Beauty as Privilege: Contemporary Music and Trump Anxiety

Ian Power

There was a crisis described by Alex Ross in the New Yorker last month, one of classical composers and conductors, increasingly anxious in the face of the white supremacist Trump regime, unsure what positive role, if any, their music can play in this country. While musicians across the board certainly do face increased threats to their financial security, social welfare, freedom of movement, and freedom of expression this year, Ross described something different. “What is the point of making beautiful things,” he wrote, “when ugliness runs rampant? . . . Many artists report feelings of paralysis”—artistic paralysis, he means.[1] The anxiety described is therefore not one of survival (as it is for many), but of purpose: something about the aesthetic purpose of classical music has changed.

The change described is of having gone from a universal purpose—beauty—to specific ones, of “refuge,” “respite,” and “response.” This probably comes as a surprise to the myriad artists for whom anxiety has always been a reality, for whom art and anxiety are a redundancy. For some musicians, though, a switch has been flipped. A detached Kantian beauty no longer seems possible for them: suddenly, all formerly immune spaces are invaded by the world. This nostalgia for non-political, non-cultural art-making is based on the idea that before now politics did not invade. Now, the heretofore impenetrable walls of privilege are crumbling. This crisis of purpose isn’t cast as afflicting doctors, baristas, or corporate lawyers, because presumably for them the political situation, if anything, increases the urgency of what they do. Most classical musicians, of course, also strongly believe in the good of their work, but insofar as this particular political situation manifests as a crisis, the work is revealed as being dependent on a beauty separate from political concerns, a universality that disavows work tied to identity as polluted. This is a hallmark of colonial discourse around art.

The crisis seems to hit composers and conductors especially hard. Many people composing contemporary music make their living teaching, grant-writing, running an ensemble, or in other jobs for which their reputation as a composer is necessary, but composing is not what they are paid for. Making a living via representing one’s music, whether through cover letters, program notes, grants, phone calls to donors, or award applications, engenders quite a different relationship to one’s craft than if one composes as a service rendered. Performers (much like our doctors, baristas, and lawyers) earn their living directly from performing, and when the ACA might be repealed, paychecks do not suffer from a crisis of aesthetic purpose. Ditto commercial composers, producers, and gigging musicians. (Conductors are performers of course, but more often have the responsibility of curating a concert or season and chasing after funds, much of which involves the same justifying activities described of composers.) Unless one finds a justification that overshadows the lack of employment, composition can feel like a hobby, and in order to represent the music as vital, necessary, and deserving of the privilege of these funds, the discourse retreats to a claim to universality.[2] When cultural privilege begins to evaporate, we start to see that claim for what it’s actually worth.

Some, including myself three years ago, argue that alternative funding is necessary to free music-making and experimentation from the white supremacist patriarchal forces of capitalism. What I failed to realize is that these alternative spaces are a feature, not a bug, of the system in which universities, donors, and institutions earned their money (How else would a resistance to white supremacist patriarchy remain so overwhelmingly white and male?). The goal for these spaces thus circles back to Kantian universality—or, as George Lewis has more pointedly put it, the force of whiteness in contemporary music, which labels everything that it is not, but will claim nothing that it is, the easier to lay claim to that universality.[3] Contemporary music is presented as an inclusive musical practice in which anyone can participate without having to worry about genre cues or social conventions. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a genre like any other, with particular conditions of style, protocol, and access to pedagogical and musical spaces.[4] We have spent years relying on the rhetoric of experimentation, and now that our world is shaken, we flail for meaning, first as arbiters of beauty, and then as creating a music of inclusion. Once these purposes are exposed to politics, they trickle through our fingers like sand.

