Towards A New Politics Of Art Music: III

This is my third and final post exploring the state of classical music culture from a socio-political perspective. The first was a critique of modernist tendencies, the second was a critique of postmodern tendencies, but this post aims to deal with a more fundamental issue, one which impacts upon everyone involved in classical music. This is the existence, nature and power of a classical ‘establishment’, and the attitude with which musicians relate to it. As with the other two posts, I will attempt to outline a paradigm through which musicians and listeners might view their own culture, in order to encourage politicised critical thought. Some might disagree with it outright, others might find it simplistic, but the real intent is to question what might be seen as the ‘essential’ aspects of the art form as it exists. Therefore any engagement or debate, whether positive or negative, would be very welcome.

The Classical Establishment: Hegemony and Resistance

  • Classical music, as we have inherited it, relies overwhelmingly on its institutions. It is very difficult to self-teach a classical instrument or music theory, so educational institutions have always held a lot of influence over young, developing musicians. Orchestras, at the same time, have become so large over the last few hundred years that it is very difficult and costly to get the requisite number of players together, and much more so to guarantee players of a particular quality. For this reason, there are a small number of major league orchestras concentrated in certain cities around the world, and often linked to a small number of venues privileged for the esoteric virtues of their acoustics. Classical music inhabits a relatively small artistic community, especially in Europe, despite its much-flaunted internationalism. In a way, the shrinking of mass interest serves this sense of growing ‘refinement’ – classical culture is close-knit, self-defined and self-preserved. Everyone initiated into this musical community can feel confident in their understanding of the hierarchy of things, from the canonisation of a list of timeless masterpieces, great soloists and opera houses, the ensembles and conductors best suited to play the music of each ‘great’ composer, and specific career-paths that any self-respecting section leader should choose to pursue.
  • This mindset is constantly re-validated by the circle of classical initiates, who have been educated in these very select institutions and indoctrinated into the discourses upon which the entire art form seems fundamentally to be based: as journalists, critics and teachers, or just through opining in the concert hall bar, or in comment boxes below YouTube videos. Such musical initiates will constantly validate each other’s opinions, relating for example to which recordings of which symphonies are ‘greater’, in order to demonstrate their understanding of what is both a complicated and fairly arbitrary inheritance of value systems, biographies and jargon – something which can be learnt without much need for lateral thought, and which does actually constitute much of music education. We are taught how to listen, we are taught what to listen for, and we are taught what to value in what we hear.
  • This might all seem quite pleasant – a friendly community of like-minded people across the world, sharing in their peculiar passions and interests, developing their little secret languages and geeky in-jokes. But in reality, this little community represents the monolithic core of the entire musical tradition. It holds all the money – a lot of it state-subsidised – and it holds all the power, not only over what people play and hear, but also over the way we are taught about music and the way the rest of society perceives the classical art form. It retains much of the residual prestige that classical music and opera has had, over all other art forms, throughout history – in terms of influence and money. And, as much as our appreciation of other art forms is also guided by our early education, we must remember not to take these facts for granted. Classical music is in thrall to its institutional ‘establishment’, to the values that it has enshrined and to the hegemony which it promotes quite aggressively: that great emphasis in traditional classical culture on things being done ‘properly’ and ‘formally’, ‘as they should be’.
  • Now, for any progressive art form (or any kind of discipline at all) to be in thrall to an establishment is massively problematic. The establishment will always represent things ‘as they are’ – the ‘normal’ or the status quo – even while this will always be an illusion. The establishment is thus enshrined in its hegemonic status – its power stemming from its dominance (or perceived dominance) – and it can therefore make itself felt in ways that might otherwise warrant criticism or resistance. It can justify itself merely through its majority status, which can give the appearance of consensus or even universal truth. At the same time, because all art reflects the rest of society and human existence, the classical establishment cannot help but stand in for the Establishment (with a capital ‘E’) in other areas – the government, the cultural (and ‘moral’) majority, the law, the economy etc. This link is not only a symbolic one, as mentioned before, the big classical institutions rely on the government for money and support, just as the government relies on the arts institutions for state events, international prestige and tourism. Perhaps this should go without saying, but then so should the fact that no art form can ever afford to be, or be perceived to be, in thrall to the Establishment. All art should feel the impetus to move towards a better world and social change, and therefore must necessarily move against the status quo.
  • For classical music it is especially important to consciously maintain a critique of, and rebellion against, the Establishment. There are maybe four reasons why this is important:
  1. the symbolic reasons as stated above, 
  2. the fact of the classical establishment’s particularly strong hegemonic power and influence (which represents basically a monopoly on the representation of the art form across the world), 
  3. its deeply unpleasant political associations
  4. and the practical fact that there can be no new creative movement within such an entrenched, self-validating and isolationist cultural environment. 

