Thursday, July 20, 2017

Aesthetics: A Crash Course, part 1

A frequent commentator just left a wonderfully sardonic comment on my post How Now, Musicology Now. In so doing, he directed my attention to a new post at the Musicology Now site that offers detailed instructions in how to turn your music history survey course into a kind of Maoist re-education plan. You think I'm exaggerating? Go read Six Easy Ways to Immediately Address Racial and Gender Diversity in Your Music History Classroom:
The suggestions we propose are worth employing if they make our students play their part in making our world more beautiful, equitable, and just. Our classes can become places where we can effectively expose classism, racism, and sexism even when issues of identity are not the primary topic of conversation.
Making your students "play their part" in exposing classism, racism and sexism would seem to be a viciously ideological goal and one having nothing to do with music history. But no, this is crucial because of the horrific history of music, dominated by European males:
At the beginning of your class, state the obvious: the canon of western art music is dominated by European male composers. By acknowledging it, you also show your students that you plan to explore moments of the canon’s construction. One way to offer transparency is to point out to your students that you will be using the pronoun, “he,” frequently in class because systemic conditions favored men as composers and performers of western art music. Women were frequently denied access to musical training and elite cultural networks. Similarly, when teaching about the history of classical music in America, make sure to specify if the people in the audience or the people involved in the production of music were white or black Americans. In being explicit about this, you make students aware of the ways in which racism functioned in histories of classical music in America. By offering these explanations to students, we make transparent that assumed racial or gender norms were actually historical processes.
Moral condemnation is smuggled in through the use of undefined terms like "systemic conditions" and "elite cultural networks" which are markers for unsupported theories about history that are, frankly, nothing more than cultural Marxism. This is only a hair's breadth removed from simply stating that Beethoven was a racist, classist oppressor simply because he was a white European male and wrote good music. This is not a School of Music, this is a School of Resentment.

How we got to this sorry state of affairs is by short-circuiting the appropriate tool for the study of art forms, aesthetics, and replacing it with crude ideological ones like collective identity politics, equity and social justice, all of which stem from cultural Marxism. I think the way to push back is to reassert the role of aesthetics.

Is it not perfectly obvious that the reason we perform a great deal of music by Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and others is that their music is overwhelmingly powerful from an aesthetic point of view? The instant you lose sight of this you leave the door open for the Diversity Counselors to come in and put you in the stocks for failing to honor the contributions of women and people of color. If you have no aesthetic reason for preferring the music of Robert Schumann over that of his wife Clara Schumann, then you might as well play her music instead and rectify an historic imbalance. If you have no way of evaluating music in terms of aesthetic quality, then the only reason you have for programming music by, say, Camille Saint-Saëns over that of Cécile Chaminade is that audiences seem to prefer it. But maybe that is simply because they have not heard much of Chaminade. So again, programming her music instead would seem to right an historic imbalance. And so on for every sliced up identity group you can imagine: gay composers, transsexual composers, composers from the Caribbean, black composers, indigenous composers and on and on. Once you start slicing up the population into identity groups there is no logical stopping place short of the individual. And in fact, the only actual existing elements in a society ARE individuals--all the rest are mere abstractions.

So, given the fact that the best way to resist this project is to revive the practice of aesthetics, I think I will do a short, crash course on it, based on a very fine survey of the field by Monroe C. Beardsley titled Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism. This is a substantial volume, over 600 pages, first published in 1958 with a revised second edition in 1981. In it he surveys the central issues, theories and problems in aesthetics and offers a usable theory of his own. One of the central issues is the question of the relativity or subjectivity of aesthetic judgement, so a good part of the book takes on that problem.

Aesthetics, almost banned from serious consideration for decades now, was not dismissed because of the weakness of its philosophical foundations, no, it was rather a case of being replaced by more fashionable topics such as the doleful trio of classism, racism and sexism such as we see over at Musicology Now.

I have actually put up lots of posts on aesthetics before and you can search for them using the widget on the right, but I want to do something a bit more organized and put up a few posts that condense and summarize the arguments in Beardsley's book.

As an envoi, let's hear something by Cécile Chaminade and then something by Camille Saint-Saëns. First, the Concertino for Flute and orchestra by Chaminade (the music begins at the 2:15 mark):

And the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for violin and orchestra by Saint-Saëns:


Marc Puckett said...

