01 September 2008

Abstract Music, Concrete Action

On the occasion of the Republican National Convention coming to my hometown, I offer this essay on the dynamic between art and activism, a subject I find myself returning to with greater frequency as the extent of the damage wrought by Bush and Company becomes more clear. -SK

Abstract Music, Concrete Action

If there is an upside to the catastrophic events that both the country and the world have endured at the hands of the Bush Administration, it is the opportunity to learn from history with the intent of preventing its repetition. While a general apathy and indifference on behalf of the American citizenry is a common to theme to which present and future commentators will no doubt return frequently, there must also come a time to evaluate specific actions of specific people at specific times: what they were doing and why, and what, perhaps, they could have done differently. As musicians specifically, but also more generally as artists, there has never been a better time to ask this question of ourselves and our peers, difficult as it may be to stomach the answers.

Despite the difficulty in objectively defining what is and is not art, let alone what constitutes good and bad art, many artists and audiences have come to accept as a matter of blind faith that the intended creation of art is an inherently positive and constructive action regardless of the content of the work or the circumstances of its creation. It is no coincidence that, within this group, those who see art primarily as a vehicle for social or political activism comprise a sizable majority. This essay seeks to refute and condemn this line of thinking, arguing instead that it is stifling and counterproductive from both an artistic and ethical standpoint. It proposes an alternative ethical framework by which art and activism are wholly separate endeavors, hence operating under the assumption that the two presently have a mutually destructive rather than constructive relationship. The author believes that current events in both the political and artistic spheres provide copious amounts of evidence in support of this position, but none so damning as the havoc wreaked by the Bush Administration at a time when art-as-activism complacency runs rampant among contemporary artists and audiences.


Artworks which are neither representational nor functional will never cease to be controversial, and nowhere is this more true than in music, often said to be the most abstract of all the arts. There is rarely a satisfying explanation for any person's attraction to the most abstract works of music, whether it be sought in the realm of hard science, sheer superstition, or anywhere in between, but even with such an explanation in hand, it would appear impossible to evaluate this attraction on an ethical level because aesthetic value judgments are of a fundamentally different type than ethical judgments. The abstract aesthetic value of any particular artwork is an issue destined to fall permanently outside the purview of morality, for insofar as such judgments are based on aesthetic properties, they are not moral or ethical in nature at all.

Nonetheless, abstract art as vocation poses an urgent ethical question should it come to dominate the individual's life sufficiently to preclude engaging in certain other activities. In other words, if community service, for example, is a necessary condition for moral integrity, and the demands of one's vocation interfere with the ability to perform community service, then the vocation is a barrier to achieving moral integrity. In being presented such a challenge, it is not altogether unusual to leap at any and all opportunities to kill two birds with one stone, or perhaps even to work a little bit too hard at interpreting a situation as such for one's own edification. How wonderful it would be if the service-minded musician could simply continue going about his or her business in a way that also fulfills some broader obligation to society; what a relief it would be to combine one's obligations to one's art with one's obligations to collective humanity. Hence, for musicians, the issue ultimately becomes not separating the good music from the bad, but understanding the limitations of both kinds when it comes to what (if anything) they are able to accomplish outside the realm of abstract sound.

Does the most abstract music contribute enough to the world to justify devoting one's life primarily or entirely to its creation instead of any number of other noble causes? For many who claim fealty to "The Arts," it would be blasphemous to answer "no," yet that is clearly the correct answer. To equate the creation of the most abstract music with humanitarianism is an egregious ethical misstep; to do so would be to conflate entertainment and service, essentially putting oneself before others in a plainly offensive manner. It could be rightly assumed that anyone who does so either is not aware of the scope of suffering and injustice that takes place in the world, or that this knowledge does not move them beyond a state of casual resignation. Those who believe the causes of art and service to be of comparable importance find themselves in an indefensible position. Were they to encounter a musician who held such views exclusively towards his or her own work, they would clearly see the error. What prevents them from making this connection, however, is a blind allegiance to "The Arts" collectively, a fatally relativistic mindset which leads to an inability and/or unwillingness to judge case-by-case, hence enabling the delusion of a concrete and objective value of all art based entirely on its appendices and little (if at all) on even their own feeble aesthetic judgments of its value in the abstract.

