Responses have been rolling in from across the blogosphere to Richard Taruskin’s epic New Republic assault on classical music chauvinism, and now that his detractors have had the opportunity to state their objections let’s take a look at the criticisms and see what to make of them. Before I begin, I should say that I loved the piece””Taruskin made many of the same arguments I’ve been making for years, but with more depth and more academic rigor. To be fair, I haven’t read the books he critiques, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of his specific objections””it’s the more general philosophical approach to the issues that I’m praising.
The first and most legitimate objection is to Taruskin’s tone. Personally, I enjoy righteous vitriol, but I recognize that many others don’t and that adopting such a tone can often undermine one’s credibility, especially with the audience that is the most in need of persuasion. Matthew Guerrieri has a valid objection that Taruskin’s “points are eminently worth making””but they’re drowned out by the irresistable lure of the lapidary put-down.” It’s also fair to question whether hurling insults at the three authors is fair””again, I haven’t read the books, but I would guess that they were written by good people who were making a good-faith effort even if that effort was misguided. (The counterargument here might be that those authors opened the door to personal attacks when they themselves claimed a moral high ground over popular culture.)
While we’re considering the appropriateness of Taruskin’s tone, we should also recognize that the forum for this article was a centrist political magazine that thrives on creating controversy, and that we in the classical music blogosphere are not the intended audience””an intellectual-yet-shrill assault on academic elitism is likely much more emotionally relevant to the New Republic readership than would be the more dispassionate, wonky style that Taruskin’s critics in the classical blogosphere would prefer. I would further speculate that the New Republic readership is likely to skew towards people who are predisposed to agree with Taruskin’s position but who haven’t ever spent much time thinking about the subject. The fact that TNR doesn’t publish much classical music coverage but devoted so much space to this piece seems to suggest that the editors were thinking the same thing when they bought the piece. Obviously if you think that his tone was somehow morally or ethically problematic this argument about context is irrelevant, but for those who are concerned about tactics it’s worth considering.
The next category of objection is amounts to “he’s kinda right, but why spend so much time on such a trivial issue.” Marc Geelhoed:
“. . .He argues in favor, or at least tacit approval, of “˜accommodation,’ to the vagaries of the marketplace. This is, he rightly states, “˜a normal part of the evolutionary history of any art.’ Today, that accommodation takes the form of, say, Jennifer Higdon getting a commission ahead of Marco Stroppa, the Italian modernist. But, and this is the important part that gets left out of these discussions every single time, the pie takes in concert life on four continents, and is big enough for both to take a bite out of it. The accommodation he’s talking about isn’t a black/white, either/or scenario, given the number of performers and institutions out there. The best will win out in every style. Yet Taruskin devotes his mental energy not to this phenomena, but decrying the efforts of three writers with extraordinarily small readerships. . . I keep wishing that we could just drop The Death of Classical Music, a hyperbolic idea which appears to be deathless itself. We’ve now moved on to the third iteration of this argument, the criticism of those who wish to save it. Can’t we just play the music, let the marketers attract them any way they can, let the critics write about their enthusiasms, and move on? The defense of classical music will persuade no one, because you can’t argue in favor of art. . . The only way to persuade people to listen to classical music is to have them listen to classical music. . . Classical music doesn’t need saving from its devotees, it just needs curious people, like Taruskin was once, who will take a chance on something they haven’t heard before, and who then discover something they cannot live without.”
Marc has some good observations here, but unfortunately I think he also misses the point. This isn’t about “three writers with extraordinarily small readership,” it’s about three writers whose books make explicit the underlying attitudes of a substantial segment of the classical music industry. The problem is that we often mistake the “Death of Classical Music” as an unconvincing argument that certain facts and statistics about the industry are true, when in fact it’s a frame through which to view a set of facts the pretty much everybody agrees on.
For example: Back in April, Alex Ross posted a rebuttal to Martin Kettle’s statement (reviewing Norman Lebrecht) in The Guardian that “The only dispute about classical recording is whether it is dying or dead.” Alex observed that while 8.88 million classical CDs shipped in 1990, 16.9 million classical CDs shipped in 2005; in November 1988, Gramophone listed 284 new classical CD releases, and in March 2007 they listed 401; the 1988 list had 26 labels represented, and the 2007 list had about 160. His conclusion: “The major labels are much smaller than they used to be. But classical recording is bigger than ever.” But Alex also notes that the percentage of classical CDs shipped in 2005 was 2.5, as compared with 3.1% in 1988. This all tells a pretty clear story””classical music recording used to be a big, mainstream industry run by big, mainstream record labels, presumably for a big, mainstream audience, but it has shifted out of the mainstream into a healthy subculture. This is what Taruskin would call “accommodation,” and I agree with Alex that it’s a perfectly healthy change. But if you believe that classical music is inherently superior to popular music and that by virtue of its superiority it deserves a position of cultural dominance, these same figures and this same story is a harbinger of death not just of classical recording but of our culture more generally. Note how Kettle ends his review:
“The recorded era fostered unprecedented levels of literacy and popularity for classical music. The means of exchange for this wholly beneficial and desirable process was the recording. Now that means of exchange is on the verge of disappearing altogether. You would have to be very brave indeed to argue that civilisation is the gainer, not the loser.”
