Saturday, July 4, 2009

No neon arrows

Along with some co-conspirators, I have been considering the slogan "No Neon Arrows" for a line of merchandise (shirts, coffee mugs, pop-up ads, billboards, undergarments). What we mean by this is that the world is a complicated place, and that anyone who tries to offer an all-encompassing theory to explain it - a brightly-coloured neon arrow pointing in a particular direction - is probably trying to sell you something. The Anti-Neon-Arrow Brigade is opposed to:
  • Cultural theorists who reduce the workings of society to economic interactions (Marx) or power relations (Foucault)
  • Scientistic thinkers who reduce the workings of the universe to the interactions of its physical components (the so-called "eliminative materialists") or the workings of the human mind to psychological and evolutionary factors (Pinker, Dennett)
  • Historiography that attempts to reduce messy periods of history to neatly organized categories and lists of characteristics (Peter Gay's Modernism, see also sidebar) or that imposes upon it a Whig History perspective
  • Theories of musical meaning which needlessly constrain the possible meanings of a musical work by prescribing a particular analytic technique (Schenker) or a particular narrative reading (much of the "new musicology")
  • Postmodernists who claim that the failures of the above projects are evidence of something called "the death of the metanarrative," and that we should therefore accept an equally dogmatic relativist worldview in which all truths are socially contingent.
We argue that fallen humanity lacks the clarity of vision that would be required to integrate our knowledge into a synoptic view of reality. It is not enough, therefore, to simply react against the ideas of our forefathers: to do that is simply to turn the neon arrow to face the opposite direction. Even to turn the arrow towards Nothing, as today's fashionable nihilists and relativists are wont to do, isn't the answer. We need to take down the neon arrows entirely. Instead, we need a discourse that:
  • describes the workings of society with reference to a variety of factors, none of which is individually predictive
  • acknowledges the findings of science while recognizing its ultimate limitations
  • treats past historical periods on their own terms, recognizing that they are just as complex and conflicted as our own era
  • offers real insight into works of art without claiming that a single interpretation can capture the many valid ways of listening to a piece
  • appreciates the fact that some truths are contingent, while holding to the necessary corollary that other truths are objective.

A bit of a stir has been created recently by the appearance of, a newly-founded website that argues for the superiority of classical music over all forms of pop music. These arguments are nothing new (A. C. Douglas has made similar statements for years*), but the new website, whose anonymous editing and ambitious goals suggest the workings of a secretive cabal, has attracted fire from prominent journalists, including the Guardian's Tom Service and the Washington Post's Anne Midgette. Unsurprisingly, Service and Midgette respond with the usual party line: pop music can be just as good as classical music; arguing for the superiority of one type of music over another is snobbish and insulting; there should be room for a variety of contrasting musical expressions in our society, et cetera, et cetera.

What we have here is precisely a Neon Arrow situation.

The proprietors of are attempting to resurrect the conventional wisdom of a previous era: that classical music is innately and by definition superior to popular music. In the opposite corner, we have Midgette and Service, defending today's conventional wisdom: that all musical styles have equal value, and that any attempt to promote one style over the other is "ignorant", "snobbish", and "indefensible cultural demagoguery". There is something in both arguments that seems fundamentally ill-conceived: the definition of "good music" would exclude not only pop music, but folk music and all non-Western musical styles (one of their most valued criteria being a literate tradition of transmission in musical notation). Yet there's also something counterintuitive about claiming that all genres are a priori equal: surely no-one would seriously maintain that a classical-music listener is "missing out" by not listening to an equal amount of death metal?