To rank the value of the most abstract music lower than that of service is not to denigrate the former, but simply to recognize the primacy of the latter. Musicians, after all, are people and citizens first. Those who desire to be so certain of their larger contribution to society would be wise to turn away from the maddeningly subjective realm of aesthetics and towards something simpler and unrelated. Community service, activism, and civic engagement are pursuits which are more widely acknowledged and immediately effective at making the world a better place than any single piece of music could ever be, no matter how great its abstract aesthetic properties or supposed activist content. That this view would be seen as philistine is symptomatic of a fundamental misunderstanding of not only of what it means to serve others but also of what the very essence of music really is. The most vital service is that which aspires to nothing beyond its scope as service, with the possible exception of the personal satisfaction derived from reflecting upon how these actions have benefitted others. Similarly, the most vital music is the realization of a sonic intent which deals wholly in terms of sound, free from any undue burden or obligation to serve other functions or agendas for its creator.

The more equally members of society share the burden of community service amongst each other, the less there is for each of them to do and the more time remains for pursuits such as art, whether it be as vocation or hobby. Conversely, painting art as service for one's own edification runs roughshod over the integrity, quality, and efficacy of both endeavors, leaving important acts of service for others to do, and condemning art to be judged functionally rather than aesthetically. It would not be unreasonable to assume that the potent appeal of combining art and service is in part responsible for the increasingly popular assertions that, among other things, art:

•makes kids smart
•keeps kids off drugs
•can be a vehicle for social change
•is a hallmark of civilized cultures
•is an essential part of the economy

It is left to the reader to consider whether any or all of these statements might get the cause and effect backwards. Either way, because consensus on aesthetic value is a logical impossibility, in no case can the value of art or music in the abstract ever be pointed to as an attribute in the public arena. Art in the abstract offers nothing remotely approaching the clear-cut and agreed upon value of making kids smarter or fueling a movement; it can have any value at all only in the mind of an individual who judges it as such via the aesthetic experience, an inherently subjective process that is not subject to ethical evaluation. This is what has driven a sizable majority of musicians and music lovers towards a trumping up the items listed above (among others) coupled with an auspicious and disingenuous refusal to argue in favor of art for its own sake. Alas, this is the only tenable position in the political arena, and in this capacity it has undoubtedly facilitated a smattering of progress here and there. However, it also presents a dangerous trap into which many a victim has fallen: having established a concrete and objective value for music itself as service, and by extension service to music as service to all, the advocate is wont to excuse themselves from other service obligations on the grounds that their involvement with or advocacy for music constitutes just such a contribution in and of itself.

One could not be faulted for being suspicious of this attitude simply by virtue of the quite obvious potential for abuse. The cumulative extent to which such abuse actually takes place is something which cannot be verified with any authority, yet even operating under the assumption that those who hold themselves in such high regard as dual function musician-servants are being entirely genuine as to what they believe they are accomplishing, it can be said that in aiming to combine the creation of sonic beauty with a selfless devotion to others, they achieve significantly less in both areas than they would if they were to pursue them separately.

This claim is easier to prove in the service area than the art area, and the discussion that has already taken place ought to suffice as support. When it comes to art, it is, of course, impossible to say conclusively whether it is true or not, for this depends on individual aesthetic judgments of artworks which aspire to make service or activist contributions. Suffice it to say that, despite often sympathizing strongly with the political viewpoints expressed by such artists, the author's experiences to this point have led to the formation of an utter contempt for such works, along with the strong feeling that the functional obligations placed on them are directly responsible for their high rate of failure in the aesthetic realm, as well as for instilling a certain aesthetic numbness in audiences who embrace the art-as-service framework.

