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.”


I 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 Europe is far more politically diverse than in the States.  Every country has a wide range of parliamentary parties, as opposed to the narrow spectrum of America ’s two party system.


One 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 America once had very political artists, but that they and their tradition were literally exterminated through McCarthyism.


This might explain why a politically engaged composer like Frederic Anthony Rzewski spent so much of his life in Europe .  To put it perhaps a little too simply, his thought would not have fit in the States and he probably would have been marginalized.  This negative attitude toward political artists might also explain why a composer like Conlin Nancarrow spent his life in Mexico after having been politcly persecuted in the United States .  We often consider events such as these as insignificant, but over time this atmosphere of special contempt for political art and artists has probably had a very large effect on our profession. 


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 Europe , even the most political artists are highly esteemed and supported by extensive public funding.  


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 for America .  “Klinghofer,” for example, has essentially been suppressed. When one considers the massive social problems in the States, like racism, urban squalor, poverty, and militarism, the country’s lack of politically oriented composers becomes very notable.  And it is even more striking if we compare this barren atmosphere to the politically engaged atmosphere of the arts in America during the 1930s before it was ravaged by the political suppression of the 50s.


This is, of course, related to America ’s rather radical and isolated system of arts funding, where almost all financial support comes from the wealthy.   It is the only country in the world with such a system.  All other industrial countries publicly fund the arts.  In many European countries the public funding for the arts is not just hundreds of times higher that in the USA , but thousands.  (If necessary, I can supply some numbers.)


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.


William Osborne