importance. For me, recent developments have shed light both on how problematic the politics of the classical status quo has become, as well as the huge potential for a new art music to take on a renewed sense of social responsibility.

All art is political art

Despite the beliefs of some classical traditionalists, it shouldn’t be too controversial to state that all art has its politics. Even if it doesn’t deal explicitly with a social problem or ideal, there will be socio-political decisions involved throughout its inception and execution. Musical structures, styles, the deployment of tropes, and the invocation of ‘programmes’, can all function metaphorically, while a composer or musician’s relation to the classical establishment in turn cannot help but resonate symbolically. There are politics inherent in a performer’s approach to traditions and to power structures within ensembles. Most of all, to those scrutinising the state of classical music from an outsider’s position, bringing its aesthetic preoccupations and philosophies alongside those of concurrent art forms, hidden political stances will always emerge in comparison.

I am not about to attempt a fully developed political argument to apply to all classical music. For one thing, I think the situation has gotten very confused, not just in music but in most other art forms, over the last thirty years or so. The gradual capitalist hijacking of institutional structures has made direct political stances very problematic for many artists, their politics quickly co-opted or aestheticised by the market. Others (including many classical musicians) have claimed exemption both from a consumerist society and from any stake in its politics, an impossible position which has left them in denial of any kind of critical power.

What I will attempt to do in the following three posts is to posit three different paradigms, each outlining some basic political problems which (I would argue) all classical musicians must engage with. The real challenge, I think, is to encourage all musicians (especially young ones) to remain critical, to acknowledge the politics which are implied in every aspect of their practice, and to question every inherited assumption, not least the belief that classical music is somehow ‘above’ politics. Only then will musicians be able to see all the many ways in which their art can be used politically, can come to represent and encourage their own beliefs, and can regain its social responsibility at a time of immense political urgency.

1))) Old Modernist Utopia, New Social Apathy

  • High modernism, in music as well as other art forms, was often a highly politicised movement. Its practitioners worked with the belief, inherited from Classical and Enlightenment thought, that there could be a direct correlation between form and ideology, that a progressive aesthetic could reflect and inspire progressiveness in society. Modernism focused on momentum, on constantly aspiring and improving, and on an avant garde which would always be able to provoke change through revolutions in form and concept. Modernism was about dreaming of utopias, more advanced than society itself, which were perfect in discipline, proportion and equanimity. The modernist condition can also be linked to totalitarianism, and to social exclusion and alienation. By most accounts, it came to an end, to be superseded by postmodernism, perhaps sometime in the ’70s.
  •  The issue here is that, for a lot of contemporary composers, modernism seems still to be a guiding viewpoint. Many composers seem unwilling to depart from the teleology of 19th- and 20th-century composition, taking all its revolutions as unquestionable and either working staunchly within the modernist utopia – which most other artistic traditions have conceded as illusory and no longer helpful – or attempting to continue the march of aesthetic progress. Even where some of the ‘purity’ of form has been disowned, and perhaps even pastiche invoked, contemporary musical languages very rarely depart from anything comparable to art music as validated by one of the modernist progressives of the last 120 years.
  • The problem here, for the rest of society, is that the assumed relationship between aesthetics and politics no longer stands. It was as good as dissolved by postmodernism. In the ‘80s, most Western art had to deal with a cultural situation quite different from the rest of the 20th century, more subtle and complex, with a whole host of new voices to attend to. Art no longer automatically stood in for Mankind; there were all sorts of interest group politics being debated, while the dislocation between a modernist aesthetic utopia and the actual social problems of real people became too clear for the old model to remain tenable. Modernism was seen to propagate the interests of ‘Man, at the expense of men’.
  • Now, as much as composers and classical devotees may dispute it, a ‘progressive’ aesthetic just does not automatically suggest progressive social values. Postmodernism levelled everything out, bringing the vernacular in line with the academic, permitting a stylistic multiculturalism, and undermining all the power that a formal avant garde once had to shock and agitate through aesthetic alone. In other art forms, social issues were explored in more specific, particular ways, engaging with individual problems and presenting answers, rather than relying on a whole cultural movement to represent society as an abstract concept.
  • Composers who deny this fundamental change in the politics of aesthetics not only fail to appreciate the new impotence of their musical language, but they also automatically adopt new, quite different politics. They become musical conservatives, because they are denying the cultural shifts of the last thirty or forty years, whilst hanging on to an artistic aesthetic which is exclusionary in its devotion to a ‘master narrative’ that privileges white males. To stick to this course for political reasons is to inherit the imperialist value systems which validated the modernists in their utopian project.
  • However, I think it is more common for musicians to inherit this perspective without acknowledging its political associations. There is a great belief amongst contemporary composers, whose work often fetishises the purported ‘abstractness’ of music (as physical sound or structural game), that their music can be apolitical. This is always a dangerous move. To declare your work as apolitical is tantamount to validating without question the status quo with regards to your establishment, your artistic tradition (past, present and future), your audience, the demographic of the musicians, where your finances come from and the political beliefs of everyone involved. It is the relinquishment of all social responsibility from your art, therefore declaring your art as both irrelevant and impotent. Claiming an apolitical position is itself a political gesture, and it certainly amounts to ‘bad politics’ in a society in which there is so much unrest, inequality and unhappiness.
  • Bizarrely enough, musicians will often still claim ‘morality’ for their art, even while they might reject all politics. This trend spans far wider than contemporary composition, just as many aspects of Modernist thought (and, to an even greater extent maybe, the Enlightenment project) still govern how people think and talk about classical music, and how those involved present it to the rest of society. The idea of there being an inherent moral quality to abstract art is a ridiculous construct of the Enlightenment and of Romanticism, yet classical fans’ utter devotion to the 18th- and 19th-century composers who dominate concert programmes means that it is very rarely questioned. The culture of classical music is such a cult of personality – the uncritical worship of olden-day ‘geniuses’ whose own intent and out-of-date beliefs are routinely regurgitated in programme notes as indubitable fact – that music can still be performed under the belief that its ‘inherent morality’ is political justification enough.
  • However, history has taught us that it is the amorality of much classical music, its refusal to take any real social stance, that guarantees its appeal to people of all political persuasions, including totalitarian despots. For the vanguard of a serious and heavily state-subsidised art form, any continuing belief in this ‘inherent morality’, which should be seen as amorality, must then actually constitute immorality. It is a refusal to engage with society at society’s level, and therefore a denial of all responsibility in the improvement of that society. It can amount to a calculated, institutionalised apathy.
  • Any art form that wishes to change the world for the better must be prepared to come down and meet society at every level. If it then wishes to be critical, which it certainly should, then the criticism should occur there, where the context is clear and the audience attentive. There can be no valid criticism of a social condition if the existence of that social condition is denied – if classical music fails to engage with the power structures and communication channels of contemporary society and is content instead to court obscurity in a long-abandoned modernist utopia.

