University of California Press
(c) 2002 by Regents of University of California
... Jazz is not what it "is": its aesthetic articulation is sparing and can be understood at a glance. Rather, it is what it is used for, and this fact clearly brings up questions whose answers will require in-depth examination. Not questions like those pertaining to the autonomous work of art, but rather like those brought to mind by the detective novel, with which jazz has in common the fact that it maintains an inexorably rigid stereotypology and at the same time does everything it can to let that stereotypology be forgotten by means of individualizing elements, which are again themselves ultimately determined by the stereotypology. Just as in the detective novel the question of the identity of the criminal is intersected with that which is implied by the whole, so in jazz the question of the alien subject, who both quivers and marches through it, is intersected by the question of what its purpose is, why it is there at all, while it asserts its existence as something self-evident which only conceals how difficult its own vindication of it must be.
... The belief in jazz as an elementary force with which an ostensibly decadent European music could be regenerated is pure ideology. The extent to which jazz has anything at all to do with genuine black music is highly questionable; the fact that it is frequently performed by blacks and that the public clamors for "black jazz" as a sort of brand-name doesn't say much about it, even if folkloric research should confirm the African origin of many of its practices. Today, in any case, all of the formal elements of jazz have been completely abstractly pre-formed by the capitalist requirement that they be exchangeable as commodities. Even the much-invoked expressions, the hot passages and breaks, are merely ornamental in their significance, and never part of the overall construction or determinant of form. Not only is their placement, right down to the number of beats, assigned stereotypically; not only is there duration and harmonic structure as a dominant effect completely predetermined; even its melodic form and its potential for simultaneous combinations rely on a minimum of basic forms: they can be traced back to the paraphrasing of the cadence, the harmonically figurative counterpoint. The relationship between jazz and black people is similar to that between salon music and the wandering fiddle players whom it so firmly believes it has transcended--the gypsies.
... whatever jazz has to offer in the way of vertical stimulation has been taken from Debussy. And even the treatment of melody, especially in the more serious pieces, is based on the impressionist model. The resolution into the smallest motif-formulae, which are not developed dynamically but rather statically repeated, and which are only rhythmically reinterpreted and appear to circle around an immovable center, is specifically impressionistic. But jazz deprives it of its formal sense; the impressionism which it appropriates is at the same time depraved. If, in Debussy, the melodic points form their coloration and temporal surfaces from out of themselves following the constructive command of subjectivity, in jazz, they are harnessed, like in the false beat of hot music, into the metric-harmonic schema of the "standard" cadence of the eight-bar period. The subjective-functional distribution of the melody remains impotent by being recalled, as it were, by the eight-bar condensation into a leading-voice form which merely toys with its particulars rather than composing a new form from them; this is true in the case of the complex harmonies when they are caught again in the same cadence from which their floating resonances want to escape. Even yesterday's music must first be rendered harmless by jazz, must be released from its historical element, before it is ready for the market. Once on the market, these impressionistic trimmings function as a stimulant. ... But the individual element which is inserted into jazz through impressionism does not generate or have control over itself. It has become rigid, formulaic, spent--the individual elements are now in just the same position as social convention was previously. It is easy to rob it of its formal sense because that has already escaped of its own accord in post-Debussy epigone music; as a conventional element that can be fitted seamlessly into a convention. The individually modern element in jazz is as illusory as the collective archaic element.
... The subjective pole of jazz--subjectivity itself understood strictly in the sense of a social product and as something which has been reified into a commodity--is salon music. If one wanted to describe the phenomenon of interference in jazz in terms of broad and solid concepts of style, one could claim it as the combination of salon music and march music. The former represents an individuality which in truth is none at all, but merely a socially produced illusion of it; the latter is an equally fictive community which is formed from nothing other than the alignment of atoms under the force that is exerted upon them. The effectiveness of the principle of march music in jazz is evident. ...
... The rhythmic categories of hot music are themselves eccentric categories. The syncopation is not like its counterpart, that of Beethoven, the expression of an accumulated subjective force which directed itself against authority until it had produced a new law out of itself. It is purposeless; it leads nowhere and is arbitrarily withdrawn by an undialectical, mathematical incorporation into the beat. It is plainly "coming to early," just as anxiety leads to premature orgasm. ...
... As a clown, the hot ego begins to follow too weakly the standard of the collective which has been unproblematically set, reeling with uncertainty like many of the figures in American film grotesque genre, such as Harold Lloyd and occasionally Chaplin himself. The decisive intervention of jazz lies in the fact that this subject of weakness takes pleasure precisely in its own weakness, almost as if it should be rewarded for this, for adapting itself into the collective that made it so weak, whose standard its weakness cannot satisfy. ... The sex appeal of jazz is a command: obey, and then you will be allowed to take part. And the dreamthought, as contradictory as reality, in which it is dreamt: I will be only be potent once I have allowed myself to be castrated.
... the specification of the individual in jazz never was and never will be that of a thriving productive power, but always that of a neurotic weakness, just as the basic models of the "excessive" hot subject remain musically completely banal and conventional. For this reason, perhaps, oppressed peoples could be said to be especially well-prepared for jazz. To some extent they demonstrated for the not yet adequately mutilated liberals the mechanism of identification with their own oppression.
