15 June, 2003Issue 2.3MusicPolitics & SocietyThe Arts

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Who Needs Classical Music?

Jeff Kulkarni

Julian Johnson
Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value
Oxford University Press, 2002
150 pages

In Spike Lee’s new film, The 25th Hour, a mob boss gives Edward Norton’s character a brutal piece of advice on surviving a first stint in prison: find the weakest inmate and beat him up in public. In Who Needs Classical Music?, Oxford lecturer Julian Johnson reveals the precariousness of his own position by employing a similar strategy – trashing bubble-gum pop in order to defend classical music. This straw-man strategy is motivated by his explicitly political objective: convincing non-listeners of classical music to subsidise its practice as an art form.

Johnson’s ambitions transcend the usual defences of subsidised ticket prices, public concert halls, and music education. ‘Without detracting from what is often excellent work’, he writes, ‘I would suggest that such efforts remain drops in the ocean so long as society remains collectively disenfranchised from part of its richest musical heritage’. Instead of merely seeking to increase accessibility, he wishes to defend classical music as Art, which, as such, demands collective action.

Johnson criticises elites who support classical music as a part of their vague sense of haute culture. He argues that it should be valued for what it is, rather than as a signifier for something else. Similarly, he despises reductionists such as Pierre Bourdieu, who view classical music as merely symbolic of class domination. Johnson argues that these unreflective views feed the legitimacy crisis confronting this musical genre.

Until recently, public funding for art enjoyed a support similar to public funding for theoretical science, owing to the widespread belief that, ‘even when it seemed to involve a minority, what it accomplished was of benefit to the whole community’. But the failure of advocates to defend classical music as art, rather than entertainment, has led to rejection of the idea that its existence ought to be a public, rather than private, concern.

Johnson claims that the aesthetic status of music has been hidden by its growing popularity as entertainment. As evidence of its decline, he counter-intuitively cites not dwindling audiences and teetering finances but rather instances of its ‘misuse’ as entertainment or background noise. Representative of this approach, he claims, is the radio station Classic FM, which has gained a large audience for classical music at the expense of decontextualising and trimming the works in a way that robs them of their intrinsic value. He also attacks classical music compilations that have adopted the ‘greatest hits’ format of popular music to market the sound to a new generation.

According to Johnson, the problem is not that people aren’t listening to classical music – the Observer recently cited a surprising study estimating British classical music ticket sales at ¬£359 million a year, almost twice that of Premiership football tickets. He claims instead that they are listening to it in the wrong way.

To listen to classical music correctly is to unleash an artistic potential unavailable in mere entertainment. Johnson argues that the essential activity of art is ‘the projection of that definitively human awareness of being more than the sum of one’s material parts’. He goes on to argue that classical music projects an understanding of being human based on the idea of its capacity to exceed itself. Over and again, in countless individual works, its model of humanity is defined by a quality of hope, a reaching of imagination beyond the conditions of the present. This is not merely a matter of subjective response; the category of hope is objectively realized within the musical process. In this way, music projects a utopian content.

Substance and form are thus inseparable, objectively conveying a particular message. Johnson emphasises classical music’s discursive nature – how its message unfolds over time and therefore requires continuous listening and complete attention. Classical music cannot realise its aesthetic potential, he argues, under any other circumstances.

But Johnson does not rest after establishing classical music as art. He expands the celebration of the music’s virtues into a defence of continued government support for it. His attempt to link aesthetic judgement to public policy is simplistic, implying that subsidies for orchestras can be defended on the same grounds as funding for the military and public hospitals. Although he does not attempt such a defence, a sympathetic interpretater could draw a parallel between Johnson’s argument and the political theory known as perfectionism.

This influential critique of political liberalism, closely identified with Oxford philosopher Joseph Raz, posits that the good life is only valuable if it satisfies objective standards of excellence, and is freely chosen from a variety of objectively valid options. Perfectionism departs from liberalism’s celebration of subjective value and its emphasis on unrestricted personal choice. The liberal state restricts its activities to matters of right, securing personal liberty so individuals are free to pursue their own private notions of the good. On the other hand, the perfectionist state actively promotes a vision of the good by making possible valid options such as listening to classical music, while suppressing deleterious practices such as drooling over internet pornography. Perfectionism justifies these actions on the grounds of objectivity, arguing that tolerance towards all conceptions of the good is tantamount to relativism. In essence, while the liberal state only prevents a citizen from harming others, the perfectionist state also prevents a citizen from self-harm. Johnson argues that classical music-as-art is an objectively valid component of the good life which, although it does not result from free choice, should be supported by the state.

