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IS CLASSICAL MUSIC RACIST? AN AESTHETIC APPROACH

What follows is a guest post by Chris Jenkins, Associate Dean at Oberlin Conservatory

Is classical music racist? Following the events of the summer of 2020 that exposed for many the depth of systemic racism within the justice system, people of color and their allies have raised the issue of racism in countless artistic and academic fields, classical music being no exception. Writing in the New Yorker in regard to classical music’s belated self-criticism, the critic Alex Ross admitted “such an examination is sorely needed in classical music, because of its problematic past.” Many other critics have answered definitively in the affirmative, or at least acknowledged major structural shortcomings in the design of the field. NPR critic Tom Huizenga has lamented “Why is American Classical Music so White?” Author and screenwriter Candace Allen, former wife of the British conductor Simon Rattle, has discussed the racist attitudes to which she has been subject, and declared that Black audience members are often made to feel unwelcome. Philip Ewell’s incendiary and accurate article “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame” begins with a necessary but seemingly self-evident proclamation – “music theory is white” – and explodes much of the entire field of theoretical musical analysis. Brandon Keith Brown, a Black conductor based in Berlin, has argued that “It’s Time to Make Orchestras Great Again – By Making Them Blacker.” Neybal Maysaud, a Lebanese-Druze composer, declares the entire genre as being so problematic that “It’s Time to Let Classical Music Die.”

In this blog post, I argue that the answer to the question of whether classical music is racist ought to be yes; but that casting the answer in terms of aesthetics provides a more coherent framework and points toward possible solutions. Like many fields, classical music’s chosen method of diversifying has not addressed its own values and approaches in order to become more inclusive, but rather has sought to diversify the population in which it inculcates a particular set of aesthetic priorities. Consequently, aesthetics themselves can end up constituting a structural barrier to diversification. Despite a number of commendable diversity initiatives, the aesthetics of the performance and pedagogy of classical music still do not resonate with many members of communities of color in the United States, and this is because the field has approached diversification as a project of assimilation, rather than integration. In addition to substantial change in the compositional diversity of performers, students, and audience, true diversification of the field will ultimately require aesthetic integration, the blending of more than one aesthetic approach to create something new that appeals to a diverse constituency. We might take African-American musical aesthetics as a point of comparison; what would a truly integrative approach that produces a new set of aesthetic priorities look like?

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