What we need here is a third option, one which avoids asserting the absolute superiority of any one musical style without sliding into relativism. John Gray's idea of incommensurability is useful here: in Enlightenment's Wake, he argues that the competing belief systems of different societies are ultimately irreconcilable, not because all values are relative but simply because different societies have different visions of the good. (Gray's best example contrasts the liberal individualism of the West with the community-driven, consensus-based cultures of many East Asian cultures.) Accepting the incommensurability of different cultural ideals does not mean that the cultures involved cannot agree on many issues (the undesirability of murder, for example), but does mean that they can never be fully integrated. It seems reasonable to suppose that classical and pop music might be in a similar situation. While they share many musical ideals in common (rhythm and melody, a tonal centre, the attempt to express new ideas in an original manner), they are ultimately incommensurable because of their different methods of composition and transmission. (Classical music is by definition a literate tradition, in which music is composed in notated form for later performance; this separates it from folk music, which is transmitted orally, and pop music, which is transmitted electrically.)'s claim of the superiority of classical music, therefore, is not "ignorant" or "cultural demagoguery" or anything else: it's just tautological. Because their arguments begin by specifying the musical values they consider most important (ie: acoustic production, single authorship, and literate transmission), the conclusion that classical music fits these criteria best is hardly surprising. This sort of argument is equivalent to saying that "classical music is better than pop music at being classical music", which is not the most insightful observation ever. One can certainly say, however, that classical music occupies a special place as a unique example of a highly developed literate tradition in music, and deserves preferment to other musics on that basis. It exemplifies musical values ultimately different from those expressed in any popular or folk tradition, and its current cultural invisibility is depriving our society of a compelling and unique voice.

I've tried to develop a position different from both the anti-pop trumpetings of and the fashionable relativism that opposes it. Because both are neon-arrow arguments, neither is ultimately very helpful. We need instead a third position, not some bland milquetoast compromise or, heaven forbid, a Hegelian synthesis, but an entirely different option. I've attempted to outline what that might look like, but until this third position is fully developed, the classical-pop debate will continue to operate at a very low intellectual level.

None of this, by the way, is to denigrate the work of Midgette or Service, who I respect - nor to devalue the very real value of the articles on Indeed, I am largely in sympathy with much of their project: their desire for a higher profile for classical music, their opposition to schizophonic pop music in public places, and their attribution of the problem to neoliberalism, globalization and cultural relativism (among other things). I will follow their future postings with much interest, even if I think their basic arguments are somewhat poorly situated.

* Addendum (5 July 2009): ACD points out that his argument for the special status of classical music is distinct from that of; his actual position is similar to my "incommensurability" argument, although he reaches a slightly different conclusion than I do. For more details, see the comment thread.


Anonymous said...

WHile I agree with most of what you say, I don't think you've understood's position exactly, which IMO is perhaps closer to your posited Third Way than you think.

The Definitions page really does claim, as you say, that (in so many words) art music is better at being art music than pop. Tautological in a way, yes, but the idea behind this, it seems to me, was to ensure the exclusion of not only what is obviously pop, but also all the 'postmodern' music that the likes of Midgette, Service, Ross etc happily include -- often insistently -- under the label of 'classical music'. Its author has taken criteria that will allow in everything that isn't pop or postmodern, and then stopped. (A 'devious' ploy, I think Service called it.)

It does what the cultural relativists hate -- it creates labels for all kinds of music. But by doing so it makes it much clearerwhat's being defended and what not.

I don't think (to judge by the tone of the various documents) that's editors are unaware of the fact that their claim for musical 'superiority' of art music is based on anything other than the objective criteria of the Definitions page. There's certainly no claim for moral superiority of listeners -- in fact, elitism (as normally understood) is quickly rebutted.

Also, it's worth pointing out (re Neon Arrows) that isn't selling anything...

A.C. Douglas said...

As you've mentioned my name in connection with's central argument (with which central argument I'm in principle agreement), you ought to make a distinction between my oft-repeated argument and theirs. That distinction is best expressed in a 2003 Sounds & Fury article titled, "A Call For A Return To Hierarchal Sobriety" which can be read here

You should also note my recent S&F demur of the views expressed on which demur can be read here


Osbert Parsley said...

Anonymous: I'm certainly with you that is more subtle and nuanced in its attack on pop music than its opponents seem to suggest - they're quite clear, thankfully, that there is no moral high ground reserved for art music listeners above all others. But the "About" page says in so many words that Art Music is "objectively superior to Pop 'Music'. . . in terms of actual musical (technical, emotional and intellectual) substance." This view can't be reconciled with mine, which is that no meaningful comparison can be made between the two genres whatsoever.

And I was mostly kidding about Neon Arrows being used to sell things - obviously, people like Foucault and Schenker aren't selling anything either, at least anymore.

ACD: You're quite correct; as I read your argument above, it looks like you're much closer to my own view (that pop and classical music are incomparable because incommensurable) than to that of I'll add a caveat to the original post.

Villegem said...

