This is the second in my trio of posts attempting to impose socio-political paradigms on contemporary classical culture, with the hopes of encouraging a more active sense of critical judgement concerning the politics implicit in all artistic disciplines. The first post tackled the problems of an enduring modernist aesthetic in a conclusively postmodernist society. This post goes on to examine the various negative effects that postmodernism has had on classical music – many of them unrecognised, and therefore unchallenged. In a contemporary climate which is rapidly coming to terms with the so-called ‘Death of Postmodernism’, it is all the more important for classical music (which has always reacted slowly to cultural upheavals) to understand, and thence potentially overcome, these residual effects. Only then might musicians be in a position to take a wholly proactive, positive political stance within a new cultural zeitgeist.
2))) Historical Kitsch and the Dangers of Heritage
- The extent to which postmodernism affected classical music remains debatable. Certainly, since a postmodern tendency began to predominate in Western culture, classical music has shrunk into greater and greater obscurity. Most of the hallmarks of postmodernism appeared far more pronounced in pop music. New classical music tended to avoid both its positive aspects – a greater interest in marginalised cultures, a critical attitude to institutionalised value systems and the subversion of established hierarchies – and its negative ones – an over-reliance on irony and a fascination with consumerism. Whilst some evidence of a postmodern deconstructionalist attitude is evident in contemporary music which embraced improvisational techniques, chance-based composition and nonconventional notation systems, the trademark postmodern techniques of pastiche and collage (as well as, of course, vernacularism) remain far more fundamental to pop musics. (See my list on the moment for some exceptions.) Many classical musicians will conclude that they successfully dodged a bullet here, refusing to sell out to a politically questionable cultural movement, their decline in mainstream popularity a sacrifice made for their virtuous puritanism.
- I would argue that, whilst effectively renouncing some of the aesthetic tendencies of postmodernism, classical music has by no means completely avoided its influence. In fact, by consciously rejecting a stake in its most progressive missions – (the enduring sexism, racism and classism of classical music is something which I will go on to explore) – classical music has represented postmodernism in an almost wholly negative way.
- Consumer culture has infiltrated classical music to a far greater extent than anyone would like to admit. Most serious classical institutions would endeavour to distance and differentiate themselves from the kind of explicit consumerist cynicism of the ‘pop classical’ world – the classical charts, crossover artists, and ‘The Only Classical Album You’ll Ever Need!’ compilations. But most mainstream classical music functions along many of the same precepts as these reductive products. The history of classical music has been effectively flattened out into a kind of Argos catalogue of musical commodities, each advertising its own exotic or historical flavour. The contents of the catalogue is finite and rarely changeable. Instead, these same pieces are repeatedly programmed and played ad nauseam, with no justification beyond the retrenchment of their own small but unique list of specifications.
- To expand on this point, most of classical culture now resembles a kind of historical tourism. The original historical circumstances – composers’ autobiographical details, original relevance and performance circumstances of works – have come to overwhelmingly represented how we approach all classical music. Animateurs and proponents of music education rely on historical interest to introduce ‘classic’ programmes. We are trained to hear music from different eras, even if it is being performed right now, through the aesthetic headphones of the time – whether it be classical, romantic, medieval or modernist. The whole of music culture has become about heritage – preserving musical cultures of the past, listening to historical masterworks as they should be heard, and introducing new generations to cultural achievements of past centuries.
- There are some massive problems with this tendency as the governing force for an entire art form. It is necessarily reductive, because there is no way that anyone can ever appreciate the socio-political meanings inherent in a work of art if they are at such a far remove from the socio-cultural context of the time (and no amount of academia can ever fully redress this). So it is the musical work as signifier which becomes important, not the signifieds which that musical work would once have represented. People go to see the great classics because they are the great classics. They signify themselves, and perhaps the people who wrote them, the times in which they were written, the stylistic markers of the time, perhaps, and maybe the names of one or two contemporary political events. They might induce a list of historical and stylistic associations, but what they don’t do is provide any kind of commentary whatsoever on contemporary society. The more we explore, highlight and privilege the historical aspects of musical composition, and look at them as heritage projects, the less we leave them open for engagement with contemporary culture.
