Sunday, January 27, 2019

at the Future Symphony Institute Roger Scruton makes a case for why conservatives should take classical music seriously ...

Scruton opens with an observation that it is often said political conservatives do not have much to say about the arts. He says they either believe (with libertarians) that individual choice should be the deciding factor on the arts or conservatives believe that the arts will be hijacked by leftists who then proceed to assault inherited values.  More or less seeming to grant these points, Scruton attempts to argue that political conservatives should value the high arts and particularly classical music as taught in conservatory contexts.  Scruton goes so far as to assert that though there's truth to these respective worries from conservatives he believes the precarious state of the arts in public culture is the fault of conservatives.  Why?  Because "... one reason for the precarious state of the arts in our public culture today is that conservatives – who often come out near the top in fair elections – have failed to develop a clear cultural policy and to understand why, philosophically, such a policy matters."

When he puts it like that it seems he has hit at least one nail on the head.  Conservatives of whatever stripe who advocate what progressives and liberals regard as some kind of market fundamentalism will tend to regard arts funding as irrelevant at best or some sacrilege-funding boondoggle at worst. 

Scruton quickly moves to that kind of conservative who would assume all cultural questions should be framed in terms of economics.  He says that the traditional two-parent family has an economic value and also has an intrinsic value.  He moves from there to argue that the high arts have an intrinsic value, too.  That's not a particularly surprising move.  

Now Scruton is, more or less, a self-identified conservative elitist.  In that sense when he puts down popular culture he does so knowing he's conservative and knowing he's an elitist.  In that sense he's more self-consistent than, say, a Justin Smith inveighing against Spiderman movies. Scruton is an academic making an academic's case for the intrinsic value of high culture as something worthy of sustenance.  Scruton also explicitly includes jazz in traditional culture, a sign of the success of jazz as a popular musical style if there even needed to be any proof of that success.  When a conservative traditionalist like Roger Scruton includes jazz and the American song book as part of traditional culture and art worth preserving it's relatively safe to say that jazz and its associated styles have "made it".  That would be why some groups of progressives might regard jazz as a spent force or a servant of neoliberalism and capitalism.  There's a book called The Jazz Bubble that may invite questions as to whether this is what has transpired in jazz since the age of Reagan.  I haven't picked it up yet and am not sure if I'm going to get to it because of the reading that's already on my plate.

Scruton starts to wrap up his piece with the following:
To my way of thinking, there cannot be a coherent conservatism, either in everyday life or in politics, that does not take high culture seriously. It really matters to the future of our societies that classical music should survive, not as a museum exhibit but as a live tradition of performance and enjoyment, radiating its grace and graciousness across our communities, and providing us all, whether as performers or as listeners, with a sense of the intrinsic value of being here, now, and among our fellows. From that primary experience of togetherness, of which music is not the only but surely the most exhilarating instance, countless other benefits flow, in the form of solidarity, mutual support and responsibility, and the growth of real communities.

Now I would agree with Scruton that the legacy of Adorno, a legacy of abjecting tonality as "used up" is a dead end and that the last century of European-based sonic experimentation has not yielded a lot of work that has appeal beyond an elite coterie of people who are enjoying work many would struggle to recognize as music.  

But ... and I have beaten this drum here a time or two ... I think that an interesting path forward for classical music would be to bridge the chasm between high and low musical arts.  This was, ultimately, what I think Adorno failed to account for and what people who selectively advocate for his polemics often fail to keep in mind--Adorno assumed that the introduction of capitalism and technocratic authoritarian societies meant that mass culture, in more or less most of its forms, was a kind of low culture that could not be in some way refused with high culture traditions.  In that sense I think that a Roger Scruton and a Theodore Adorno have more in common with each other than their respective partisans might be willing to grant.  

The question that emerges in what I propose we need to do is how do we do that?  If the trouble has been that there's a gap between musical high and low that academics and philosophers are not interested in bridging how does that chasm get bridged?  

Well ... Adorno claimed in Philosophy of New Music that music had fractured into two modes of listening that he thought were previously united. He described these as expressive-dynamic and spatial-rhythmical, though that's a sloppy way to put it.  The way to describe these two ways of thinking in and listening to music would be what a Scruton would call "argument" and what advocates of pop music would identify as music that has a "groove".  Adorno's claim was that in the bourgeois era of music and a bit before there was a balance of "argument" in sonata forms and a "groove" of dance-derived musical works.  Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, even back to old Bach, there was a fusion of these modes of listening that ensured the greatest Western European music had a balance.  That balance was lost around the time of World War I.  Adorno regarded the fracturing of music into just "argument" in the classical tradition and just "groove" in a post-Stravinsky world and just as much in the pop music machine as leading music down two equally false paths.  What was lost, Adorno claimed, was the subject.  So in that sense a Justin Smith who wants to invoke Adorno in defending one kind of popular music but not another has to do violence to Adorno's core point.  Someone like Scruton would say Adorno was just plain wrong but ...

this gets to the problem of the bifurcation in modes of musical cognition.  Scruton hasn't come up with an alternative or a rebuttal to Adorno at a practical level.  I think the practical rebuttal would be to compose classical music that successfully regards vernacular styles as legitimate sources of inspiration.  That's not revolutionary or radical at all, that's just what Haydn and Mozart did.  Charles Rosen made that case decades ago.  If concservatives want to revitalize classical music they are not going to do it by treating classical music as museum culture and what I mean by "museum culture" is regarding the boundaries between high and low art as impermeable.  

