| by Reilly Smethurst |
If music is the zeitgeist, then ours is a funny society. In ancient Greece, mousikē did not revolve around the human-animal (anthropos). Our capitalist democracies, by contrast, treat music as a servant of ordinary egos and bodies. The Australian federal government’s last major review of music education described music as something with “holistic benefits.” Music is good because it brings “satisfaction to people’s lives.” Its satisfactions are multiple: “physiological, psychomotor, emotional, cognitive and behavioral.” Music education is allegedly a Redeemer: it is responsible for “significant increases in the overall self-concept of children at-risk.” What exactly is the effect of such rhetoric? “At present, the music education has rotten teeth,” wrote a parent from the Northern Territory. Music is “the first item to ‘fall off the plate’ when time runs out,” complained a teacher from New South Wales. In short, the government’s report noted “the large amounts of lip service paid yet low priority given to music in schools overall.”
Music’s main problem is that it is universally liked. Consider how many teenagers claim to like music compared to mathematics. Now, consider how many secondary school students are compulsorily taught mathematics and compare this to the minuscule number of students that are taught music theory. Broadly speaking, music is liked by laypeople and is considered a comfort, to music’s detriment; mathematics is maligned and is considered a challenge, to mathematics’ benefit. “Two times two is four, whether one likes it or not,” wrote the composer Arnold Schoenberg; but music is subjected to any opinion whatsoever. Music today is a plaything of philodoxy — the pathological love of opinions — and philanthropy. This is not something to celebrate.
In Plato’s Theaetetus, Socrates inferred that the major weakness of philodoxy is the inevitable capitulation to crowd-speak. Specifically, Socrates made fun of Protagoras’s homo-mensura, which asserts, “Man is the measure of all things.” For clarity’s sake, the homo-mensura can be interpreted as this: “The human-animal’s perceptions and opinions determine the value of all things.” According to Socrates, Protagoras may as well have asserted, “Pig is the measure of all things,” or, “Baboon is the measure,” since those creatures also possess “the power of perception.” Protagoras, foiled by his own maxim, is “no better authority than a tadpole, let alone any other man.” If Protagoras’s homo-mensura is truly so weak, why does anyone bother to uphold it? One possible answer: it makes crowds happy. As the ancient progenitor of truthiness and alternative facts, the homo-mensura helps sophists win over audiences. “Everyone’s opinions are meaningful and valuable! You can decide on any scientific, political or artistic subject for yourself!” (Cue applause.) The worst effect of the homo-mensura is that it renders futile any attempt to examine or refute “each other’s ostentations and judgements,” for each individual demands respect and narcissistic recognition. “This is surely an extremely tiresome piece of nonsense,” Socrates decided.
Philodoxy made a noxious comeback in the post-modern period as perspectivism or relativism; hence Jean Baudrillard, echoing Socrates, complained that critical judgement is no longer possible in contemporary arts scenes. There is only “an amiable, necessarily genial sharing of nullity.” Baudrillard is not wrong. Cowards from the previous two generations frequently tell young artists, “Tone it down! You can’t afford to offend anyone. You have to build a network.”
Philodoxy rarely acts alone. Its partner in sophistic benevolence — philanthropy — helps artists and academics build professional networks, secure funding and generate a sense of importance. People from progressive arts scenes and Humanities faculties often act as if their fields are well-meaning. See, for example, Hildegard Westerkamp’s article, “Linking Soundscape Composition and Acoustic Ecology,” published by Cambridge University Press. What exactly is soundscape composition? In Westerkamp’s opinion, it is not just an artistic form; it is “an ecologically meaningful language.” The soundscape composer allegedly possesses the requisite know-how to help solve “one of the most urgent issues we face in this stage of the world’s life: the ecological balance of our planet.” Pretentious, philanthropic rhetoric such as this is so prevalent within progressive arts scenes, in 2011, Leigh Landy joked that he can no longer tell if the initialism E.M.F. stands for Electronic Music Foundation or Ecological Music Foundation.
