Some Weaknesses of Postmodernism
March 29, 2007

There are many advantages to questioning the idea of “The Other.” Aside from questions of social and musical diversity, the post modern de-centering of power and authority broke down quasi fundamentalist Uptown and Downtown aesthetic encampments that limited musical expression well into the late 70s. For that alone, postmodern theory has served us all.

It seems, however, that more and more people find postmodern theory a bit worn out. Foucault’s lectures at Stanford in the late 70s crackled with avant-guarde excitement. Those in the know knew something big was up. By the mid 80s, it was clear the theories were dissolving ossified stylistic orthodoxies in Manhattan and other cities. By the 90s the ideas began to stale as problems with the theory’s excessive relativism began to surface. By the aughts, the theory fell to academic cant not unlike the sort of hoarse polemics that surrounded serialism in the 70s. Downtown Lite and Suburban Neo-Romantics began to lose their freshness. Every good aesthetic theory has a limited shelf life.

Postmodernism had flaws from the beginning (as do all aesthetic theories.) For one thing, conceptions of “high and low” culture (and music) are not very descriptive. They are vague, create confusion, and provoke unnecessary ideological tension.

And worse, by leveling the relationship between high and low music, the very problematic relationships between commercial and non-commercial culture in capitalistic economies were largely brushed aside.

Rightly or wrongly, classical musicians (for lack of a better term) asked themselves, why extol artists like Madonna, Dylan, or Springsteen, who hardly need the help, while composers like LeBaron, Shatin, Payne, and Oliveros remain so much less supported? There was often a feeling that “classical” composers like those I mention were indeed different. The creation, production, and reception of their music involved an entirely different set of concerns, goals, and problems. Exercises in leveling the playing field between these musics were extremely imprecise, and created as many (or more) problems than they solved.

Even though the "high-low" leveling concept eventually became a cannon of "new" musicology, and much of new music, many "classical" performers and composers were reluctant to fully accept the ideology. They felt some of the popular music held up as examples was clearly lacking in musical substance. If these classical musicians criticized the seeming superficiality of much pop, they were quickly labeled ignorant, retro snobs, living in insular worlds.

In reality, these classical musicians welcomed the way postmodernism opened up new horizons and dissolved the deeply entrenched ideologies within their own fields, but felt that the leveling "high-low" ideology eroded essential standards and respect for the musicianship needed for their kind of music – a music already deeply marginalized.

With better theoretical work, much of this confusion could have been avoided. If the high-low arguments had also been placed in the context of commercial/non-comercial music (instead of just high-low), some of the ideological confusion and tension could have been avoided. We could have examined the artificial privilege of classical music (in all of its white, classist, maleness,) but also have acknowledged classical music's special characteristics -- especially as problematized in market economies.

A less ideological contextualization would have also helped us more precisely identitify the positive contributions many pop artists brought to their field. It was ironic how postmodern theory sought to de-center power and authority, but ended up creating an atmosphere where respect for pop came close to being an obligatory and absolutist ideology.

By the mid 90s, the ideological standpoints between the supporters and detractors of the high-low debate became so dualistic, divisive and entrenched that few dared even address the topic lest they unleash a torrent of harsh polemic. The ideological divisions began to inhibit exploration and creative thought. Like serialism in the 70s, the voices became hoarse, repetitious, entrenched, and boring.

So now, instead of repeating the same tired postmodern ideas, we need to create new, more differentiated, more workable, and less ideological concepts that will continue to help us better understand the extremely complex relationships between high and low culture.

I very much appreciate the way postmodernism has opened up new horizons and weakened aesthetic encampments in classical new music, but I also sympathize with the classical musicians who feel an excessive ideology of aesthetic leveling demeans their achievements, which are so long and hard to learn. In some cases, postmodernism has even served to increasingly marginalize classical music.

William Osborne

P.S. On the other hand, many Europeans could still learn much from postmodern theory. In Austria , for example, the situation is just the reverse. Classical music is still often absolutist, racist, and sexist. Much of the musical life of Europe remains largely impervious to postmodern thought that would be very beneficial for its creative live.