Artistic citizenship in the age of Trump

Public-facing note taking for Philosophy of Music Education with David Elliott

This week I’m reading about the social and ethical responsibilities of artists generally, and musicians and music educators in particular. That topic is especially relevant at the moment.  

Before we get to the moral philosophy aspect, let’s talk about this performance. Why is it so good? Movies and TV have run “Hallelujah” into the ground, but for good reason. The song blends joy and pain together as well as any song ever has.It’s right there in the first verse: “the minor fall, and the major lift.” It’s the same reason we love “Amazing Grace,” and the blues.

You can hear Kate McKinnon’s Leonard Cohen tribute as the concession speech Hillary Clinton would have made in a perfect world. This verse in particular gave me chills:

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

You can also hear it as an expression of Kate McKinnon herself, a queer woman mourning the world of growing inclusiveness that she thought she was moving into, the one we all thought we were moving into. And you can hear Leonard Cohen’s bitter irony, too. SNL had Trump as its host just last year, and they’re as much to blame for normalizing him as anyone.

Plato thought that music was a social and political force with the power to shape or destroy our collective identity, and to make or destroy civilizations. He worried that we would think of music as an aesthetic indulgence or a technical display. It turns out that he was right to worry.

Growing up in Western society, we learn to think of music as an indulgence, “auditory cheesecake” in Steven Pinker’s term. It’s a sublime object of contemplation, living in the same realm of abstraction with mathematical theorems, or a diversion from the tedium of life, with a value entirely subject to our ephemeral and individual whims. If this is all true, then no one outside of creators and fans needs to care much about music. It becomes a thing that is nice to have, but is inessential. Music education just needs to teach the technical skills necessary for artists to play and compose, and to teach the vocabulary that enables everyone else to passively enjoy. Our job is more of a training task than an educational one.

Praxial music educators are more inclined to the Aristotelian idea that, when practiced properly, music supports human emotional and social flourishing. When practiced improperly, music can harm us emotionally and socially. Music is an essential social survival tool, and as its custodians, we the educators need to consider the ethical dimension of our work. To be ethical practitioners, we have to overcome some Western traditional notions around music education: that it should focus on aesthetic considerations only, on “the music itself” rather than on “extramusical” factors; that the proper object of study is stable musical works, complete unto themselves; that our responsibility is to contemplate the canonical masterpieces. Instead, we need to engage all the messy complexities of politics, class, race, gender, and identity generally; we need to support broad-based creative expression and active participation at all levels; to treat music as a set of processes unfolding in time and in a variety of overlapping contexts.

So what does ethical practice look like in music generally, and in music education in particular? It’s not a matter of identifying and living up to moral standards. Rule sets, prescribed codes of behavior, are inadequate to all the unpredictable contingencies of real life, with its incomplete information and ambiguity and problems that defy tidy solutions. Instead, we need to find ways of practicing virtue ethics, becoming ethical people, so that we can improvise our solutions as we go along. Rather than looking for the right score to follow, we need to be jazz improvisors.

It’s not true that musical practice automatically produces good people. Instead, we need to produce ethical people, who will then produce good music as part of the larger project of practicing ethically. So what is a good person? Well, here we’re going to run into some difficulty. Many of the qualities we most admire directly conflict with each other. We value both consistency and open-mindedness, both toughness and tenderness, rational pragmatism and generous spontaneity, sober industriousness and wild playfulness. As ethical people, we have to embody all of those contradictions, weighting them according to the situation, balancing them as best we can. Bowman describes the challenge like so:

A person of virtuous character is one who has developed the capacity for acting rightly in situations where the options cannot be neatly sorted into mutually exclusive categories of “right” and “wrong” and where the decision as to how to act is taken not on the basis rules and obligations but rather the kind of person is (or is seeking to become). Virtuous character, we might say, involves a kind of ethical fluency: wisdom that is practical in nature; the ability to determine right courses of action amidst the unforeseen and unprecedented. It also involves the capacity to discern not just the differences between right from wrong, but to choose the best course of action from among…numerous competing goods—where so choosing and so acting will unavoidably leave other goods unaddressed and other good actions undone.

The point of praxial musical education, then, is not just training in music; it’s developing ethical people through music. There doesn’t have to be a contradiction between musical goals and extramusical ones. We can consider musical sensitivity to be a particular form of emotional sensitivity, and musical intelligence to be a particular application of emotional intelligence. We can use appreciation of musical beauty as practice for appreciating the beauty of each other.

