Who need classical Music?
Who Needs Classical Music?: Cultural Choice and Musical Value (Hardcover)
About the value of classical music. More particularly, it is about its apparent devaluation today and the consequences of its current legitimation crisis. But this is merely the starting point for examining classical music’s claim to a distinctive value and assessing the relevance that claim retains for our postmodern, plural, and multicultural world.
It addresses questions not just about music but about the nature of contemporary culture, because changing perceptions of classical music have less to do with the music itself than with changes in other cultural practices, values, and attitudes. To ask questions about the status of classical music today is inevitably to ask questions about cultural choices more generally.
What is the significance of our musical choices? What cultural values do those choices exhibit? Do the cultural values we hold as musical consumers equate with the values with which we align ourselves in other areas, such as education or politics? What is it about classical music that makes it so marginal and about popular music that makes it so central to contemporary society?
But my concern is with classical music, not with popular culture. I have largely avoided the labyrinthine arguments about their competing claims to value because my main point is that while some classical music can and does function as popular culture, its distinctive value lies elsewhere. It makes a claim to a distinctive value because it lends itself to functions that, on the whole, popular music does not, just as popular music lends itself tofunctions that, on the whole, classical music does not.
This different potential of musical types arises not just from how people approach different kinds of music but from the objective differences between musical pieces and musical styles themselves. Central to my argument is the idea that classical music is distinguished by a self-conscious attention to its own musicallanguage. Its claim to function as art derives from its peculiar concern with its own materials and their formal patterning, aside from any considerations about its audience or its social use.
In this, my approach differs from studies based in sociology or cultural studies. From these perspectives, music is almost always discussed in terms of its social use and the meanings that are attributed to it in specific social contexts. While this is certainly an important area, it tends to exclude considerations of the music itself. While not ignoring the question of social use, my concern is rather to bring such outward facts of everyday life into tension with a discussion of the music itself.
My argument is that musical objects themselves suggest a degree of elaboration and richness of meaning that not only exceeds our habitual use of them but also implies an opposition to the uses to which they are often put. My use of the term “value” is therefore not neutral. I am not primarily interested in the way value is conferred on music through the local, evaluative practices that are the proper concern of sociology.
My question is not why different people find different music valuable, but rather how different musics themselves articulate different values and the extent to which these correlate with or contradict the values we espouse in other areas, both individually and collectively. In other words, I begin with a rejection of the supposed neutrality of music implied by an approach that deals with music only as an empty sign for other things.
Such an approach is possible only if one perversely refuses to engage with music on its own terms, as an internally elaborated and highly structured discourse. A sociological inquiry into when and where a certain music becomes meaningful, and for whom, while valid and important, may tell us little about the music itself.
One could imagine a sociological study of drugs proceeding along similar lines. But such a partial study would remain limited in its scope and application if it were not understood in relation to a medical analysis of the drugs in question and to an assessment of their physiological effects. Some might feel that the study would still be incomplete without a discussion of the problems and merits of different drugs and the ethical dimensions of the whole question of drug use. Such expectations do not apply in sociological studies of music use, because clearly one cannot talk objectively about the effects of music in any comparable way.
Nevertheless, studies of musical meaning that completely ignore the music itself are clearly inadequate. My approach here equally rejects the neutrality implied by the marketplace. Contemporary society may indeed be characterized by multiplicity and plurality, but the cultural products and positions that it throws up in bewildering proximity are not interchangeable choices and options, like so many different brands of a single product (music).
We attach great importance to the sheer variety of music available to us, yet we lack even the most basic vocabulary for discussing when, how, and why different musics can offer us genuinely different things. The paradox of music in a commercial context is that, for all the appearance of difference, musics that derive from quite different functions lose their distinctiveness because they are assumed to serve the same function as all the others.
Classical music is shaped by different functional expectations than popular music, a fact all but lost today because of the dominance of the functional expectations of popular culture. To argue that classical music, like art more generally, makes a claim to types of functions and meanings distinct from those of popular culture is
to risk the charge of elitism. I address this question at several points, arguing that dominant uses of that term today, far from defending the idea of democracy, undermine the most fundamental aspirations enshrined within
The charge of elitism should be leveled at those forces in society that hinder the development and opportunity of all of its members. So why is it today so often the sign of entrenchment, a refusal of opportunity, a denial
of cultural or intellectual expressions of the aspiration that we might—individually and collectively—realize our greater human potential?
