S’wonderful Music? Maybe Last Year

S’wonderful Music? Maybe Last Year

“In a previous era, art was a realm beyond commodification, in which a certain freedom was still available; in late modernism, in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Culture Industry essay, there were still zones of art exempt from the commodifications of commercial culture (for them, essentially Hollywood). Surely what characterizes postmodernity in the cultural area is the supersession of everything outside of commercial culture, its absorption of all forms of art high and low, along with image production itself. The image is the commodity today, and that is why it is vain to expect a negation of the logic of commodity production from it, that is why, finally, all beauty today is meretricious and the appeal to it by contemporary pseudo-aestheticism is an ideological manoeuvre and not a creative resource.”

—from “Transformations of the Image in Postmodernity,” Fredric Jameson

It’s a bit deceptive to cherry-pick this passage from Jameson’s powerful essay (available in The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern 1983-1998, Verso, 1998) because it comes at the end of a lengthy evaluation of the current state of the beautiful/sublime dichotomy so important to large-R Romanticism. Accordingly, Jameson uses the word “beauty” to mean something very specific and circumscribed, something defined in part by its exclusion of the sublime, whose ascendance Jameson imputes to the modern era. But Jameson seems to be suggesting that what was sublime in the 1930s—Webern, for example—is now just beautiful, and that’s why we live in a qualitatively new and different milieu of cultural production.

This is a real quandary for composers—if you believe it’s true, that is. Do you? I think I’m convinced. What I like most about Jameson’s argument (which is laid out before the passage I’ve quoted) is that it’s based on economic and sociological observations rather than observations from the world of art; in other words, it’s externally verifiable. Someone asked me at dinner last night why it’s a completely different act to write tonal music today than to have written tonal music in 1820, and my response was that the world is different today than it was in 1820, and artists have taken up the gauntlet of responding to those changes in their work. But how do you respond to a change that constantly subsumes genuine art into decoration?

Anybody? Ideas?

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18 thoughts on “S’wonderful Music? Maybe Last Year

  1. philmusic

    The history of ideas, including critical ideas, run parallel to the history of art as all histories must.

    They may intersect, be in conflict, or even be at one at various times.

    Yet the trajectory of a artist and the critic are not the same. Nor is the relationship of artists to the prevalent ideas of the time the same either. Every composer, for example, has a different and unique relationship to the ideas of their time. They love them or hate them or ignore them or may even be ignorant of them.

    Its also true that the next new idea and critical outlook is just around the corner.

    Times do change. Then again the more they change the more they stay the same.

    Phil Fried

  2. William Osborne

    I think the Jameson quote touches on something Karl Marx wrote 160 years ago. He described the way capitalism can only exist through systematic obsolescense. It can never be stagnant, it must constantly open new markets through continually expanding access to natural resources and through ever-expanding technological methods. Profit lies in exploiting the new, and for good or bad, this leaves society in a constant state of change:

    “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. […] Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.”

    Around the middle of the 19th century bourgeoisie capitalism began to conceptualize art as a commodity. Art thus became historical, a rapidly decaying linear narrative, something essentially transitory and ephemeral. Art began to leave a form of historical detritus in its wake. Old art works became rarities that defined price, but the market of old works was limited.
    Only the new generates unlimited profits.

    Capitalism thus creates systematic obsolescence, which fuels the market in everything ranging from cars to art. Our existential condition in capitalistic society is to constantly be in flight from decay, and yet always rushing toward it. Our lives vanish into the detritus of time. Capitalism by necessity lives in a culture of detritus, and this defines our understanding of art.

    From this perspective, all that we have, and all around us, decays before our eyes, including our art. Our sense of fulfillment thus continually decays as well. This culture of obsolescence also creates a Marilyn Monroe Syndrome that extols youthfulness at the expense of age. Sound familiar in classical new music? And even more so in pop music?