Jazz, the amalgam of the march and salon music, is a false amalgam: the amalgam of a destroyed subjectivity and of the social power which produces it, eliminates it, and objectives it through this elimination.
We have the luxury of dissent from Adorno's declaration that jazz embodied a kind of premature ejaculation and social impotence that exemplified those clowns who believe they will become potent once they allow themselves to be castrated. That said, Edward A Berlin and other ragtime scholars have been able to trace the ways in which the march and salon music traditions combined in early ragtime, and since ragtime itself mixed with blues and Tin Pan Alley songwriting traditions were important antecedents to jazz Adorno isn't so much wrong to have heard jazz as a fusion of salon and march styles, he was probably right about that, he's wrong because he simply asserted that the amalgam of march and salon music was a false amalgam without coming up with a reason why that should be.
To try to be fair to Adorno who would expand on his arguments against popular music as art in later works. He had more arguments against popular music as a whole, of which jazz was merely one part among many, than dubious assertions that jazz could not be traced to an African origin or that it represented the mentality of those sorts of men who believed they would only become sexually potent once they allowed themselves to be castrated by capitalism.
Introduction to the Sociology of Music
Theodore W Adorno
On the other hand, in crucial points such as expanded-impressionistic harmonics and the simple standardization of form, jazz remains imprisoned within narrow bounds. The undisputed predominance of the beat, from which all syncopic arts must take orders; the inability to conceive music dynamically in the proper sense of the word, as something freely evolving-these endow even this listening type with the character of bondage to authority.
The jazz realm is tied to commercial music by its predominant basic material, the hit songs, if by nothing else. Part of its physiognomies is the amateurish incapacity to account for things musical in exact musical terms-an incapacity which it is futile to rationalize with the difficulty of nailing down the secret of the irregularities of jazz, long after the notators of serious music have learned to fix fluctuations of incomparably greater difficulty. In this type the estrangement from sanctioned musical culture recoils into a preartistic barbarism vainly advertised as a burst of primal feelings. Numerically, even if we count all those whom the leaders take for fellow travelers, this type too is modest for the time being. But in Germany it is apt to grow and probably merge with the resentment audience in the not-too-distant future.
Conversely, as long as the objective spirit was not yet wholly planned and steered by administrative centers, the higher art would recall the extent to which its own principle involved injustices to the many. Time and again it felt the need of something else, of something that would resist the formative esthetic will and that might serve as the touchstone of that will-and so, whether unintentionally or intentionally, it would absorb elements of the lower music. Some of this shows in the old custom of parody, of setting spiritual texts to profane melodies. Bach did not shrink from borrowing from below even in his instrumental works, as in the Quodlibet of the "Goldberg Variations," and neither Haydn nor the Mozart of The Magic Flute or Beethoven would be conceivable without an interaction of what by then were separated spheres. [emphasis added] The last instance of their reconciliation, utterly stylized and teetering as on a narrow mountain by pass, was The Magic Flute-an instant still mourned and longed for in such structures as Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Ariadne auf Naxos. There were times far into the nineteenth century when it was possible to write decent popular music. Its esthetic decay is as one with the irrevocable and irrelative dissociation of the two realms. [emphasis added]
... The higher music's relation to its historical form is dialectical. It catches fire on those forms, melts them down, makes them vanish and return in vanishing. Popular music, on the other hand, uses the types as empty cans into which the material is pressed without interacting with the forms. Unrelated to the forms, the substance withers and at the same time belies the forms, which no longer serve for compositional organization. [emphasis added]
The social function of jazz coincides with its history, the history of a heresy that has been received into the mass culture. Certainly, jazz has the potential of a musical breakout from this culture on the part of those who were either refused admittance to it or annoyed by its mendacity. Time and again, however, jazz became a captive of the culture industry and thus of musical and social conformism [emphases added]; famed devices of its phases, such as "swing," "bebop," "cool jazz," are both advertising slogans and marks of that process of absorption. Popular music can no more be exploded from within, on its own premises and with its own habituated means, than its own sphere points beyond it.
One of the reasons I find myself unimpressed with Roger Scruton is that he's willing to say Adorno wrote against jazz without necessarily highlighting some nuances in Adorno's stance against jazz. This is a point I want to camp out on a little bit, because the bait and switch in Scruton saying Adorno wrote against jazz in a work like Philosophy of New Music lays in the fact that Adorno was writing against Igor Stravinsky's music, not jazz. We can see from Adorno's own writing that he granted in theory jazz could break out from the culture it was beholden to but that it didn't, despite the fact that some musicians in jazz were truly accomplished musicians. If conservatives want to point out that Adorno was against jazz as popular music they should point out that when he was writing against jazz it was popular music, and not the "America's classical music" that it has been transformed into in the last half century, a half century I feel obliged to note, that transpired mostly after Adorno himself was already dead. I can regard Theodore Adorno as egregiously wrong about many things without having to misrepresent what he was saying the way I think a number of conservative writers have done with his work.