What is much more easily established is the contradiction lying at the heart of service-oriented arts advocacy. The single-minded support that music education, for example, enjoys is predicated overwhelmingly on service attributes of questionable provenance (as in the list above) rather than the simple desire to involve children in music making for artistic and recreational reasons. Such advocacy would otherwise seem more like an irrational fixation, since countless other activities accomplish the same desired non-musical results even more effectively, but do not involve music making. One assumes that it is rational by virtue of being the result of an aesthetic attraction to certain pieces of music, but wishes more individuals would be honest about this in public. If making music was dangerous (like playing with guns), or completely inane (like talking on the phone), parents and arts advocates would not be so quick to extoll its value as a diversion for the kids. The support it enjoys is a tacit acknowledgment of the primacy of what can only be called its abstract aesthetic properties, regardless of whether or not these individuals are willing to admit it, or indeed if they are capable of understanding the relationship (their relationship with sound) at all.


Another problem with music as service is that, as with referring to "The Arts" collectively regardless of content, the term "music" is too broad. One must be an incorrigible relativist to support a service initiative that deals only in these most vague terms; the real question is: “Which music?” or "Which arts?" Turning to music based purely on its service value is a terrible way to proceed because this constitutes judging an artwork for nonaesthetic reasons (an act of which "judging a book by its cover" is the most famous example). Perhaps the given service initiative requires that the music must be able to be written and/or realized by those with no previous training; perhaps lyrical subject matter is prescribed based on demographics; or perhaps stylistic constraints are imposed in order ensure that the particular participants are engaged for the appropriate amount of time. When it does come to judging pieces of abstract music aesthetically, individuals seldom agree on anything; as socially uncomfortable an option as this might be, it is also the most honest. Conversely, in being relatively objective, judging music based on non-aesthetic properties such as service value enables a broader consensus, but it forces all involved to take on a false consciousness, suppressing their own capacity for the perception of beauty and, in place of this, embracing whatever functional purpose it is that the artwork is intended to lend itself to.

It is a truth of human nature that the capacity for the perception of beauty is always too powerful to merely be turned on and off as the beholder wishes. The impulse is stronger yet when the beholder finds themselves in a setting which they have been socially conditioned to treat as an opportunity for aesthetic contemplation of an artwork. Hence, practictioners of service music are faced with the challenge of bypassing any innate or acquired aesthetic faculties their audience might possess and appealing directly to this social conditioning. Having suppressed the more immediate artistic motivations that typically lie behind the creation of an artwork, is it no surprise that the service artist’s rate of aesthetic success is so low. By presenting an artwork to be judged non-aesthetically, the service artist not only forces an uncomfortable dishonesty on the audience, but also commits a dishonest act themselves.


Aside from community service per se, there is another sense in which music is often viewed as service, if not only implicitly. It has become fashionable to make a distinction between musicians who "play for themselves" and those who "play for an audience," the latter hence being elevated to the moral high ground and the former dismissed as self-indulgent nihilists. In reality, this is nothing more than the institutionalization of popular taste in the colloquial musical vocabulary of the day, a point underscored by the fact that those musicians who "play only for themselves" are without exception the ones working in abstract "modern" or "avant-garde" idioms.

By the logic of this music-as-service framework, giving people what they want to hear is an act of service which the musician is ethically obligated to fulfill, while the act of presenting something unfamiliar and challenging is condemned simply by virtue of the discomfort it is sure to impart to the uninitiated (never mind the possibility that anyone in the audience may actually desire such a challenge). The value of a piece of music is then determined solely by the sheer number of people who line up to consume it, and musicians who serve others by pandering to them are commended whereas those whose personal musical voice is at odds with mass taste are scolded. Among other things, it is a very capitalistic perspective, having distinctive echoes of “the customer is always right,” and indeed, appealing to as many people as possible is also the most lucrative option available to a musician, which should be the first hint that not only is this position ethically flawed, it is altogether backwards.

