Political Art In America
Sent to NewMusicBox Fall 2007
Thank you for your comment, John. I thought it had just the right touch, even though I too can sympathize with some of Craig’s rather poorly expressed ideas . Referring to Frank, you write: “He hears music, not personality or politics or privilege or power.”
think, in some ways, this might partially define the American composer, at least
in comparison to their European colleagues, who are much more ready to hear and
address issues of politics, privilege and power in music.
The social and cultural climate in
cannot think of composers like Luigi Nono or Hans Werner Henze without
considering their deep questioning of the structures of politics, power and
privilege in Western societies. Americans,
on the other hand, are almost conditioned to believe that such questions
represent a form of class warfare that is somehow tacky or inappropriate.
Oddly, Americans hold these beliefs, even though few even attempt to
explain why it would be wrong for a composer to address such social questions or
to allow them to be part of his or her identity as an artist. It
is also striking that
might explain why a politically engaged composer like Frederic
Anthony Rzewski spent
so much of his life in
More recently, we have seen a related phenomenon in the suppression of
arts funding hidden behind surface events like the Maplethorpe controversy. The
general ethos seems to be that artists are not to be trusted, exactly because of
their possible political and social inclinations, while in
Rzewski and Nancarrow are admittedly two of the more extreme examples, but
I think they hint at the larger social environment that has shaped what American
composers are. If American composers
want success, they must be relatively non-political.
Exceptions are extremely rare. Even
the blasé political nature of works like the operas of John Adams are too much
This is, of course, related to
Anyway, if we ask what an American composers is, it is someone who is non-political, someone who is now part of an artistic tradition that has been politically suppressed for so long that it no longer has a history or tradition upon which to build political art. This has left American composers with almost no intellectual or technical capacity to create political art, and no public for it when they do.
I know this isn’t quite the kind of answer Frank was looking for, but for me the question of what an American composer is goes much deeper than simply deciding if we should include pop and jazz. And I can’t help but notice that when we include elements of pop, we move our wider genre even closer to the all-encompassing world of the mass media and the extreme forms of global capitalism it represents.