    Systematic obsolescence by its nature defines human identity in terms of death. There is never an accepted culture, but only the detritus from which one might appear. We cannot define our culture, but only see our post-culture. We can never see who we are, but only what we were. To generate profit, every doorway opens to another doorway.

    In this liminal world created by the culture of detritus, human immortality is sought through extreme forms of objectification that create a counterposing culture of plasticization. A dialetic is created. Only plasticized cadavers become immortal.

    A counterview would be that sensible transformation represents growth and life experience. The fullest life is created by mastery of morphing. Grasping at life is pointless. You cannot grasp what is always ephemeral and changing. Artists play with transformation because it is the essential nature of life. Unfortunately, not all transformation generates a new market.

    My apologies for another long post.

    William Osborne

  3. Ken LaFave

    Thanks for posting the Jameson quote. As I read it, the passage addresses the fact that Capitalism (in its current stage) abandons any notion of an artwork’s quality outside its value as a commodity; all beauty becomes meretricious because it is merely and only a commodity.

    See the documentary film, “Who the BLEEP is Jackson Pollock?” In it, a truck driver who buys (for $5 at a junk shop) what is almost certainly a forgotten Pollock attempts unsuccessfully to persuade the art world her find is authentic. There is a scene both hilarious and dark in which a representative from Bear Stearns (!) says to the truckdriver, “If we could only find a signature on the painting, EVEN A FAKE ONE.” The painting is just a commodity; its authenticity as a Pollock, or its worth, for that matter, as a work of art no matter who painted it, are not important, only its value in dollars. In such a society, all artists are treated like whores.

  4. JimB

    The idea that the market has turned art into a commodity is itself just another point of view – and one that we don’t have to accept. We can just as easily go back to the Romantic opinion that art pulls us beyond distasteful mundane reality into a realm of Truth – thus the work of art can liberate you from the mercenary world that insists on treating that same work as a mere commodity.

    I’m not saying that the Romantic view is right,only that it is just as available to us as the postmodern view. Just because a work of art has become a commodity for you doesn’t mean it has to be one for me.

    When I read a passage like “that is why, finally, all beauty today is meretricious and the appeal to it by contemporary pseudo-aestheticism is an ideological manoeuvre and not a creative resource”, I have the same response as I do to magazine headlines like “Why We All Love George Clooney” — speak for yourself, Bubba.

  5. rtanaka

    There seems to be a lot of hate for commercial capitalism on this board, and to be fair, a lot of it is justified. But you have to consider that the most often used alternative to capitalism is feudalism, doing your art for the patronage of the purposes of the noble classes. Depending on where your funding is coming from, it can be just as restrictive as doing commercial work, if not more. You’re not likely going to find someone who’s going to fund your work unless they see some kind of return, which in the case of patronage, is usually politically motivated.

    There aren’t any easy answers. If you don’t want your art to be unadulterated by outside influences, it seems like working outside the music industry all together would be your best bet. That’s what Ives did — he largely went unrecognized throughout his lifetime but he was at least able to do whatever he wanted for his work.

  6. pgblu

    The alternative to capitalism is feudalism? If you say so.

    I think the Ives model is no longer possible today. Is it? Examples?

  7. tbriggs

    first of all, the idea that the market has turned art into a form of cultural commodity is – as colin pointed out – externally verifiable and has been thoroughly analyzed by many economists and sociologists throughout the 20th century. another great source is pierre bourdieu’s the field of cultural production. however, simply ignoring or rejecting the idea despite the evidence because it is unpleasant to think about is like claiming that climate change is not occurring. the more challenging – and, i would argue, responsible – thing to do is develop creative ways of challenging the very economic and social systems that commodify our work. perhaps this entails radical experimentation. has danger music, for example, been commodified?

  8. rtanaka

    I think the Ives model is no longer possible today. Is it? Examples?

