To single out as “music worthy of human beings” a music that is inaccessible to all but an infinitesimal, self-congratulating, and possibly mendacious fraction of actual humans seems to me no different from claiming that only the tiny fraction that possess the right bloodlines, or the right class affiliation, or the right racial or religious heritage, are fully human. If this is the use to which the doctrine of aesthetic autonomy is to be put, then the baby has drowned and it might as well be thrown out with the bathwater.
He is quoting Theodor Adorno and this passage comes in the last section of the very long essay. The music referred to is that of Arnold Schoenberg. Despite the fact that he has built up to this with a meticulous discussion of many examples from many perspectives it feels as if, finally, he has thrown out at least part of the baby! The question is, is art truly autonomous, floating like a fragrant cloud over the messy reality that it offers an alternative to? Or is it possible for a fine art like contemporary classical music to be an active and non-hypocritical agent in the world? In an earlier section that I have to quote at some length Taruskin notes that:For if the grim history of the twentieth century has not discredited the idea of redemptive high culture and undermined the authority of its adherents, then there is no hope at all for art.Taruskin, Richard. Cursed Questions . University of California Press. Kindle Edition.
The ideal of aesthetic autonomy at its pinnacle of purity, by fostering a now-discredited and hopelessly academicized avant-garde, has contributed heavily to the social and cultural marginalization of music as a serious fine art. A tragicomic example of that marginalization comes by way of the Pulitzer Prize, one of the most prestigious awards an artist or scholar can earn in America. (And it is also a stunning example of the independence of cultural capital from monetary, because the Pulitzer purse is negligible.) The annual prize recipients in fiction, history, biography, and drama, even (sometimes) poetry, are almost always figures of interest to the public at large. Those awards are publicly debated; sides are taken; approval and disapproval are vehemently aired. The prize in music, until very recently, traditionally went to somebody the general music public had never heard of (often enough to somebody I’d never heard of), and nobody ever cared who won it, except jealous fellow-professionals.
I have just the suspicion of a feeling here that Taruskin is perhaps just a tad too competent in his job of ripping away the veil. As a composer of contemporary classical music who has won no prizes and sought no vainglory (nor money for that matter) I think it would be kind and perhaps even moral of Taruskin to point out, oh, just occasionally, that perhaps people in general might look to classical music, even in its contemporary manifestation, as something that might contain expressions and experiences coded in musical terms, that could be widely enjoyed. Of course, he would riposte, this is not his job as historian. True, that. Still...And then even the professionals began to despise it. When the composer John Adams won it in 2003 for his 9/11 memorial On the Transmigration of Souls, he expressed what one critic called “ambivalence bordering on contempt.” To another he wrote, as if paraphrasing my own judgment, that “among musicians that I know, the Pulitzer has over the years lost much of the prestige it still carries in other fields like literature and journalism,” for “anyone perusing the list of past winners cannot help noticing that many if not most of the country’s greatest musical minds are conspicuously missing, . . . passed over year after year, often in favor of academy composers who have won a disproportionate number of prizes.” With the award of the prize in 2018 to the rapper Kendrick Lamar, about whom a large public certainly does care, the Pulitzer judges have come around to recognizing the meaninglessness of their habitual public recognition of artists without a public. The decision was widely viewed as an attempt to make amends. Can the prize now ever go again to composers of contemporary “classical” music? Or has their marginalization been effectively pronounced hopeless?Taruskin, Richard. Cursed Questions . University of California Press. Kindle Edition.
As an envoi I offer the Six Little Pieces, op 19 of Schoenberg played by Michel Béroff: