13 April 2013

The Social Network as Anti-Aesthetic

It is in one sense quite odd to me, and in another not at all, that the prescription for musicians to make friends with their audience tends to go unremarked upon from a critical perspective. It wasn't that long ago that the composerly world was rocked, riven, scandalized, some would say self-imploded by the suggestion that writing music only for other specialists was a good idea. I myself have never thought it was a particularly good idea, but I will tell you why a Babbitt-ian audience comprised exclusively of colleagues appeals to me more than one comprised exclusively of friends. (They are both, it bears mentioning, social networks, which points to the absurdity of privileging one so decisively over the other.)

The socially networked audience theory takes the hackneyed pop-cultural adage that true friends are the ones who tell you the truth even when it hurts and turns it on its head. Instead, you now must make friends with as many potential listeners as possible in order to insulate yourself from judgment, since your friends will never tell you what they really think of your music as long as your show makes for a good hang. But of course these must be your true friends, since they make time to come to your shows, hence allowing you to have a career, perhaps even to make a living.

I see this dynamic as the dark matter lurking unseen behind the more visible movement, especially within the contemporary art world, towards post/anti-aesthetic art. Musicians, especially the kind most inclined toward what I am calling the socially networked audience theory, seem to me to be as a group still very much interested in aesthetics, at least as far as how their work is made. Music being "the social art," as some have called it, our "anti-aesthetic" takes hold in the public presentation of our work instead of (perhaps despite) its mode of conception.

There is also a distinctly meritocractic tinge to all of this. (And make no mistake, meritocracy is a whole category of anti-aesthetic unto itself.) Whereas the opportunity to become an aesthetic success has historically been tied to privilege (leisure time for taking up music and the money to pay for instruments and instruction), it seems more in keeping with good American values that the people with the most friends should have the privilege of making art for a living, since this would suggest that they are far more legitimately meritorious than those who had the good fortune of being born into money, and perhaps even more so than those who fought their way into music without the benefits of privilege, since a lot of those people, though we respect the heck out of them for their dedication, are jerks nonetheless.

“Overdetermination,” says the Encyclopedia of Postmodernism, "comes closer to its postmodern connotation when Althusser, a Marxist philosopher, borrows the term to describe the complex whole of a social formation as it is constituted by a multiplicity of determining contradictions." Sorry for going there, Modernists, but doesn't that describe the socially networked audience theory pretty well? In a closed musical culture with a high degree of aesthetic consensus, friends and family hardly count for an audience any more than they do for references on a job application. Conversely, in a fragmented, postmodern musical culture where one has the freedom to make and consume any of a number of different kinds of music, they do not merely become the core of one's audience by default, but in fact (and this is where you can practically smell the overdetermination) they are vociferously annointed as the necessary core of one's audience by the most prominent tastemakers and cultural theorists in the musical profession itself, the only explanation being "The world has changed! Don't be left behind!"

There is a too-obvious, if not entirely incorrect, interpretation to be made here, namely that as times have gotten tougher for musicians, we have merely stooped lower and lower just to get by, and that only once the downturn had touched everyone more or less equally (even the fat cats) did it become socially acceptable to avowedly rely on friends and family for an audience, and indeed to advocate openly for doing so from positions of respect and/or authority. If that were the whole story, however, I believe we would nonetheless detect no small amount of regret in these proclamations, and also that it would be malcontents like me more so than those occupying said "positions of respect and/or authority" who would be glumly relating our plight to an imaginary readership. What in fact we have are commentators in high places who, to the extent it is possible to ascertain as much through a written medium, can barely contain their glee.

Many (myself occasionally included) have lamented the low standing of the arts in contemporary American society. And yet the present discussion makes clear how destructive the ongoing excessive romanticization of the arts remains to the arts themselves. It is this romanticization which provides the elusive other half of the primary "determining contradiction" in the social pathway to a post/anti-aesthetic. Or, in plain English, we recognize that art is in one sense a right and in another a privilege. The socially networked audience theory is one futile attempt among many to square these two realizations with each other when in fact both are permanent and irreconcilable, a good old fashioned dialectic which the postmodern revolution only thinks it has resolved.

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