Review of Taruskin's Article, Pt. 2: If You Can't Beat 'em, Should You Join 'em?

I just spent the morning listening intently to Paul Hindemith’s 1938 operatic masterpiece, Mathis der Maler. This work is ultimately an apologia for the so-called, “ivory tower”.  It’s also an apologia for Hindemith’s personal artistic and political credos, formed in the crucible of Nazi Germany, but that’s another story.  In short, the artist determines that art is, if not above, at least not predicated or necessarily determined by politics, and the artist has a free hand to determine his own relationship to society, and is not to be bullied either by the tyrant or the (probably justified) revolutionary.  The work is a blockbuster, a profound work of (it sadly seems) eternal relevence.  Why this magnificent work is not a staple of the repertory, I cannot say…actually, I can, but the explanation depresses me. 

Which of course, brings us to Taruskin’s exasperating article.  Taruskin claims: “There are two ways of dealing with the new pressure that classical music go out and earn its living. One is accommodation, which can entail painful losses and suffer from its own excesses …Composers have accommodated by adopting more “accessible” styles.  Love it or hate it, such accommodation is a normal part of the evolutionary history of any art.”  I don’t know where to begin with this seeming advocacy of cowardice and cynicism.  The fact that we have the St. Matthew Passion, the Grosse Fuge, Winterreise, and Wozzeck, among other works, already constitutes a persuasive rationale for the “unreasonableness”, the “intractability”, the “lack of accommodation” of the artist.  Accommodation is a prescription for pap.  And, by the way, I think that the works listed above have “earned their living”. You could say, they’ve “made their living”; blunt as this sounds, they have forced their way into the consciousness of true music lovers, and the desires of casual music-lovers, to whom Taruskin appears to cater, is something else, something to which Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and Berg, at their generally acknowledged, “best”, appear not to particularly care about…rest assured, lesser figures will care about this public, and the most fortunate of them will get rich doing it.   

There are indeed, especially in academia, where so-called “artists” are protected from the judgement of the marketplace, composers who appear to produce sterile works for the approbation of their similiarly inclined colleagues rather than for the living consumption of real music lovers.  This is a pathology, but this pathology obtains even more in popular genres, where imitation and formulae for commercial puposes rival the ubiquitous imitation and formulae extant in the Ivory Tower.  

Taruskin: “The other way is to hole up in such sanctuary as still exists and hurl imprecations and exhortations.  That is the path of resistance to change and defense of the status quo, and it is the path chosen by the authors of the books under review here.  The status quo in question, by now a veritable mummy, is the German romanticism that still reigns in many academic precincts…” So Taruskin is overtly saying, “If you don’t like it, Lump it!” An artist can’t protest? And historians, by the way, tell us that vital aspects of Western Civilization was preserved by so-called sanctuaries (monasteries, for instance) in the Dark Ages.  No, I am not suggesting that current academia serves anywhere near so vital or admirable a function; on the contrary, I tend to agree with Taruskin’s contempt for the self important navel gazing of so many of his colleagues.  Quixotically, Taruskin’s suggestion appears to be similar to that of Hans Sachs’ (I’m fresh off hearing a broadcast of the notorious Katerina Wagner production of Die Meistersinger on Saturday) maxim of “let the people decide”…The people always decide, in the long run, Professor Taruskin, but they don’t need you to congratulate “them” (and I ain’t sure who “them” really is) on their  immediate, unreflective  judgement; especially when, as is usual, that judgment is a product of ever changeable current tastes and fads. And of course there are commercial, and even occasionally, academic, manipulation by professors and blog-writers, inter alia, who seek to influence them in their judgment.