    Heck, I’m living it right now. I make a few bucks here and there doing music but my main means of sustenance comes from my day job at the library. I feel a bit isolated, but it does give me the freedom to do things without worrying too much about repercussions from the art establishment. The drawback is, like Ives, you’ll probably get very little support from institutions during your lifetime so you’ll have to do most things on your own. Some of my friends are well within the system, but they do have to learn how to pull a lot of strings in order to make things happen. It’s a give or a take.

    I’m not trying to criticize the system of patronage here — if it’s done with the right intensions, I think it can be a very good thing. Academic and government institutions are heavily subsidized and controlled by patron support, so it can be included in that category, at least partially. Don’t you think it’s odd that academic instutions, what with its “lessons” and “lectures” and all, strongly resemble systems of apprenticeship?

    Read through the NPAC convention program and you’ll see that there’s numerous commercial sponsors that made the convention possible, including the retail giant, Target. Nobody is immune from the influence of money, so I don’t think it’s all that helpful to bash commercialism as if it were some kind of absolute evil. So what if music is a commodity? Just because something can be mass-produced and bought and sold doesn’t mean that it has no value.

    If there are any alternatives, I’d like to know. I’ve gotten like a million ideas and suggestions about how to make a living and I’ve tried a lot of different things but frankly none of it is putting bread on the table. I’m thinking of going back to school at this point.

  9. rtanaka

    Adorno was a Marxist but plopped himself right in the middle of Hollywood in order to escape the Nazi regime. Escaped one hell and into another, where everything he hated about the world was being put into practice. There’s a passage of him somewhere talking about slippers or something and how that represents man’s disdain for squatting. (You know, having to tie your shoes and stuff.) You can just sort of imagine him writing about this stuff, under California sunshine, ranting very intelligently about the follies of slippers. Slippers, man, what’s up with that?

    But cmon now, Hollywood has a lot of things messed up about it, but can’t be as bad as living under fascism, can it?

  10. pgblu

    I’m not trying to criticize the system of patronage here — if it’s done with the right intensions, I think it can be a very good thing.

    I know you don’t need any rope from me, but what do you mean by the ‘right intentions’ ? What kind of patron has these intentions?

  11. rtanaka

    I know you don’t need any rope from me, but what do you mean by the ‘right intentions’ ? What kind of patron has these intentions?

    No, that’s a fair question — there’s lots of ways to “do the right thing”, as they say, but I think it largely comes down to the internal motivations of the person doing the funding themselves. In the past, nobility would hire minstrels to sing praises for the ruler of that area, as a way to demonstrate one’s power and prestige. During war time, they would also be hired to sing songs of detriment of the opposing enemy. But these types of patronages are essentially self-serving, and can’t really be said to be benevolent.

    What’s “right” I know is a murky thing, and is usually something very subjective. But I have observed acts of genuine altruism by some people so I know it’s at least possible. People who volunteer their time to help their community, people who employ themselves in difficult jobs, teachers who go out of their way to help their students understand, etc. Acts of self-lessness that even the embittered cynic would have to grudgingly admit that it was a good thing. Unfortunately these things tend to be fairly mundane, so 99% of the time it goes unnoticed by the public eye. I think the other Phil said something about doing the right thing is often a thankless job. So true.

    At least for me, I think the most important thing music can do is to try to make people happy. Notes and sounds aren’t really going to change much in the bigger scheme of things, but it can at least help us to cope or understand with the situations that we live in our daily lives. I tend to gravitate toward music and musicians who tends toward this type of approach.

  12. jchang4

    “Going back to school” is generally not a bad idea, but I would warn against doing so if the decision is based on the rather incorrect assumption that more education is going to make finding work easier, especially if this more education involves the accumulation of increasingly advanced degrees. I think you’ll find that the further into higher ed you go, the more doors you close.

