by Eli Namay
Tamas Vilaghy’s recent review of Dal Niente that addressed identity politics and curation ultimately exposed the limitations of binary thinking when describing complex sociopsychological phenomena. In dealing with aspects of collective and individual psychology that manifests as implicit bias (unconscious, misordered desire), such as white-supremacy and patriarchy, we should not critique or propose paths forward by using binary formulas that reduce the complexity of internal lives to a set of should/should not logic gates. This type of thinking avoids working through the psychological realities that serve as the underpinnings of our superficially stratified society. At the heart of his critique lies an essentialist notion that turns the subjective (embodied) experience and socioeconomic construction of aesthetics into an essentialist form. The outcome is a kind of cultural stereotyping that fails to acknowledge the global systems of domination that have historically given certain music and art privilege over others. To state it plainly, identity politics is made into a red herring while the agenda of maintaining status through our current period of neoliberal decay is defended.
if we take aesthetics seriously –these four men are accomplished composers– we do a disservice to our political ideals, but if we take politics seriously –these men implicitly reinforce existing exploitation– we must discount their artistic worth.
This first point takes for granted the kind of value system that is in question. What lens do we look through when determining what is or is not ‘serious’? The assertion that ‘these four men are accomplished composers’ has several major defects: a) the grounds by which we determine their accomplishment is not defined and b) composition is likewise not defined.
He then claims that ‘curation as we understand it is an insufficient concept for dealing with the political concerns of our artistic community.’ While perhaps Tamas leaves room for the development of an alternative type of curation that addresses political concerns, his remark is ultimately deflationary within the context of his article. By not addressing the possibility of alternative curatorial practices that, for instance, consider space as well as perspective, we have no choice but to believe that economic channels are the only way forward. This discounts the rich legacy of artists in Chicago who have refused to solely find legitimacy in economic reward. It is precisely this type of thinking that creates an artistic identity based on exclusion and the maintenance of a privileged status.
Lionel Shriver recently gave a controversial speech on “Fiction and Identity Politics,” in which she argued against accusations of cultural appropriation on the grounds that novelists can only inhabit other people, can only appropriate… At best, these writers become memoirists; at worst, mere navel-gazers… Shriver would prefer difficult integration to impossible separatism, and believes in the capacity of novelists to create multi-faceted characters to represent a multi-faceted society.
Shriver’s speech has been defended by the Alt-Right publication Breitbart, which tempts me to disregard Tamas’ argument altogether (in avoidance of an ad hominem condemnation, however, I will explicitly express my concern). The claim that political correctness is a form of censorship often functions as a screen for ulterior motives. Taken in the context of the rest of her speech, the point that conflates appropriation with fictional authorship/inhabitation obliterates a middle ground between the two in order to defend the existential freedom of the author to pursue success in the market place.
I would argue that composers likewise do not gain artistic legitimacy by presenting only themselves in their work, but lose it. To put it another way, composition-as-memoir essentializes the categories it seeks to dismantle, and a curatorial approach focused on the representation of minorities reinforces this process, unconsciously or not.
This claim regarding how ‘artistic legitimacy’ is formed is extremely problematic in its assumption that there exists an ideal form of composition along the lines for which people are to be excluded. This type of rhetoric gives rise to an identity and practice that is based on negation and exclusion instead of the free flow of information. This assertion lends itself to an artistic worldview that serves to step on countless black musicians who are creating personal narrative-based art that is very serious. According to Tamas’ rhetoric, these works are de facto less-than. To put it in theoretical terms, the value system that is implicit in this rhetoric is based on capitalist notions of equivocation, as well as imperialist notions of the enlightened center and the barbarous periphery.
There is a dangerous tendency to discount the previous three centuries of composed music on the basis of the majority of that music being written by white men. The entire history of composed music must be defended from revisionism. And above all, the participation of individuals from these groups must be interpreted not on the basis of token representation, but as persons with meaningful social contributions.
The use of the phrase “majority of that music” is worth examining. Was there no music making in Latin America in those three hundred years? Is there not a rich composition tradition in the Middle East? Can we not also call many of the Roots musicians in the United States from the late 19th and early 20th centuries composers? Women and black and brown folks have been creating and composing – they just haven’t received the same kind of support or recognition in part because of this kind of rhetoric that provides a definition of composition that is tied up with economic validation and an exclusionary lineage. Of course ‘free artistic production remains a dream,’ but this piece erroneously reframes the problem. It moves us toward the preferred economic channels rather than challenging the value systems that are the very blueprints for those channels.
In summary, Tamas’ rhetoric implies a definition of value that is entangled with capitalist notions of equivocation and exclusion. Even though economic justice is stated as the specific goal, the problem is flipped on its head: the fact that so many ‘accomplished’ white men have institutional support and black women, for example, do not is symptomatic of the very modes of exclusionary legitimization that are implicit in Tamas’ rhetoric.