Thursday, November 4, 2010

Music Appreciation, Cultural Tourism, and Cultural Capital--What Is It Worth Today?

    In this blog's entry dated January 21, 2009, “Is music useless,” I wrote about the classical music appreciation industry, with its paraphernalia of college courses, professors, composers, musicians, concerts, concert-goers and critics, and its media presence, all supported by private, corporate, and government patronage. I’ve also written here, frequently, about heritage and cultural tourism. Now I want to bring the two together, and think about music appreciation as cultural tourism. For if we want to think critically about the contemporary practice of sustaining the traditional arts by constructing them as heritage and then marketing them for tourists, we can look to an earlier model of this very same process in the rise and fall of the classical music appreciation industry, one which is losing relevance daily as the contemporary media engender enormous changes in the way people receive information and in the kind of information we do receive. What might we learn from this example?

    Several years ago I revised my syllabus for an introductory course in ethnomusicology, one meant for music majors at my university. For the most part these are practitioners of music, ones who will take many courses in music-making, and whose courses in music theory, history and appreciation will be taught at a deeper analytical level. The introduction to ethnomusicology course is required of our majors, many of whom would prefer to be off making music themselves, composing, or practicing their vocal or instrumental techniques, than to ponder the ideas and musical curiosities that we ethnomusicologists like to vex ourselves with. I decided to try to reach the students a little closer to where I thought they were, and to turn an ethnomusicological lens on the classical music industry. Never mind that I overestimated their interest in classical music; based on their previous training in Western art music they felt, at least, on more common ground. I decided it would be enlightening to have a look at the prefaces and introductions to the twentieth-century music appreciation textbooks to see what they said about what they were doing and why. We noticed in these textbooks, first of all, a defensive tone—why study music, why is art important in a world where most people are concerned with getting and spending, with family and neighbors and politics and power and war and peace and anything and everything but music?

    These appreciation textbook authors were not hedonists; they did not justify the pursuit of music on the grounds of pleasure, or as aesthetic object, “music for music’s sake.” Such a justification, though it  gains assent from music-makers and music-lovers alike, was not suited for the music education business. There must be Purpose, and the purpose was Culture. The authors of the textbooks usually justified appreciation in terms of “acquiring culture,” in the sense that one’s mind and soul would be improved, ennobled, and liberated by encountering the great cultural monuments of the past—Our Musical Heritage, as one textbook was titled. (Interestingly, this particular textbook took a very broad view of that heritage, but that is another story.) Engaging with Great Ideas, Great Art, Heritage, “the best which has been thought and said in the world,” as Matthew Arnold put it in Culture and Anarchy, was, of course, the purpose of a liberal arts education—uh, wasn’t it? This engagement developed taste and refinement in one's personality, a more "civilized" human being, a better person. It is no accident that this is the same justificatory rhetoric that was used to promote the actual Grand Tour, cultural tourism, the European monuments, the museums, the cathedrals, for a century and a half.

    What the authors of these textbooks did not say was that taste, or aesthetic discrimination, leads to collecting and connoisseurship (getting and spending); and that appreciation creates a class of patrons who support the arts. Late twentieth-century cultural theory informs us that music (and art) appreciation builds a kind of cultural capital (that is, knowledge and taste as a stock of cultural goods and strategies) as well as a refined personality that once served the middle classes well in their striving for power.

     But I write "once served," in the past tense, because it is becoming clear that taste matters less and less in the world of common culture (the information commons) and (un)civil discourse, a world dominated by celebrities whose confrontational behavior (whether among politicians or on talk radio or FOX news) is not considered rude and boorish, except by a generation of old-fashioned elders and a small group of young idealists. Ironically, the cultivation of cultural capital is now proving an obstacle, as the refined public personality is no match today for the angry naysayer in the public sphere, or “shock and awe” on the battlefield.

    I am reminded of an observation told to me some years ago by a professor of music, whose  discriminatory powers were highly developed. It concerned the makeup of the student body in the appreciation course being taught that semester. “A majority of them are Asian!” the professor exclaimed. “Not that I have anything against people of Asian extraction," he added, "but where are those whose Heritage this really is? They’re the ones who should be taking this course.” But they weren’t, perhaps because they were unconvinced that the course would provide much useful cultural capital for the twenty-first century. And so we may ask what kind of cultural capital, if any, will be useful in our still-new century?

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