Monday, January 09, 2006

Instrument(al) Rationality

Some of you may have heard of the plight of the Audubon Quartet. If you haven't, their web site has a list of news articles discussing the situation. The New York Times had a good one, but is unfortunately only available for a fee.

In essence, this is what seems to have happened: the Audubon was a well-known and successful string quartet. They had done well in international competitions, recorded quite a bit, and had a pretty cushy residence gig at Virginia Tech. Over the years, however, conflict grew between three of the members and one violinist. Eventually, they kicked him out of the group. He retaliated by suing them for breach of contract. A judge ruled in his favor, and against the other members of the quartet, and ordered them to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. Because they were of course unable to pay, the judge ordered their instruments to be repossesed.

It's a tragic situation, but also telling. It's a perfect example of that classic concept of "instrumental rationality." The drive for efficiency, under capitalism, doesn't just stay in economics. It reaches into every corner of society. These lofty concepts that we have of "art" and "music" are nice and all, but the fact is, they don't have a place in late capitalism. The institutions, large and small, that make up classical music, are not run rationally and reasonably. They take into account fundamentally irrational things like "creativity" and "taste." It's the fact of living under late capitalism that rationality must be expanded into ever last corner of society.

People who find this case to be tragic usually lay the blame on the judge, who seems to be something of a philistine who didn't appreciate the subtle dynamics of classical music. That's true, but the fact is that if the case had been more of a sympathetic judge, it would have only been a temporary win. That more "cultured" and appreciative judge would have just been a residual trace of a past culture. Don't blame unappreciative judges and mercenary musicians, blame economic liberalism, and its unprecedented and unchallenged sway over our politics right now.

I feel nostalgic for the failing institutions of classical music. I like the music, and I appreciate what those institutions have done. But they are on the way out. Instead of trying to revive cultural institutions of the past, I think it is important to create new ones, and see if they can take us somewhere different.

No comments: