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We are living in an age that has seen the canon, in all the arts, disputed and undermined; in which the notions of aesthetic judgment and excellence have been contested; and in which the very notion of taste, crucial to the relationship between an artist and his or her public, has been mocked and corrupted to within an inch of its life.

The work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (who died in 2002), modishly impenetrable but essentially simple in its central assertion about cultural formation, has been extraordinarily influential here. Taste, he held, "functions as a sort of social orientation, a ‘sense of one's place', guiding the occupants of a given .?.?. social space .?.?. towards the practices or goods which befit the occupants of that position". His theory is based in empirical observation, and we know very well that the taste for cultural goods is socially stratified and inculcated in early childhood.

This shouldn't really make any difference to the status of the arts as sources of wisdom or enlightenment. They can be judged for what they have to offer, regardless of the origins of those who create or consume them, as natural science can. But the notion that the "high" arts can be used as a buttress for social authority has radically undermined the legitimacy of judgments of cultural value in a democratic age. It makes us uncomfortable.

Here in Britain and America, we see the effects of this most clearly in music. One can argue very strongly that classical music is not in decline, that more people are listening to classical music than ever before, that the phenomenon of the ageing audience is a mirage (classical concerts have always been grey-­headed affairs). It is undeniable, though, that classical music has lost the authority, the social authority that it had in its golden age. To put it at its most cynical, people no longer have to pretend to like it, or make an effort to like it in order to qualify as "people of quality".

Classical music reeks of class while at the same time classic rock rears its populist head. Politicians construct their cultural image around popular music - rubbing shoulders with Bono and filling their imaginary desert islands with the noises, sounds and sweet airs of gangsta rap and heavy metal.

The ironies are extraordinary, and not at all sweet. We are living in an age transfixed by the dystopian vision of a broken society, whose anxious leaders, to the Left and the Right, immerse themselves (or pretend to - and which is worse?) in a pop culture, much of which cele­brates violence and drug-taking, and which is historically and aesthetically grounded in the tastes and predilections of the teenager. What is more, the whiff of rebellion on offer is a synthetic one, manufactured by gargantuan media companies for which this art (some of which undoubtedly deserves this label) is a commodity.

Rock and roll is the art form of late capitalism. It is not a utopian alternative to it or a protest against it. An early indication of this was the failure of the Beatles' utopian schemes for their Apple Corps in the late 1960s. "A beautifuplace where you can buy beautiful things .?.?. a controlled weirdness .?.?. a kind of western communism", as Paul McCartney called it. "We're in the happy position of not needing any more money. So for the first time, the bosses aren't in it for profit. We've already bought all our dreams. We want to share that possibility with others."

The corporation was most recently in the news settling a long-­running trademark dispute with Apple Computer. Bob Dylan's enlistment in a campaign for Victoria's Secret underwear was only the latest manoeuvre in this retreat from idealism.

For me, as a classical musician performing mostly repertoire that - unlike, say, Italian opera - has always been strictly segregated from and is difficult to assimilate to the pop tradition, the cultural sidelining of classical music is more than a little unsettling. So often there seems to be a need to explain or even apologise. Classical musicians seem ever eager to convince that the music they perform is interesting, relevant .?.?. groovy ? It doesn't really convince anyone.

Pop music is pop music, creatively dominated by the model of the three- to four-minute song, even when it seeks to break out of those confines. It can be harmonically, rhythmically intriguing, and enthusiasts are forever pointing to this song in 5/4 time, or to that weird modulation, rhapsodising about the final rising cacophonic crescendo at the end of Sgt ­Pepper culminating in a throbbing E major chord. But the best of the Beatles was pop simplicity - Yesterday, Norwegian Wood, Drive My Car - rather than pop art tricksiness.

Classical music, by the same token, is classical music. Ever influenced by popular styles and popular melody - Schubert and the Viennese waltz, Brahms and the alla zingarese style of Hungarian refugees in Hamburg, Thomas Adès and the club scene of the early 21st century - classical music yet remains essentially discursive, long-­breathed, temperamentally serious, historically avant-garde. There may be all sorts of exceptions, but we do violence to the aesthetic and historical facts if we pretend otherwise.

Just the other day I read an article in the London Review of Books by Nicholas Spice which bound together the recent case of Elisabeth Fritzl, the Austrian woman imprisoned for 24 years in a basement by her own father; the sadistic imaginings of Elfriede Jelinek, the one-time piano prodigy and Nobel Prize-winning Austrian novelist, and the privileged role of classical music in Austrian culture. I spend much of my professional life in Austria, a country where the classical musician can feel a little more at home. Here - for all sorts of reasons, historical, economic and cultural, some of them worthy, some less so - classical music is indeed culturally central, whether in the day-by-day bourgeois life of Vienna or in the hyper-­reality of the Salzburg Festival.

It may not be good for one's moral health, this feeling of inflated significance, but it doesn't half soothe the bruised ego of the soi-­disant serious musician. Yet Spice wants us to believe that Jelinek's experience, as a teenage pianist who had to escape the overbearing demands of the classical vocation pressed on her by her mother, tells us something sinister about classical music. "Classical music," he writes, "is always acceptable to authority, because it cannot overtly challenge power with subversive ideas or disturbing ­representations."

The historical validity of this is immediately questionable: classical music has often challenged, disturbed and subverted. But I would argue that even today, in a subtle way, in the face of commodified popular music that sells itself as rebellion, the inner-­directed seriousness of the classical tradition, compromised though it can be by hype and glitz, still presents a challenge to the way we live now.

