A Ringing Bell: More Than Music at Play
The Politics of Experience (November 15, 2008)
The many long, thoughtful responses to Crowds Ignore World Renowned Violinist: What Does This Say? support my basic contention that much more is at play here (bad pun intended) than just commuters' likes and dislikes and the "recognition of beauty."
Longtime contributor Eric A. submitted the following provocative email and essay on the subject:
This may "tweak your nose" as the response says, but I believe that the Bell experiment intersects a lot of cultural assumptions that need to be examined. Ran Prieur is far better at this than I am--instinctively zeroing in on the unspoken argument--but I simply fall back on cross-cultural studies, to compare Native ways to familiar (western) ones. The difference is so jarring, you can sometimes see yourself.Here is Eric's essay, "The Bell Jar: Slipping Out to Look Within." My comments on the subject follow.
I'm astonished at how much both you and the Journal make of “Pearls Before Breakfast”. I wouldn't have stopped for Joshua Bell either, but the reason is simple: I don't like classical music.
Thank you, Eric, for an exploration of the key topics I sought to raise. I agree with you that "experts", or perhaps more accurately, "group-think" is the key issue here, along with how we respond to that propaganda/persuasion/training, etc.
But your essay also made me wonder what sorts of politics of experience
were at play which I missed in my own entry on the subject.
It seems I need to revisit some themes I tried to explore in the original entry Crowds Ignore World Renowned Violinist: What Does This Say?
1. I don't just like classical music: I specifically mentioned rock and jazz, and noted that I enjoyed classical Persian music, which I'd never heard before. My point was that music works on a level beyond "likes and dislikes" and that in my view, the children's desire to stop and listen was proof of this.
If you know nothing of a musical tradition and structure, can you still want to stop and listen? I would say yes. I would also ask: if you've never heard classical Persian, for example, (or any other mode of music), then how can you even know what you like and dislike about it?
2. Children are also proof in my view that music transcends what "experts" have commanded or judged; the kids wanted to stop and listen even though they had not been told to like or value classical music.
3. Let's say someone says they don't like rock and roll: what exactly is he/she rejecting? A Day in the Life by the Beatles, or Jimi Hendrix's Star Spangled Banner? To say someone doesn't like rock is rather broad, isn't it? Ditto for classical music. I understand Eric's rejection of elitism, but we should recall that classical music was also popular music in its day; it was not tainted with an "elitism" tag. We should also be wary of falling for an anti-intellectualism that masquerades as anti-elitism.
The Chinese have embraced Western classical music; are they now a nation of pointy-headed intellectual elites we should loathe and scorn because classical music is a priori an elite interest? Or do they understand something we don't?
But my main point is that music played well expresses something immediate which requires no knowledge. So is it bias that deadens our sense of hearing, or is it being in a hurry, or both?
4. Let's estimate that at least 10% of the commuters passing by either liked classical music or were familiar with some strands of that tradition. This would be about 110 people. Let's also assume 10% liked Celtic music, and the Chieftains had donned the garb of street musicians and offered up an impromptu concert.
How many people would stop to listen to masters playing either music? Some readers suggested the pieces Bell played were too downbeat to attract an audience. Perhaps. But anyone with a passing interest in classical music would at least have noticed. So would more Celtic fans have stopped for the Chieftains? If so, what would that say? or would the Chieftains have attracted an audience of people who knew nothing of Celtic music but liked what they heard because it was more upbeat and rousing?
I don't have answers; this is my way of noting the subject is muddied. We could also speculate that only 1% of the commuters (11 people) even liked classical music, and thus half of them stopped. We could also speculate that 99% "don't like classical music." But have they ever heard enough to judge? How would you respond if someone says they "don't like rock"? Is it OK to dislike classical music and jazz because those are viewed as elitist, but not OK to dislike rock because it's so obviously a broad bias based on something other than the actual music?
5. My thesis was not based on elitism, but on the opposite premise: that music was universal, and that "not listening", for whatever reason, lay at the heart of the 1,100 commuters' disinterest in Bell's playing. Is Celtic music more appealing than classical or jazz? Maybe, but both jazz (Dixieland, swing, bossa nova, etc.) and classical were the popular music of various eras, and it is wrong to dismiss them as "elitist" because there are overtones of snobbery associated with them now. That is a cultural artifact, not a characteristic of the music itself.
6. My point (not well stated, it seems) was that if 10% of the random sampling of commuters had at some point been willing to pay to listen to classical music, or even shown up for a free concert, bought a CD, etc. then it was a pretty poor showing that only 5% of that 10% who had some appreciation of that type of music seemed to be aware of Bell's presence and gifts.
7. Is Shakespeare also an elitist interest? His work was very popular in its day, as entertainment, not as "heavy elitist lifting." Ditto Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, both of whom remain popular much as Beethoven et al. remain popular in some circles. Does that make Twain and Dickens elitist interests?
8. Our educational system seems to have done a poor job of doing anything regarding classical music except constructing a gargantuan bias against it as "elitist."
If you don't like classical music, why is that so? It certainly pleased crowds of non-elites for hundreds of years. Do we not like it now solely because it has been associated with those pointy-headed elites we love to hate, they of phony pretensions, etc.? Do we also hate Shakespeare and Melville and a host of other material we are taught are classics?
Or do we dislike them because they are presented in such a boring, dead-handed manner? Is music appreciation even taught in schools now? I suspect not. So are we disliking something for its elitist pretensions rather than the music itself?
It is certainly safe to like country-western music in the U.S., and politically hazardous indeed to like and value classical music. That alone puts you in the line leading to the "class struggle" guillotine.
9. We can thus discern a Politics of Experience at work here. Eric and other readers perceive an elitist agenda at work, as in, tsk, tsk, the zombie middle-class consumers have no ear for beauty, etc. This is certainly a healthy skepticism; we should be alert to this sort of fawning, pretension, etc.
But as someone who likes classical music in the same way I like Hendrix, some flavors of jazz, world music, raggae, etc. etc. etc. I also detect an anti-intellectualism passing for anti-elitism, i.e. a rejection of classical music as emblematic of an anti-elitist stance which effectively blocks the ears as well as the very independent thought we all claim to support.
10. It seems Eric and I agree that the goal is to foster and be tolerant of self-directed independent thought. But it seems to me the defenders of commuters' ignoring Bell are following a largely political script which casts classical music as an elitist construct which is rightly rejected and/or ignored as having no relevance. appeal, etc. except as a statement or "brand" of elitism.
Can classical music be heard in America without referencing political biases
and scripts? It appears that is difficult indeed. It is certainly anyone's "right"
to dislike classical music, along with disliking rock, jazz, raggae, rap, etc. etc.
But I have to wonder if any adult is able to actually just listen to
classical music as a child
does: without political scripts interfering with the music "as it is."
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