“In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.” Walter Benjamin
The last 40 years have shown that what we used to call classical music no longer exists in any meaningful way – though it appears many of the music institutions and organisations connected with secondary education seem unable or unwilling to work through the implication of this. In this blog I continue thinking about the importance of the aesthetic and discuss why a grounded aesthetic is such a useful idea when considering music education. I draw on Andreas Huyssen’s work on postmodernism and Robert Fink’s discussion of musicology to help me.
Classical music has lost its authority as Art music. The loss of its symbolic value as a definer of taste and cultural authority has resulted in a great deal of ideological work and material/economic work to try and maintain the illusion of its status. For example: the GCSE syllabus requires the compulsory study of classical music; A level is centred around classical music and is seemingly unaware of the radical de-centring of music – containing a whole section dedicated to Art music but limiting this definition to classical music since 1910; Hubs seem predicated on a priori attachment to the classical tradition and developing and maintaining orchestral provision; rich patrons throw money at classical music in schools – especially if they suspect poor people are around; the BBC hammers home the lack of symbolic importance of classical music through its repeated aims to educate the public with programs such as the 10 pieces series, and every 5 seconds someone on twitter will talk about the importance of tradition and “our cultural heritage’ or “the best that has been thought and said” without seeming to be slightly concerned that this coincides with mostly white male cultures, traditions and histories. (The recent A level music syllabus changes – in response to an online petition showcases just how male some people perceive the best that is though and said to be.That it was changed is fantastic – and well done to the student who made this happen – but that this needed to be done in 2016 is rather depressing.)
When popular music is accorded value and importance in Secondary School education, classical music and its values remain as an absent centre – framing how music is assessed and valued. (e.g. see my blog on assessment and whiteness)
In my last blog I argued that a conception of the aesthetic is important in appreciating that the value life and experiences hold cannot wholly be explained by reason. Art gives a powerful voice to this part of our lives. It is through aesthetic experiences that we mange to make sense of those things in life that cannot be reduced to the rational or objective. As Adorno argued- we need to first grasp what is ungraspable about art. To try and pin down our aesthetic experience and explain it through critical thought and (cognitive) science rather misses the point of Art.
However at the same time we need a theory of music that is able to understand it as a cultural practice. That is we need a grounded aesthetics (As Paul Willis argues – see an earlier blog) and a return to a sensuous view of aesthetics – an appreciation of fun and pleasure. Or as Susan McClary once argued an understanding of how music “kicks butt.” What we need is in music education is a stronger sense of the importance and value in the everyday use of music and its common cultural symbols as opposed to reifying Arts supposed abstract value. In this there is a need to historicise music and its contexts. As Small argued – music is one of the ways through which we explore our social relationships and identity.
What this points to is:” the work of grounded aesthetics may be in the holding and repairing (through meaning-making, creation and control, even in desperate seas) of the precariousness and fragmentedness of identity whose source of disturbance is outside structural and beyond the scope of individuals to influence.” Willis
So what makes me think that Art and classical music are no longer synonymous? Is this really true? Is there really no such thing as classical music now? Are we really in a position were it makes more sense to look for Art in the music of the young rather than point to its formation in acknowledged cultural classics? Do I really believe that young people should be denied access to “the best that has been thought and said?”
Andreas Huyssen in his collection of essays called After the Great Divide defines the “Great Divide” as the kind of ideas, beliefs and thinking that is characterised by an attempt to make a radical break between High Art and mass culture.
In his view modernity defined itself in opposition to mass culture – as if exhibiting “an anxiety of contamination by its other”. The radical separation of Art from everyday culture was challenged from within by the Avant- Garde cultural movements – however this ended in reinforcing the divide.
Huyssen argues that postmodernism is a response to the Great Divide of Art and mass culture. It is understanding this divide and the cultural and artistic responses to this that is important for a historical and theoretical understanding of postmodernism.
He argues that blurring of boundaries between high art and mass culture is something that artists have been responding to for many years. This has happened in both directions – from “low” to high and vice versa. However many critics and we might add educationalists do not seem to have joined in with what our artists already know – that Art is no longer the preserve of the white educated middle classes. Indeed the recent death of David Bowie seems to have sparked a great deal of recognition that popular culture can be Art. I suspect many would hold Bowie as a special case. However there are many different musics, many different cultures and traditions all seeking to make sense of our experiences. Crucially, from my point of view, Huyssen argues:
“Today the best hopes of the historical avantgarde may not be em-bodied in art works at all, but in decentered movements which work toward the transformation of everyday life. The point then would be to retain the avantgarde’s attempt to address those human experiences which either have not yet been subsumed under capital, or which are stimulated but not fulfilled by it. Aesthetic experience in particular must have its place in this transformation of everyday life, since it is uniquely apt to organize fantasy, emotions, and sensuality against that repressive desublimation which is so characteristic of capitalist culture since the 1960s”
Musicologists have also been quick to point out that classical music no longer stands for Music. For example Robert Fink in Elvis Everywhere makes this case in his discussion of the relationship between musicology, cultural studies and popular music. He discusses a wide range of examples of how popular music borrows and adapts classical music but also how composers from the academy frequently use ideas from pop and rock to appeal to a sense of authenticity. In his discussion of musicians and artists he argues that it is rock and pop that continue to have a greater hold on the public’s imagination and that: “Really, postminimalism’s embrace of alternative rock/jazz culture is arty composers turning not away from artiness, but towards it. It is a tacit admission by university-trained musicians that they and their institutions have lost control of what constitutes “art music.”
In one section he reflects on how attempts to assert classical music end up as empty gestures or “third order simulacrum.” – Baudrillard’s term for the way obvious fakes disguise the lack of an authentic reality.
Fink shows that many of the debates and disagreements around musicology and what he calls new musicology arise from the continued attempts to separate popular music from classical music. In attempting to make sense of popular music he notes that we need a careful, critical and interpretative stance that whilst attending to the music is also aware of its historical construction and context. He is very aware that of the dangers of a musicology importing methods from its analytical toolkit onto popular music and in doing so dangerously distorting the musical object under discussion. Indeed he suggests Musicologists are in danger of being the bad Elvis impersonators of popular music! In discussing the divide between formalism and hermeneutics he discusses Susan Langer’s “Against Interpretation” which points towards the importance of getting to know how music makes you feel rather than what it means.
What we have are academics both within music and outside of music arguing that it no longer makes sense to maintain the Great Divide between classical music and popular. Indeed they argue that contemporary music making seems no longer troubled by this divide. The only people left doing upholding this divide seems to be music teachers and many of the organisations that exist to support the teaching of music to our young people. It seems to me that GCSE and A level music are no longer fit for purpose and they need replacing with something that reflects the status of music as a cultural practice. Otherwise it seems we music teachers are in danger of becoming the Elvis impersonators of education.
If we can wrest the classical tradition from conformism a first step will be in removing it from its revered status as Art. Whether it is possible to wrest music teaching from conformism is harder to know – given the constraints of teaching to exam success, increasing managerialism and the relentless pressures of accountability – non-conformity can come at a high price, for the teacher and student. In my next blog I want to consider in a bit more detail some examples of popular music being “decentered movements which work toward the transformation of everyday life.”