This question is critical because it relates to a central claim of classical music, one that distinguishes it from popular culture. Classical music, like all art, has always been based on a paradoxical claim: that it relates to the immediacy of everyday life but not immediately. That is to say, it takes aspects of our immediate experience and reworks them, reflecting them back in altered form. In this way, it creates for itself a distance from the everyday while preserving a relation to it.
Talking about music and art, which has always been a slightly suspect activity, becomes particularly suspect
today because in attempting to highlight art’s quality of separation from the everyday, it refuses the popular demand that art should be as immediate as everything else. To insist on art’s difference, its distance from everyday life, comes dangerously close to an antipopulist position.
Art’s critical attitude toward the everyday arouses suspicion not only within popular culture but also within academic theory that deals with popular culture. The influential theory of Pierre Bourdieu, for example, as set out in his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste , has at its center the idea that cultural practices (from art and sport to food and holidays) function entirely as sign systems for class distinctions and that the idea of intrinsic aesthetic value or meaning is completely bogus.
The majority of recent writing on music and society, particularly that which deals principally with popular culture, is written from a similar sociological perspective. Its prime focus is empirical, and its concern is with how music is actually used rather than how it may potentially be used. Its concern with music as a social practice rather than as an aesthetic text tends to displace questions of what music is (or might be) so that
music comes to be defined solely in terms of its use.
My own approach owes more to the perspectives of philosophical aesthetics, on the one hand, and the practical concerns of musicians, on the other. I am concerned not with describing what does take place in the majority of cases but with arguing for what could take place, for a use of music to which we might aspire. My perspective is a critical one, opposed to an approach that too easily reinforces and legitimates “the way things are” simply by describing them.
It argues against Bourdieu’s reduction of aesthetic distinctions to vehicles of class distinctions by drawing a different conclusion from the same social facts. It suggests, on the contrary, that the class structure that presses art into its service is a reductive distortion of a collective aspiration that art itself encodes: the yearning to be more than we are.
Art certainly relates to social use, but it is not defined by it. And while artworks are shaped by the social context in which they are generated, they remain resistant to a reductive, purely materialist reading. Even the label “classical music” is problematic. The term implies a claim to universality, suggesting that such music transcends the judgments of any particular time or place.
But the same claim underlines classical music’s apparent lack of connection with the immediacy of everyday life, an aspect that ensures that it seems to be of little relevance for many people. It is a label so full of negative connotations that it might be better to avoid it altogether. But the arguments about classical music are somehow contained in its own awkward label, and it is perhaps more productive to wrestle with this than to reach for some neutral and sanitized alternative. Symptomatic of the difficulties here is the confusion about exactly which music the label refers to. Musicologists use it to refer only to the music of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven).
A more popular use has it denoting music from a wider historical period (say, from around to the present day) now associated with performance in a concert hall or opera house. More recently, commercial classical radio
stations have used the term in a still broader way to include almost anything scored for orchestral or acoustic instruments, as opposed to the electrically amplified or generated sounds of popular music.
My own use of the term is quirky. I have no interest in reproducing the boundaries of a particular musical canon, whether it be the textbook list of great composers or the commercial charts of popular classics. Throughout this book, I use “classical music” simply to refer to music that functions as art, as opposed to entertainment or some other ancillary or background function. To try to define what distinguishes “music-as-art” from other functions of music, not just which music functions as art but when and how it does so, is the core of this study.
Of course, to invoke the term “art” is merely to shift the problem into a wider arena, but in this way the discussion of musical value may at least take place in the context of ideas appropriate to it. The category of art, like that of God or religion, is perhaps so tainted by association with vacuous and pompous nonsense that we should really drop it without regret. But we have no other. To have no term with which to denote this type of object means we fail to recognize it at all.
Classical music today occupies a position similar to that of religion in other ways. For a majority of people, it derives from an earlier age, very different from our own, and survives only as an anachronism. While its apparent lack of modernity puts many people off, it is occasionally welcomed for the touch of solemnity and historical gravity it brings to big public occasions.
It is tolerated so long as it presents itself as a wholly private matter—“a matter of faith”—but given little space if it begins to preach or make claims binding upon others. It has a place as one of many diverse cultural choices whose value is conferred by their use, by what they do for the people who use them rather than by any intrinsic properties. It is seen as a relatively closed world, defined by formal ritual and practices that divide it from the everyday. Classical music, like religion, thus survives in contemporary society shorn of the claims with which it was earlier identified.
