The Cultural Politics of the Concertina

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Over on This Blog Will Change the World, there is a quite wonderful post from last November laying out the aesthetic manifesto of the 'concertina-brow'. To give you a flavour of it:

The Concertina Brow reserves the right to enjoy any artistic product, activity, food, beverage, or cultural artefact of any kind, with no regard for the degree to which his tastes may or may not align with highbrows, middlebrows, lowbrows, or any other brow style of which we may not be aware. The fact that a cultural artefact was favoured by Dead, White, European Males is of no significance, either positive or negative. The opinion of his contemporaries is likewise completely irrelevant to the Concertina Brow, with the exception of individuals whose critical acumen he respects. "Popular" and "unpopular" are terms neither of approbation nor contempt.

But do go and read the whole thing – it’s worth the visit over there.

Now what the concertina brow does very well here is to navigate a coherent course between the oft-conflicting discourses of taste and quality.

It permits of judgements of value for individual cultural products without admitting the validity of value comparisons between classes of cultural products. Moreover, the cultural fragmentation that presents us with such pluralism is interpreted not as a problem that needs solving, but as an inevitable by-product of the value our culture places on individuality and subjectivity.

The manifesto thus sees the attempt to assimilate different cultural forms into a single scale of values as not only logically invalid (since by their nature these forms are ‘partially incommensurable’) but also dangerous – whether the assimilation is attempted discursively or within the artforms themselves.

We see both the attempts to assimilate diverse genres, and their resistance to that assimilation in the overviews of musical styles you find in choral conducting textbooks. These chapters are mostly organised around the Grand Narrative of Western Art Music, but invariably find neat their chronological organisation disrupted when they need to talk about folk, jazz or spirituals. This is all music that is regularly performed by choirs, but its characteristics demand an organisation by style rather than history, and thus undermine the classical canon’s assumption that the two categories can be elided as a matter of course.

Attempts to assimilate diverse styles into a single culture accessible to all come in the form of crossover, in which the manifesto has this to say:

The Concertina Brow objects to all self-conscious "crossover" art as exemplifying a baleful Middlebrow influence. He is reconciled to such efforts only if they acquire a definitive expressive form of their own, which he will then judge on its own merits.

So, an edition of Mozart that adds a rock beat (something which I heard some choral colleagues deploring last summer – I’ve not seen it myself), not only trivialises Mozart but trivialises rock as well. On the other hand, the combination of rap with ska in The Streets’ ‘Original Pirate Material’ is distinctive and interesting and integral to the creation of an artistic voice so precisely located in a particular cultural experience.

There are echoes of the idea of the long tail here – the idea that the internet age has allowed niche markets to flourish. The days when a single culture was cemented by a common experience of a small handful of television channels are gradually being replaced by a cultural fragmentation in which people can form common interest groups at least partially dissociated from their physical locations.

This is a narrative I find partially convincing. If we look at our TV screens, we actually see an increasing dominance of cultural products designed to capture as wide an audience as possible: Saturday night prime time has spilled out all over the rest of the week. So in that sense it looks like the baleful middlebrow is strengthening its grip. On the other hand, I only know that because of conversations I’ve seen (and mostly skipped) in internet discussion forums – I don’t actually own a TV any more. It could be that what are described as ever more hysterical attempts to increase ratings is actually a response to concertina brows wandering off to find things that interest them.

The other thing this manifesto articulates nicely is the way that any one individual may have multiple areas of taste. There is a tendency in theories of music and identity to treat particular types of music as if they are exclusive to particular types of people – indeed, I used to do an exercise with MA students in which they would listen to a series of extracts and write a short description of the people who would own each CD. Now there is something to this: the results were always very consistent, so there is a clear sense of cultural association between style and identity. But actually, all the CDs I played were ones that I owned – and I am sure I am not the only person to have a collection that includes both Trevor Pinnock and the Ministry of Sound.

Anthony Giddens uses the term ‘lifestyle sectors’ to describe the more or less discrete worlds in which we have contemporaneous roles. And I think it works to describe our several discrete worlds of musical taste as well. Somebody who was both a member of the local methodist church and a magistrate would find any request to rate the relative value of those bits of her life as pretty meaningless: they’re both useful and rewarding things to do. There’s no reason why someone else should not like listening to the music of Squeeze and singing opera. (Both of these are examples from people I know – do you recognise yourself?)

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