However wrong Adorno was in his judgments on certain types of art, he highlights a reality of arts criticism, that there are those who are wrong in the "what" of their judgment who in their being wrong nevertheless give us possible paths to explore in the "how" of what they have concluded. Adorno's observation that two modes of musical cognition that were unified in the Western classical music traditions had broken apart in the early 20th century is a useful observation. If we recognize that there are different modes of cognition for creating and hearing music that lets us recognize that what is success by one measure can be failure by another. Moreover, "if" Adorno was correct to say that there were two modes of musical cognition that had separated and, in their separation, become "false", a conservative rejoinder to this claim would be to consider the following question, "Well, how do we get these two modes of musical cognition back into a mutually synergistic and benificial relationship?" That is ... to put it somewhat nicely, not the path that culturally conservative writers have tended to take and the recent piece by Brad East is, whether he realizes it or not, an example of the road not taken.
Now those with more progressive than conservative sympathies who dissent from Adorno's verdict on jazz can be, to just make an assertion, distracted by the offensive racism of his attacks on jazz as the exemplar of mass-produced formulaic popular music to a point at which they are, understandably, incensed by the condescending racism, elitism and chauvinism of his polemics without addressing the possibilities of a rejoinder to his claims about popular music as predicated in his criticism of capitalism. Now a Roger Scruton would say Adorno's Marxism was wrong and that his criticism of capitalism was mistaken but, on the whole, Scruton seems to have taken Adorno's arguments against popular musical styles as art at more or less face value. But I don't mean to simply assert that claim, I intend to demonstrate that Adorno's arguments against popular music being art have been more or less taken up as is by conservative writers in the twenty-first century despite the fact that they would dissent from his Marxist-Leninist perspective. In order to do that, of course, I have to quote extensively from Adorno's comments on popular music.
University of California Press
(c) 2002 by Regents of University of California
Serious music, for comparative purposes, may be thus characterized: Every detail derives its musical sense from the concrete totality of the piece which, in turn, consists of the life relationship of the details and never of a mere enforcement of a musical scheme. For example, in the introduction of the first movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony the second theme (in C major) gets its true meaning only from the context. Only through the whole does it acquire its particular lyrical and expressive quality--that is, a whole built up of its very contrast with the cantus firmus-like character of the first theme. Taken in isolation the second theme would be disrobed to insignificance. [emphasis added] Another example may be found in the beginning of the recapitulation over the pedal point of the first movement of Beethoven's Apassionata. By following the preceding outburst it achieves the utmost dramatic momentum. By omitting the exposition and development and starting with this repetition, all is lost.
Nothing corresponding to this can happen in popular music. It would not affect the musical sense if any detail were taken out of the context; the listener can supply the "framework" automatically, since it is a mere musical automatism itself. The beginning of the chorus is replaceable by the beginning of innumerable other choruses. The interrelationship among the elements or the relationship of the elements to the whole would be unaffected. In Beethoven, position is important only in a living relation between a concrete totality and its concrete parts. In popular music, position is absolute. Every detail is substitutable; it serves its function only as a cog in a machine. [emphases added]
To sum up the difference: in Beethoven and in good serious music in general--we are not concerned here with bad serious music which may be as rigid and mechanical as popular music--the detail virtually contains the whole and leads to the exposition of the whole, while, at the same time, it is produced out of the conception of the whole. In popular music the relationship is fortuitous. The detail has no bearing on a whole, which appears as an extraneous framework. Thus, the whole is never altered by the individual event and therefore remains, as it were, aloof, imperturbable, and unnoticed throughout the piece. At the same time, the detail is mutilated by a device which it can never influence and alter, so that the detail remains inconsequential. A musical detail which is not permitted to develop becomes a caricature of its own potentialities.
The previous discussion shows that the difference between popular and serious music can be grasped in more precise terms than those referring to musical levels such as "lowbrow and highbrow," "simple and complex," "naive and sophisticated." For example, the differences between the spheres cannot be adequately expressed in terms of complexity and simplicity. All works of the earlier Viennese classicism are, without exception, rhythmically simpler than stock arrangements in jazz. Melodically, the wide intervals of a good many hits such as "Deep Purple" or "Sunrise Serenade" are more difficult to follow per se than most melodies of, for example, Haydn, which consist mainly of circumscriptions of tonic triads, and second steps. Harmonically, the supply of chords of the so-called classics is invariably more limited than that of any current Tin Pan Alley composer who draws from Debussy, Ravel, and even later sources. Standardization and non-standardization are the key contrast terms for the difference. [emphasis added]
Structural standardization aims at standard reactions. [emphasis original] Listening to popular music is manipulated not only by its promotors but, as it were, by the inherent nature of this music itself, into a system of response mechanisms wholly antagonistic to the ideal of individuality in a free, liberal society. This has nothing to do with simplicity and complexity. In serious music, each musical element, even the simplest one, is "itself," and the more highly organized the work is, the less possibility there is of substitution among the details. In hit music, however, the structure underlying the piece is abstract, existing independent of the specific course of the music. This is basic to the illusion that certain complex harmonies are more easily understandable in popular music than the same harmonies in serious music. For the complicated in popular music never functions as "itself" but only as a disguise or embellishment behind which the scheme can always be perceived. In jazz the amateur listener is capable of replacing complicated rhythmical or harmonic formulas by the schematic ones which they represent and which they still suggest, however adventurous they appear. The ear deals with the difficulties of hit music by achieving slight substitutions derived from the knowledge of the patterns. The listener, when faced with the complicated, actually hears only the simple which it represents and perceives the complicated only as a parodistic distortion of the simple.