  13. rtanaka

    Well if I’m going back to school it’ll be with the intent to teach and (hopefully) do more academic work. I also have a clearer idea of what medium I want to work in, so I should be able to focus my efforts a lot better than I did previously. Unfortunate as it is, a lot of colleges will simply not accept candidates without doctorates, but that’s just the way things are, I guess. Other than posting my diatribes here (and sorry if I’ve offended anybody in the past), I’ve been spending my off-time at work writing research papers so that’s probably a sign of something. A sign that I’m probably a bit crazy. But we all knew that already. :)

    I have had teachers who’ve worked in the industry and some of my friends are also currently trying to break into doing music for film, TV, and animation. They are very capable and intelligent people, and I haven’t seen any evidence that they are any less musical than “art” composers. But it seems like a lot of them were made to feel ashamed at the fact that they were writing in such mediums, even after having gained success and proficiency in their field. I just think it’s silly.

  14. Matthew Peterson

    I think I’m convinced. What I like most about Jameson’s argument (which is laid out before the passage I’ve quoted) is that it’s based on economic and sociological observations rather than observations from the world of art; in other words, it’s externally verifiable.

    Why should I care about the “externally verifiable?” I’m an artist.

    “I must create a system

    or be enslav’d by another man’s;
    I will not reason and compare:
    My business is to create.” (Blake)

    Colin: “Where are you? You have to decide. Because you can’t have it both ways. Life or Art. Politics or Poetry. What do you want? You can’t be outside and inside your head both at the same time. Where are you?” (Rochberg)

    Perhaps composers need more “quandaries” to weed us out, capitalist style! There are so many more of us than the system can support, you see. That is, if we are all to survive on our “meretricious,” aesthetically compromised music alone and its reception by the vile bourgeois public.

    However, most of us aren’t only composers; we are also laudable (and unlaudable) things like teachers, librarians (kudos Ryan), writers, critics, and pseudo-philosophers. And to those few of us who stand and live only on their creations: we humbly salute you. Keep on fighting the good fight.

    And as long as I’m on a Rochberg kick, my response, in favor of Beauty and Artists, to Colin’s (silly) pseudo-scientific discussion of “externally verifiable” phenomena:

    “New problems for the composer because he [or she] needs to depend entirely on his own taste, his own range of musical experience…He stands unprotected before the winds of change. He stands only on what he has come to love. He is what he loves.


    History is not our master. We can choose. Our real limits are defined by biology and the central nervous system…We are not Slaves of History. We can choose and create our own time.”

    Pencils to paper – fight the good fight. Beauty still exists. It’s “externally verifiable” all around you – even in the sound world. Don’t let yourself get distracted by the blog world…as I just did…

  15. colin holter

    Why should I care about the “externally verifiable?”

    You don’t have to care. That’s what it means to be externally verifiable. It’s still true whether you care or not. I believe the expression is “reality-based community.”

  16. philmusic

    Mathew, I don’t understand your problem with Colin, as he, as you both represent different relationship to ideas stated.

    As for this:

    “..He stands unprotected before the winds of change. He stands only on what he has come to love. He is what he loves…”

    Besides the “He” problem it could be pointed out that tenured Professors are hardly unprotected from “winds of change.” In fact they are deeply insulated-thats the point isn’t it?

    As for composers and what they “love” I know several composers who are just as motivated by what they, well, dislike. Nothing wrong with that either.

    One of the ironies of those who proclaim a hatred of Schoenberg for example is that they tend to indulge in what was his worst “alleged” quality -the intolerance for other musical styles and ideas.

    Phil Fried

  17. philmusic

    One of the ironies of those who proclaim a hatred of Schoenberg for example is that they tend to indulge in what was his worst “alleged” quality -the intolerance for other musical styles and ideas and a belief that different musical styles are in mortal opposition.

    Phil Fried

  18. pgblu

    Fight the good fight.

    Analyzing the role one’s music plays in society and endeavoring to react honestly to what one finds, that’s all part of ‘the good fight’ and not even remotely silly.

    Quoting George Rochberg about the role of the composer in society. Now that’s silly.


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