If I may offer an opinion: One way to differentiate betwen "art music" and "pop culture" is that pop music is inherently supposed to and created to be "entertaining" while entertainment was not necessarily the supreme goal of "classical" composers of any century. Not that classical composers would shy at entertainment, yet this hardly is the first qualificative one would attach with the urge of creating Mozart's requiem for instance... Of course the composer would want the piece to be successful but this is different than entertaining.
Yet, one cannot forget that in any genre, there will be good and bad. I'd rather enjoy a perfect moonwalk by Jackson than a tepid rendition of Swann Lake. I can drink a Coca cola and later on open a superb vintage of my favorite Bordeaux. I truly think that reducing the debate to the classical versus pop argument here is similar to the over hyped period instrument debate: it is not the instrument that makes the music true to its style but the respect of the composition style itself, an example of this being the Baroque clavier articulation: Those made up debates allow many to voice an opinion -from simplistic to convoluted- while masking often the fact they know little about the main subject at hand. How many pianists truly know how to bring the polyphony in Bach?
That said, what I find refreshing about musoc is that finally someone is going after the talent killing business of classical music and those who cowardly and greedily promote it, from the record companies, artists agents to the journalists who pop up safe reviews under the guise of culture.
The influence of the pop culture onto the classical music way of doing business has meant that one should think twice at shooting down the goose that lay the golden eggs, regardless of the artistic quality produced. I recall writing to a prominent UK critic who recently savaged a poor effort by Yo Yo Ma, suggesting that should he give the man ten negative stars, it would not make a dent in his career. Meanwhile, an album of a virtually unknown pianist that he enjoyed never got a single public line, knowing perfectly well that even a 3 star rating coming from him -after all he enjoyed it says he- would bring the musician a well deserved attention. But I was answered Yo Yo Ma is a personality and as such has to be covered... and of course blasting the Yo Yo must somehow re-affirms that someone who dares going after the stars must not eat in the same trough and could be trusted by the masses...
Finally the accusation of elitism is no different than asking someone if he still beats his wife. Usually it is the offenders who will try that one as the elitism of knowledge and soul is much less predictable to them than the one of profit, hence the danger they feel about anyone calling the game for what it is.

Osbert Parsley said...

Villegem: Thanks very much for your comment. You've made a case for a defining characteristic of classical music which I would call "sublimity" (following Roger Scruton). Scruton's own example is this: a pleasant English pastoral landscape and a craggy mountain range can both be beautiful, but only the view from the mountain is sublime. Mozart's Requiem, it seems to me, has this same characteristic: more than sensual beauty, it provides a sense of monumentality that reminds us of our own comparative smallness and insignificance. (This is why people like to talk about the "spirituality" of great classical works - sublimity is not identical to the religious experience, but the two can be closely linked.)

But it seems to me that this doesn't always hold true: the wind quintet by Francaix, for example, is clearly a classical work, and Coltrane's A Love Supreme is clearly not, but I'd describe the Coltrane as far more sublime than the Francaix. There are a thousand examples of classical works that I value despite - or indeed because - they make no attempt to be anything other than beautiful, and just as many popular compositions that aim deliberately toward sublimity.

Again: I think the key to drawing a meaningful distinction between classical and popular music is not content, but authorship and transmission. The classical work, whether it's a Boccherini minuet or the B-minor Mass, is most closely identified with its composer, and normatively transmitted through written notation. The popular work, whether it's by Britney Spears or the Beatles, is most closely identified with its performer, and normatively transmitted through electroacoustic recording. While there are always exceptions, this general rule seems to me sufficient to explain the basic incommensurability of the two genres.

Karl Henning said...

I'm late to the party, but I greatly enjoyed this.


Andrew W. said...

Osbert, I don't know how I missed this the first time around, but I think it's interesting that I think we're developing some very interesting parallel lines here.

I think you've made a strong case for the aesthetic problems around flattening all music into one single set of commensurible tastes, and, forgive if I'm wrong, this seems to line up with what I've been writing about in terms of cultural values.

I think you're making more of a philosophical argument while I'm making more of a sociological/anthropological one. Would you agree?

Osbert Parsley said...

Yes, I think that's fair. One of the most interesting parts of blogging is being able to watch people come at the same issues from different perspectives - as I think we're doing here. Certainly it's fair to say that my basic approach tends to follow philosophical methodology rather than that of the social sciences.