Canon Wars…


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No, not naval battles.

Literary battles. And by extension, culture wars.

Rachel Donadio, writing for the New York Times, has paid a nostalgic visit to the literary canon wars of the late-1980s (circa). The big defining moment was Allen Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind. While a Ph.D. student I was very much involved coming up with an intellectual and critical response to what was such a bald argument that non-white, or non-European, equaled non-good.

Now as I look back, the problem seems a little different. Sure, there is still more than a little racial hostility to Bloom, but I now am convinced that Bloom wouldn’t have liked anything new, regardless of where it came from. Although at some point all of the books, all of the great philosophical thought that he trumpeted so loudly were new books, new thought, the canon to Bloom was a history museum. Changing anything would have required less attention to something old, and Bloom didn’t seem to be able to let anything go.

Around the middle of the article, Michael Berube (author of What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?) says that the changes to the literary canon have been particularly beneficial to American literature, and which he notes has been easy to change because it has never been that stable. I especially like his quote that “[o]nly the Department of Surly Curmudgeons still disputes that we’re dealing with a usefully expanded field.” [emphasis added]

What does this have to do with music? Long before Bloom started ranting, musical practice in the U.S. has been mired in an exceedingly canonic, museum-like existence. The great works of Stravinsky, Bartok, Schoenberg, are over half a century old (in some cases, much more), yet there performance is still something of a news-worthy oddity. And although we’re firmly in the 21st century, 1945 still seems to be the cut-off for a “new” work. [ok, so I'm not talking about New York City, or a few other prominent exceptions...]

I think the Berube quote is quite useful as the basis of a question: why can’t music institutions see the usefulness in an expanded field of music?

And related or not, it is interesting to me that literature and music are similar in how little affect technology has had in their creative processes, given how profound technologically-influenced change has been in the rest of the arts and culture in general.

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