11 November 2014

Reports of My Demise (ix)

I recall countless high school classes where I sketched compositions during time allotted for a head start on that evening's devoirs. After noting their reticence to intervene, I began silently daring my teachers to reprimand their best student for being off task. I am convinced, however, that status had far less to do with their complicity than did my choice of something as intellectual, esoteric, and over-romanticized as handmade lines-and-dots music. Perhaps on a more practical level my demonstrated ability to lap the field academically without being given extra time to finish my homework had something to do with it too. In any case, by the time it wasn't cute anymore, I was an adult and a college graduate. And man, was it ever not cute anymore. Plastic turns to Cardboard in a hurry for those of us given to intellectual, esoteric, over-romanticized pursuits.

There is a similar reticence that prevails out in the liberal bourgie world, where relativism-as-social-grace acts as a filter and no one wants to be the first to tell you quite so baldly that "Improvising Tuba Player" is not a real job. There is in addition, as I touched upon early on in this series, the lovingly crafted, overdetermined, eminently socially and academically respectable path of university music study. And indeed, not only was I myself almost impossibly meritorious in this academic arena, but my particular mancessory, the tuba, is typically so difficult to recruit that my undergrad school picked up virtually the entire tab for my studies there. And so I left behind high-powered academics in one fell swoop to become a student-athlete of sorts, privy to none of the social perks while suffering from many of the same drawbacks, namely an intellectually stilted curriculum and profoundly limited employment prospects post-graduation. Had I not concurrently taken a student job with the campus security department at a time of rapid post-9/11 growth in both the public and private security sectors, who knows how I would have supported myself in the interim. Indeed, this led me to make yet another statistical contribution to Hanna Rosin's work: I am a college graduate, and now a graduate degree holder, who has never held a job that requires a post-secondary education.

Even having excelled at my course of study and having managed to remain blissfully free from the crushing debt faced by most of my peers, I less launched myself into the real world than did an epic faceplant in its lap. Certainly my timing could not have been worse: an historical recession was on the horizon and, in related news, Western art music had never been less marketable. I don't deny, however, that my distinctively male unwillingness to "adapt" has profoundly shaped this leg of my journey as well. This series of posts has been devoted largely to defending that posture and to enumerating its potentially broader, gender-neutral social utility.

Most of the people I have known who are making a real living as musicians are not the best musicians. Some of them are quite far from it. What distinguishes them, in my experience, is their willingness to do just about anything to achieve this. They will play, teach, and quite frankly, say anything they have to, walking right up to the line between ethical and unethical behavior, and in occasional cases crossing ever so slightly over to the other side. There is, meanwhile, a small collection of people I can count on one hand who are even more uncompromising and sensitive to issues of honesty than I am, who have strongly influenced the way I go about my own business, whose work I find unusually compelling, and who, like me, have generally had a much tougher time of it.

I know, I know, you've heard the art-versus-commerce whine-fest before and you're not too keen on rehashing it through the eyes of a latent mancessionist. If you insist on more excitement, I defy you once again to ponder the deep, dark questions lurking all around this old trope as the (un)willingness to compromise enters popular discourse as a decidedly gendered concern.

The gendering of compromise is a central theme of Rosin's The End of Men. It is a maneuver which holds up quite nicely in the polite company she evidently keeps. The Arts are in this way, though, a far less polite domain, which is why there's no trace of a Maria Schneider, Ingrid Jensen, or Nicole Mitchell anywhere to be found here. How naively parochial and presumptuous such a list is when we're talking about mainstream journalism for mainstream readers; but for me, working in a field where such remarkable women are still breaking ground, it's hard to ignore their being ignored.

In the place they might have occupied, we are of course left with that fleeting, threadbare caricature of a hyper-bourgeois "creative class" of mercenary consultants and entertainment industry frill-mongers, proxies for more substantive notions of creativity and insults to the aesthetic risk-takers who anonymously feed the machine from below. Rosin must understand that creativity and compromise are, if not truly anathema, then at least strange bedfellows, which is why she forgoes meaningful engagement with the kind of art and artists that, wittingly or otherwise, challenge bourgeois values. She sticks instead to an investigation of the new "Plastic Woman" (7) who is "nurturing" (124), "approachable and consumer responsive" (135), "more nimble and responsive to trends." (248) These are above all women who "tend to respond to social cues and bend their personalities to fit in what the times allow," (191) all while demonstrating "the willingness to adapt and bend to a fast-changing economic landscape." (270)

As I encountered each of these turns of phrase for the first time, I was constantly reminded of a paper by Gordon Downie which I had dug up for a prior research project:

With the expansion of free-market neo-liberalization in the form of Thatcherite and Reaganite economics...those performance measures associated with commodity form and behavior have spread to encompass not only public sector services such as health care, utilities, infrastructure, and education, but also cultural provision and production...

...any organization or individual seeking to maximize their strategic advantage in society will be required to adopt those behaviors that are congruent with those metrics of performance associated with marketization and commodity form. Phrases such as "selling yourself" and "making the right impression" point to a process that seeks the extension of the commodity form away from material artifacts and goods to soft services and interpersonal behavior profiling. (197)

'Cultural Production as Self-Surveillance: Making the Right Impression.' Perspectives of New Music 46. 1 (Winter 2008)

At some point in the not-so-distant past, the phrase "Well-behaved women rarely make history" achieved that certain critical mass required to find its way onto a popular bumper sticker. In those terms, the most disturbing aspect of Rosin's Plastic Woman is what a well-behaved capitalist she is. Of course, the key takeaway from The End of Men is that the world we now live in seems keen on rewarding these characteristics to a greater degree than ever before, rendering that bumper sticker a tad bit miscalibrated and odiously vengeful. And yet, anyone who has been shopping for something other than groceries has seen what "the extension of the commodity form away from material artifacts and goods to soft services and interpersonal behavior profiling" looks and feels like. I for one certainly have seen it. Perhaps I have a tad bit more empathy for these workers than the average Cardboard Man, or perhaps I have a raging case of corrugation myself since I just don't like to shop all that much, but generally this is a condition that breaks my heart and my spirit in equal measure. These are the ultimate mediated men and women, and they do not seem to be the least bit happy having been tasked with concealing their employers' criminality beneath parade smiles and complimentary bottles of spring water.

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