No such mechanical substitution by stereotyped patterns is possible in serious music. Here even the simplest event necessitates an effort to grasp it immediately instead of summarizing it vaguely according to institutionalized prescriptions capable of producing only institutionalized effects. Otherwise the music is not "understood." Popular music, however, is composed in such a way that the process of translation of the unique into the norm is already planned and, to a certain extent, achieved within the composition itself.
The composition hears for the listener. This is how popular music divests the listener of his spontaneity and promotes conditioned reflexes. Not only does it not require his effort to follow its concrete stream; it actually gives him models under which anything concrete still remaining may be subsumed. The schematic build-up dictates the way in which he (page 443) must listen while, at the same time, it makes any effort in listening unnecessary. Popular music is "predigested" in a way strongly resembling the fad of "digests" of printed material. It is this structure of contemporary popular music, which in the last analysis, accounts for those changes of listening habits we shall later discuss. [emphasis added]
Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley may be dream factories. But they do not merely supply categorical wish-fulfillment for the girl behind the counter. She does not immediately identify herself with Ginger Rogers marrying. What does occur may be expressed as follows: when the audience at a sentimental film or [hearing] sentimental music become aware of the overwhelming possibility of happiness, they dare to confess to themselves what the whole order of contemporary life ordinarily forbids them to admit, namely, that they actually have no part in happiness. What is supposed to be wish-fulfillment is only the scant liberation that occurs with the realization that at last one need not deny oneself the happiness of knowing that one is unhappy and that one could be happy. The experience of the shop girl is related to that of the old woman who weeps at the wedding services of others, blissfully becoming aware of the wretchedness of her own life. Not even the most gullible individuals believe that eventually everyone will win the sweepstakes. The actual function of sentimental music lies rather in the temporary release given to the awareness that one has missed fulfillment.
The emotional listener listens to everything in terms of late romanticism and of the musical commodities derived from it which are already fashioned to fit the needs of emotional listening. They consume music in order to be allowed to weep. They are taken in by the musical expression of frustration rather than by that of happiness. The influence of the standard Slavic melancholy typified by Tchaikovsky and Dvorak is by far greater than that of the most "fulfilled" moments of Mozart or of the young Beethoven. The so-called releasing element of music is simply the opportunity to feel something. But the actual content of this emotion can only be frustration. Emotional music has become the image of the mother who says, "Come and weep, my child." It is catharsis for the masses, but catharsis which keeps them all the more firmly in line. One who weeps does not resist any more than one who marches. Music that permits its listeners the confession of their unhappiness reconciles them, by means of this "release", to their social dependence. [emphasis added]
... we cannot content ourselves with merely stating that spontaneity has been replaced by blinded acceptance of the enforced material. Even the belief that people today react like insects and are degenerating into mere centers of socially conditioned reflexes, still belongs to the facade. Too well does it serve the purpose of those who prate about the New Mythos and the irrational powers of community. Rather, spontaneity is consumed by the tremendous effort which each individual has to make in order to accept what is enforced upon him--an effort which has developed for the very reason that the veneer veiling the controlling mechanisms has become so thin. In order to become a jitterbug or simply to "like" popular music, it does not by any means suffice to give oneself up and to fall in line passively. To become transformed into an insect, man needs that energy which might possibly achieve his transformation into a man. [emphasis added]
Let's go back to the Brad East piece for a moment.
...Any and all libertarian (in the sense of a philosophy of the will’s freedom) Christian accounts of pop culture, Netflix, social media, etc., fail at just this point, because they view individuals as choosers who operate neutrally with options arrayed before them, one of which in our day happens to be flipping Netflix on (or not) and “deciding” to watch a meaty, substantive Film instead of binging bite-size candy-bar TV. But that is not an accurate depiction of the situation. Netflix—and here again I’m using Netflix as a stand-in for all digital and social media today—is a principality and a power, as is the enormous flat-screen television set, situated like a beloved household god in every living room in every home across the country. It calls for attention. It demands your love. It wants you. And its desire for you elicits desire in you for it.
Don't be a jitterbug. I get it. East argues that Christians should not immerse themselves in things like Netflix. Adorno argued that the culture industry was selling illusions of freedom that those who were being subjugated by administrative society (i.e. capitalism) should be rejecting. That many a conservative evangelical can argue against popular culture as stringently as a legendary contributor to what's now called the Frankfurt school seems to be lost on conservative writers now, particularly conservative Christian writers in the Anglo-American scene. To put the point less finely, the kinds of writers who contribute to Mere Orthodoxy who admonish us not to partake of so much popular culture have probably not read Adorno's work and so for anyone who has read Adorno's work it can look as though laments about the toxic influence of the culture industry are being presented as if this were a newer discovery than it is.
As you can see from all of the extensive quotes from his work, in Adorno's polemics against popular music he claimed that the schematic nature of popular music overpowered any possibility of art. The schematics themselves, the formulas themselves, were what dominated. A more contemporary variant of this idea taken up by conservative writers asserts that in popular music there is no "argument" emerging from the musical material, everything is "groove". The trouble is that here, too, that kind of assertion merely takes up Adorno's assertions and arguments from Philosophy of New Music but I'm not writing here to explain that. I'm attempting to demonstrate the ways in which contemporary conservative arguments against popular culture simply replicate, perhaps without conservative authors realizing it, the kinds of philosophical and aesthetic arguments that were more cogently formulated by Adorno half a century ago. In Adorno's polemic against popular music as art he could be thought of as comparing the serious artist to working with clay and fashioning a sculpture from the possibilities in the clay to someone making a replica of the same sculpture out of lego.
