Thursday, 23 August 2018

Postmodernism as happy redemption

The New York critic Alex Ross, author of 'The Rest is Noise'- a brilliant book about 20C music - reveals himself in a recent article in The New Yorker as an enthusiastic postmodernist, for whom distinctions in terms of intention, artistic quality, meaning and cultural awareness have been happily thrown-out of the window, so that the 'oppressive weight' of artistic achievement, as represented by the repertoire as celebrated in the concert hall and opera house, can be escaped, and the primitive, uncooked, pretentious nonsense parading as music and claiming attention and money from a gullible public, can be embraced without feelings of inadequacy.

Ross' description of the Western musical tradition as a "highbrow theme park that trades on nostalgia for a half-mythical past" gives it away without inhibition: for people like him, there are no universals to be found in that body of works, nothing that could have any bearing on the human condition in general, let alone on his own life or concerns, and this reveals in the most embarrassing way his complete inability to understand what music, as a serious art form, is. Hence his happy survey of the splintered, decadent and amateuristic playground that follows in the wake of modernism's demise as an ideology, which offers a place for the crowd of enthusiastic but entirely untalented people populating much of public space, and the taking seriously - as musical works - such nonsense as this 'installation', concept art clumsily related to current political issues:

The current pluralism in contemporary music is certainly a good thing, and there are definitely good works to be found, including within the field of sonic art. But the erosion of modernist ideology does not mean that suddenly all distinctions in aesthetics and artistic quality and intention, have disappeared. Ross falls into the trap of naive redemption from cultural understanding, encouraged by the nitwits, including the nitwits who write enthusiastically about the redemption from art. Why this enthusiasm? It is some sort of fake religion: the approval of the trivial, nonsensical, ugly, immature and ephemeral offers absolution of guilty feelings surrounding all those elements dwelling in the individual believer - "Look! so many people produce that stuff and so many people like it and it gets publicity and it's being paid for, so why worry about my own inadequacies?"


  1. Yes, but his sentence following the theme-park one is also worth quoting:

    "Yet tradition can also foster a revolt against a quasi-totalitarian popular culture that subjects everyone to the same bundle of products."

    And don't forget that his article is a book review, so much of what argues, or reports, stems from Rutherford-Johnson. So Mr. Ross is maybe less of a poseur than you seem to think?

    1. I read that more like keeping another pot on the fire in case he would be seen through. I have read other articles by Ross which showed a gradual shift from his earlier opinions. It has become, for music journalists, very difficult to be critical about contemporary production of any kind (including popular entertainment), because that may give the impression of being 'conservative', 'rightwingy', 'intolerant' and especially: 'elitist'. From the position of the egalitarian world view, the worst sin is to make distinctions, which is 'unfair' and advocates the 'exclusion' of people.