Monday, September 16, 2019

Mary Jane Leach on Julius Eastman, his incendiary titles, and what appears to be efforts to police who can discuss Eastman's work--Jonathan Haidt's thesis about liberals and conservatives and moral intuitions may not be accurate if applied to some progressive perspectives

It has, of course, been noted over at Norman Lebrecht's Slipped Disc

and stated in the plainest (and not unsurprisingly in the clickbaitiest) way.

Almost 30 years after his death, the great musician Julius Eastman is still a source of trickster hijinks—and a subject who taps into timely concerns. Recently I was asked to present a lecture on him and his work at the OBEY Convention, a music and sound festival in Halifax, Nova Scotia. But rather than a fruitful discussion of Eastman’s probing, piercing minimalist music and legacy as an overlooked composer only now getting his due, the situation turned into a referendum on complicated questions: who gets to hold forth on artists of different identities, and on whose terms?
A gay black composer who was a colleague of mine and a subject of great interest for me ever since his death in 1990, Eastman wrote some compositions with controversial titles. One of them figured in the title of a book I co-edited, Gay Guerrilla: Julius Eastman and His Music (University of Rochester Press, 2015). Gay Guerilla is the title of one of a group of three pieces from around 1980 that are usually played on four pianos, and two more of the kind from the late ’70s are Evil Nigger and Crazy Nigger. The titles are obviously problematic and create all kinds of issues regarding how to refer to them. At their premiere at Northwestern University in 1980, due to protests at the time, the titles weren’t printed in the program. Instead, Eastman gave a spoken introduction explaining why he titled the pieces the way he did.
Leach references an apology from the OBEY convention that ... well ... I guess I don't exactly understand how these kinds of things work.
I've never actually heard Eastman's music and yet I've managed to read about this controversy by way of the ArtsJournal linkathon.  

My impression, having not heard Eastman's work as yet, is that it's possible that Eastman's title had an element of what in internet era jargon is called trolling.  

Lebrecht has, in his Lebrechtian way, boiled things down to the question of the incident, whether it's ethical for a white woman to advocate on behalf of the music of a deceased black, gay composer with whom she was a colleague.  There are some who have concluded the answer to that question is "no" and others "yes".  

Leach wrote:
My solution for lectures in the past has been to play Eastman’s spoken explanation before I start, followed by a warning and an apology in advance for articulating words that are so offensive. Near the end of my talk I discuss the arc of Eastman’s titling tendencies—from early pieces with conventional titles (Sonata and Birds Fly Away) and suggestive ones (Touch Him When and Joy Boy) to the Nigger series and on to religious invocations (The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc and Buddha). I cite the problematic titles just once at the beginning, and then subsequently refer to them indirectly. This is what I did at the OBEY festival in June.
But in a pre-planned group discussion following my talk, I soon realized that the subject wasn’t going to be Eastman and his music but instead an inquisition into me that would wind up marginalizing—again, as had happened to him so often in the past—the true subject at hand. What I hadn’t known was that there had been earlier discussions before the festival about whether it would be ethical for me, a white woman, to speak about a gay black man, and that the moderator of the post-lecture discussion—the leader of an activist group of queer people of color—agreed to take part in what I later learned would be characterized as a “facilitation that unpacks privilege in the conversation around Eastman’s work and Mary Jane’s life in relation thereof.”
What was missing in that premise is the reason why I find it so important to speak and write about Eastman: In a time when identity politics command so much attention—most of it well-deserved and long past its due—it’s also important to stress that he was more than a gay black man. He was also a musician and composer of immense talent. While I am not a gay black man, I am a musician and composer, and Eastman and I were colleagues, having first met in 1981 at a rehearsal of a piece by fellow composer Hugh Levick.
The group discussion after my talk grew contentious. Attendees asked why I had shown so many photos that included white people, putting me in the strange situation of being asked to justify Eastman’s own life choices and the musical world he traveled in. Then, of course, there were objections among some—many of whom I later learned had missed my earlier lecture—about my having stated Eastman’s titles as they were written by the artist himself. Evelyn White, the author of a biography of Alice Walker (Alice Walker: A Life, 2004), spoke up and called the decision “brave and important.” But her words were largely brushed aside.
Later that night I was to present a concert of my own music—another reason I was at OBEY, the organizers of which asked me to give my lecture about Eastman in spite of not programming any of his work on its own. At the end of the first of two sets, the festival director approached and asked if we could talk. He brought me into a room with three other people, looking solemn, and said that they had received complaints about my lecture and were pulling my music from the program.


