The Uses of Music

On 22 October a fax arrived at the Australian National Academy of Music from the Minister for the Arts stating that in 2009 it would no longer receive funding from the Commonwealth. Its artistic director, Brett Dean, made the news public and indicated that the funding cut would cause the Academy to close. Before long, people from within the Academy and without it began to protest against the government’s decision and call for its reversal. Those who supported the Academy in this way found themselves in the position of not really knowing the case they had to answer. As I write, and despite an announcement by the minister that the Academy has a reprieve for one year, the government has yet to explain the meaning of its initial statement that ‘ANAM no longer represents the most efficient way of delivering support for elite classical music training’. George Orwell might have cut that sentence down to something like ‘ANAM is not the most efficient way to train classical musicians’. That would allow us to concentrate on the two main ideas caught in the original thicket of euphemism: firstly, the idea of ‘efficiency’, the idea that a given end should be attained with the minimum possible expenditure of society’s effort and resources; and secondly, the end assumed here, the end of ‘training classical musicians’.

The Academy’s supporters made timid use of the freedom to imagine, propose and argue for ends. The minister’s announcement could have been taken as an opportunity to initiate public reflection on substantive questions about the meaning and situation of music and musical education and training today. The question of the need to supply an institution like the Academy with public funds would then have been asked within the context of an unfettered discussion about musical practices. Instead, a narrow patter of argument established itself to which every one of the quickly appearing newspaper editorials, op-ed pieces, letters to the editor, blog posts and letters to the minister conformed. This conformism was itself a sign that what was emerging was in the nature of a propaganda campaign.

Propaganda relates to the ideal of public argumentation as sophistry does to truth-seeking. The propagandist is not interested in the public good but in furthering an individual or group agenda. Her argument is aimed not at revealing truth but solely at securing support for a goal or an established institution, which is why it can be shown to be not so much false as chimerical. It not only lacks any interest in the truth, it also hinders its emergence. In other words, it functions as ideology, as part of the discursive support of which our bad world stands in perennial need.

It is not my contention that those who rallied to the ‘Save ANAM’ standard intended to further the work of ideology. On the contrary, I am sure that their interest in music stems from their sense of the truth that music potentially embodies. I expect that they would associate a defence of the Academy — even the propagandistic one which they might say was forced upon them by the state of the public sphere — with the public good. But it was a mistake to conceive of the task as a single battle on which everything turned, as if the minister had broken a peace on 22 October and all that was needed was to restore it so that everything could return to normal. In battle every advantage must be pressed, every weakness in one’s own side covered. The truth is different. Seeking to uncover the true situation of music today would mean criticising it where it has failed to be true, including in musical education, including at the Academy, whereas a dogmatic identification of music with truth, and the Academy with music, is no proof that the Academy is not already a part of the recruitment of music against truth. At present the campaign soldiers still hope to reverse the decision. But they will have won a pyrrhic victory if, while saving the Academy, they help to integrate music into the apparatus humanity is busy perfecting as the instrument of its own domination.

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A person attending chamber music recitals at the Academy and elsewhere in Melbourne during the week after the news broke would have learned that there was a petition available for signature; would have heard non-Academy musicians express solidaristic regrets; would have witnessed audience members huffing about ‘bureaucratic measures’, calling ‘it’ a ‘terrible thing’, saying that if the Academy were incorporated into the University of Melbourne it would be reduced to ‘a third-rate piano school’ and so on. At least at this sub-public level, it was clear that the news had prompted a new round in the production of a collective identity based around the idea that in Australia classical music lovers are a persecuted sect, their meetings and rituals threatened by Philistine bureaucrats and the sport-crazy masses they pander to.

As such, this kind of collective self-identification is publicly inadmissible, since it would play into the hands of the very enemies it imagines for itself. But though it was suppressed from proper public discussion it can nevertheless be understood as motivating the arguments advanced against the decision. The motifs appeared in inverted form: the public campaign did not object to sport, but respectfully submitted that music be granted a role like that of sport, and be valued as highly; nor did it denounce the Philistines, but attempted instead to appropriate their Philistine logic and make it speak for music.

Almost no letter omitted a comparison between the Academy and the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). The comparison was used to argue that just as esteem for sport and its virtues belong (it was supposed) to what it means to be Australian, so should esteem for music and excellence in musical performance be made a part of our national identity. We Australians should, it was urged, take pride in our musicians, our ‘artists and storytellers’, and therefore resist any decision that could result in or strengthen the tendency for them to seek training and employment overseas, thus weakening our orchestras. We should, Dean argued, and The Age repeated in its editorial, listen to the principal conductor of the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic when he praises the Academy as the ‘envy of anywhere in the world’. The implication everywhere being that objects of national pride and identity formation should also be objects of government largesse, like the enviably well-endowed AIS.

Indeed the argument — actually less an argument than an exhortation — can be explained as the equal and opposite reaction to the felt exclusion of music from Australian identity. The reason for rejecting it is that it acquiesces in an ideology of collective identity. Notwithstanding appeals to racial or linguistic homogeneity as a basis for collective identity, collective identities are not natural and tangible but artefactual and ideational. They are imagined, fought over — and then fought with. To define and then exclude or exile outsiders in the name of a collective identity, for example of what it means to be Australian, and to demand and glorify sacrifices in its name, is not to abuse that identity but to fulfil it. Where none are driven away and none are sacrificed the supposedly natural need to belong ceases to exist.

