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 The Death of Modernism in Contemporary Music
Autonomy vs. Heteronomy
Ahistoricity vs. Historicity
>High/Low: Divisionism vs. Synthesis
Conception vs. Perception
Conclusion: Postmodernity

IV. High/Low: Divisionism vs. Synthesis

I do not belong to your organization. I know nothing about it. I'm not even interested in it--and yet, a request has been made for me to give what purports to be a keynote speech. Before I go on, let me warn you that I talk dirty, and that I will say things you will neither enjoy nor agree with. You shouldn't feel threatened, though, because I am a mere buffoon, and you are all Serious American Composers. For those of you who don't know, I am also a composer. I taught myself how to do it by going to the library and listening to records. I started when I was fourteen and I've been doing it for thirty years. I don't like teachers. I don't like most of the things you believe in--and if that weren't bad enough, I earn a living by playing the electric guitar.
(Frank Zappa, excerpt from the keynote address delivered at the 1984 convention of the American Society of University Composers (ASUC))

The conceptual division between high and low culture inherent in Modernist precepts is a direct result of the imperative of social autonomy which dictates a necessary opposition to the qualitative equation of value and popularity. Any attempt at connecting with the culture at large through one's medium is immediately considered an artistic compromise as the only means to achieve this connection lies in exploiting those procedures and mannerisms which are common to all who exist in society. This attempt would consequently curtail the artist's ability to fulfill the necessary criteria of originality since the general population is familiar only with those gestures graced with the luxury of time to allow an adequate degree of cultural dissemination. Hence, with the imperative of originality firmly in place, all creative ventures which in any way incorporate commonplace musical gestures are immediately categorized as 'non-art', or perhaps more charitably, 'low art', or 'mass art'. To the Modernists, low or mass art, by virtue of it's derivative nature and it's relatively gargantuan proportions, is a malignant, monolithic cultural presence whose primary effect is one of artistic ossification, intellectual stagnance, and creative inertia. In short, it is a threat not only to the aesthetic teleological principles of Modernism but also to the cultural development of the society as a whole. Low culture is ubiquitous, it has taken complete control over the masses who have long since traded in their ability to make conscious decisions for a mindless dependence on the commodification machine of mass culture, which is all too happy to make the decisions for them. Once the informational possibilities are preselected and prepackaged by the cultural power brokers they are then presented in a desiccated form to the masses, marketed only for those features deemed most marketable, at the expense not only of its own potential, but also of the potential of the people to entertain other possibilities and alternatives. Adorno observes, "The reactions of listeners appear to have no relation to the playing of the music. They have reference, rather, to the command of publishers, sound film magnates, and rulers of radio. Famous people are not the only stars. Works begin to take the same role. A pantheon of bestsellers builds up. The programs shrink, the shrinking process not only removes the moderately good, but the accepted classics themselves undergo a selection that has nothing to do with quality." [Adorno 1994: 540]. The entropic nature of this state of affairs leads to an increasing level of intolerance toward the presentation of what is new and different. The constant reiteration of traditional artistic forms and styles leads to a disproportionate desire for comfort and inactivity over imaginative interpretation and intellectual stimulation. This increased affinity for repetition and familiarity finds expression in the marketing slogans and advertisements of the aforementioned cultural money mongers in an effort to distort and exploit those features which will ensure a profitable return. The result is a vicious and increasingly emaciated circle which threatens to either assimilate the Modernist creations into it's context in a desiccated form or to expel it from the culture altogether. To be Modern it is not enough to distinguish yourself as occupying a higher ideological plane in relation to low culture, or to proclaim yourself as the unacknowledged cultural messiah, you must also take an aggressive stand against its crippling properties, if for no other reason than for spiritual self-preservation.