Healthy practice is always open to debate as to its goals and methods. Wynton Marsalis likes to talk about jazz improvisation as a realtime model for democracy. He talks about what jazz musicians need to do when their bandmate plays a note or chord they don’t like, the accommodations we need to make to each other’s mistakes and diverging opinions. Wynton Marsalis is himself a problematic exemplar of democractic practice, however, since his narrow concept of valid jazz isn’t exactly helping the form evolve to meet new social needs and contexts.

Practices always face a tension between tradition, what has been effective in the past, and a changing environment. The notes on the Mozart scores stay the same, but the world in which Mozart wrote them no longer exists. The question is whether those scores can find new adaptive purposes in new settings. The moving Trading Places uses The Marriage Of Figaro as an effective auditory shorthand for the wealth and splendor of its protagonist’s daily life at the beginning of the movie. I suspect, or at least hope, that Mozart himself would find the juxtaposition amusing.

Our identities as practitioners depend on our ability to, as Bowman says, “engage in a collective mode of action for which there is no definitive book of rules.” Musical problem solving is an excellent simulator for social problem solving generally. Both in music and in life, the challenges are ambiguous, contingent, and loaded with irreconcilable contradiction. Music gives us rich and immediate sensory feedback for the attentional and emotional states of the people making it. We can feel viscerally when the group coheres, when it takes on a greater collective intelligence and power than the sum of its parts. When we learn to listen for the cohesion of a group of musical performers, we practice identifying cohesion in other situations as well.

Music has some educative advantages over other creative practices. It combines the analytical brain and the body from the neck down. It requires both solitary introspection and communal collaboration. And it uses formalized abstractions to speak directly to our emotions. So which musical practices should we use to develop our ethical personhood? Do we want to model our communities of practice on the pyramid-shaped hierarchy  of the orchestra? The ad-hoc committee of the pickup jazz combo? The rhizomatic web of solitary bedroom producers remixing each other’s tracks online? How do we dissolve the barriers between our present system of specialist producers doing one-way transmission to passive consumers?

The word “producer” is a valuable one for discussions like this one. In recorded music, its meaning has expanded from the Quincy Jones model of the executive manager of a commercial session to include anyone creating recorded music in any capacity, including songwriting, beatmaking, MIDI sequencing, and audio manipulation. We can expand it further to include anyone who actively creates music, recorded, notated or live. To be a producer is a category of behavior, not a category of person. The word isn’t weighted down with the baggage of the traditional sense of the word “artist,” which is hopelessly entangled with notions of exceptional talent or sensitivities. If you produce music, you are by definition a producer, whether or not you consider yourself to be a “real” musician or an “artist.” You might not be a skilled producer or a famous one, but you’re a producer nevertheless, part of a community of practice, even if that community is just a few of your friends or strangers on the internet.

Membership in the community is not optional for musical practitioners. To deny that you have a political stance is itself a political stance. The Romantic notion of the solitary genius may have convinced some of us that artistic citizenship is extrinsic to artistry itself. But the most hermit-like lone genius, the most ruggedly libertarian individualist, was still produced by a complex social support system, an education, a family, and a variety of other social milieus. Choosing to renounce social responsibility doesn’t make that responsibility go away. It’s not necessary to engage with politics at the level of nations. We have citizenship roles at many levels: from global humanity down to our immediate neighbors and friends, and every level in between. We can’t help but impact others and be impacted by them, even in the most individual pursuits. Writing this post requires a computer whose components were assembled around the world, and which produces greenhouse gases that affect humans around the world. There are no solitary actors.

Our social responsibility is especially inescapable because our rights can only exist in a context that supports them. Bowman again:

One’s basic human rights can be exercised only in a community that acknowledges and is committed to honoring and sustaining them. Rights and responsibilities exist in dialectical tension with each other, then, each requiring the other as a condition of its existence. Only in certain kinds of community is the full and free development of one’s personal potential possible—community in which the same freedoms are granted to others in ways that impinge on one’s own freedom.

Given that our rights and responsibilities are inseparable, the question then becomes, how do we exercise musical practice responsibly? What does that responsibility entail? What expectations should we have of practitioners toward non-practitioners? We might make use of Steve Dillon’s picture of musician and music educators as public health workers, serving the psychological needs of our communities, treating depression and ADHD with fewer side effects than antidepressants and stimulants. We should certainly do our best to treat our audiences as potential producers. In the participatory music cultures described by Thomas Turino, expert musicians have a crucial role to play, but it’s more of a coach or mentor role for the rest of the community, not as a species apart from them. Our work will always impact the emotions of people around us. We need to stay conscious of whether that impact is a support or a drag, especially at times like these when we need all the emotional support we can get.