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?