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This item is taken from PN Review 249, Volume 46 Number 1, September - October 2019.

ON 4 JULY the Guardian published ‘The Guardian view on classical music’. This unsigned editorial statement expressed not some William Boot eccentricity or George Eaton spite but what was presented as the newspaper’s considered opinion. Did Guardian contributors feel comfortable with the tenor and rhetoric of the piece? The majority of reader responses, well over 300 of them, were having none of it.

‘Classical music: art or status symbol’, the headline asked. The sub-headline removed ambiguity: ‘While the Proms will bring joy, Beethoven and Bach are too often heard for the wrong reasons’. The accompanying photograph showed the culpable Union Jacks of the Last Night of the Proms: what more evidence of ‘wrong reasons’ was called for? Clearly ‘too often’ is once a year. The 900 words below the picture begin, ‘What is classical music for?’ Answer comes there none. (In a lively response in UnHerd [12 July] James McMillan asked, ‘What is the Guardian for?’) But it appears that, whatever it is for, classical music ‘has now developed two grim social functions’. One function is to ‘shift or subdue targeted undesirables’ (‘Burger franchises from London to San Francisco are among institutions reporting that piping classical music reduces antisocial behaviour’); the other is ostentation: ‘for the rich, events like the Proms provide status experiences that will convey bragging rights with fellow have-yachts’ (‘the Proms has joined Ascot, Wimbledon and Glyndebourne as a magnet for conspicuous consumption’).

The piece quotes a maxim from Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, hot off Shmoop, ‘Art keeps itself alive through its social force of resistance; unless it reifies itself, it becomes a commodity.’ disclosing how fresh its exposure to the theme is. A slightly longer sound-bite might have added, ‘Its contribution to society is not communication with it but rather something extremely mediated: it is resistance in which, by virtue of inner-aesthetic development, social development is reproduced without being imitated.’ This was a little too complicated. As, from the same source, ‘The more brazenly society is transformed into a totality in which it assigns everything, including art, to its place, the more completely does art polarize into ideology and protest; and this polarization is hardly to art’s advantage.’

James McMillan notes: ‘The writer completely missed the fact that the most interesting and controversial thing about the 20th century’s foremost thinker on aesthetics and philosophy was his trenchant criticism of popular culture – especially the mass-produced, American-influenced sort so repetitively, monotonously and unquestioningly championed by the Guardian.’

The Guardian chose to highlight certain readers’ comments: ‘From the point of view of pure craftsmanship (songwriting, instrumentation, composition) there is no real difference between, say J.S.Bach and A.A.Lucassen.’ Also, the ‘kinds of’ voices ‘pouring out the same meaningless drivel’ on Radio 3: ‘exploring, evoking, nuance, sensitivity - from a very limited, but educated-sounding, pool of vocabulary’. The phrase ‘educated-sounding’ is smug with pre-judgement, or prejudice.

The closing paragraph of ‘the Guardian view’ demonstrates how the populism which is denaturing political discourse is energetically at work in the cultural world as well. Ideological nostrums are called into play that, by presumption and prescription, anathematise categorically (classical music: Beethoven and Bach) and threaten criticism and analysis. Indeed, threaten culture itself. ‘Beethoven, and other dead white men whose once-revolutionary works make up much of the classical canon, wrote music to be heard appreciatively, not used as audible spa treatment, still less as tools to neutralise delinquency. They deserve better.’ As readers of the Guardian, we deserve better.

The Guardian is not alone in issuing cultural judgements underwritten by ideological prejudices. The critical pressure on artists to conform grows stronger as understanding of the art forms and their development wanes, and it is presumed that art is something everyone has a right to do. Everyone has the right to make art, of course, but those rights can be exercised in a wide field, and the Sunday watercolourist needn’t be expected to aspire to wall-space in the Tate.

Eimear McBride’s first novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, a book completed in 2004 and only now published. In the Irish Times (5 June 2019) Sam Jordison, the original Galley Beggar publisher of the book, generously reflected on the fact that economic reasons probably dictated the larger commercial publishers’ wariness to take on McBride’s book. But Jordison lamented the perception, not uncommon in publishing, that ‘editors could take it but the public couldn’t’. It’s an old argument, given new life by the ideological decorums (which entail condescensions) of the day. It happened last year when Anna Burns won the Booker Prize for Milkman. This time it was The Times and not the Guardian. The book was a ‘tough read’: literary fiction, it declared, ‘means fiction that adheres to a set of stylistic conventions designed to reassure culturally aspirational middle-class readers that they’re participating in an accepted social ritual’. We are back to class, ritual, and wrong reasons.

It is troubling to editors and readers who, whatever their politics, don’t want to be prescriptively trammelled, to see this kind of reductive language used, even by writers who, given their vocation, should be most alert to the perils such reductivity entails. When Val McDermid chose her ten favourite exportable UK gay writers (headlined in the Guardian of 10 August as ‘The word is out’), her language assorted awkwardly with the rhetoric she and others have used in waging battle for openness. In this age of diversity, she declares, ‘These writers are writing for everyone. These are not words for a niche readership. These are not writings for a ghetto. These are the works of writers who have something to say that can be – and should be – heard by as many people as possible.’ The word ‘ghetto’ is troubling here, as is the word ‘heard’. As is the imperative ‘should’. This doesn’t feel a very open space, even as it purports to be promoting openness.

‘The Chair Speaketh’ copyright Michael Augustin, 2019

‘The Chair Speaketh’, © Michael Augustin, 2019

In fact, it smacks of triumphalism. Another kind of culturally questionable triumphalism is at work in the poetry ‘ghetto’. In the interests of accommodating ‘Instapoets’, Andrea Reece of Forward Arts claims, ‘The poets of Instagram have changed the way in which young people see poetry.’ A graph of the ‘Instapoets’ chunk of the poetry market’ – based on Nielsen Bookscan -- shows Rupi Kaur outselling T.S. Eliot by a factor of 8:1, Leonard Cohen by a factor of 4.5:1, and Homer by a factor of 3:1. It’s reassuring that Eliot (£120k) still outsells R.H. Sin (£91k), who outsells Kate Tempest (£78k), who outsells Charly Cox, who outsells Nikita Gill, who outsells Amanda Lovelace… Yrsa Daley-Ward (£16k) and Warsan Shire (£6k) are mere blips by comparison to the commercial big hitters. Commercial big hitting is what matters.

These figures reveal the scale of one part of the poetry industry, the state of poetic literacy among ‘young people’, and the hold of social media and the media at large in promoting market leaders. What they tell us about poetry remains to be seen.

What might the right reasons be for ‘hearing’ classical music, or poetry?

This item is taken from PN Review 249, Volume 46 Number 1, September - October 2019.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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