One of the recurring topics on this blog and a fundamental plank in its raison d'être is the notion of aesthetics, that is, the objective examination of art objects from the point of view of their aesthetic construction and appeal. This would seem an entirely unobjectionable thing to do, apart from the fact that there have been powerful political currents opposing this kind of approach for over a century and a half now. I casually referred to these currents as "Marxism" and perhaps that needs explanation.
First of all, it needs to be stated that I am opposed to Marxism in its several manifestations. For the reasons why, perhaps the best reference work is The Black Book of Communism by Jean-Louis Panné (Author), Andrzej Paczkowski (Author), Karel Bartosek (Author), Jean-Louis Margolin (Author), Nicolas Werth (Author), Stéphane Courtois (Author), Mark Kramer (Editor, Translator), Jonathan Murphy (Translator). Like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, it is a compilation of the death toll of communism. Not easy reading, but a definitive refutation that communism, in whatever form, results in anything other than misery, suffering and death. The ledger for the 20th century comes to nearly 100 million dead as a direct consequence of communist policies.
Communism has a number of different theorists apart from Karl Marx himself and in the cultural realm the name to note is Antonio Gramsci whose theorizing on cultural hegemony can be found in this Wikipedia article. Here is the first paragraph:
In Marxist philosophy, the term cultural hegemony describes the domination of a culturally diverse society by the ruling class, who manipulate the culture of that society—the beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values, and mores—so that their ruling-class worldview becomes the worldview that is imposed and accepted as the cultural norm; as the universally valid dominant ideology that justifies the social, political, and economic status quo as natural, inevitable, perpetual and beneficial for everyone, rather than as artificial social constructs that benefit only the ruling class.In a society like the Soviet Union, Communist China or Cuba, ironically, it is precisely the case that the views of the ruling class are imposed as the cultural norm. And if you disagree you will be sent to a concentration camp or executed. They really mean it.
I suggest reading the whole article on cultural hegemony, keeping in mind that it is rife with Marxist assumptions that need not be accepted at face value. One thing that is important is that Gramsci was arguing for a "war of position" whereby the cultural values of the bourgeoisie are replaced by those of the working class. This idea was further developed by a German student leader:
In 1967, the German student movement leader Rudi Dutschke reformulated Antonio Gramsci's philosophy of cultural hegemony with the phrase Der lange Marsch durch die Institutionen (The Long March through the Institutions), denoting the war of position, an allusion to the Long March (1934–35) of the Communist Chinese People's Liberation Army, by means of which, the working class would produce their own organic intellectuals and culture (dominant ideology) to replace those imposed by the bourgeoisie.The characteristic elements of this Long March are the understanding of society as being made up by different classes and identity groups. In contemporary discourse the original groups of bourgeoisie and working class have been largely replaced by gender, race and class.
In a society, cultural hegemony is neither monolithic, intellectual praxis, nor a unified system of values, but a complex of stratified social structures, wherein each social and economic class has a social purpose and an internal class-logic that allows its members to behave in a way that is particular and different from the behaviours of the members of other social classes, whilst co-existing with them as constituents of the society.The basic problem with this is that the causality is backwards. A social class or identity group does not "allow" its ostensible members to do or be anything. Rather, the only elements that actually exist are people, not classes or groups. As someone once said, there is no such thing as "society" which is just an intellectual abstraction. Society or class or gender or race is not an agent and therefore does not make or allow you to do anything. There is no such thing as an "internal class-logic" that makes us behave in a particular way. But the claim that this is the case has been of immense political value because a politician can stand up and say that you, the voter, are oppressed because of big business, or the rich, or imperialism or colonialism or gender bias or whatever and get your vote by promising to do something about it. Politically it is a winner. But at the end of the day it always ends up in the same place: everyone is poor except the party apparatchiks and if you notice this, there is that knock on the door at 3 in the morning.
Shostakovich feared this so much that for years he kept a packed suitcase by the door.
Now, of course, advanced western societies are far from getting to this point, but the direction is pretty clear. The Long March is well-advanced in many of the institutions of higher learning and the arts.
So I say that Boulez' idea of history is Marxist because of the kind of intellectual he is. As Gramsci wrote:
For Boulez, the traditional means of artistic expression must be condemned and replaced by new kinds based on, yes, technical education. The mode of being of the new intellectual (artist) can no longer consist of eloquence (traditional expressivity in music), but in active participation as constructor and organizer. There is no music more complexly organized than that of Boulez!The traditional and vulgarized type of the intellectual is given by the Man of Letters, the philosopher, and the artist. Therefore, journalists, who claim to be men of letters, philosophers, artists, also regard themselves as the "true" intellectuals. In the modern world, technical education, closely bound to industrial labor, even at the most primitive and unqualified level, must form the basis of the new type of intellectual. . . .The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist of eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor [and] organizer, as "permanent persuader", not just simple orator.
Aesthetics, as an evaluative method unique to the arts and hence outside the realm and power of politics, must be brought to heel. This was done by simply dismissing it entirely and replacing it with sociology, economics and cultural theory.
It seems to be always the case that Marxism demands that history be wiped out entirely and replaced by the entirely new: new art, new society and new people. Utopia is always promised, so who cares what the human cost is! But there are only humans.
I promise not to do this again as it is too far outside our core interests here at the Music Salon, but without digging into this sort of thing, it is hard to understand why aesthetics is so assiduously avoided in just those places where it is needed: the study of humanities in universities, arts coverage in the mass media and even music blogs.
I suspect that the real problem with the arts and the reason that they must be either marginalized or brought to heel is that they are an individualizing force. One's individuality is realized and enhanced by the practice of art. So if you look at everything in terms of identity groups, that's a problem.
Obviously we have to close out with some music by Pierre Boulez. Here is Le Marteau sans Maître dating from 1955:
UPDATE: As an example of how the whole Gramscian cultural hegemony thing works, the Wall Street Journal has a piece today by Terry Teachout titled "What Color is Othello?" that neatly captures the problem. In the past Lawrence Olivier gave a spectacular performance in the role of Shakespeare's Othello in black makeup. But, as Terry says:
Today we take it for granted that Othello, one of the only two major Shakespearean characters who is specifically described by the playwright as black, should be played by a black actor. It’s considered inappropriate, even racist, for a white actor to put on blackface, as Olivier did 50 years ago, to play Othello.The reason is because of the Long March. Everyone now, even great actors, has to be evaluated according to their membership in an identity group, not their individuality. As we see in the comment section, this runs head-on up against the view in the arts that the individual is what is important, not some abstraction like an identity group. The theatre world is caving in to the Long March, but the classical music world is next as we see from the recurring calls for more female conductors.