- In reality, a concert of classics from different time periods provides a kind of kitsch escapism. We treat music from across history like imperialists treated cultures from across the world, indulging in a kind of historical exoticism. The kitschness stems from the fact that we take an otherwise uncritical view of the historical moments from which these works are taken. We ‘deny the shit’, as Milan Kundera puts it, ignoring oppressive power systems, misogynistic and anti-semitic composers, the celebration of violent aristocratic and imperialistic wars, the reflection of a ‘soul’ of ‘Mankind’ that glorified nationalism and white supremacy, as well as a fanatical devotion to an oppressive and violent religious establishment. The more classical works’ heritage aspects are foregrounded, the more these actual political considerations are marginalised, as we are made to appreciate a ‘masterpiece’ from what is supposedly the ‘subjective’ (and therefore imperialist/religious fundamentalist) viewpoint of its contemporary audience.
- What results is quite a colossal mess. The whole movement seems to seek authenticity as a reaction to what is seen as the shallowness of late twentieth-century culture. And yet, the nexus of the classical establishment’s ‘authenticity’ is still centred on somewhere around the 18th or 19th centuries; the more they attempt to access this, the further they recede from any actual authenticity, which must take the politics of contemporary reality into full account.
- A movement like historically-informed performance practice, indulging an audience’s desire for theme park exoticism in the name of authenticity, carries classical music as far as possible away from contemporary society and political responsibility. Such a movement is the quintessence of a reductive postmodernism which seeks to sell a product’s apparent authenticity by approximating a superficial ‘historical’ aesthetic. It works along the lines of themed restaurants, except the proponents are physically unable to visit the past, so any assumed authenticity can never ever be verified. And all this is at the expense of any requirement to produce meaning in relation to contemporary society.
- The uncomfortable truth is that, by validating the marketable ‘authenticity’ (which is, as I say, nothing more than historical kitsch) of a small number of ‘great’ works and artists, an institution can guarantee ticket sales by repeating a small, economical repertoire of pieces, always played in exactly the same manner. It is the same principle that makes certain clichéd tourist experiences, seen on television, magazines or postcards, incredibly lucrative no matter how ‘inauthentic’ they might actually be. It should be seen as a great political problem that hearing the Vienna Philharmonic playing Mahler conducted by Mariss Jansons should seem more ‘authentic’ an experience than hearing a new piece played by young players and addressing issues pertaining to the community surrounding the audience and venue.
- Exclusivity and prestige have long since become more than uncomfortable social associations for classical music; they have become part of a self-destructive branding strategy, designed to streamline and privilege a rich audience who cannot then help but continue to pay for the same things. Most classical institutions won’t even have considered this a conscious strategy, but for a postmodern society that communicates rapidly through mass media and sees everything in terms of brands, it has been necessary to cement some kind of brand identity to allow the art form to receive any kind of publicity or audience at all. As such, the classical canon has benefited from effectively becoming a very long ‘The Only Classical Album You’ll Ever Need!’ compilation, but it has done so with such effectiveness that most of the people involved at the very centre of the industry haven’t even noticed.
- Clearly, the ‘classical’ brand not only aestheticises the historical context and cultural ‘importance’ of each of its catalogued products into self-justifying Past Times kitsch. It also totally ghettifies new music – the area of classical music most capable of addressing contemporary social issues and assuming political responsibilities, but which happens to be devoid of the kind of historical flavours that most classical connoisseurs have learnt to appreciate (unless, like quite a lot of new music, it is persuaded to adopt past musical styles as a topic, instead of contemporary issues). The very ‘classic’ status of classical music, situating it outside of any timescale, constitutes an abstention from contemporary social responsibility.
The political problems here aren’t just that classical music, like everything else, has sold out. Nor is it just that their marketing strategy has privileged a disengagement with contemporary social relevance and the aestheticisation of any residual historical politics. After all, if classical music hadn’t given way to some aspects of late capitalist culture, it wouldn’t have been able to maintain a hold in society whatsoever. The major problem is actually that classical music still refuses to acknowledge all this, in the way that pop music does. With this refusal, the entire art form relinquishes the power to work within the present cultural system in a creatively critical and progressive manner. Their brand is a powerful and enduring one, socially exclusive and by no means subtle, but by denying its existence, they lose their ability to manage, nuance or subvert it to more progressive ends. They cannot fully represent themselves without acknowledging the assumptions which have been their marketing tools, and they are left without any kind of real cultural or political power, subject to the superficial, uncritical interpretations of the consumers.
My final post on this subject will get a bit more specific, looking at power structures and the role of the establishment within contemporary classical culture, and hopefully pose a few suggestions on how new classical music can take back social responsibility… >>>>>