For classical musicians to escape this dilemma, all they need to do is question the politics of their aesthetics. After justifying or destroying any assumptions, they can then attempt to explore form and aesthetics in a way which acknowledges and engages positively with contemporary issues. Luckily, there is a comparable moment in history, both with reference to the current economic climate and to political art, which can be viewed as an instructive resource: the 1920s and early ‘30s. At this time, new music in Europe and America was rebelling against late Romanticism: what had once been a humanistic and ‘enlightened’ movement but had since become emblematic of the self-justification of a conservative status quo. The result was a musical movement which engaged with modern life as a topic, with popular art, and with new methods of dissemination. Composers were able to make social and political criticism very directly, working explicit socialist messages into musical works that attracted large and diverse audiences. If this artistic spirit were revived, with the internet replacing radios and gramophones, dance music replacing jazz, and globalisation replacing the topic of Fordist production, musicians might have something like a ready-made model for a socially-responsible art music.

Obviously, an outmoded modernism is hardly the only pernicious political trend in contemporary music. And just because classical music might have denied the ubiquity of postmodernism doesn’t mean that it was exempted from the many problems which postmodernism brought. In the next post, I’ll address some of the more characteristically postmodern dilemmas which have impacted on classical music’s conscience. >>>>>

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4 Responses to Towards A New Politics Of Art Music: I

  1. Pingback: Towards A New Politics Of Art Music: III |

  2. aspyhole says:

    Brilliant article. Not sure I wholly agree with it all though.
    Why do you assume that there are musicians, classical or otherwise, who, as you suggest, implicitly deny this ‘fundamental change’ in musical politics. If they are not explicit about denying the change, surely it is not the musicians who are denying any change that may have taken place, but their listeners. I therefore find it interesting that you think music cannot be apolitical. While I don’t deny that all music CAN be political (i.e. have political relevance, or even a political effect), this is very different from all musicians automatically having to subscribe to the limits of a movement – I don’t think that just because a musician declares a work to be apolitical that this musician thereby strips the work of any possibility of having political weight. I agree that ridding yourself of social responsibility is…irresponsible (!) but I can’t imagine musicians would ever compose anything without acknowledging that it may have some sort of socio-political effect or other. Releasing a piece of music ‘apolitically’ is far from the musical conservatism you describe, rather it could be an adherence to postmodernity, by letting the label-less artwork be shaped by what has come before and what will come after it.
    I look forward to reading the following posts.

  3. Pingback: Live Review: Manga Sister at The Yard |

  4. Pingback: the biting point in 2013: The Rest is Noise |

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