Composers do sometimes outline particular purposes for their work, but it is the conditions of a genre that actually have political impact. Paul Ryan, for example, can gush about the leftist band Rage Against the Machine during the 2012 presidential campaign, while openly Trump-supporting rapper Azealia Banks and her music get no acknowledgement from a GOP supposedly reaching out to minorities. In each case, the comfort (or lack thereof) provided by conditions of—and participants in—the music’s production and consumption far outweighed its stated politics. Music—like education, or citizenship—is a heavily ritualized social interaction, its wake flows throughout the world and leaves political traces everywhere. Whether to respond is not a choice: how we construct our spaces is how we are responding to Trump. Harvard and the University of Chicago responded to Trump by surpressing unions and impugning the safe space. The New York Philharmonic responded to Trump by planning a season of 40 men and 1 woman; the Boston Modern Orchestra Project did much the same. Institutions and individuals of contemporary music everywhere have already been responding by setting conditions of access and prioritizing discourse acquired via that access, but then tethering the value of their music to a default beauty or experimentation—if value is admitted of at all.

Contemporary music is a genre which perpetuates itself via the idea that it is not one. This is what creates a crisis of purpose. Lauren Berlant anticipates this in her own piece on the Trump era, in which she describes people in all sorts of social groups engaging in “genre flailing”:

Protest is a genre flail; riot, sometimes. Accusations about complicity and virtue are a genre flail. We’re flailing when we move to help each other with touch, words, and plans, under the pressure to build on movement culture so that our gestures can extend beyond the beat of the moment, toward the activist time that makes time to craft our commitments to foraging a better good life from the freshly uneven ground we’re wobbling on.

As our privileged access to cultural cache cracks, we begin to flail, in reflex, against the genre in which we suddenly realize we’ve been all along. Contemporary music’s power lies not in beauty, but in the social and affective relationships between people that it creates. Every choice we make, musically and socially, is of which parts of classical music’s cache we choose to defy and which we choose to sustain. We can no longer rely on classical universality, on our rhetoric of alienation-of-public-as-victory, or on experimentation without identity—especially when so many other genres have blazed far ahead experimentally. To survive, we actors have to move and quake our music and our spaces until they warp, and perhaps, break, ending our place in them.

What might result, though, is a music that articulates its priorities, that values 1-to-1 the skills that make it go, and that we can be sure of our stake in, no matter who is president. Berlant challenges us yet again:

A genuine commons commitment involves a willingness to trash the fantasy that equality can be generated by redistributing money a little and having good manners. It involves embracing the discomfort of affective experience in a truly open social life that no one has ever experienced. It requires more adaptable infrastructures. Keep forcing the existing infrastructures to do what they don’t know how to do. Make new ways to be local together, where local doesn’t require a physical neighborhood. Only in unlearning our object world can we make better objects and worlds to attach to.

Audre Lorde, a voice from the past, offers a purpose:

The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.[5]

If there is a group of people prevented, occasionally or systematically, from experiencing the particular joy contemporary musicians cultivate, then that exclusion is a characteristic of the music. We will have to address this inwardly (revamping access and curation) and outwardly (direct action against unjust immigration orders). We all have a great deal of influence over some spaces and tangential influence over others. Our response must be to already have been responding.


[1] The article says little about the aforementioned tangible threats to musicians’ livelihoods and ends with a formalist call to action—a strange move for the constant critic of formalism. “Art becomes a model for the concerted action that can only happen outside its sphere,” Ross writes, echoing Adorno in 1962: “The moment of true volition, however, is mediated through nothing other than the form of the work itself, whose crystallization becomes an analogy of that other condition which should be.”

[2] I owe a debt in these ideas to the composer Marek Poliks.

[3] See: Lewis,George.“Improvisation after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives.”in Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 16, no. 1, 1996. pp. 91-122.

[4] My thinking on new music as a genre started with Martin Iddon who called it a “subculture.” His most comprehensive text on the subject is “What Becomes of the Avant-Garded? New Music as Subculture” in Circuit, Vol. 24 No. 3, 2014.

[5] From “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” in Sister Outsider. Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007 [1984], p. 56.