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.

11 April 2013

When We Listen To How Much of What, and Why

"...but would you rather listen to Bach or Vivaldi after a long day at work?"

Um...is this a trick question?

My name is Stefan and I have a problem. I listen the most to the music that is most important to me. Parties are not welcome respites from talking about music, but in fact welcome opportunities to talk about the music I really want to talk about. I've been known to "chill" at the end of a long day with my friends Shostakovich and Lutoslawski. Like everyone else, when I have leisure time, I do what I want; unlike everyone else, what I want to do most of the time is hear/read/write/contemplate that which gives my life purpose.

I'm struck by some recent comments and events here at school implying that there's something wrong or unusual about this. It's not the first time, but it still gets under my skin. If you almost never listen to a style of music, it is not "important" to you, no matter what you say. If certain "heavy" composers are set aside only for special occasions and rare states of consciousness, those are not your favorite composers, no matter what you say. The music that is important to you is your daily nourishment, not a delicacy to be ascetically reserved for special occasions. The things in life that are important to you are the things you confide in your friends, not those which you hide from them for fear of coming off a square. (Or are they your friends after all?)

Everyone needs a break. Even I retreat to the basketball court or the Scrabble board from time to time. Maybe it'd be nice if the rest of y'all that I have to live and work with didn't look quite so eager to get away? Maybe just humor that guy at the party who won't leave music behind when he leaves campus? Be yourself, of course, but dare I say maybe don't be quite so openly proud for not being like that guy if you really think this is what you want to do with your life?

How peculiar this all looks to someone of my sensibilities, accustomed as I am to being bludgeoned over the head with the insistence that art and life must be joined at the hip; that Art without Culture is just gymnastics; that "making pretty things" for their own sake is merely an adolescent phase; that the most important thing about art is its social message; that beauty and craft are merely Trojan Horses, used by elitist ideologues to seduce, hypnotize and disenfranchise the common folk; that silly white musicians err in treating their sound as an external "artifact" where they might more properly seek a "voice"; that music "matters" because it makes kids smart; in other words, that autonomous art is degenerate art, specifically because "autonomy" means severing the work from all of the things which make it "relevant" (if not always "beautiful," which is of course is strictly optional).

Having thus shoehorned Art into Life, Life does the Dosey Do! What a drag! Of course you don't talk about anti-aesthetic art any more than you have to! Of course you need a break from it twice a day! Of course you put on something else when your friends are over! You made it to be life, but not your life! You made it to teach society a lesson you were born knowing! Let them sort out your dogpile while you enjoy your teeny-bop techno music and totally epic wall hangings! Real life is, like, totally important to who you are as an artist, but it's not like anyone is going to live it all the time!

One of my favorite ambiguous statements is one I first heard uttered earnestly: "The only reason to do music for a living is that you can't do anything else." I ask any musician reading this to stop for a moment and consider which, if either, sense of this statement applies to you.