The object of the protestors’ envy, sport, is big business. That business has been able to consolidate the myth that what it means to be Australian includes a love of sport. Even if they did not intend it, by urging that a love of music be the subject of a similar myth, the protestors who spoke of national pride gave expression to the wish that music too (their particular kind of music) become big business or, in other words, a means to the accumulation of capital. Now governments, despite the rhetoric of ‘change’ that the bearers of the social democratic tradition employ, today agree in seeing their main task as ensuring the continued accumulation of capital — in the language of euphemism, which excuses itself with the supposed imperative to speak (down) to the popular understanding, but which is actually a barrier to real understanding, this becomes ‘managing the economy’. Music is already a means to the accumulation of capital, and even ‘classical music’ does its part. In what appears to be the judgement of the government, the Academy in its present form does not promote that end as well as it might if it were, say, incorporated into one of our universities, which are now a long way down the road to becoming capital accumulators. The government’s approach is not just Philistine; it amounts to what the Old Testament denounces as idolatry. It wants to organise the whole of social life around worship of what is a product of human hands, namely capital, whereas real dignity could be found only in the hands themselves and the persons, all of us, whose hands they are. But instead of criticising the logic of such politics the propaganda campaign assumed its ascendancy, and reinforced it by employing it.

In defence of the Academy, it was said that it prepares young musicians for professional careers; that it ‘feeds’ them (an unwittingly apt metaphor) into Australia’s most prestigious orchestras; that it does this well, judged by the number of Academy alumni leading woodwind sections across the country; that it has mitigated the tendency for young players to go overseas. These points amount to the claim that the Academy is an integral part of the system that produces cultural goods, and that to take it away would be to invest less or less well in that system and so reduce the aggregate marketable value of the goods produced. Such claims are to little avail against the determination of governments that have confidence in their own economic rationality. But the essential point is that by identifying the Academy’s right to exist with its value as a supplier of labour inputs into the production process, the propagandists abandoned all hope for music, which they profess to love. Music exists, they have effectively confirmed for us, not to be listened to but in order to realise its marketable value. With friends like that, music has no need of Philistines. Their propaganda made bad use of true facts. The fact that music hardly exists except as an appendage to the machinery ought not to be cited in justification of music and its institutions, but in order to denounce the world that prevents music resounding for its own sake, and thus for ours.

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The protests everywhere assumed that the Academy trains people to play ‘classical music’. Common sense knows what classical music is, although it does not stop to ask how it knows this. It does not get this certainty from the historians of music, who would tell it that there was a European tradition of composition that ran from C. P. E. Bach down to Schubert that they now call classical — one term in a conceptual schema by which they try to make the history of music intelligible, distinguishing classicism from romanticism, neoclassicism, expressionism and so on. By contrast, the common-sense phrase classical music makes not pretension to scientific stringency, but instead names what is produced by a segment of the culture and entertainment industries. Rather than say that the term names a product, it would be better to say that it names a taste, and only derivatively the products the industry offers to that taste.

To be conscious of listening to classical music is to comport oneself towards music in a way that has only been conceivable since music started to be industrially exploited and organised to meet the needs of the self-reproduction of capital. Capital cannot accumulate through the agency of the cultural industries without doing things that change the uses to which music is put and create new ways of listening to it — even while it is insisted that people are just being given what they already want. The cultural industries divide the tastes of listeners the better to conquer them. It is the notion of taste that enables a purchaser in the cultural supermarket to believe that her purchase resonates harmoniously with her own inner being, even while this harmony is established in advance by selection mechanisms and the myriad industrially organised yet decentralised forms of promotion, of which advertising is the most obvious, and philosophies of aesthetics the most refined. To the classical music fan who luxuriates in its rare, transcendent qualities and its alleged immunity from commercialisation (which is so conducive to its commercial success), the term classical music suggests the natural inequality of tastes. But since it designates nothing but a market niche, it in fact implies precisely the equality of all tastes as such, and the qualitative indistinction of all music: different musics being so much fodder for different tastes, so much product to be shifted. To fail to question the term is to pass up the opportunity to remind everyone what, other than fodder for capital or fodder for tastes, music can be. Whatever that turned out to include, accounts of it would be the only real justifications for musical education; they would be the accounts of the human end against which the efficiency of an institution would have to be judged.

The prestige-value of classical music as a taste is promoted in order to sell classical music and to make it sell other things. The strategy counts on finding buyers who are willing to believe in the superiority of a taste in classical music. The defenders of the Academy feared the accusation that in defending classical music they were asserting its superiority over other musics, thus supporting the ideology of the natural superiority of the aristocrats of taste and, on that basis, the state’s continued subvention of their Saturday nights at the concert hall — a fear which drove them into the arms of utilitarian calculations in the currencies of capital and national identity. And yet this accusation could not have been truthfully made if they had explicitly criticised the term classical music, the ideologies that attach to it, and the cultural industries that give it its meaning, in order then to ask what a free music might mean to the human animals who so sorely need one.

It is true that such an accusation would most likely have been made nonetheless. The issues involved here are hard to write about, and presuppose careful reflection on the part of the reader. Not all readers take care. Anyone who shows readers the respect of attributing to them the faculty of reflection thereby makes themselves a target of ridicule, especially of that peddled by salaried anti-intellectuals. Propaganda very likely seemed necessary, the only thing likely to work. But to ‘work’ here means, at best, to force the reversal of the decision. Translated into Latin, the ‘Save ANAM’ campaign banner would have read: fiat ANAM, et pereat musica. Saving ANAM in that way would seem to benefit its staff and its present and future students in a very immediate and tangible way. But if that were the only benefit, then that would confirm any accusation that its defenders were pursuing narrow group interests. The Academy’s supporters, preoccupied with mirages, have yet to do more than hint at any other real public benefit. And then again, the immediate benefit is a mirage too. With the seal of approval of its staff and students, the Academy, once restored to the normalised state of emergency that reigned on 21 October, is to be the place where they become the foot-soldiers of the classical music industry.

Marc Hiatt sings in a Melbourne choir.

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