AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone


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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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PHILOSOPHY AND POLITICS IN “SORRY TO BOTHER YOU”

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The following post appears as part of a partnership with the APA Blog. The original appears here.

Steven Manicastri is a political theorist and labor organizer.  Having recently viewed Sorry to Bother You and seeing its clear relevance to his own research he posed the following questions to Lewis Gordon because of his theoretical work on race, class, and politics in film. Continue reading


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BEAUTY IN STRANGE PLACES: ART FIRST

I met a critic, I made her shit her drawers
She said she thought hip-hop was only guns and alcohol
I said “Oh hell naw!” But yet it’s that too
You can’t discrimi-hate cause you done read a book or two
What if I looked at you in a microscope, saw all the dirty organisms
Living in your closet would I stop and would I pause it?
…Speeches only reaches those who already know about it
This is how we go about it

– André 3000, “Humble Mumble

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What follows is a guest post by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò (Georgetown University).

This blog recently hosted a post on country music which defended country music partly because of its interaction with the class dynamics between the working class people who listen to the style and the broader culture in which they do so. The author of this piece comes close to a trope I’ve noticed in many online discussions of art, which feature people “critiquing” the performative politics of the authors but not the aesthetics.

It seems to me like some people these days think their political judgments should lead their aesthetic judgments. In the last few years I’ve been in more conversations than I care to remember about why this or that music is good or bad based on the politics or political symbolism of the artist or their work – why we should like this music because it’s made by representatives of this or that identity group, or we should hate that music because it’s “cultural appropriation”. And, worse, I’ve gotten through many of these discussions without drums or melody or harmony so much as being mentioned, much less being the focus. Sometimes, I was myself guilty! Third and perhaps worst of all is something I think of as a predictable result of the social environment helped along by the first two things: A lot of people in various artistic mediums seem very interested in discussing and preening the social significance of their work but uninterested in developing the fundamental skills of their craft. So, in the spirit of self-criticism: I want to try to do all of these things less because I think these tendencies are bad for art. By the end of this piece I want to have explained why I think that. Continue reading


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FREEDOM, OPPRESSION, AND BLACK CONSCIOUSNESS IN “GET OUT”

The following post appears as part of a partnership with the APA Blog. The original appears here.

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Having recently viewed Jordan Peele’s award-winning Get Out (2017), political theorist Derefe Kimarley Chevannes was prompted to discuss the film with philosopher Lewis Gordon, whose writings include discussions of race in horror films and literature. Continue reading


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BOTTOM RAIL ON TOP THIS TIME: POLITICS, MYTH, CULTURE AND AFRO-FANTACISM IN RYAN COOGLER’S BLACK PANTER

What follows is a guest post by Charles Peterson (Oberlin College)

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As Walter Mosley observes in his essay “Black to the Future,” the genre(s) of science fiction/fantasy neé Afro-futurism speak clearly to the dissatisfied through their power to imagine the first step in changing the world:

Black people have been cut off from their African ancestry by the scythe of slavery and from an American heritage by being excluded from history. For us, science fiction offers an alternative where that which deviates from the norm is the norm.

As such, African-descended people have long understood and utilized the power of narrative to generate the images and ideas that will spark the liberatory imaginings of the sufferers. Particularly in the realms of the fantastic have characters, scenarios, and worlds been constructed to expose the truths of the world as it is and reveal the possibilities of worlds that could be. The figures of Anansi, Brer Rabbit, Nanny of the Maroons (who, though a historical figure, has risen to mythic proportions), John Henry, Shine, and many other figures casting spells thru the genres of proverbs, folklore, folk tales, song, short story, novel, graphic literature and movies have served as prompts to address the spoken and unspoken realities of their respective times and communities.  The Ryan Coogler-directed addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther steps momentously into this tradition. Continue reading