If nothing else, its current legitimation crisis ought to engender a serious debate about musical value. To argue for what music might do for us, rather than endlessly exposing what it does not do, is to swim against the
tide of intellectual fashion and to risk those cardinal sins of naïveté and being out of date. But, remarkably, today it seems necessary to point out that music may have a value that exceeds that conferred by its actual social use, if only to expose the narrowness of such definitions of value.
My purpose here is not to salvage some lost crown for classical music or restore it to the pedestal from which it has been dislodged. It is rather to ask what it may still do for us and why such things may be important, and to suggest that if some of those important things are not offered elsewhere in our cultural life, the objective, social value of this music might yet be worth our attention.
“Value” is a key term in this book. Central to my argument is the distinction between the process by which value is conferred on music and a broader sense of values. The first has to do with signifying economies and
social identity; the second is essentially an ethical question. The first is a question for a sociology of the way different people use different musics; the second is a concern for a critical and musically informed discussion of what the music itself proposes.
Different musics are not neutral in terms of value systems; they are positioned because they quite literally do different things. And our participation in different musical systems necessarily involves us in these different value-positions that different musics construct. My suggestion is not only that we should be more self-aware of how different musics are positioned, but that we frequently identify with music whose value-position objectively contradicts that which we claim in other spheres of life—such as ethics, politics, or education.
Value becomes a relative idea today because it is everywhere turned into something quantifiable, as the principle of exchange value (i.e., price) is extended into all spheres of life. The value of anything becomes a shifting term in an economy of cultural meanings, defined by its relation to other signifying elements in the cultural system, not to anything “real” to which it might ultimately refer. Signifiers, as we are constantly told, are no longer tied to any concrete signifieds.
The promise, on a British bank note, “to pay the bearer on demand ten pounds” is nowhere taken literally. Ten pounds of what? Of gold? We accept the conventionality of such references in every sphere of life, understanding that they make reference only to other elements in the system, not to some external standard.
Or do we? Don’t we sometimes turn, exhausted, from the mind-numbing speed of our signifying economies with a sense of emptiness?
Don’t we feel uneasy about our own value in a world in which all values are relative? Don’t we still pursue a quest, as old as humanity itself, to be valued on this earth, valued by others for being alive and valuing our consciousness of such a thing? And is that not a value that defies relativism and that has nothing to do with being a sign for something else? My claim is that musicas- art is shaped around this idea of value and that it claims a special status in our culture precisely because it invites us to participate in this sense of being valued in and for itself. It is not, fundamentally, a sign for something else—a cultural position, a style, a social status; it is a thing whose enactment makes possible the realization of a noncontingent sense of value.
To talk of art as cultural capital recalls the attitude that made the slave trade possible. People, too, can be made to be things and commodities, signs of economic status; but fundamental to our notion of humanity is the sense that who and what we are exceeds such misappropriation. We vehemently oppose such a reduction of what we consider to be inalienable and irreducible: the absolute value of the human spirit. Those who devalue
art today point to the fact that only in the last few hundred years has our society privileged certain works and activities as art and promoted them to an almost sacred status.
But it is no coincidence that this has taken place at the very time that the rationalization of human life—both private and public—has severely threatened the idea of individuals’ value by making them dispensable units in a quantitative system. The high value accorded to art, classical music included, derives from its opposition to the social devaluation of the particular and individual. In a social world in which individuals become increasingly interchangeable and dispensable, art dwells on the particular and finds in it something of absolute value.
In this way it redeems not just things but also people, whom society increasingly turns into things. Music-as-art, at its best, is thus redemptive: it gives back to us a sense of our absolute value that a relativist society denies. It does so in a quite different way from the everyday means by which we attempt to bolster our fragile identities. Rather than serving us the moments of immediacy by which we affirm ourselves in everyday life, music-as-art requires us to enact a process, often discursive in nature, in which our everyday sense of self is at first not so much affirmed as loosened.
The enactment of musical artworks requires a letting go of the immediacy that runs counter to the everyday. But its reward is that we are thus enabled to participate in a process which the everyday prevents: a self-unfolding of particularity that creates out of itself an objective whole. Music-as-art affirms our absolute value not by reflecting our “self ” but by involving us in a process by which that self comes to understand itself more fully as a larger, trans-subjective identity. In this way the value of music-as-art is essentially ethical.