Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Culture god

“The writers of a time hint the mottoes of its gods. The word of the modern, say these voices, is the word Culture.” - Walt Whitman

In a post-modernist society, is “Culture” still our god?

As a musician I hear culture discussed at every turn - everything from how cultural heritage defines music to how music influences a society's cultural future. I often myself tout music as a communicative tool that transcends cultural boundaries.

As an experiment, I posted Whitman’s quote into my personal blog and facebook status with nothing more than the directive: “Discuss.”

One response addressed the current relativistic and nihilistic leanings of today’s society - that perhaps Self-absorption makes Culture a less relevant “god”.

If I extrapolate that to the concert hall - does this mean if I play a concert that makes the audience feel good about themselves I make the performance relevant (and therefore possibly more profitable)?

As I read through Levine this week I was struck by the need of society to be affirmed in its identity. For instance, music that appealed to the masses was valued earlier in the 19th century America, because Americans, newly established and free from being colonists, needed to know that their identity as democratic republicans was a good thing. Music had no worth if it didn’t appeal to everybody - if each individual wasn’t equally valued. Music that affirmed the republican identity was valued.

Later it seems that music facilitated a need to distinguish class structure. As modernism took root, this god of “Culture”, education, and knowledge became the tool to set one self apart, distinguish oneself among your peers. Class structure did not exist in America as it had in Europe, so knowledge and erudition defined the new class structure.

In today’s society has the “god” shifted from high “Culture” to that of “Self”? Take any of the examples mentioned, from the issue Ivan brought up about appearance triggering a response to Lindsey’s example of a positively bored audience forcing themselves to listen to something they didn’t seem to find enjoyable. The reason people relate to a concert or performance seems to do something with how it makes them feel about themselves.

What if music - instead of being a vessel for affirming that which society holds up as its modern-day “idols” instead became completely free from that? Take music out of the box. I agree with Billy that there is something to be communicated that does not matter about relevance to the culture - something that goes beyond cultural conditioning and has intrinsic worth. The onus then is on the performer - what must be communicated is not written on the page and not tied to cultural heritage and relevance.

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