When I read Anglo-American evangelical and conservative writers dissent from what they regard as the mind-numbing and ennervating aspects of popular culture I can't help but wonder how many of them have read Theodore Adorno's fusilades against popular culture. It's as though contemporary conservative writers in the U.S. and U.K. who have complaints to make about the perfunctory aspects of mass culture don't seem to realize that they are simply repeating a defense of the highbrow arguments of a legendary member of the Frankfurt School. A Roger Scruton can be aware of this, of course, but a Roger Scruton as yet has not managed to do much more than retain the highbrow elitism of an Adorno without coming up with alternatives. If Adorno was right then contemporary conservative writers who reject popular culture have Adorno to thank for coming up with better versions of their arguments half a century ago. If Adorno was wrong, however, it is not clear that conservative or traditionalist writers have come up with a clear or compelling account of why Adorno was wrong or what alternatives to his polemics against popular or vernacular musical styles as art may be at hand.
Let's not ignore that, to the end, Adorno was set against jazz and rock as alternatives to Beethoven.
Copyright (c) 1997 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota
The demise of art, which is today being proclaimed with as much glibness as resentment, would be false, a gesture of conformism. The desublimation, the immediate and momentary gain of pleasure that is demanded of art, is inner-aesthetically beneath art; in real terms, however, that momentary pleasure is unable to grant what is expected of it. The recently adopted insistence on culturing uncultivation, the enthusiasm for the beauty of street battles, is a reprise of futurist and dadaist actions. The cheap aestheticism of short-winded politics is reciprocal with the faltering of aesthetic power. Recommending jazz and rock-and-roll instead of Beethoven does not demolish the affirmative lie of culture but rather furnishes barbarism and the profit interest of the culture industry with a subterfuge. The allegedly vital and uncorrupted nature of such products is synthetically processed by precisely those powers that are supposedly the target of the Great Refusal: These products are the truly corrupt.
Yet Adorno also argued that the crisis of art introduced by capitalism was more basic than a problem of high and low. Elsewhere in Aesthetic Theory we see the following:
It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist. ...
As a result of its inevitable withdrawal from theology, from the unqualified claim to the truth of salvation, a secularization without which art would never have developed, art is condemned to provide the world as it exists with a consolation that—shorn of any hope of a world beyond—strengthens the spell of that from which the autonomy of art wants to free itself. ...
... The absolute artwork converges with the absolute commodity....
... The absence of theological meaning, however modified, culminates in art as the crisis of its own meaning. The more ruthlessly artworks draw the consequences from the contemporary condition of consciousness, the more closely they themselves approximate meaninglessness. The more ruthlessly artworks draw the consequences from the contemporary condition of consciousness, the more closely they themselves approximate meaninglessness. They thereby achieve a historically requisite truth, which, if art disowned it, would condemn art to doling out powerless consolation and to complicity with the status quo. At the same time, however, meaningless art has begun to forfeit its right to exist; in any case, there is no longer any art that has remained inviolable. ...
Adorno made a complex case and one way to interpret that case could be to say that high art emerged in imperial contexts and that as the age of the bourgeois emerged art was severed from that imperial context. Detached from a civic religious cultic function anchored to throne or altar the arts flourished in what we can regarded as the modern era but there was a bitter price to be paid as capitalism and industrial society and the age of mass-production emerged, best summed up in the pithy observation that the absolute artwork converges with the absolute commodity. In a capitalist cultural context art for the sake of art becomes commodity, without recourse to ostensibly higher levels of meaning. A Matthew Arnold style art religion is not going to successfully negotiate market relevance when the market needs new things to sell. Any attempts to insist that a 19th century style art religion should be retained or preserved or fought for as if it were the best and truest of humanity falls back on the question of what those colonial and imperial powers within which such art-religions emerged had to say about those peoples who were not already participating in such art religions.
Here we can come full circle back to the polyphonic votive mass and the system of indulgences which made those masses practical. It is possible to appreciate the beauty of medieval and Renaissance era polyphonic vocal art and still regard the corruption and repressive elements of that cultural system as best left behind us. The irony, perhaps, is that at just such a cultural and historical era in which low church Protestants could see how marginal such an art has become there are cultural and political conservatives who would have us lament the fire at Notre Dame as representative of the loss of some form of Christendom that, a few centuries ago, low church Protestants would have regarded as emblematic not of the beauty of Christendom in some abstracted and mythological sense but as an emblem of the corrupt system of indulgences which happened, yes, to catalyze a great deal of beautiful highbrow musical art for which the common person on the street could have little real appreciation seeing as how literacy of a fairly high order was necessary to fully appreciate the art of a Josquin or a Palestrina.
There are perhaps many cultrually conservative Christians who are at some core spiritual and aesthetic levels on team Theodore Adorno who simply don't realize it. They reveal their affinity for an Adorno style condemnation of the culture industry when they inveigh against popular culture. There are reasons to dislike things about popular culture but even Adorno could observe that up through the nineteenth century it was possible for there to write decent popular music ... .