In practice, few musicians attain mass commercial success without compromising something artistic, but in such cases, rare as they may be, those few musicians deserve no more accolades for being marketable than a professional basketball player does for being tall. They may also be talented, but above all, they are exceedingly lucky that large numbers of other people are attracted to them for something they would be doing anyway. For the others (the vast majority), there are usually some difficult choices to make along the way, and those that stick to their guns are the heroes, not the goats, for they are the ones that ensure the biodiversity that keeps the contemporary musical ecosystem running. Of course, one can decide to compromise in certain situations and not in others, and all else being equal, this is probably the most practical approach where earning a living through one's art is the first priority. No one who compromises is a bad person for this reason alone, but does anyone believe that such individuals are motivated more by some abstract concept of service embedded in reaching the most people they can rather than by the material gains (however meager) to be reaped from wider appeal?

The traditional dichotomy between art and entertainment is often criticized for jumping to the conclusion that one cannot encompass the other, and it is indeed tenuous to assume that works traditionally categorized as art are not entertaining per se to their audience. The word “entertainment” often connotes something casual, passive, and inane, whereas art is considered to be more serious, stimulating, or complicated, and hence the two are seen as somehow mutually exclusive. This dynamic has been institutionalized in the lexicon in the form of terms like “easy listening” without taking into account that there are some who find it very easy to listen to avant-garde music and very difficult to listen to anything else. In this case as always, whether a piece is “easy” or “difficult” to listen to has nothing to do with its own intrinsic properties and everything to do with who exactly it is that is listening.

The “playing for yourself”/”playing for others” dichotomy is a crafty little tag line, something Karl Rove could have come up with if he did not have more important things to worry about. It draws a righteous line in the sand between the selfish and the selfless, simply, effectively, and ignorantly. Attractive as it might sound, there really is no aesthetic moral high ground at all to be claimed by artists; in ferreting out a particular person's impact on society broadly, their actions as a citizen are infinitely more important than their actions as a musician. To that end, it stands to reason that the world would be better off with honest musicians who serve their community in their spare time than it would be with great hordes of complacent fame-seeking narcissists who think that they are making the world a better place simply by existing.

Instead of trying to make music look like service any way it can, society ought to be capable of admitting that there is something inherently selfish in why musicians play music (not to mention in why audiences listen to it), and that without this, many great masterpieces would never have been created. As great as these masterpieces might be, abstract music is no substitute for concrete action. Musicians, for their part, ought to be willing to admit that a satisfied audience takes less away from a performance than a poverty-stricken family takes away from the food shelf, and that the musician who feels a such a glow from reaching that audience could in fact experience the same feeling magnified tremendously without touching their instrument and likely do more good in the process. The ever-expanding diversity of the contemporary musical landscape seems to ensure that there will be something out there for everyone, but in turn, everyone must be tolerant of this diversity and allow it to exist without projecting non-aesthetic moralization onto it. Meanwhile, there exists a staggeringly diverse array of needs in the world, and scarcely a single one of them is most effectively addressed through art of any kind.


Anonymous said...

I know this blog is over a year old, but I still have a question:

If you feel that music serves no concrete function, then why do you dedicate your life to it?

You seem to be asserting that the act of making music, even that of masterful quality, is no match in service to donating to food shelves. Do you do a lot of concrete public service, thereby clearing up the need for it and also the space for you to, in good conscience, dedicate your life to music?

I guess I am primarily curious about what IS the value of music to you, that has brought you to dedicate your life to it. (Am I correct to assume you have dedicated your life to music, at least so far?). Because as you said, you could get ten times the glow of the feeling of musically satisfying an audience if you took some concrete action in service to society.

I'll look for your response (if you care to) on your blog. I'm "anonymous" so your response is not in danger of "coloring" through knowing who I am. ;-)

Stefan Kac said...

Hello Anonymous,

Thanks for reading, and even more thanks for commenting. Yes, the post is a year old, but the conversation is still worth having, so let's have it. I just discovered for the first time that Blogger imposes a length limit on comments, so my response is broken up in to sections.