Having referenced some of the writing of Adolph Reed Jr. in the past on what he regards as the problematic nature of anti-racism as an ideological stance he regards as a substitute for a meaningfully left coalition in American politics, I do wonder whether Reed has read or heard of any of this particular arts controversy.  Would Leach being a white woman preclude her from advocating on behalf of the music of her deceased colleague and, if so, why?  Or, to formulate a question about the situation in another way, would people of color who did not necessarily know or work with Eastman be more qualified than Leach to discuss and present Eastman's music?  

One of the ideas Jonathan Haidt proposed in his book The Righteous Mind was that liberals had three core appeals and conservatives had six.  There's been some room to debate those proposals but the idea Haidt suggested was that there were six axes in which appeals to moral intuitions can be made:


Haidt proposed that liberals tend to build their ethical appeals on the basis of the first three of these six moral intuitions while conservatives build upon all six.

The recent controversy about Eastman's titles and whether Leach was considered someone able to discuss them suggests to me that Haidt may have overlooked that there can be progressives and liberals who do care about sanctity and degradation, perhaps, if the problem with Leach discussing the work of her late colleague Julius Eastman has to do with her being a white woman talking about the life and musical work of a dead black gay composer who she came to know when he was alive. 

As much as conservatives lament identity politics it seems pedestrian to point out that what conservatives find objectionable in identity politics in contemporary discourse is that it can sometimes include appeals to sanctity that may not be defined explicitly in terms of sanctity and degradation.  Appeals to authority can be latent within concerns about degradation and appeals to oppression get made, too. 

Haidt might be right, after all, in proposing that liberals are concerned with care, fairness and loyalty (or reciprocity) as the primary axes or moral intuitions they appeal to ... but the recent Eastman presentation incident could be a case study in suggesting that there are at least some progressives and positions within progressive thought that appeal to the other three moral intuitions, too. 


chris e said...

Well if Haidt is correct in his other bugbear of SJWs turning university campuses into authoritarian spaces where a narrow adherence to certain politically correct nostrums have to be observed at all times, then liberals have clearly already adopted authority/sanctity/loyalty as values and his values argument collapses (FWIW I think a couple of your categories need to be transposed to make your sentence true)

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

It's been a few years since I read his book so I probably have the order and specific wording wrong. :)

I think the Eastman case and my reading on what Shostakovich had to deal with during peak Socialist Realism suggests to me that conservatives have no uniqueness on the sanctity/degradation category. If Haidt modified his argument to say that liberals might value sanctity but when it's delimited or subordinate to liberty, for instance, I think there could be a possible case for that, but I don't remember if that's how he qualified his proposal. At a popular book level he seems to say conservatives embrace all six whereas liberals tend to only embrace three when that doesn't strike me as accurate.

But in fairness to the larger range of points Haidt makes, I think his proposal that when you argue you appeal to your auditors moral intuitions as best you can discern them rather than your own is sensible advice, although with MHC stuff it might have been advice I didn't exactly desperately need because I realized, retrospectively, I was attempting to build a case that MHC leadership was betraying its own stated ideals.

I don't know if amid the controversy surrounding Eastman if I'll end up actually hearing his music. I feel like the east coast American scene dictates so much cultural journalism I'm not sure I care enough to find out what J.E's work sounds like just yet.