Who Needs Classical Music?: Cultural Choice and Musical Value
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Praised in The Economist as "heartfelt and finely reasoned...wise, perceptive and inspiring," Who Needs Classical Music? offers a fresh and balanced defense of the value of classical music in contemporary culture. Challenging the many cultural critics who contend that the division between "high" and "low" art is an artificial one, that Beethoven's Ninth and "Blue Suede Shoes" are equally valuable, Julian Johnson counters that music is more than just "a matter of taste." Music can provide entertainment or simply serve as background noise. Classical music, he suggests, is shaped by its claim to function as art. It is distinguished by a self-conscious attention to its own materials and their formal patterning. Far from being irrelevant today, Johnson argues, classical music continues to offer rich and engaging insights into our experience of modern life. The paperback edition includes a new preface from the author, bringing his argument up to date. Who Needs Classical Music? will stimulate readers to reflect on their own investment (or lack of it) in music and art of all kinds.
ceases to be meaningful in this context. First, the idea of art proposes a particular class of objects that assume a different function to everyday things; second, the idea of art claims a value that is not contingent on the perception of any particular individual. Such claims are easily drowned out in a society characterized by a complete relativism of cultural judgments. Everything is art in this context—gardening, cookery, home decorating, sport, sex. At the same time, nothing is art, in the
questions of art or culture. Here, experts are irrelevant for the simple reason that the sole criterion for judging something like music is personal pleasure, a realm where the judgment of experts has no authority. Those shaping state policies on the arts thus ﬁnd themselves caught between two conﬂicting ideas of art. On the one hand, art is not separated from the rest of contemporary cultural practice and is judged by the same criteria of pleasure, fashion, and the demarcation of social space.
collective experience. Music is always the mediation of individuality and collectivity: it reformulates the borders between the two by repeatedly transgressing them in its own internal language. But it does this in different ways. There is a difference between the outward collective activity that arises from music’s performative aspect and the way music mediates the relationship of individual and collective in its own process. Unison hymn singing, for example, embodies a unity of collective
tone of an ousted elite, a mean-spirited caviling that concedes the citadels may have been stormed but that their contents will never be “understood” by an illiterate mass audience. In Britain, these opposing positions have been neatly marked in the differences between two competing radio stations, the publicly funded BBC Radio and the commercial Classic FM. Radio ’s traditional approach implies that the understanding of a musical work is enhanced by knowledge about it, whereas Classic FM’s
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