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Fighting (for) the Right to Party

Posted on Jul 17, 2014

    Young revelers take part in a mosh pit. Photo by micadew (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By John Halle

This piece first appeared on John Halle’s website. It is a response to the N+1 issue 19 editorial, “The Concert Hall.”

When the left imagines the final expropriation of the expropriators, the soundtrack accompanying it might be folk, Motown, hip-hop, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, punk, Metallica, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Red Army Chorus, Bob Marley, Victor Jara, electronica or Crosby Still Nash and/or Young-all of these have been proposed at different times. Whatever we choose, it is a safe bet that it is not Beethoven string quartets or Bach trio sonatas.

Rather that is what the vile plutocrats themselves are listening to as the pitchfork wielding hordes mass outside of their bunkered compounds.

This is why, insofar as it is not seen as merely obtuse, expressing a preference for what is called classical, art or concert music over what used to be referred to as “popular” musical forms is viewed as potentially reactionary, an implicit defense of the privileged class which had financed the construction of the concert halls, hosted the salons, established systems of patronage and otherwise supported and promoted the art form over the generations.

In some of my recent articles I have tried to challenge or at least to add some nuance to this picture. I’m glad that the N+1 editors have taken notice and I’m also grateful that they have provided some subtle and erudite arguments agreeing with me that the conventional left wisdom on these matters is not as self-evident as is generally assumed.

Our agreement takes for granted several points of departure, among them the recognition that a dim view of musical high culture among the left is not a practical inevitability or a logical necessity. Indeed, as I argue in my piece “Nothing’s too Good for the Working Class” it is a relatively recent development. To take a few examples I cite there, in the past, one could assume some familiarity with what use to be called concert music warhorses such as Beethoven Symphonies, Mozart arias or Chopin Nocturnes, the basic themes of which would have been recognized by Marx or Lenin and are still by Stanley Aronowitz or Joel Kovel among others in their generational cohort. Similarly, while one rarely encounters classical music as a topic of conversation now, it was frequently at the IBEW Union Hall in Schenectady, NY, and at the ILGWU summer retreat Unity House. While few know the names of more than a two or three classical performers or composers this was not the case for what may have been hundreds or even thousands of students enrolled in music appreciation classes at the now forgotten but highly successful people’s schools sponsored by the Communist Party USA, including the Thomas Jefferson School for Social Science in New York City.

We also would probably agree that the left as it is now constituted would not regard this absence as something to despair-indeed they celebrate it. And they have some basis for their doing so, including that provided by Lawrence Levine’s influential Highbrow/Lowbrow, which depicts turn of the century elites developing the modern symphony orchestra and the codes of conduct associated with them as part of a broad effort to create appropriate habits of obedience, deference and respect for authority among a potentially restive working class. If classical music is finally dead, so the argument goes, we should be applauding just as much as we would the death of any other reactionary institution, whether it is the Heritage Foundation, the NRA or the Republican Party.

A third point of agreement is in recognizing that if the loss of authority and cultural prestige of the high arts and culture generally and classical music specifically is a defeat for social and political elites, it is an isolated and insignificant one: where it matters, their triumph is near total, with the 1% having managed to concentrate income share and wealth to a degree that would have been the envy of plutocrats of virtually any prior epoch. Along with this has been the near complete collapse of institutions by which the 99% had been able to exercise some degree of political influence, most notably unions as well other once powerful left wing constituencies both inside and outside the Democratic Party.

According to the logic assumed by the left, this is not what was not supposed to happen. Rather, the Dionysian energies of popular musical forms replacing the staid rituals of the concert hall were to be accompanied by analogous mass political movements overthrowing entrenched wealth, power and privilege and its accumulated social, cultural and economic capital. Alas, when the lights went on, it turned out the masses weren’t interested in pitch forks after all-the only right they were fighting for was the right to party. And they won. The codes of behavior associated with classical music are almost entirely reviled. As the N+1 editorial observes, almost everyone, including those who appreciate the music when it is experienced elsewhere, find the rituals of the concert hall oppressive at best–unbearable at worst.

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