Yet for those conservatives who regard the Marxist-Leninist legacy as harmful what is gained by condemning popular culture in terms that don't seem so different from the writings of Adorno? Is the "solution" to the problems perceived in the culture industry to jettison Adorno's Marxist-Leninist critique of capitalist and administrative society but to retain the arguments against popular culture? Where does that lead? A veneration of a set of artistic canons that have relatively little to do with an American time and place? Yes, yes, there's the talk about the timeless beauty and universal value of great art but then ... we're still getting back to the polyphonic votive mass and the blistering attacks the early Reformers such as emerged from schools of thought linked to Calvin and Zwingli about how the ars perfecta style represented the largesse of a corrupt system that exploited people.
Something I've begun to notice as I've read Adorno's work and read about him is that he was not particularly thrilled with the new left that emerged in the 1960s. It is not likely that Adorno would have been in favor of more diverse representation in the arts and entertainments and while it's possible that could be because he had what people today could regard as elitist, racist, chauvinist tendencies there's another reason--bids at "representation" from diverse groups must simply affirm the basic hegemony of the culture industry and regard progress toward social and economic justice not as the dismantling of systems of oppression and exploitation but, rather, the increased normality of a variety of groups being able to reach the pinnacle of a bourgeois art religion cult. I'll quote Adorno again from Aesthetic Theory to suggest what he may have thought about bids at representation in light of his criticism of the propensities of the culture industry.
... Aesthetic experience first of all places the observer at a distance from the object. This resonates in the idea of disinterested observation. Philistines are those whose relation to artworks is ruled by whether and to what degree they can, for example, put themselves in the place of the actors as they come forth; this is what all parts of the culture industry are based on and they foster it insistently in their customers. ...
In other words, in Adorno's late polemics against art mediated by and controlled by capitalism a bid at representation was probably little more than the ambitions of philistines who believed that so long as the culture industry pandered to their interests it was becoming more just and less exploitive.
Now I do think Adorno was profoundly wrong about a number of things and although I can respect his attempts to describe music in the 20th century fracturing into bodies of work reflecting different modes of musical cognition, both of which he regarded as "false" compared to what he regarded as a fusion of modes of cognition in the Western musical canon, I haven't seen people who object to his views formulate a persuasive rebuttal.
For the progressives who understandably bristle at Adorno's Euro-centric elitism there has not been a clear rebuttal to his criticisms of popular culture as a reflection of the culture industry. Richard Taruskin has pointed out that the products of the culture industry are neither uniform nor necessarily indicative of merely status quo interests and that's true, but that's also possible to get from a Walter Benjamin. I.e. Taruskin's rebuttal is a useful one that does not quite, perhaps, address the problems brought up by the Frankfurt school in the form of Adorno's work. In other words, Adorno declared that it was basically no longer possible to create decent popular music. His arguments cumulative insist that the chasm between high and low has become passable in the era of capitalism and administrative society but it's a claim that is asserted more than proved. Given that, as I would propose, the era of the symphony has passed and we have returned to an age of musical art in which the song is more prominent there's a great deal to Adorno's polemics against popular song that ring hollow not so much because he couldn't argue that popular song lacked the macro-structural and gestural developmental sophistication of the instrumental music traditions of the 18th and 19th century but because he assumed, I would suggest wrongly, that that was where the acme of musical art was supposed to remain. He could see in his own lifetime that opera was already a bygone artform but he did not necessarily see this as clearly for the symphony or theater, perhaps.
To put all of these things another way, Adorno simply decided that a fusion of high and low was no longer possible as the bilge of the culture industry proliferated and the techniques of high modernism in the twentieth century yielded ever more esoteric and technocratic means and ends. I think to the extent that Adorno may have thought that Adorno was wrong. I think there can be and are ways to restore a synergistic relationship between "high" and "low" in musical art, but I have gotten a sense in reading arts coverage and debates about the arts that actually obtaining such a restored synergy between "high" and "low" is not as lucrative for partisans in the culture industry in its popular and academic, highbrow and lowbrow contexts, as simply repeating and promulgating mythologies to the effect that these two domains can never again meet.
This propensity to sell such mythologies is more conspicuous, of course, among conservative and traditionalist writers, who assure us that the popular and the artistic may have met at some point in the past, perhaps, but it's altogether impossible now. This is when a Roger Scruton writing about the failures of jazz or popular music to arrive at a musical "argument" most resembles a Theodore Adorno writing against popular music even being capable of art. Or, perhaps, a Brad East saying people should just not bother with popular culture.
What I find aggravating as I read contemporary discussions of whether, for instance, classical music embodies some of the highest and greatest beauty humanity has produced or whether it represents a viciously repressive white supremacist legacy that should be allowed to die, these sorts of narratives come across as the partisan complaints of people who would be, if we invoke Adorno's polemics, people immersed as ambitious players in the culture industry. It's not that they might not have a good point or two, it's that we should consider what their economic and production interests are. There are those who want their market share preserved and those who want a market share but in both cases their engagement with the arts and the narratives of sublime beauty or repression are mediated first and foremost by the culture industry in terms of educational systems and market systems. These are the polemics of ambitious and aspiring professionals, not the polemics of hobbyists and amateurs who don't feel that if they are not paying all of their bills and buying their groceries on the basis of their arts activities that the system is either unjust or their artistic activities are somehow bereft of merit. One of the benefits of reading someone like Adorno is, in the things that he gets right and wrong about distinctions between art and art-as-commerce, he at least attempted to discuss those questions in a way that was not situated in an arts and entertainment industry we must now take for granted,.