There are plenty of examples from Australia and New Zealand that are typically overlooked. In 2016, the Queensland Conservatorium hosted a Sonic Environments conference, co-organised by the Australasian Computer Music Association and the Australian Forum for Acoustic Ecology. Between 2010 and 2013, Philip Samartzis (a professor of Sculpture, Sound and Spatial Practice at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) participated in an Australian Research Council project, entitled “Spatial Dialogues: Public Art and Climate Change.” See the official summary below.
This project will yield both social and environmental benefits through the creative ways it combines highly innovative public art projects with electronic social network systems to initiate trans-national civic dialogues on the problem of adaptation to climate change. It extends our sense of urban space to include the regional and global ecologies upon which cities are dependent. The role of water in the city will not only be represented as a vital resource but as an element essential to life and, as such, replete with deep cultural values frequently overlooked in the expedience of everyday urban life.
This material is born of philistine utilitarianism. As Francis Fukuyama explained, “utilitarian traditions make it difficult for even the fine arts to become purely formal. Artists like to convince themselves that they are being socially responsible.” This is broadly correct. At present, “responsible” Messiah poses are held in such high regard, a writer-musician like Natasha Rose Chenier can receive praise and attention for an article about father-daughter sex acts, so long as she spreads awareness about victimhood and claims to absolve others of shame. (Salon, intoxicated by sentimentality, praised Chenier’s “gut-wrenching and thought-provoking essay.”)
So when did the vain, philanthropic trends become so prominent? According to Claire Bishop, “socially engaged art, community-based art, experimental communities, dialogic art, littoral art, interventionist art, participatory art, collaborative art, contextual art” and so on flourished in capitalist democracies during the 1990s, and these things will likely continue to flourish in the near future. One of the basest examples cited by Bishop is Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Pad Thai. Pad Thai first took place in 1996 at the De Appel arts centre in Amsterdam. Tiravanija set up “a room of amplified electric guitars and a drum set” and allowed visitors to produce something deemed “their own.” This allegedly contributed to the public good. As the title of Pad Thai implies, the project’s historical precursors are participatory works that presented the banal consumption of food and drink as art. (Bishop cited works from the 1960s and the early 1970s by the Fluxus group, Tom Marioni, Allan Ruppersberg and Daniel Spoerri.) It is not difficult to grasp why Baudrillard named “banality” and “mediocrity” two major elements of contemporary art ideology.
Unsurprisingly, civilisation’s reduction to human-animal banality attracted the ire of Socratic philosophers and traditionalists, a few of whom have recently regained readers. From 1946 to 1962, Alexandre Kojève referred to the “American way of life” as “Man’s return to animality.” Kojève believed that Socratic-Hegelian philosophy had disappeared from capitalist democracies, but “everything that makes Man happy” would be preserved indefinitely. Around the same time, Julius Evola claimed that “the formula for all human happiness and wholeness” is best suited to “the lowest and dullest levels of society,” for it is “little better than bovine.” Oswald Spengler issued a similar argument back in 1933. He resented capitalist democracies’ “serious abdication from [teleological] history at the cost of dignity,” the protection of everyday comforts “against destiny,” and “the ‘happy ending’ of an empty existence.” Spengler also derided “the dreary train of world-improvers” and American, group-improvisatory music.
Democracy qua unlettered philodoxy, philanthropy or tadpole-authority never lasts long. According to America’s second president, “it soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself.” Why? It’s all about the muzhik, man. In less sensational terms, contemporary democracies — arts scenes, especially — are pre-Socratic. Our setting is close to that of Aeschylus’s Prometheus — a character described as both a philanthropist (philanthropos tropos) and a master of techniques and technology (didaskalos technēs pasēs). Prometheus prefigured two broad, cultural categories: “capitalists with social consciences” plus “social media and augmented banality.” If Hermes is correct, our little heroes can expect a dismal end.
Reilly Smethurst is an Australian-born writer. He has a philosophy doctorate from the Queensland Conservatorium. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org