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All Kinds of Brows

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All Kinds of Brows

Reading a new collection of essays by Richard Taruskin, in this case Cursed Questions, is always a disconcerting experience because it is, on the one hand, stimulating and informative, and on the other hand, dismaying and destabilizing. It is stimulating to question our common assumptions, but also disturbing. Taruskin assembles such a large cast of characters and delves so deeply into the cross-currents of culture that at the end of the day, one scarcely knows what it is safe to think or believe.

The essay I am currently wrestling with is titled "Which Way Is Up? On the sociology of taste" and it is a knotty one indeed. The issue revolves around the problem of modernism and modernity and the sociology of taste, specifically how the taste for the finer arts, classical music and its more challenging examples, has been promoted to the masses as an enlivening and upwardly mobile product. The issues are complex and Taruskin skillfully unveils the history of what used to be called "middlebrow" taste and aspirations. Everyone is going to learn to like Beethoven, and perhaps even Stravinsky, whether they want to or not! He remarks:
More advanced technique is now to be equated with enhanced moral standing. That way is now up. And so it is with the politicized critical vocabulary we use today, in which progressive is given a default aesthetic privilege and conservative is stigmatized.
Taruskin, Richard. Cursed Questions . University of California Press. Kindle Edition.
Taruskin takes aim at some of the more uncompromising figures in this project such as one of my own heroes, Joseph Kerman, as follows:
Was there ever a musical writer as militantly highbrow as Macdonald? None but Joseph Kerman comes to mind. His Opera as Drama—derived from a series of critical essays he had written in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when he was a very young man, for the Hudson Review, one of the many “little magazines” devoted to high culture in midcentury America—is the only musicological book (or perhaps I should say, the only book by a certified, sheepskin-carrying musicologist) that seems to exemplify in all its purity the highbrow or snob position defined by Richard Peterson, the leading American sociologist of brows, as “moralistic contempt for and distancing from all cultural manifestations that do not fit with what is taken to be proper.” Kerman’s book has been compared with F. R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition as an exercise in winnowing. Its ten chapters comprise what John Updike (thinking of Vladimir Nabokov’s literary judgments) called a “willful little pantheon” of exemplary works. Its tone is suitably irritable and prim, in keeping with the class anxiety to which snobbery gives outward expression. As Peterson writes, to a thoroughbred highbrow “even the ‘serious’ study of popular culture by academics is a threat to ‘standards,’ because, within the received perspective, it is seen as lending legitimacy to that which is vulgar, and it thus threatens the sanctity of the status boundaries distinguishing between what is fine and what is common.” Opera as Drama starts right off with a warning that “flabby relativism is certainly the danger,” and with foreboding: “it is hard to think that all our operatic activity can proceed much longer without standards.”
Taruskin, Richard. Cursed Questions . University of California Press. Kindle Edition.
Ignoring the recurring slaps ("moralistic contempt," "proper," "willful little pantheon," "irritable and prim," and so on) that Taruskin assembles to cue us as to how to evaluate Kerman's stance, I pretty much am on Kerman's side here. But, as aforementioned, with a disturbed uneasiness. Perhaps my own belief in some sort of aesthetic standards and purity is just so much codswallop. But I really can't disavail myself of the notion that yes, despite the enormous intellectual smokescreen Taruskin releases to hang over the battlefield, there is such a thing as aesthetic vulgarity. I offer as evidence a truly nauseating arrangement by André Rieu of the middle movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo with the guitar solo given to a set of bells.

But after Taruskin has delivered his devastating analytical blows to the whole sociological history of high, middle and lowbrow consumption of art, one almost wants to emulate Whoopi Goldberg and simply shave off one's eyebrows!
A religious, ethical impulse undergirds all art promotion that sees art consumption as a means of self-improvement. That especially includes middlebrow promotion, going all the way back to Matthew Arnold himself.
Taruskin, Richard. Cursed Questions . University of California Press. Kindle Edition.
If one sees the idea that art can improve oneself in some way as being illegitimate, then what does that leave? Art as a purely formalistic pleasure with no social context? Surely that is not what Taruskin is arguing?
I had a bit of sober academic fun debunking these religious appeals in The Oxford History of Western Music, as regarded both César Franck and Elliott Carter. Nobody paid much notice in the case of Franck, but there was a furious reaction to the discussion of Carter, especially because the Carter chapter was paired with one on Britten to illustrate what I was calling “the essential question of modern art,” namely, “whether artists lived in history or in society.”126 Pretty much everyone with a stake in the question assumed I was coming down heavily on the side of society, and therefore on the side of Britten. That is how I gained my middlebrow and antimodernist spurs.
Taruskin, Richard. Cursed Questions . University of California Press. Kindle Edition. 
Taruskin makes the claim that the history of the 20th century, specifically that of the relationship between the Nazis and classical music, forever severs claims to the moral benefits of classical music.
Without a moral claim, what is left of our brows? Just taste, which, to remind you, Bourdieu defined as “manifested preference.” The definition is important: it shows why de gustibus non est disputandum gets it wrong. We incessantly declare and dispute, in pursuit of social capital or (as it used to be called) social advantage, the very thing that the proverb tells us is beyond dispute. In an important sense, then, our tastes are not even tastes unless we are disputing them. As long as there was perceived social advantage in a taste for high art, and as long as its pursuit mandated the negation and avoidance of the low, the middlebrow could thrive—but, much more vitally, so could high art itself in countries, like the United States, without a tradition of aristocratic patronage. The middlebrow was part of the support system that sustained the art that could not pay its way, of which classical music was perhaps the archetype. The middlebrow’s much-deplored, easily derided commercial enterprises gave classical music a purchase it now seems to be losing irreversibly.
Taruskin, Richard. Cursed Questions . University of California Press. Kindle Edition.
 But, you know, my own personal history is at odds with this. I really never pursued classical music because of some notion of social advantage as there was none--not where I came from. There was only a sort of diffuse notional advantage in that knowledge of classical music, along with literature, philosophy, history and so forth, did offer one a wide perspective that, patently, was not very common.

I think the most disturbing thing about Taruskin's discussion is that he seems too fastidious to make any simple claims of value. He won't argue outright for cultural relativism, but he acts as if it were an unavoidable truth. Or am I just missing the point?

At the end of the day, Richard Taruskin, in addition to his monumental five-volume history of Western Music, wrote another monumental two volume, 1,800 pages, devoted to the music of Igor Stravinsky. Not André Rieu!

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