The Postmodern position on the issue of divisionism in contemporary culture is less the result of an intentional dialectic with our predecessors than that of a characteristic distaste for all things exclusionary. This Modernist dichotomy of high and low is seen as a manifestation of aesthetic bigotry, a reflection of the oppressive nature of white, upper income males who implicitly use factors of race, sex, and economic status to stratify artistic worth in society. As Krukowsi explains, the "distinction between fine and popular art loses credibility in Postmodernism because they are seen more as fostering political illusions than worthy ambitions." [Krukowski 1992: 200]. "Art for art's sake, and the formalism that was part of it, floated to the 'top' of society, to a cultured elite who saw themselves as a cut above those who could not comprehend this art and who wallowed in the vulgar, the popular, arts. What begins to emerge is that the distinction between high and popular art does not merely distinguish different types of art, but, much more than this, it actually accentuates and reinforces traditional class divisions in society." [Novitz: 35-6]. Modernism is seen as the last bastion of white European male domination over the realm of artistic activity--another example in a long line of elitist and exclusionary historical aesthetic contexts. If the underlying artistic concerns of Modernism are rooted in the world of philosophy, the artistic concerns of Postmodernism are firmly entrenched in the sphere of history. How fair are historical accounts with regard to artistic validity if all historical documentation is marred with the same exclusionary tendency apparent in the ideology of our aesthetic predecessors? Look at the diversity of artistic activity in contemporary society; certainly the artistic climates of past cultures were more varied than our historical accounts of them would seem to describe. If these aesthetic biases are truly invalid, then much of what should have been documented is lost forever, covered over by the self-aggrandizing efforts of xenophobic cultural philosophies and megalomaniacal social agendas. Now that we are aware of this prejudicial injustice we must make an effort to move beyond it. Besides, denying this inherent right of all creative practices to be placed on a level aesthetic plane would result in a split in our own personae, and would reveal a somewhat hypocritical nature in our own everyday activities. The Postmodern attraction to this argument is further enhanced by the fact that even artists subscribing to this set of beliefs at one level or another find themselves leading a double life: one existing in the halls of academia, (the contemporary equivalent of Zarathrustra's mountaintop) dedicated to Modernist principles of formalism and autonomy, creating intellectually intriguing compositional structures which adhere to an equally engaging framework of compatible procedural theories; the other existing in society, watching T.V., listening to Jazz, Hip-Hop and Rock & Roll, reading Stephen King novels, worshipping cultural icons, and keeping up on--perhaps even participating in--current social trends, concerns, and tribulations. In this respect, the Modernists, many of whom indulged in one or more of the various forbidden fruits of popular culture, were, in a sense, closet eaters, neither out nor about, whose secret fancies and capricious escapades were experienced not without a certain degree of shame--perhaps this is, in part, what made it so attractive.

Aside from the Postmodern affinity for inclusionism and its disdain for social prejudice, another aspect of contemporary aesthetic ideology which is incompatible with the Modern concept of divisionism is its opposition to the imperative of autonomy as a deciding factor of an object's artistic validity. As mentioned earlier, the heteronomous nature of Postmodern aesthetics leads to a democratization of available influences. Hence, all things being equal as potential sources for creative inspiration, the arbitrary boundary between the two cultural traditions is necessarily dissolved. Rather than being seen as a source for criticism, mass culture is considered a valuable artistic asset, a treasure trove of creative ideas and effective tactics for generating and engaging larger audiences. Replacing the Modernist sentiments of fear, disdain, and envy is a feeling of admiration, and a desire to emulate, perhaps even compete with mass art's relative popularity, and it's capacity to communicate in a wider sphere. In contradistinction to a Modernist approach, popularity is considered an aesthetic virtue, and the ability to reach large numbers of people, by hook or by crook, is seen as an artistic act worthy of sincere admiration. Popularity being considered a valuable artistic trait, Postmodernists trace an inherent contradiction in our previous beliefs regarding the comparative value of high and low art. Novitz explains, "the popular arts are seldom seen as the bearers of our cultural heritage or our national heritage. If anything, most are denigrated as valueless and crass, but they continue all the while to be sought out as objects worthy of our attention. The high arts, by contrast, earn lavish praise but are seldom the object of popular attention." [Novitz: 21]. It is a peculiar characteristic of contemporary music to recognize the complex diversity of its cultural tradition, to utilize those aspects deemed most useful for the purposes of expression, and to place on an equal plane any and all artistic possibilities inherent in this intricate web of human creativity. Nothing can escape this network of ideas as the web of influence is an indiscriminate keeper--high, low, historical, Modern, academic, ethnic--all become distinct and equal parts, captured in the diverse rubric of Postmodern artistic thought.

The Death of Modernism
[Introduction] [Autonomy vs. Heteronomy] [Ahistoricity vs. Historicity]
[High/Low: Divisionism vs. Synthesis] [Conception vs. Perception]
[Conclusion: Postmodernity] [Bibliography]

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Copyright © 1996 William Rhoads. All rights reserved.
Last updated 26 June 1997. Contact information.