Johnson also draws upon the economics of externalities – the negative consequences individual choices have on other people – to justify subsidies for classical music. He argues that the free decision by some to listen to popular music denies others the possibility of experiencing classical music as art. For example, music education for children fails when they have been relentlessly exposed to the simplistic charms of popular music. Commercial radio’s demand for short pieces suppresses the freedom of those who wish to listen to entire compositions. Johnson pushes this argument to the extreme, implying that private enjoyment of non-classical music is akin to forcing others to breath second-hand smoke – implicitly endorsing repressive public policy solutions. He claims that the state’s failure to promote great music defers judgement to the marketplace, conflating aesthetic value with economic success. He then draws a false dichotomy between classical music and pop music, providing him with his easy target. Pop music represents disposable commodification, musical simplicity, and, ultimately, the shallow pleasures of ‘immediacy’ (his favourite accusation) – in short, everything that classical music is not.

While this stark bifurcation may be convenient, it is also deeply flawed. First of all, pop and classical are obviously not the only two kinds of music in existence. While the depiction of a monolithic ‘mass culture’ may recall Adorno’s critical theory, this vaunted intellectual pedigree fails to rescue Johnson’s argument. As a stroll through the aisles of a Virgin Megastore will reveal, few mediums are as fragmented and diverse as music. The Western tradition alone offers jazz, blues, folk, country, and the many varieties of rock. Many can credibly claim to match classical music in aesthetic ambition, if not formal complexity. These considerations are germane because Johnson’s case relies on the contention that classical music satisfies a unique artistic function. In this regard, he proves nothing by arguing that the Spice Girls and Robbie Williams – practically the only non-classical performers mentioned in the entire book – fail to satisfy his aesthetic criteria. Even they would probably grant him that point. However, by burning a straw man, Johnson only prompts the reader to consider all of the examples of non-classical music that do seem to satisfy his criteria – and to wonder why he abstained from addressing them.

Johnson is similarly mistaken in claiming that the status quo equates aesthetic value with commercial viability. Within the world of popular music, it has become a cliché that critics despise what is on the charts, which is why their profession is more often attacked for gratuitous obscurantism rather than shameless salesmanship. His observations are selectively applied and unconvincing; contemporary culture does not valorise the top forty alone.

Johnson also contends that music is currently viewed as a matter of personal choice due to a ‘politically-correct’ refusal to endorse objective standards of excellence. His recycling of this tired canard from the late-eighties Kulturkampf reveals a substantive (albeit common) misunderstanding of liberalism. The reason the liberal state does not impose morality, religion, or musical preferences upon its citizens is not because it rejects objective standards, but rather because its citizens disagree over the definition of those objective standards. This is ‘the fact of reasonable pluralism’. In the case of religion, each believes that her own faith is objectively valid, but society as a whole passes no judgement in letting different religions co-exist. This is because, as Mrs. Thatcher said, ‘there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families’. People have objective standards of musical excellence, but societies do not. Perfectionists like to cite examples over which there is a seeming consensus, in order to avoid justifying what amounts to the imposition of particular objective standards on those who contest their definition. In Johnson’s case, he claims that others do not have objective standards rather than fully explaining why his objective standards are superior to the ones others hold.

He implies that his aesthetic judgements are objectively valid since his description of classical music’s formal properties are objectively valid. However, the former does not necessarily follow from the latter; while classical music may objectively hold certain formal properties, that does not mean that it objectively conveys certain aesthetic messages. Furthermore, even if it does, there is no reason to believe that classical music is the only or best way of doing so, as must be the case if it is to be imposed by the state. After all, his description of the aesthetic object as projecting ‘that definitively human awareness of being more than the sum of one’s material parts’ is striking not for its depth but rather its banality.

On the one hand, other forms of instrumental music may bring the same awareness, so the formal language of classical music may not be unique. On the other hand, religion, prose, poetry, and many genres of vocal music routinely elaborate upon this theme. Lyricism rather than formalism may prove a superior method of transmitting this idea. Instead of engaging legitimate aesthetic rivals, Johnson devotes all of his time to berating teen pop music.

An enthusiastic celebration of classical music would have appealed to lovers of other music, using their existing interests to open up a complex new world. But Johnson’s zero-sum political calculus prompts him to devote much of his energy to a mean-spirited and angry diatribe against pop aficionados. This is unnecessary since he defines two completely different roles for music; instead of denigrating music as entertainment, he could have merely upheld a vision of music as art. Furthermore, if the language of classical music is as complicated as he claims, then there is no reason that people should start with it rather than simpler forms. Children will read Harry Potter long before graduating to Ulysses, and even English professors are not necessarily averse to the former. It makes more sense to view them as co-existing on a continuum than as competing. Unfortunately Johnson is too busy tackling to play the ball.

Jeff Kulkarni is reading for a DPhil in Politics at Balliol College, Oxford.