Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Debate Over Art and Politics

There are two recent hefty contributions to the ongoing debate over art and politics. I want to link to them here because I think they are both worth reading and because I want to add a comment myself. The first article is by Jed Perl and appears in The New Republic. The title is "Liberals Are Killing Art". Here is a brief section that will give you a taste of Perl's article:
It is also, so I believe, a grave mistake to imagine that because art has so often been placed in the service of governments or religions that it is somehow essentially a medium through which political or social or religious beliefs are to be conveyed. By this logic, art has no independent life, and is never much more than a reflection of some particular set of values. But this argument can easily be turned on its head. The very fact that art has so often been embraced by those in positions of power suggests an awareness that art has some unique, autonomous valuesome capacity or capability that trumps temporal concerns and lends to time-bound ideas, ideologies, and ideals an enviably timeless aspect.
I might add a bit to this by saying that coverage of the arts in the mass media is often one of the biggest offenders against the real value of art because, these days at least, it is focussed on the most superficial forms of art and in the most superficial way: record sales, video views, salacious costumes and dance, the celebrity cult of the artists and so on.

The riposte to this is found in a New Yorker column by Alex Ross titled "As If Music Could Do No Harm" which is a quote from Socrates. Plato, who put those words in Socrates' mouth, is particularly known for desiring to control the role of music in society. Ross' column makes some good arguments contra Perl as regards the fact that music does often have a political dimension that is hard to ignore:
The illusion I have in mind is the belief that one can engage in blatantly political activity and then, in the face of protest, insist that politics has nothing to do with art. The rote repetition of a tidy cliché about artistic autonomy rings hollow when it is used as a protective shield. Such rhetoric poisons the art-for-art’s-sake mentality that Perl ardently defends. The problem is acute in classical music because of a longstanding devotion to the concept of “absolute music”—the idea that Bach, Beethoven, and the rest inhabit a spiritually pure sphere, far above the vulgarities of politics.
Point taken, but notice how the effect of this paragraph is to paint as naive those who might want to look at music apart from "the vulgarities of politics".

UPDATE: Looking back over this post, I feel that there is point here that needs to be underlined: Politics is often vulgar and Bach, Beethoven and the rest do usually inhabit a spiritually pure sphere far above it. The really odd thing here is that we read the statement by Alex Ross and just accept his positioning it so as to seem questionable, if not out right wrong.

I think both essays are worth reading and make some good points, but I think the very medium of a debate in print denatures all discussion of music. In the case of a lecture or master class on music, one can lard the presentation with frequent appropriate musical examples. But in an essay, or any discussion where the music, in the form of the sounds themselves or the notation of those sounds, is absent, the discussion inevitably shortchanges music as an independent phenomenon for the very, very simple reason that the discussion is a purely verbal one! Surely this is obvious? Politics is easy to discuss in an essay; music, not so much.

As soon as I put up a piece of music in the form of a clip from YouTube, the quality of music as something that certainly can have an existence quite separate from politics is obvious. Note the word "can". Because, as we can demonstrate with a different piece of music, it can also have a very strong political character. Let me put up an example of music simply as music:

Now I'm quite sure that an excellent way to get a doctorate these days would be to unpack the political subtext to this or any Haydn quartet. But that speaks more to the prejudices of the present day than to the music. This music was written for the enjoyment of the players above all and it succeeds because of its musical characteristics. You can write a political subtext if you wish, but I think you are on thin ice and add nothing to one's understanding of the piece. On the other hand, here is a piece that is all about the politics:

That is the French national anthem, written by Rouget de Lisle during the French Revolution and originally titled the "Marching Song of the Army of the Rhine". This arrangement is by none other than Hector Berlioz.

Then there are the myriad of pieces whose political character is subtle, various or ironic, such as a lot of the music of Dmitri Shostakovich:

This symphony is dedicated to the city of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Shostakovich's home town and during WWII subjected to possibly the most horrific siege in modern times. Over 900 days of siege, over one and a half million soldiers and civilians died in Leningrad. Shostakovich was there in the initial stages before being evacuated and the first movement was composed entirely in the besieged city. I'm sure this is a patriotic work, one that recalls the suffering of the people, but is it "political" in the sense that either writer of the above essays means? What is Shostakovich's attitude towards the Soviet authorities? Does it matter?

My feeling is that much of the talk about the relationship between music and politics tends to collapse as soon as you look at specific pieces of music. Which itself speaks to the fundamental autonomy of music.


Rickard Dahl said...

Hmm, well, the great thing about classical music is that you don't need to know about the external intentions behind the music. The music speaks for itself and sure knowledge of the politics etc. behind it can be useful but is never necessary really. Sure Shostakovich was implicitly against the Soviet regime but the music speaks for itself even if you would have no idea about it. In the same token it does not really matter what music Hitler liked or didn't liked. I don't think most people think about or care about that Carl Orff's music was liked by the nazi regime (or as Taruskin put it (paraphrasing): symbolized a move from Christianity (which of course the nazi regime didn't support) towards paganism)). Sure, the historical aspect is very interesting but trying to dismiss classical music because certain dictators may have liked it (as Alex Ross does) is a very ignorant thing to do. The crowd that thinks this way seems to think that classical music has some kind of burden it needs to repay or that it's too dirty and incorrect due to its' history. Honestly, if we need to be so careful why don't we dismiss other things that dictators might have enjoyed, such as cars. We don't see a lot of people boycotting Volkswagen or Autobahn despite the connections with the nazi regime. As you said or quoted from somewhere (paraphrasing): "The worst enemies of classical music are within the community itself."

Other enemies we have are the feminists who try to push affirmative action, claim discrimination/opression where there is none to be found (famous example of Susan McClary basically claiming Beethoven was a rapist in disguise or that the sonata form is misogynist), attributing masculine or feminine values to certain elements in music or looking at gender of the composer instead of the quality of music (somehow it's obviously more important that we have more women composers rather than judging the music on its' own merit). We also have all the multiculturalist/inclusive/for everyone people who think that dumbing down the music or playing more pop music will increase the audience for classical music or that group X needs to be included because no other reason than that they are from that group. I'm all for getting more people interested in classical music and from various new groups if that's so incredibly important but please let the music speak for itself. In a sense it's nice with influences from all around the World as long as the aesthetic values aren't lost along the way. For instance, just looking at the national romantic music the spreading of symphonies to even nearby countries and nearby local influences gave rise to lots of great masterpieces, it gives an interesting preview of how good things could be. So why not more African, South American or East Asian flavoured symphonies for instance. There's also the "everything is good" crowd that tries to describe every classical music piece no matter how lacking it is in aesthetics as something positive or ground breaking. Basically, people that either lack aesthetic judgement or are afraid (?) or uncomfortable with giving such judgement. Then of course we shouldn't forget about all the other ideologues hanging on to their modernist ideals for instance. I know it's a bit rambly comment but I hope it gave some food for thought.

Bryan Townsend said...

Rickard, you had way too much coffee, didn't you?

Rickard Dahl said...


Bryan Townsend said...

Sorry, it is just that that comment had a few too many different topics!

Rickard Dahl said...

Alright, good point. It was a bit too wide.