Power and Dissent

  • The classical establishment has so much power, its hegemony is so strong, but there are also so few initiates or non-initiates with enough inclination or confidence to dissent against it. Without parallel movements of dissident artists, of the kind that have always existed in visual art, pop music, theatre and film, the students who enter the classical institutions at such a young age are given no suggestion that they can criticise and question these ‘truths’ and values that the entire art form seems to consist of. As the 20th century progressed, and pop music became such a powerful force, the classical avant garde was absorbed further and further into the Establishment, so that now (as I detailed in my post on modernist tendencies), the neo-modernist, ‘formalist’ avant garde is actually one of the more reactionary wings of the classical establishment.
  • The proliferation of ‘pop classical’ and ‘cross-over’ artists has had an equally negative effect, because they represent a totally unpoliticised dissent from Establishment values, cultivated for the cynical pursuit of profit alone, and will always be perceived as more politically-bankrupt than the traditional classical mainstream. Young musicians can then feel ethically principled in following the amoral values of the classical establishment, as opposed to the unashamedly immoral values of the ‘popular’ (‘uneducated, unrefined’) classical world, and there is no impetus for a politicised dissident movement on top of that.
  • On a very basic level, one of the most fundamental ways in which art can be political is that it can teach us how to think critically, how to question the perceived truths of our society and our world. Artists have always done this by treating their own traditions, their institutions, rules and values, with the same kind of critical stance, stimulating transferrable critical faculties while perhaps attacking any oppressive or reactionary sentiments within their own culture. Such hegemonic establishments, as a rule, represent the governing power, and therefore – in order to prevent anarchy – they resist radical attitudes. So it is one issue that young musicians aren’t able to develop transferrable politicised sentiments on a microcosmic level. Far more outrageous and pressing, though, is the fact that the classical music establishment, as it is, is probably one of the most politically-backwards establishments in the Western world.

Classy music

  • It should, for example, be absolutely untenable for anyone wilfully associated with classical music that their art form is specifically stereotyped by the whole of society, internationally, as ‘posh’. Correct or not, the very suggestion that, more than any other type of music (or indeed artistic tradition), theirs was the domain of a rightfully diminishing and universally ridiculed ‘upper class’ should be totally abhorrent to any serious young musician. This impression threatens to instantly invalidate all other socio-political aspects of a musical work for a huge section of its potential audience. If the upper-class associations are too deeply rooted in the popular consciousness to remove from the classical institutions, which I think they most definitely are, then young musicians must make explicit their dislocation from these institutions. And this needn’t be through constant negative disclaimers railing against this or that concert hall, it could just be through approaching the writing and performance of music without the presumption of any institutionalised ritual, with only the necessities of the work’s conveyance and its implied politics in mind.
  • I do not believe that these class issues are all based in ignorant stereotype; most of the more pointless traditions and rituals in classical music culture seem in place only to confirm the eliteness and refinement of the music and its patrons, as well as its supposed ‘immateriality’, possible only through the collectively assumed impossibility of poverty. But it is not just the immense class issues which threaten to politically pollute anything allied to the classical establishment. There is still a lot of sexism within the classical world, more so than in pretty much every other facet of Western culture. This sexist attitude seems to cling quite closely to the hegemonic perspective and its worship of male composers and male conductors, as well as its positioning of these overwhelmingly male roles at the zenith of its accepted hierarchy of ‘power’ and ‘importance’ within the classical culture.
  • Mainstream classical music, in its recent topical evasion of all political particularities in preference of old-fashioned universalism, has also explicitly rejected any engagement with racial identities and even with new attitudes towards sexuality, despite the large number of homosexuals working within classical music. Compared with the explicit attitudes of visual art, pop music and film ‘establishments’, the classical establishment comes across as very racist, very classist, quite sexist and actually quite homophobic. By enshrining a set of values which privilege the ‘transcendent’, ‘unworldly’, ‘spiritual’ and ‘universal’, the classical establishment consciously rejects any responsibility in dealing with contemporary political issues, both in terms of the inequalities in minority group politics, and the inequalities inherent in capitalism and global politics. It flaunts its ‘apolitical’ status, and therefore accepts an unethical position within society. Surely it must seem imperative that, in order to begin to create music which engages with society and culture in a progressive way, musicians must criticise and dissent from the classical establishment and its hegemony.

Exalting the rich and holy

  • Moreover, at this present moment (in the UK at least), the relationship between arts institutions and money is becoming all the more complicated. The big classical institutions have always dealt in large sums of money. Many of the most famous works require very large orchestras, so a lot of money is spent so that a lot of money can be charged to guarantee a good return from a full house. Operas, in turn, have become so reliant on spectacle that they have had no choice but to sell tickets for frankly obscene sums of money. Such extortionate seat prices should frankly be unconscionable, because they ratify the decadent expenses of the super-rich, and socially-pointed displays of grotesque wealth which shouldn’t be possible in a truly egalitarian society. Such a state of affairs should have serious musicians automatically boycotting these venues, for their art to be taken in the least bit seriously. And I know that, in this case, there are plenty of parallels with the very complicated role that the art market has in the contemporary art world, not to mention the role of Hollywood in english-language film and the major labels within pop music. But there is altogether a more critical attitude towards financial power within these art forms as a whole than there is in classical music, in which the presence and power of money is often hidden.
  • There is perhaps an even more controversial institution to which the classical music establishment is aligned than decadent capitalism or the upper classes: institutional religion. Religion still plays a large part in the discourse surrounding classical music. Choral music, in particular, is dominated by its links to Christian ritual, and even contemporary choral music largely rejects all criticism of what would be, for most contemporary artists, a very awkward bedfellow. What is more, most Christian choral music is made to function as a mystifying/aestheticising/abstracting force, often rejecting an engagement with the more ethically valuable aspects of religious practice or a more constructive clarifying/criticising role. It is highly debatable whether a politically progressive contemporary art form can exist as a tool of ritual within the most hegemonic, intrinsically conservative establishments in all of history – the original Establishment, no less. Religious choral music, even removed from its liturgical context, implicitly upholds the politics behind both the classical music establishment (and therefore, symbolically, the social Establishment) and the cultural traditions of the church. This puts it in a very difficult position for articulating socio-political change.

Rip It Up And Start Again

  • Constantly criticising and rebelling against the establishment should therefore be the default position for socially-engaged musicians. An attitude of pitiless self-censorship is required with regards to the political implications of every artistic decision, especially with regards to the rituals and traditions inherited from the institutions themselves. Classical music is in too damaged a position politically and culturally for any aspect of it to resist scrutiny. Once a musician is left with those elements that remain politically rigorous, new performance circumstances and creative decisions can be made which support individual politics, not the received ‘truths’ of an overbearing hegemony.
  • We have outlined in our manifesto those elements of classical music which we perceive to be essential to the art form, and those which have been adopted (or retained) as the mere accoutrements of cultural chauvinism. Obviously, this might vary with each individual’s own personal politics. We have also mentioned some ways in which classical music can detach itself from its institutions, as far as is possible. We have tried to document in this blog some of the successes of small-scale, localised classical movements (based around geographical centres or online hubs). By bringing low-budget, small-scale, informal musical performances directly to communities, not only would musicians have more flexibility to address explicit socio-cultural issues, but they would easily escape all the residual ‘bad politics’ – perceived or actual – which the classical establishment still clings to.

One of the big questions for everyone at this point of time, especially because it reflects one of the greatest conundrums relating to our present ‘crisis of capitalism’, is the extent to which any real positive change can be effected from within the system. Our manifesto focuses on a vision for a new classical music which can only be truly creative and progressive by evolving completely outside of the existing classical mainstream. But in every art form, there are those politicised artists who manage to criticise the establishment from within, and if musicians were to concede to even some of the many criticisms that I’ve catalogued above, it definitely shouldn’t be too hard to at least begin a creative critique of the classical status quo from an insider position. I’m not sure how serious it would be taken though. The classical establishment’s hegemony is being used more and more as a suit of armour to protect what is seen (quite rightly) as an artistic tradition under threat. The more it is invoked in serious debates about the value of the entire art form, the more credence it will gain amongst the initiates, and the more the whole art form will appear – to everyone else – like nothing but a particularly arcane set of stats, foreign words and arbitrary rules.

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One Response to Towards A New Politics Of Art Music: III

  1. Doug says:

    These have been really interesting. I think a lot of the proposals you’ve outlined pop up in the Downtown scene. That the established institutions of classical music have only circled the wagons tighter since then is no surprise. I think ultimately the problem is that classical music doesn’t have the flow of information between institutions and innovators, the most important thing young musicians can be doing right now is cultivating music outside the ivory towers.

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