This week I read two essays, lent to me by one of my best friends (he’s not a composer, but he’s a very talented listener): Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and Theodor Adorno’s “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening.” Upon first read, I was slightly annoyed by both essays, since it seemed like both writers were taking fairly simple concepts and using extremely verbose language to tell you things any composer could’ve told you. Funny how easy it is to dismiss critical writing when you’re tired and don’t want to read the big words, and get mad that critics can’t state their ideas in plain English (which, I guess, makes sense because they were writing German). The second and third reads were more fruitful. Since I have only just read the essays, and not any modern responses or criticisms to them, I won’t offer too much of my own opinion in order to avoid the risk of redundantly repeating someone else’s critique.
Theo and Walt both have really interesting ways of analyzing the sociology of art with Marxist ideas. Walter Benjamin is describing a theory of art that says, in the absence of any traditional, ritualistic value, art in the age of mechanical reproduction may be “useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.” Benjamin backs up his theory with some unnecessary, prefatory rhapsodizing about vague characteristics of ideal art, like upholding “aura” (“changes in the medium of contemporary perception can be comprehended as decay of the aura…we define the aura of [natural objects] as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be”) and authenticity (“the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity”). The rest of the essay was mostly a critique of film, which was fascinating, but not about music—except for the discussion of how film creates a passive, absent-minded viewer, which Adorno later applies to music.
Theodor Adorno is worried that consumerism has made art lose its potential for being revolutionary and for ultimately provoking the imagination. He touches on critiques about the irreconcilable differences between high and low music that any stodgy old teacher could’ve eschewed, but he gets there by using dense language about the “power of the banal” and “reification” and the “dialectical in music.” So, now you can impress your friends with some of the phrases from Theo’s Dictionary that describe things you probably already knew:
Commodity fetishism: Capitalism has turned music into commodity, something to which the consumer has irrational emotional connections to. “[Success] is the mere reflection of what one pays in the market for the product. The consumer is really worshipping the money that he himself has paid for the ticket to the Toscanini concert. He has literally made the success which he reifies and accepts as an objective criterion, without recognizing himself in it. But he has not made it by liking the concert, but rather by buying the ticket,” “where they react at all, it no longer makes any difference whether it is to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony or to a bikini.”
Barbarism of perfection: Apparently a phrase of Eduard Steuermann, where “the new fetish is the flawlessly functioning, metallically brilliant apparatus as such, in which all the cogwheels mesh so perfectly that not the slightest hole remains open for the meaning of the whole.” Meaning that you buy a ticket to a concert to hear a piece presented flawlessly, exactly as it sounds on the record.
The regression of listening: Theo calls popular music “prescribed pleasure,” and argues that the fetishism surrounding this dumbing-down of music represents a large-scale sociological music retardation. “Even the most insensitive hit song enthusiast cannot always escape the feeling that the child with a sweet tooth comes to know in the candy store.”
Grappling with Adorno’s text was a fun experience. I think he was a little unnecessarily harsh on jazz, radio, arrangers, and jazz enthusiasts. I also think he has nostalgia for some sort of ideal pre-capitalist past where the average listener has the perfect music education, which I’m not entirely sure is entirely historically accurate. His ideas about the liquidation of the individual, and the “cult of personality” reminded me of this British documentary series by Adam Curtis, “The Century of the Self”.
What do you think about Walty and Theo? Are they on to something or are they just into themselves? Do you think these old articles apply to contemporary music sociology and, if so, isn’t it kind of sad how slowly capitalism progresses?