If people want to explore and embrace traditional musical arts I'm all in favor of that. I'm also in favor of exploring the possibilities of restoring a synergistic relationship between "high" and "low", popular and classical, and realms of artistic activity that have been segregated, not merely by industries with a vested interest in designating people into silos of consumption, but also by attempts to combat that segregation that, paradoxically and perhaps tragicomically, protest the industry in a way that makes what Adorno regarded as the mentality of the Philistine the measure of whether or not an intrinsically exploitive industry is becoming more just or not.
To put it another way, given how improbable it is for most musicians to make a living as musicians who significant is it, really, that Beyonce or Taylor Swift have high profiles and profitable artistic lives? This is not saying anything against those musicians, by the way, it's saying that one of the implications of Adorno's writings against the culture industry is to point out that the systems don't become less exploitive because groups that in earlier eras were marginalized or denied political franchise have become celebrated figures at the top of the music industry now.
I think Adorno was ultimately wrong to imagine that jazz and jazz musicians were only capable of capitulating to the strictures of capitalism as he saw it. While I think there's substance to his distinction between musical art and popular music I think he was wrong to imagine that the boundaries between those ways of making music were fixed and that the chasm between musical "high" and "low" could not be bridged. He was, as David Roberts put it in his books dealing with Adorno's ideas, still beholden to an ultimately 19th century and Romantic ideological way of engaging with modernity. Adorno tried to argue that Schoenberg's expressionism and atonality was the more legitimate path than Stravinsky's archly detached musical masks but, Roberts proposed, Stravinsky's ironic detachment from musical languages has shown itself to be the more long-lived response to modernity. We live in an era in which it is possible to immediately hear the juxtaposition of a faux-galant style of music with a narrative of urban squalor for African Americans in Stevie Wonder's "Village Ghetto Land", for instance. Adorno was lost in a blind alley of insisting that in the age of the world war that somehow legitimate or real artists had to struggle against the cliches and tropes of past art to continue to struggle to make new musical languages not beholden to the long 19th century without necessarily grasping that this ideological sense of such a necessity was itself beholden to the ideals of the nineteenth century.
All the same, too many of those conservative or traditionalist writers who set themselves against popular styles as categorically inimical to art (or the possibility of serious thought), and set themselves against Adorno's Marxist-Leninist perspective (that, in crucial ways, seemed to preclude his engagement of popular styles on any other aesthetic terms), have ironically embraced and endorsed a set of arguments that are beholden to Adorno's categories of thought about art.
If we want to dispute Adorno's practical analysis with respect to artistic high and low (I'm aware that not everyone wants to), yet do so in a way that takes his larger critique of the culture industry seriously, then artists, musicians, poets and others working in the arts as professionals and hobbyists can explore the ways to restore or maintain a synergistic relationship between the "popular" and the "artistic". That sort of path will explicitly reject the details of Adorno's criticisms of popular styles while granting him the possibility that his criticism of what the industry dynamics of his day were doing to severe high art and mass entertainment from each other can be taken seriously.
Some of the lazier progressive writers can seem blind to the ways in which Adorno's polemics against popular culture embody the vices they would prefer to impute strictly to the contemporary right. Meanwhile, some of the lazier conservatives who repudiate Adorno's Marxism zealously embrace his assumption that high and low art can never again meet in the age of contemporary age. I would think a more principled conservative or traditionalist rebuttal to Adorno would be to point out that if a fusion of high and low art was able to be brokered by the music of Haydn and Mozart then it should be possible for such a high/low reconciliation to happen again in our era. Music journalists across the left/right divide seem to make more profit off of selling a battle of master narratives than doing the more difficult and often tedious work of formal analysis and historical work that might, if we keep at it, allow us to restore or maintain the synergistic relationship between "high" and "low" that Adorno though had vanished by the end of the 19th century. Composing music that is able to embrace the best elements of the academic musical canon of the West without ignoring the beauties available in more popular or vernacular styles seems like the best way to prove that Adorno was wrong, regardless of where one may land on the political or theological or non-theological spectrum.
East has added a post with a clarification that his provocation was, more or less as I suspected, was a provocation with two particular audiences in mind and that the provocation was against the claim that it was imperative that Christians "engage" popular culture.
...Having four kids in six years both helped and hurt. Helped, because my movie habits were forced to change whether I liked it or not. Hurt, because while I was staying home part time as a doctoral student, I simply couldn't find the energy to do intellectually demanding work when my kids napped, so I actually increased my TV viewing. In the last 3+ years, I have made it a dominating goal of my life to decrease this time spent in front of a screen, watching a show (however good the show might be—and sometimes they're quite good). And I've succeeded, to an extent. My aim is not—pace Matt Anderson—to rid my life of TV or streaming art. It's to unlearn the itch, that is, the psychological and almost physiological reflex to fill "blank" time with a screen filled with moving images. I treat this itch like a disease, though I am self-aware enough to know that my almost maniacal posture toward the itch is itself a sign of how far I've come. But so far as I can see, it really is a disease, a social disease, present in Kindergartners, freshmen in college, thirtysomething parents, empty-nesters, and retired grandparents. When dinner's done, or the dishes are washed, or the kids are in bed, or the house is clean—when there's a chunk of time to be filled—we all do we what we've always done since the 1950s: turn on the TV. Only now, the name of that all-powerful gravitational pull is no longer TV but Netflix. It's a cultural tick, a habitual default, an emotional itch, a psychological addiction. And speaking only for myself, I want to be free of it. ...