The first thing I would say is that this is not a zero sum game. I value both music and service, though for different reasons. The reason I've dedicated my life substantially more to music than service is that I have so much fun playing and writing music that I simply can't help it. It's not a noble reason, but a selfish reason, an addiction of sorts rather than a conscious choice. The need to be happy, to be entertained, to have fun, is not trivial. That's music's function in my world, and I aspire for that to also be the function of the music I create now and in the future, nothing more and nothing less. There are many reasons, though, why I'm not willing to simply assume that I will be successful at doing this.

I realize that this isn't the kind of thing that you normally hear from musicians. What you normally hear is that learning music makes kids better at math and science, that concerts stimulate economic activity when the patrons go out for dinner before or after, that being part of a band builds self-esteem, and so on and so forth. Music is only ever referenced generally in these cases, as if it were all the same, and hence, it has ceased to matter to many people what exactly the music sounds like as long as it fills one or more of these functions. These and the other so-called "extrinsic" benefits of music that we hear about so often have become prominent in the dialogue primarily through their use in the public arena to justify maintaining or increasing the paltry level of public funding of the NEA and public school music programs. The problem is that, NEA or no NEA, we as musicians seem to have let all of this go to our heads, seemingly deciding that if music (all music!) does great things (again, all of them, and all at once!), then we must be saints for doing what we were already doing.

If you follow sports at all, you know that professional sports franchises and youth coaches alike use essentially the same approach, parroting similar lines about teamwork, self-esteem, physical conditioning, and staying out of trouble. This sort of thing is probably even more grossly overstated in athletics than it is in music, and for more purely and intentionally disingenuous purposes. Even so, a lot of pro athletes are involved in service activities that have nothing to do with sports, often just for a photo-op, but occasionally legitimately also. It helps when you're a multi-millionaire and only have to work half the year. Musicians, in contrast, usually have to hustle pretty hard just to survive, and are just as often the recipients of charity as they are the benefactors. Whatever great deeds and transcendent art that charity has begotten, it has also conditioned us to see ourselves differently. Perhaps it's a character flaw, an overreaction, or a "man thing," but I've never been totally comfortable in that role, mostly because other people look to be way too comfortable in it for my taste.

Stefan Kac said...

I'm skeptical about many extrinsic benefits, both in music and in sports, and I've written about that elsewhere on this blog over the years. It's more of a gut feeling in my case, and I have no rigorous evidence or peer-reviewed studies to present in support of it. What I do have is my childhood and adolescence, where I cared deeply about both music and baseball (again, because they were too damn much fun, not because I thought I was making the world a better place by participating in either of them), and where that intense engagement was constantly manipulated, stepped on, ignored, and trivialized by the adults who ran the show. Now that I'm one of those adults, I'd like to think I'm doing a better job, but that alone does not a public servant make.

Once I grew up and got away from all of that garbage, I found myself having all together too much fun playing music, too much, in fact, to feel that I could possibly do anything else. I try to foster that sort of dynamic in my students by treating them like adults and encouraging them to develop a connection to music that extends beyond the bell of their horns. Do I feel that my work is "important?" Of course I do. But how can I know? I'm not only extremely biased, but also only one person. Insofar as my musical activities make people happy, entertain them, and cause them to have fun, I do indeed believe I've contributed something worthwhile to the world. I just don't believe that it's AS important as many other service activities. Again, this isn't a zero sum game; we don't have to pick just one side, but we do have to be mindful of proportions. If you want to make someone happy, playing the music of your choice for them ranks among the least likely ways to be effective at this task. It's possible, it's just not very likely.

I've been in and out of "real" service over the years. Most recently, I did volunteer tutoring for a year and half before becoming disillusioned with the situation. I'm currently on hiatus from that commitment. I worked on a few political campaigns when I was younger, and of course, without really trying, I've also found my way into a myriad of music-related volunteer opportunities over the years, including teaching free lessons, and working on a pledge drive for a local radio station. For the last few months, I've merely been pondering my options. What I'd really like to do is start an organization of musicians who come together once a month or so to descend upon a particularly worthy day-long volunteer opportunity that requires many people. I can already think of several obstacles to such a project, but I think it's worth exploring anyway. We'll see.