But this gets to something else I've been thinking about.  There's a whole lot of music made with the groove state of mind that isn't explicable in terms of traditional conservatory approaches to music that are predicated on what Scruton would identify as the "argument" side of art music, sonata forms, gestural developments and transformations, so much of what is regarded as a quintessentially German conception of music in formal and theoretical terms.  It would be unfair to say it's "just" German ... and it would probably be unfair to think of it as ultimately German in the sense that J. S. Bachs' work constitutes a German legacy, yes, but a German legacy of fusion using German, Italian, English, French and sometimes Polish musical elements.  In other words, we could look at Bach as the culmination of a legacy of assimilation and fusion rather than as a perfected ur-German art (which, granted, it can also be heard as being, too).  

What I am not so sure is going to be the case is that the future of classical music is going to be charted in Western Europe.  Christianity emerged in what we now call the Middle East and was refined by African and Mediterranean bishops, as well as bishops from the Eastern tradition.  Which is to say that there's a cliche in contemporary thought that Christianity is a Western religion.  By analogy, classical music may have originated in the West but it no longer has to be thought of in strictly Western terms.  Toru Takemitsu's music does not have to be dealt with in terms of Western conceptions of functional or common practice harmony as it evolved in the 18th century, for instance. 

Maybe one of the paths that has to be walked before Adorno's two modes of musical cognition can be reunited is that theories about them have to be played out.  We might want to let fans of soundscapes develop theories as to what makes for a compelling soundscape. We might want to let academics interested in popular song explore what works about Stevie Wonder songs, for instance.  A conservative stance would not abject popular musical styles that, surely, after a century of evolution are traditional and even more traditional that the serialist and atonal theories developed by the European 20th century vanguard.  

I know of a few composers who think equal-tempered instruments need to be dropped.  I don't have the budget for that path, or the time.  I think there is room to explore ways we can restore the synergy of popular/vernacular and "learned" forms.  I have been thinking about this a good chunk of my adult life and I think the project is worth pursuing.  

My own conviction is that one of the paradoxical obstacles conservatives will face in advocating for classical music is they may have to dismantle the bourgeois art religion/religion of art and its cultic elements.  Drop the idea of the Romantic era visionary man of genius artist as not just abusive and egocentric but as, ultimately, neither conservative nor traditional.  Think less Beethoven and more Haydn is what I'm plainly advocating.  Let the Romantic era, that "long 19th century" be the mere fifth of the thousand odd years of Western musical tradition that it has been.  I don't think it is a coincidence that among classical musicians and composers that people who are open to a fusion of contemporary popular and vernacular styles with classical traditions come from the zone of Baroque and Early music, eras in which tonality of the major key and minor key had not completely standardized.  I also don't think it's altogether coincidental that music historians and composers with an interest in 18th century music can be more open to the idea of a high/low fusion coming back since they are in a position to appreciate that the legacy of a Haydn or a Mozart or even, say, a Clementi, could make room for a fusion of high level technique and a popular appeal.  

It's the legacy of 19th century advocates of a post German Idealist religion of art, and art music, who seem to have this idea that viewing the musical canon as additive and in process and able to bring in Stevie Wonder and Duke Ellington alongside Beethoven and Brahms is a crime against the great classical tradition.  

Which I suppose is a way of saying that Scruton is trying to make a case to conservatives that they should care about the high art traditions ... on a fairly explicit assumption that Anglo-American conservatives either don't view the high art traditions as being all that worthy unless they are seen as being attacked by radicals and progressives, or as a field of creative activity already so colonized by radicals and progressives in some level that it is "liberal".  There's a kind of double bind in a conservative defense of the liberal tradition that, a few centuries ago, would have been seen as partaking of a revolutionary anti-hierarchical spirit.   

My own reservation about Scruton's approach is that, to put it plainly, if the 19th century religion of art does its thing it doesn't have to do that with strictly highbrow art.  The idea that opera is sublime but superhero movies are dumb can forget that an opera can have the same ludicrous plot points of a Spiderman 3.  A friend of mine was telling me when said movie came out that he saw the last Raimi Spiderman film and also saw an opera that year with his wife and realized, hey, these two things have the same basic plot.  Why is one lionized as a classic highbrow opera while the other is regarded as the worst Spiderman movie Raimi made?  

But, if I need to say this officially, my friend and I view art as able to exist on a continuum from low to high that allows for interaction.  We don't bracket high and low art as if they existed on opposite sides of some impassable chasm.  One of the ironies of a bid for conservatives to attempt to take the high arts seriously is that progressives and radicals are more likely to be explicitly interested in melting down the high/low distinctions in the arts that conservatives who can be bothered to defend the high art traditions are likely to regard as sacred.  Then again, people can advocate for traditionalist arts and radical political and economic critiques of the contemporary West ... so Scruton might want to keep that in mind.  It's not unheard of for English musicians to advocate for the Great Tradition of art music while simultaneously denouncing late capitalism.  The question might arise as to which you want to defend more ... . 

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