I can't help but think of those moments in Jane Austen novels in which it is noted how this or that young female character wasted her time in reading novels. But Austen has a counter-joke regarding Mary in Pride & Prejudice as the one who is steeped in the bromides and axioms of sermons and a knowledge of thoroughbass.
There's an irony to such a piece as "Against Pop Culture" being published (or republished) at Mere Orthodoxy, a site whose founders praise Francis Schaeffer among others, because when The God Who is There was published Schaeffer showed that he was conversant on the subject of John Cage and his music and also The Beatles. If one of the patron saints of Mere Orthodoxy was able to discuss what in 1968 was the previous year's pop cultural touchstone as an example of the new total work of art, well, it shows how badly Schaeffer dropped the ball in art history terms by not reading the century old works of Richard Wagner, for one. But for another thing, it showed that Schaeffer's relevance to cultural analysis in terms of the arts partly lay in his curiosity about the popular culture of his time as an indicator of profound shifts in the arts as manifestations of civil religious or non-religious impulses.
Even with an update providing caveats, Brad East's case against what Adorno called the culture industry retains its core similarity to Adorno's concerns. That there's a variation in East's writing on popular culture that it might be possible for there to be bad good art and good bad art as granted by Adorno in Aesthetic Theory makes the comparison of evangelical conservatives to Adorno's Marxist-Leninist highbrow art commitments seem just as appropriate after East's clarification as before.
For his part Matthew Lee Anderson has written a follow up responding to a suggestion there may be hypocrisy in castigating popular culture consumption when one watches athletics or sports.
... I think watching sports is more activity-conducive than watching film or movies. My interest in watching basketball ebbs and flows with how much I am playing basketball. I try to watch with an eye for things I might employ on the court as a slow, aging, mediocre white guy (I’m looking at you, Kyle Korver). Note that watching a film with this sort of intentionality actually undermines its logic: reducing a film to how we might or ought live in light of it turns it into the worst sort of moralizing propaganda, which no critic would allow. But the impulse in sports is unavoidable: when we see something great on the court, our natural proclivity is to try to imitate it.
Second, I tend to think that sports has a democratizing element buried within them. There is something about raw talent that overcomes any other natural aptitudes or gifts: the only thing that matters at the end is which team puts the ball in the basket more. I’m not persuaded, though, that much of the ‘golden age of television’ is democratic in the same way, or that it provides a common ground that people can meet on irrespective of class or education. As the brilliant Brad East observes, “knowledge of pop culture is the lingua franca of upwardly mobile bourgeois-aspirational twenty- and thirty-somethings working white collar jobs in big cities (not to mention college, the gateway to such a destination).” But you know what’s open to everyone? Knowledge about basketball–or, even moreso, football. That’s an impressionistic worry, but it is a worry that I have.
Well, as someone who has never been a fan of athletics or sports overall ,this is special pleading. North American males can even be expected to make a special pleading case that sports and athletics are somehow exempt from a criticism of popular cultural consumption in general. I was, for a time, into cycling as an activity and athletic discipline. I gave up trying to ride bikes when I moved to Seattle after I saw, not the hills, but how Seattle drivers drove. I gave up keeping track of the Tour de France after Indurain won five times and stopped caring by the time Lance Armstrong won all his wins.
Which brings us back to the question of whether or not watching professional sports isn't bankrolling an empire that is able to be just as brutal and exploiting in its own way as other forms of popular culture. It's possible to argue there's a democratic element to watching sports because you can play sports but that can be said about the arts. Lance Armstrong still comes to mind, as does Sandunsky.
In the wake of what was revealed about Larry Nassar we should ask whether separating sports cultural consumption from popular cultural consumption is a distinction that should be taken seriously. I clearly don't think it deserves that distinction if the aim of it is to say that you shouldn't kill time watching Netflix but you could watch baseball. If the implicit alternative is that you'd be better off actively doing something then I'll agree to that. My idea of a fun weekend is less likely to be watching a bunch of films or TV than writing thousands of words like I have here.
The Adorno style criticism of the culture industry selling the masses on a vicarious form of freedom they themselves as masses will never have which is mediated by the designation of stars whose real abilities may be dubious in comparison to others might still stand. Of course I have attempted to convey that there are problems with Adorno's kind of stance, being that his legacy and work could be charged as being elitist, chauvinist and rife with ethnic prejudice (I'll get to that at some point in the stereotypology he maps out of kinds of music listeners).
Popular culture may be a lingua franca of the upwardly mobile bourgeois-aspirational classes but that just means that popular culture of a certain type has gained that status despite retaining a pop culture label. In other words it's stuff like Game of Thrones or Mad Men or The Sopranos or the like. In other words, there's a minimal prestige criteria of some vague sort that is involved. Period piece dramas can get that in a way that animation does not.