This is a mild form of what Taruskin refers to as “imprecations and exhortations.”
The “Death of Classical Music” crowd is proposing a particular framing of a particular set of actual social and economic circumstances that form the ecosystem in which the industry lives. That ecosystem exists, whether we’re happy about it or not, and the industry has to figure out how to adapt. The chauvinist and anti-chauvinist viewpoints on how to operate in the new ecosystem are diametrically opposed, and are fighting it out. When the chauvinists succeed in reinforcing the “classical music is superior” narrative, we anti-chauvinists see it as exacerbating the marketing problem that the public doesn’t like elitists. When the anti-chauvinists argue that classical music isn’t inherently any better than popular music, the chauvinists see it as undermining their ability to leverage the “superiority” of classical music into increased funding and cultural relevance. Contra Marc Geelhoed, Taruskin’s piece isn’t “the criticism of those who wish to save” classical music; it’s an argument that the philosophical foundation of classical music chauvinism is cracked.
In the course of his arguments, Taruskin makes a set of moral judgments about the moral judgments of the chauvinists, and various critics accuse him of hypocrisy. Matthew Guerrieri comes closest to landing the punch:
“Taruskin coruscates Johnson: “˜To cast aesthetic preferences as moral choices at the dawn of the twenty-first century is an obscenity.’ But Taruskin, of course, is doing just that, saying that if you derive pleasure via a Hoffmann-esque aesthetic philosophy, you’re headed down the same road to perdition that Wagner took. “˜Belief in [classical music's] indispensability, or in its cultural superiority, is by now unrecoverable,’ Taruskin states, “˜and those who mount such arguments on its behalf morally indict themselves.’ First of all, a belief is not an argument, and second of all, doesn’t that belief constitute an aesthetic preference? Certainly some pleasures are morally reprehensible, but that means that other pleasures (even if just the pleasure of avoiding the morally reprehensible) are, by comparison, morally advantageous. Taruskin wants it both ways. . .”
If I understand Taruskin correctly””and I should admit that I’m parsing his words pretty finely””he is making a careful distinction between aesthetic pleasure and belief, and Matthew is conflating the two. The distinction, and here I’m moving into my own analysis rather than a direct interpretation of Taruskin, is that deriving aesthetic pleasure from a belief is acceptable even if that belief itself is morally problematic. We have very little control over what we find pleasurable, but we can analyze and change our beliefs. Johnson’s problem isn’t that he takes pleasure in elitism, it’s that he believes his elitism is justified and that his aesthetic preference is a moral choice. Take racist jokes as a structurally similar (but morally nonequivalent) example: there’s nothing wrong with finding a racist joke funny””I know a number of terrible-yet-funny racist jokes””the problem is if you believe the premise on which the joke is based. In fact, there’s a whole industry of comedians (Lisa Lampanelli, for instance) who make their living telling racist jokes but who can get away with it because they also make it clear that they are not themselves racist. While it’s true that our aesthetics often blind our powers of reason and effect out beliefs, belief does not in itself “constitute an aesthetic preference.” In fact I hold some beliefs that I find aesthetically inferior to the alternative. (I find the idea of a closed universe that will collapse back on itself much more aesthetically pleasing than the currently accepted model that the universe will keep expanding infinitely.) The problem, then, isn’t whether you “derive pleasure via a Hoffmann-esque aesthetic philosophy,” it’s whether you believe in that philosophy.
