The Third International after Lenin

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Marxist view of classical music


Classical Music and the Working Class

In my last post on Iannis Xenakis I wrote,

the city of Toronto should continue to spend tax payer dollars on subsidizing the TSO’s activities and should in fact increase their support to reduce the need for corporate sponsorship. I do not agree with those on the Left who would argue that classical music was not, is not and cannot be working class music, and think that the increasing level of alienation that some sections of the working class feels towards classical music has partly been due to the deliberate production of class differences within the sphere of cultural production through the dismantling of rigorous arts education in public schools, the pricing of tickets because of corporate sponsorship and lack of government patronage etc, but this is a topic for another post.

I would like to pursue this topic and discuss it more thoroughly, although of course this is not a final word on any of these matters, and why I think that a revolutionary politics should be interested in contemporary avant-garde classical music. I would like to start by agreeing that there is indeed a snobbishness that often pervades Euro-American classical music audiences, contemporary or otherwise, and venues in North America (I will not repeat this term again in this post but I would like my audience to note that all of my comments are are simply supposed to reflect generalized trends applicable only to North America as I think that other places in the world have very different relations to Euro-American classical music and their own national classical music and I am not familiar with these relationships). Also, I agree that any distinction between “high” and “low” culture is unnecessary and elitist, although I think that we need to still distinguish between “art” and “entertainment” (more on this later, but for now I would like to make it clear that “art” and “entertainment” do not simply map onto “high” and “low” culture and are thus not synonyms). Furthermore, it is not controversial to argue that audiences for classical music tend to be older and more affluent people. Additionally, concerts tend to be predominately white, although a very large section of the audience are also racialized. However, I do not think that this means that classical music can be simply dismissed as being the music of “dead white rich men”. One final prefatory comment is that I would like to remind my audience that many notable works of classical music have entered into general musical circulation such as Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, Pachelberl’s “Canon in D Major” (American seniors probably best know it as the “graduation song”), and a wide variety of other compositions by Beethoven, Mozart etc. This cross-genre influence has continued into the 20th and 21st century with famous directors like Stanley Kubrick using compositions by Ligeti, Bartok and Penderecki in their films. People may not know the names of either the composer or the composition, but are more than happy and capable to hum a few bars.

It has become commonplace by many in the culture industry to establish a firm boundary between “high” and “low” culture, and “art” and “entertainment”. Furthermore, all of these terms are heavily loaded as “high” culture and “art” have become synonymous with one another and signify to the audience that what is forthcoming is boring, dull and upper-class (economic category), whereas “low” culture and “entertainment” is fun, exciting and for the “working classes” (economic category). I would like to suggest that there is little necessarily in common between “high” culture and “art”, and “low” culture and “entertainment”. Indeed, music like hip-hop can easily straddle both categories of “art” and “entertainment” (and in the hands of rappers like 2Pac was able to effectively bridge the divide between “art” and “entertainment”, a binary that is by no means stable, and how can we forget Bartok’s attempts to use themes from popular folk melodies in his own compositions) regardless of its supposed categorization as “low” culture, as can classical music (indeed, it is interesting how the distinction between “art” and “entertainment” is not sustained in most layperson discussions of classical music as if classical music and “art” were synonymous terms, and that there isn’t classical music that is simply entertaining and not art which of course is not true).

Now I know that there may be some who bristle at the argument that classical music is also working class music from both a left-wing and right-wing perspective. Those on the right would try to use the reified notions of “high” culture as a means by which to disparage any working class influence or input into classical music, and would likely argue that the working classes need to emerge from their gutters and understand classical music if to better themselves (a typical Fabian argument). Whereas, the left-wing argument either pivots on a similar distancing of classical music from working class culture (a way by which to allow for an insidious valorization “entertainment” as working class culture and is a great disservice to the working classes as it attempts to hide and disown their own historical accomplishments, indeed, I would suggest such leftists are actually in fact doing the work of the ruling classes by reifying certain elitist stereotypes of the working class) or the argument that classical music may have been working class, but it no longer is. I do not wish to provide little historical biographies of composers through out the ages who have been from the working classes, nor do I want to discuss the attendance of the working classes at concert halls for classical music as I think both are not controversial facts and can be easily verified by a cursory wikipedia search. Rather, I wish to address the second aspect of the leftist argument that classical music may have been working class culture in the past, but since the 20th century has ceased to be working class music.

It cannot be denied that the working classes have slowly ceased to be the largest sections of classical music audiences. This is to do in part with changes in tastes, which itself is the result of a changing social formations (and includes as I mentioned earlier the active dismantling of rigorous arts education in public schools due to smaller school budgets which thus robs children a system of reference by which to enjoy classical music unless their parents provide it for them) and the time and attention one has to listen to a given piece (this of course has to do with the relationship between pressures of the working day and the need to fill ‘downtime’ with mindless ‘entertainment’), but also due to the elitism that has pervaded classical music in the 20th century circles. Greater experimentation to the form and content of classical music itself has engendered an elitism, especially due to the fact that for many the system of reference has been destroyed due to a sub-par arts education curriculum which makes any such experimentation completely alien (it must be noted that large sections of the ruling classes themselves have attacked these developments and have decried contemporary classical music as not “music” and would prefer to simply listen to romantic music till the end of time). The most famous case of course has been the alienation caused by atonal, twelve-tone, aleatory etc. music (although again one cannot but deny the crossover, for example the influence of Steve Reich’s minimalist compositions on popular post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor). Furthermore, we must ask whether simply being experimental and avant-garde (which is simply the French word for vanguard – something that all Leftists are consciously or unconsciously trying to build) is anti-working class, or is it like Marxism, something that has been maligned, misunderstood etc and that requires a rebuilding of “capacity” in the working class and a rebuilding of the working class itself (both in their own systems of reference, but also the reconstruction of a working class life that gives one time to actually listen to 15 minute movements etc. In the last few years the “slow food” movement has tried to do something similar with food production and consumption). I answer a loud and resounding “NO!” to the first question, and “YES!” to the latter. We must remember that the role of any revolutionary project is to break down the division between “mental” and “manual” labor and thus, the working classes must be allowed the opportunities to actually engage in “mental” labor. The conventional Marxist argument has been that the “mental” labor of the working classes must be in the factories, so workers should be allowed greater input in the production process, however, I think that the working classes should also be given the capacity and time to “mentally” labor over art itself and that includes contemporary classical music. Does that mean that they have to think that the working classes have to love aleatory contemporary classical music? No. But the reason for their dislike cannot, and should not, simply be because they have been told by the ruling classes that this is not for them and that they should leave such art criticism to some stuffy old man with a PhD.

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