Stefan Kac said...

I would also say that a "concrete function" for music is merely an artistic box by another name. If you are a musician and you happen to be content living in one such particular artistic box, then you will likely have a long, happy and lucrative career as a musician. In my defense, I would say that I am acutely unhappy living in the music-as-service box because (1) I believe that the efficacy of these efforts is grossly overstated, and (2) the terms and conditions imposed therein lead rather predictably to the creation of music which I simply can't stand. If just one of either of those things was true, I'd most likely sign up; taken together though, it's too strong a deterrent. I don't think that necessarily makes me a bad person, but without undertaking some more selfless endeavor at some point, it certainly leaves me without any reason to say that I left the world a better place than I found it. Musicians seem universally convinced that they can accomplish this simply by doing what they would be doing anyway, and that if it doesn't seem that way at the time, it surely will after they're dead. I believe very strongly in my work, but I simply am not willing to go that far, not willing to bet a clean conscience that what I play and write to make myself happy will have the same profound impact on everyone else. I think that musicians as a group are too thoroughly convinced of their own transcendence, partly because they're constantly told so by the advocacy groups who base their entire platform on extrinsic factors. I've chosen to be happy and live outside the music-as-service box, which means that the music I play and write is dictated by aesthetic factors, not the non-aesthetic social or political ones that comprise the afore mentioned boxes. That's what's necessary for me to be happy.

Your first question is a question I've asked myself many times, and in fact is THE question that led me to write this essay in the first place. The short answer is that I have so much fun playing and writing music that I simply can't help doing it. Even though I can reason my way intellectually into believing that I ought to spend more time doing something else (i.e. service), music is too seductive to me to allow for that intent to be fulfilled the way I would like it to. I'm moderately proud of how I've lived my extra-musical life, if slightly less proud that I haven't done as much "real" service as I should have, but whether or not my condition is worth lamenting, there's no doubt that it's chronic.

Stefan Kac said...

Like anyone else, I periodically get disillusioned with my career, I get frustrated with the people I work with, whom I have to depend on to realize most of my ideas, and I have other academic interests that I could still decide pursue and happily make a second career of. All of that notwithstanding, though, once I have a chance to take a step back, get away from all the external factors that I can't control, and simply focus on doing what I want to, I'm incredibly happy and content, and I realize that I can't ever be either without continuing down the same path.

What prevents me from enjoying myself is when I have to play or write something that someone else wants me to play or write rather than what I want to play or write. Suffice it to say that the vast majority of the music I've written and the music I'm interested in playing and listening to is music that has not exactly been embraced as fulfilling any of the extrinsic benefits that advocacy groups have made into the centerpieces of their platforms. Put another way, those platforms do not advocate for all music equally (nor should they or can they), and so I reject them because they merely create an objective framework for dismissing the music I'm interested in on the grounds it doesn't lend itself to music-oriented service or outreach activities. That should not be our criteria for what's worth listening to, or even what gets funded; those criteria should be aesthetic, not political. That, however, is generally not the case, and so I got off the boat.

Furthermore, even if certain extrinsic benefits were proven valid, I still wouldn't trust musicians as far as could throw them. Music-as-service simply does not resonate with me because given my experiences, I simply can't bring myself to look at musicians as a group as somehow being more noble, more selfless, more service-oriented than any other group in society. Frankly, they look a lot worse in precisely these ways than do many other groups, and as long as there's a dangling carrot, a conflict of interest, a grant or a public relations coup lurking on the other side of that service opportunity, musicians will likely continue to play for both sides, and if that is the case, this will continue to be my opinion. I guess familiarity breeds contempt. I'm selfish in a lot of the same ways, but through outlets such as this one, I'm trying to be honest about it, trying to understand it so that I might not let it become a more acute vice, and trying to get people to talk about it more. I myself haven't exactly lived by the letter of this essay, but this became such a nagging issue that I simply had to say what I said, and I'm holding out hope that saying it might in some small way itself be an act of service to musicians and non-musicians alike. Again, we'll just have to see.