Monday, April 21, 2014

Shusterman on Popular Music

Richard Shusterman's "Form and Funk:  The Aesthetic Challenge of Popular Art" was published originally in 1991 in the British Journal of Aesthetics.  My current textbook edited by Goldblatt and Brown has a selection from it titled "In Defense of Popular Arts."  One difficulty with teaching it is that no one I know, and certainly none of my students, thinks that the popular arts, particularly popular music, needs to be defended.  If anything it is classical or "high art" music that needs this.  Still, I do have some comments to make about Shusterman's arguments.  Shusterman and I share a commitment to pragmatism and hence to Dewey's idea that humans are live creatures interacting with their environments.  Pragmatism calls on us to recognize that humans are animals with bodies (and in Dewey's atheist form of pragmatism, no immaterial souls).  So, like Nietzsche, the pragmatist encourages us to say "yes" to our embodied existence.  Shusterman sets up the debate over popular music in terms of the age old debate between dualists and materialists (although he does not mention this.)  His opponent is Plato and Plato's attack against the popular arts of his time.  Allen Bloom and Pierre Bourdieu (both of whom attack popular music) are just descendants of Plato (and Kant).

There is much that I agree with in his approach but I wonder whether something can't be said for the other side or for dissolving the very dichotomy he uses to replace dualism.  Shusterman himself favors talking in wider terms about the aesthetics of life, the art of living, and the implosion of the high art/popular art distinction.  I think this is the right direction to take.  I like the idea that the ancient Athenians are an ideal because they integrated art and everyday life.  I increasingly have a problem with the notion that everyday aesthetics is autonomous from art aesthetics since this would encourage the ongoing radical distinction between art and life which popular music seeks to overcome.  

However, at times Shusterman seems to be saying that high art is itself problematic, and this of course is in relation to an attack on a certain kind of aesthetics, that of Kant with his emphasis on disinterestedness.  Shusterman observes that philosophers both on the political left and on the political right have attacked the popular arts.  His own teacher, Bourdieu, who is famous for having argued that taste is a matter entirely of class, thus reducing the normative to the descriptive, nonetheless does not believe that popular art deserves to be called aesthetic.  On his view, it is not sufficiently reflective or complex.  Theodor Adorno has also famously criticized popular music for being regressive and for ultimately promoting the capitalist system by way of false consciousness:  it is not sufficiently critical of society.  Adorno goes on to defend autonomous avant-garde music as being truly revolutionary, a move that Bourdieu would probably not make.  In any case, the general argument from the political left is that popular art is too passive.  The argument from the right, for example from Bloom, who by the way was a translator of Plato, is that it is too sensuous...too sexy even.  Bloom seems to be worried that the popular arts encourage the rule of the self by pleasure and pain and not by intellect.

Shusterman's response to the passivity argument is to try to turn the tables, to argue that art designed to be appreciated in a disinterested or distanced manner, as classical music is, encourages far more passivity than popular music.  By contrast, when we turn to popular music, particularly the music inspired by African-American culture, we find something more active, although active on the physical level insofar as we are talking about the kind of active engagement that might include wild dancing.  (Could it be more active on some other levels too, for example on an emotional level?)  Shusterman contrasts the opera-goer who goes to sleep (my condition, frequently, I confess) to the dancer at a rock concert who works up a sweat (hence the reference to the "funky").  This seems unfair to classical music since true classical music lovers seem to be not only entranced (which, after all, is a physical condition) but also sometimes given to pretty active foot-tapping and hand-conducting. Consider the recent 60 Minutes episode which featured a central African orchestra created in a war-torn country (Democratic Republic of Congo) in which the members seem to have found a mode of resistance that is also a mode of escape through, strangely enough, classical music.  Shusterman also says that classical music is "justifiably cherished," so perhaps he is not being serious when he downgrades it in comparison to rock. Shusterman is certainly right however if he simply wants to maintain that popular music can have most of the features we value in classical music, for instance the presence of artistic genius, the possibility of reflection, the presence of cultural or political resistance, a satisfaction that is enduring, and the development of a critical tradition of commentators and historians. 

Whether all of this is a refutation of the idea that aesthetic listening is disinterested is another matter.  One could argue that there must at least be a disinterested moment in the overall aesthetic experience for popular music to rise to the level of the best classical music.  Can something be aesthetic if there is no reflective element at all, if the experience seems to bypass the intellectual side of ourselves entirely?  I just don't know.  The issue also comes up in everyday aesthetics.  We might gain a lot of pleasure from a wonderful shower, but it is not clear that this is aesthetic pleasure since it might just bypass the intellect completely.  Shusterman is correct that the terms of aesthetics are often used with respect to non-art phenomena:  this recognition is the basis for much of my own work in everyday aesthetics.  But one wonders which side we should come down on here:  to keep aesthetics tied to something where there is a reflective/contemplative dimension, or open it to include pleasures that fail to reach that level.  Does the latter trivialize aesthetics?  Perhaps popular music that is mere entertainment, that has no reflective/contemplative dimension, is not quite up to the language of aesthetics...and this would be true for some classical compositions as well.

For me, the take-away is that art is a part of life, that there is an art of living in which the popular arts, fine arts, and everyday aesthetics all play a role, that we should cheer on the implosion of art into life, that we cannot continue with a radical distinction between art and life, and that an aesthetics of life would include not only the aesthetics of everyday life but also the aesthetics of holidays, the aesthetics of popular art, and the aesthetics of fine art.  I agree with Shusterman that just because popular music may serve a function does not imply that it is artistically illegitimate. But this does not mean we must defenestrate the concept of autonomy. We just have to be modest about it.  If we are going to talk about autonomy with respect to art (including popular art) we can at best talk about a moment or aspect of autonomy, or relative autonomy, enough autonomy to carve out a special place, a place of freedom. 


Interested in learning more?  See my book:  Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  Broadview Press, 2012.  Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 47 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it fro  Broadview. 

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