The 'doleful trio of classism, racism, sexism' immediately brought to mind and ear Dejanira's madness:

... See, see, they come! Alecto with her snakes,
Megaera fell, and black Tisiphone!
See the dreadful sisters rise,
Their baneful presence taints the skies!
See the snaky whips they bear!
What yellings rend my tortur'd ear!

Although I suppose poor Handel might not be allowed to characterise Tisiphone as 'black'....

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks Marc, for a delightfully aesthetic comment!

After I get done with Stravinsky, I really ought to get into Handel.

Anonymous said...

As much as I thought you were being unfair to that Cuban music scholar the other day, I see you're back in top form now. "Six Essays on..." deserve all the scorn you give it. You know there's a problem with these kinds of identity politics diatribes when the prose is indistinguishable from a skit by Mr. Bean! "Now, class, be warned, I am going to use the pronoun "he" more than once. Anyone who feels traumatized by it is invited to retire to the Safe Space room where cookies, milk, and transgender teddy bears will be available.

Bryan Townsend said...

Doubleplus thanks, Sr. Anon!

Steven said...

Look forward to this. But may I attempt to play devil’s advocate somewhat? (I'm not at all arguing in favour of the authors of that post, though.) Treating people as individuals is one of those high moral standards that no one in reality sticks to. Putting people into groups is very useful. E.g. Arvo Part is an Estonian Orthodox composer. Admittedly, the emphasis on man/woman group differences is pretty silly because the musical differences between men and women are not discernible. But that isn’t true for all group differences.

There are also times when we are quite understandably influenced by our prejudices. If I’m walking home late at night and there’s another figure approaching, I will for instance feel more anxious if it’s a young man. Being British, I’m prejudiced slightly in favour of British composers. It’s not rational or fair, but there it is. And perhaps there are instances where this gets out of hand. Mendelssohn was historically squashed, as it were, because of his ethnic Judaism. We’ve corrected that imbalance post war, probably quite self-consciously and guiltily so.

And is it obvious that we perform a lot of Bach because of the obvious aesthetic value? I recall seeing Vaughan Williams say that back in his childhood (this would be even after the Mendelssohn revival) Handel was thought to be the better composer. Sometimes we listen to music for purely historical reasons. Who’d have thought a century ago there would be such regular performances of the 1610 Vespers? I don’t know if it’s that pernicious to say we have some non-musical reasons for preferencing certain music, and that we should be cautious of what general effects these might have.

Bryan Townsend said...

Steven, that is an absolutely brilliant comment and it demonstrates exactly why this kind of discussion is so valuable. I welcome very much yours and everyone else's contributions because that is what fills out the picture and leads us to a fuller understanding. The problem with the post on Musicology Now is that the authors are enslaved to an ideology. We are not.

All of your caveats are true and must be considered. But what I did in today's post and will likely do more of, is launch a frontal attack on the flawed and dangerous assumptions that lead to policies and practices such as were outlined in the Musicology Now post. I think this is necessary because, make no mistake, people employed in academia are mostly afraid to say a word in opposition because their jobs are at risk.

Ian Pace said...

I'm very sympathetic to this and other blog posts, but do want to take issue with this:

'Moral condemnation is smuggled in through the use of undefined terms like "systemic conditions" and "elite cultural networks" which are markers for unsupported theories about history that are, frankly, nothing more than cultural Marxism.'

'Cultural Marxism' is a misused term, and what it frequently refers to would not have been recognised by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Gramsci (whose work is terribly distorted by so many), Lukács and countless others. I understand Marxism more in terms of statements like the following, Maxim Gorky's report of Lenin's sentiments:

"I know the Appassionata inside out and yet I am willing to listen to it every day. It is wonderful, ethereal music. On hearing it I proudly, maybe somewhat naively, think: See! people are able to produce such marvels!" He then winked, laughed and added sadly: “I’m often unable to listen to music, it gets on my nerves, I would like to stroke my fellow beings and whisper sweet nothings in their ears for being able to produce such beautiful things in spite of the abominable hell they are living in. However, today one shouldn’t caress anybody - for people will only bite off your hand; strike, without pity, although theoretically we are against any kind of violence. Umph, it is, in fact, an infernally difficult task!”

Marx had a deep knowledge of art and literature, but deplored the ways in which it had been reduced to a commodity, produced primarily for profit. But nonetheless both he and Engels recognised some degree of relative autonomy, and thus the possibility that art does not merely reflect, but can also reflect back upon, existing conditions. Engels hugely admired the novels of Balzac, despite his being a reactionary royalist. Both Marx and Engels wrote favourably about 'realist' literature, a tradition they traced back to Shakespeare, but this does not imply that they would have had any time for Stalinist 'socialist realism', nor that they would necessarily have been antipathetic to early modernism if they had lived longer.