Several people also mistake Taruskin’s raising of Wagner’s anti-Semitism as an attempt at guilt by association, but I think a closer reading shows that he is merely making a structural analogy. Wagner uses his belief in his racial superiority, which he believes gives him aesthetic authority, as a premise for demeaning the generalized, essentialized aesthetic preferences of a group he deems racially inferior. Classical music chauvinists use their belief in their intellectual or cultural superiority, which they believe give them aesthetic authority, as a premise for demeaning the generalized, essentialized aesthetic preferences of a group they deem inferior of intellect or culture. This is what I believe Taruskin meant, and if my analysis is correct then I agree with him, but in truth his language is unclear enough that I can’t be completely certain I’m not being too generous. Saying that what makes Johnson’s “rant especially awful. . . is its resonance with the most bigoted of all texts about music” certainly suggests a moral equivalence, but of course faulty reasoning is no worse for having historically been used to support horrible claims.
Let us move on, finally, to A.C. Douglas, whose take on the Taruskin article was, I must admit, considerably more nuanced than I would have given him credit for. Douglas says:
“Taruskin’s notion that some of classical music’s greatest enemies are to be found among its devotees; specifically those who argue for the worth and value of classical music in terms moralistic, character-building, or utilitarian: he’s right. Such champions of classical music need to have their kneecaps broken (figuratively speaking, of course). Any argument for the worth or value of classical music along any of those lines is not only imbecile but destructively wrongheaded and entirely in error. There’s zero moral anything involved with one’s listening preference for classical music or the popular sort, nor will listening to classical music make of one a better person and citizen, and listening to popular music, a reprobate. And arguments along utilitarian lines miss the point altogether and cannot help but obscure the issue in an almost impenetrable cloud of irrelevance.”
He’s quite right, and I owe him an apology for assuming that he believed some of those things. But then he goes wrong (I’m excising the discussion of indispensability because the term is simply too vague to effectively engage.):
“Is Taruskin saying here that classical music is not . . . culturally superior to other musics? . . . Taruskin is on shaky ground, I think, and, further, is guilty of a tendentious disingenuousness into the bargain simply to win an instant point. To argue that classical music is not culturally superior to other musics but is merely their cultural equal is tantamount to arguing that, for instance, the culture of, say, some obscure African tribe barely out of the Stone Age is the equal of our present Western culture; an argument that would be attempted in earnest only by the most rabidly loony multiculturalist. [ACD clarifies in a footnote that by "˜culture' he means "˜the intellectual side of civilization,' if that makes the statement any better.] . . . For the author of The Oxford History of Western Music to be guilty of making such arguments “” if that in fact is what Taruskin is doing here “” is simply reprehensible, and I would have thought unthinkable.”
I have my own, related question about Taruskin’s meaning when he says:
“Contention swirls not around the question of whether there is such a thing as quality, but around the question of how–and, especially, by whom–it is to be defined.”
Fundamentally, these are questions of epistemology, and there are approximately three possible answers. First, there’s no such thing as objectively superior music. Second, there is such a thing, but we don’t have access to the criteria, and it seems unlikely that whole genres of music can be classified as superior to other genres. Third, there is objectively superior music and classical music is a superior genre, but we haven’t found a good way to prove it so we should keep looking. I’m saying the first, and A.C. Douglas seems to be saying the third. My guess is that Taruskin is saying the second, but I’m not certain.
A.C. Douglas seems to be saying that classical music is objectively superior, but that its superiority doesn’t have any implications for the morality of aesthetics. On the other hand, he finds “reprehensible” any claims that classical music is not superior. So the lesson is “I don’t care what you like, as long as you admit that the thing that you like is inferior to the thing that I like.” His position is reminiscent of Babbitt’s in “The Composer As Specialist,” although I’m not familiar enough with his writing to know whether he joins Babbitt in trying to use those claims of superiority to demand funding. (If he does, then Taruskin probably has some harsh words for him.) The problem is that while he avoids the pitfall of moralizing about aesthetic preferences, he still makes moral judgments about people’s failure to toe his line on objective quality while not offering an answer to ” the question of how–and, especially, by whom””[quality] is to be defined.”
So, ultimately, how relevant are these issues, anyway? Unfortunately, quite relevant. It’s easy enough to stumble across variations on the themes Taruskin addresses that I happened upon an egregious example just yesterday during my morning stop at ArtsJournal.com, so I leave you with the following quote from a piece in the November 6 edition of The Guardian. Hilary Davan Wetton doesn’t much like BBC2′s “Classical Star”:
“At the heart of the programme lies a fallacy. Most commercial music has so little substance that it is inevitably more about the performer’s personality than anything else. This is not true of classical music, which requires the performer to be the servant of the composer. A classical musician should want the audience to leave the hall thinking of the composer first, the performer second. Of course, to give a great performance requires great talent and a strong musical personality, but these are at the service of the music, not the other way round.”
Watch out, somebody’s hurling imprecations and exhortations!