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December 22nd, 2008
7:12 PM
Some points: Fine art, including fine music is, 'ipso facto' the preserve of the few. The same could be said for Wisdom. Both require leisure & preparation. Instant relief is provided by commodified coarse art,unchallengingly designed for the undiscriminationg majority. We know the purposes of the crass, be it junk-food, junk-music, sugar-water or cliched-language. Typically, the mind-numbing escape offered by loud, pulsating silliness is amusing & refreshing, for a few seconds, like a naughty child. What some see as the excessive proliferation of junk (it has always existed) has been facilitated by mass-production with its imperative to aim for the biggest returns. Cheap music has always appealed at the lowest (i.e. physical)level. 20th-Century tecniques in, to take two, amplification & sequencing, make it easier to satisfy that appeal. Also, when 'Music' is mentioned it is assumed that the silly, cartoon version is intended.('Literature' though, is not yet taken to mean comic-books any more than viniculture describes alcopops.) In early post-WW2 years juvenile commercial pop was called 'crazy' music, as if people still had at least one foot on the ground & recognised that the appeal lay in its obvious naive excess & silliness. Now, though,we witness the spectacle of august journals treating this daft stuff as if it were of the intellectual canon. Perhaps 'baby-boomers' really are the fist generation never to reach adulthood?

Guy Barry
November 2nd, 2008
11:11 PM
I think Ian's perspective can best be understood from a comment he made about his school experiences on Desert Island Discs last week: "I was one of nine very peculiar little boys who spent most of their time arguing over whether Wagner was any good and what mass did a photon have..." I was one of them too. And boy, has it warped my perspective ever since!

ian bostridge
October 21st, 2008
9:10 AM
classical music yet remains essentially discursive, long- breathed, temperamentally serious, historically avant-garde.

Rick Visser
October 18th, 2008
10:10 PM
Let me preface my questions by saying that I am deeply greatful for classical music; it is the music I always gravitate toward. It reaches into my soul in ways no other music has been able to do. My life would be greatly diminished without it. I am a pretty good reader, but was unable to find an argument for the thesis of this article. It seemed more like an introduction to the thesis, an exposition of the setting for the argument, the thesis being that classical music still presents a challenge to the way we live now. And, who is represented by the 'we' in 'the way we live now.' How does Mr. Bostridge defend his thesis? My thought is that he has merely stated it, but has not made an argument for it. Can someone help me with this. I may be quite off-base.

Jonathan Pugh
October 16th, 2008
7:10 PM
This is something of a false dichotomy - almost protesting too much about the marginalisation of a specific portion of the classical canon. Musical fashions and tastes change even within what would be defined as a high-cultual ghetto - it would have been unthinkable for the celebration of Vaughan Williams this year to have achieved its UK profile when the prevailing orthodoxy was serialism and the Second Viennese School. The place of culture in a market-driven society is always going to be problematic, but holding onto notions of relative superiority does not answer the issue. It creates and sustains a siege mentality. It is perfectly possible to appreciate different styles and values for music, from superlative interpretations of the existing canon to improvisors and avant-garde rock and jazz musician/composers. Good music is good music - its power to move, challenge and engage with the emotions and the intellect is not tied to genre or perceived cultural value. It's probably far healthier for people not to have to pretend to like particular forms for the sake of status or advancement, and being able to make their own choices. The issue of providing suitable education and opportunities to make this happen is another issue altogether!

October 15th, 2008
6:10 PM
Ian, where do you think we are at the beginning of the 21st century in terms of our arts? I've been feeling for a very long time that Western arts are creatively and spiritually exhausted. And I'm not just talking about "serious" art. I'm thinking pop music, cinema and much of TV. They're all in the same boat.

ian bostridge
October 15th, 2008
4:10 PM
Why sad ? The Beatles and Brahms were prodigious musicians, Adorno a second-rater (musically speaking). And his views on "modern" music rather predictable.

October 14th, 2008
6:10 PM
amazing that Adorno doesn't appear at all here... sad that the Beatles and Brahms are the avatars.

Fugitive Ink
October 8th, 2008
10:10 AM
The comment above strikes me as odd. True, some classical music does sound 'convoluted' - but by no means all of it, near infinite variety being one of the classical repetoire's more unanswerable merits. Just to pick a random example, has Mr Barz ever tried listening to Schubert's songs, e.g. Winterreise? While not underestimated how astonishingly difficult it may be to perform these well, the result sounds, more often than not, almost heartbreakingly simple and direct - more like 'songs' than classical music - yet at the same time including, for those who like that sort of thing, 'deep often mind wrenching insights'. Give it a try. PS I am hugely enjoying Ian Bostridge's articles - the absolutely high point of Standpoint, as far as I'm concerned.

lars Solsvik
October 7th, 2008
7:10 PM
why not just say that seriousness "presents a challenge to the way we live..." and be done with it, no matter what artform or style of music. seriousness being the element which demands time and dedication, thus avoiding easy takeover from parasitehypes or demagogues. but i think Mr.Bostridge will agree that when classical music has "challenged, disturbed and subverted" the product itself were in a zone that resisted labelizing it as classical or whatever. Thus the problem sticks to the labelizers, the ones that want to glue this world togheter instead of dedicating themselves to listening, seeing and evolving.

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