Bryan Townsend said...

Ian, thanks for the comment. Marxism is certainly not an area in which I am well informed, just as it seems to touch on music. And perhaps I am not using the term "cultural Marxism" as you understand it. It seems to me that the communist movement took off on rather a tangent in France in the 1970s and they modified their critique of society to be less about class and more about racism and sexism. This led to the identity politics that we are faced with today. I must confess that I find a little creepy your citation of Gorky's reminiscence of Lenin, who was a mass murderer, though certainly not in the league of his successors Stalin and Mao.

Ian Pace said...

I'd absolutely agree with that verdict on many French intellectuals from that time. But a lot of them were disillusioned post-1968ers who explicitly turned away from Marxism (some became explicitly hostile).

Ian Pace said...

(Just to add as well, there is plenty to do with the situation of women, as relates to the reliance of capitalist society upon the institution of the family, and the inferior position in which it places women, in Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State'. And a great many Marxists, long before the 1970s, had much to say about imperialism and the subjugation of people on racial grounds)

Bryan Townsend said...

Ian, I entirely agree with your mention of the reduction of art to a commodity. No argument there! But about the institution of the family, I am less sure. As this is a very, very long way from the territory of this blog, just let me tentatively venture that many women that have had outstandingly successful careers in the professions, as they reach their later child-bearing years, often express distress at what they have missed--some leave their careers to raise a family.

Will Wilkin said...

Just a few random comments here, as I really have to get some physical work done here to prepare for winter (not kidding).

1) As a former Marxist-Leninist who in my 20's was a member of the Socialist Workers Party in the USA and who studied a lot of writings of Marx, Engels, lenin, Trotsky and others less-well-known, I have grown into a very non-ideological person by discovering the equally valid constructs of certain "conservative" writers. In the end, all ideologies and even just all narratives are mental models of an objective world far more complicated than any human mind can encompass, much less describe. Indeed, most famous writers of ANY perspective have valid insights and sometimes also excellent analytical developments of these insights. Nonetheless, the subjective world of individual experience and collective custom are equally "real" as material (economic, physical, etc) reality, and thus pure reason will falter in guiding human behavior or social systems because people are very emotional and instinctive and sometimes ridiculous things who nonetheless must be taken account of. Which is why contradictions are often true and the social world (and history itself) will never really "make sense."

2) I first discovered the conservative aspects of myself in aesthetics. I didn't decide but rather just noticed that I prefer old and proven conventions and devices in art, whether it be the arch and column in architecture (especially as modified in the gothic) to the cantus firmus and polyphony in music to the formal and poetic in literature. From there I realized that much of the "stupid convention" in society had actually been shaped over millennia of experience as what worked. For example, regarding Ian's comment above citing Marx and Engels on the way capitalist society relied on the family and the inferior position of women as props for the larger economic and social system --well that "position" was much older than capitalism or even money, and could be dated back the birth of civilization (ie, the rise of agriculture) and the brutishness of warrior societies where physical protection was needed by women and strength and fierceness by men. In fact, according to the book “Constant Battles” by Steven Le Blanc and Katherine E. Register, war is older than not just capitalism but civilization itself: wars were already happening in prehistoric times, when, believe it or not, a higher % of the population died due to group violence than during the "horrific" 20th century. Men roamed and hunted and fought, while women cultivated and processed plants while rearing children near the hearth. And since we’re on the subject of “marxism,” however twisted it might have ben to be used to justify the Soviet Union and East European “Communist” states, we see that not only “sexism” but environmental destruction itself certainly does not require capitalism. The history of communist industry proves that modern environmental destruction does not require capitalism. But LeBlanc and Register argue that prehistoric warfare was already due in large part to humans never living "in balance" with our environment, even in prehistoric times, even before agriculture brought our species disruption of our environment to a magnitude higher, which industrialization repeated by another magnitude. Nonetheless were it not for a cultural conservatism, our species would have abandoned the customs (odes of teaching skills and knowledge) that were essential to our survival.

….Now I really must go chop some wood before fire-cooking some grass-fed beast. In a few moons, the cold winds will blow hard and snows will blanket my lands and roof.

Bryan Townsend said...

Will, a heartfelt thanks for that absolutely brilliant comment!