Commodity fetishism for Karl Marx “is not laid to a subjectively errant consciousness, but objectively deduced from the social a priori, the exchange process.” Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 190. However, consciousness of that social exchange can spark real change, especially in the field of art. So let’s play with this and see where it goes.

Musicians now operate in a service and entrepreneurial economy. Those professionally oriented in the past were exchanging musical commodities for a livelihood. Today they have been reduced to exchanging service to the music world (funded venues, print publications, jazz radio, academia) for prestige and the stamp of authenticity, with a significant loss of livelihood. Musicians once treated as highly skilled workers are now middle class entrepreneurs selling their services to a monopoly.

Fifty years ago, prestige followed sales of the fetishized commodity to a significant degree. The buyers of jazz music in particular prided themselves on making their own judgments; they argued over relative musical value, even publicly taking the media critics to task for their judgments. Especially for the avant-garde musicians such as Sunny Murray, enough fans were active in advancing their cause to make a difference, though in the long run the support manifested in sales and poll figures wasn’t enough to pay the bills. Free Jazz was largely supported by media critics but defeated at the point of sales. Musicians blamed the record companies, but for reasons beyond their control their music lost its appeal, which was only resurrected later as a different kind of commodity.

The audience for an Eric Dolphy was too small, given his strangeness to most jazz ears, which forced him out of the American market. Those with more aggressive, proud personalities like Murray railed against the media for not boosting him enough, and against other musicians for copying his ideas and cheating him. (In his memory I recommend the 1965 interview, the first time Murray’s verbal sparks were flying, in 19+ Conversations with Jazz Musicians, conducted by Garth W. Caylor Jr.) The jazz avant-garde led the way for the entire music industry in attacking their bosses, and part of their prestige among audiences came from that boldness.

Today things have turned around almost 180 degrees. Sales of goods and ticket prices follow prestige, which is the work of the music world institutions and communicated through media attention. Ambitious musicians match their musical interest with the positions available and create an image as traditionalist or avant-gardist according to what they feel comfortable with and are capable of. Has anyone of the current generation taken the music world to task, as did Sunny Murray, much less get respected for it?

The docility of today’s name musicians is not considered a scandal, however, since audiences are left out of the picture and cannot imagine themselves bucking the system. The music world institutions are in agreement about who are to be given the most consistent attention and who are not; like the banks, the system is too big to fail. The recognized avant-garde is tagged as already radical, implicit in the musicians’ inclusion; to make it explicit, by challenging their bosses and audience taste, would be to violate their unspoken contract. To bite the hand that feeds them, as the British say, is just not done. But, thinking realistically and sympathetically, where would it get them?

The jazz and avant-garde audience of today does not have the institutional means to interfere and advance its own decisions contrary to what is offered. The judgments have already been made; to listen to music in hopes of having their heads turned around, to pay a decent price for something that is not a guaranteed pleasure, is not what they’re being asked to do. The proliferation of musicians and product that has flooded the market is to the great advantage of this system, as if to say, if you don’t like the names we’ve chosen, there’s thousands more, all equally unknown, for you to find by picking through the bin. As individuals, you will have no means to rally support for one name over another, and anyway, for us to pick up on your selection would break our tacit agreement with those who have already signed with us.

For musicians who have been willing to sell their name and have gotten official recognition in return, this is all a perfectly reasonable arrangement. By the same token, it should be no surprise that the thorny musicians of the past, often bitter and complaining publicly at their fate, do better in the market now than in the era of their greatest creative strength. To keep things running smoothly now, they are have been assigned to the avant-garde museum. Were a few Sunny Murrays to appear today, with fearless, openly proud personalities and a bold music to match, how would we ever hear of them?

Or just maybe the water needs testing from time to time. How long will musicians and audiences continue their defeatism?

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It’s been almost a year since my book, The Free Musics was published. In the meantime I’ve been reflecting on the subject, elaborating and sharpening what I said. As follows:

To demand to be taken seriously as a musician, in society as it is structured, is a demand to be paid, or its poor substitute today, to simply receive attention and recognition from the music world. That demand is a declaration that one is willing to sign the professional-musician contract, which under the cover of ambition is never made explicit. Every contract is binding and coercive, it will restrict what one can play in order to satisfy the other party—audience taste, media, academic and funding institutions. The contract that musicians believe enables them to do what they want musically, in fact constricts them. For instance, no audience has a taste for what is outside their taste; even the most adventurous art consumers will only pay for what they want, at least in the long run. This limitation should be obvious from any examination of the actual playing done by the current generation of avant-garde musicians who are “taken seriously.”

On the other hand, if we refuse the contract and are happier to be outside its law of exchange, then we have no right to make that demand. Support for us will have nothing obligatory about it; whatever we get—praise, surprise, confusion, or donations–is purely a gift. Music world institutions on the other end of a contract are not in the business of giving gifts; they have no reason to pay attention to musicians unwilling to submit to their needs. Even more, they should not; they would self-destruct. Accidents do happen, but were they to give attention and “real” money to such musicians consistently, out of some belief that they are honest judges of music, they would quickly find themselves betrayed by those who never asked for their favor.

In free playing we are too interdependent to give each other what can be called gifts. The gift we receive is from listeners, who are few in number, generally have little to give financially, and are completely powerless to affect the machinery of consumer attention and funding sources. But what this does is to transform what we players are doing. Instead of offering music specific to the needs determined by the other, we are offering them a gift free of obligation. A free gift creates the free gift, a continuous circle, a true infinity. It need not expand for it to exist, which means it does not provoke the anxiety and bitterness of “when will the audience we deserve start showing up?”

When our freedom from the obligation to please people—once called “artistic autonomy”–causes them to walk away confused, they are reluctant to pay. Even when they say we have excited or moved them, which is the usual case, they know instinctively that we are playing outside the contract and have caught some glimpse of our freedom. Whatever they give they are not obliged to give, an abnormal situation within normative society. That confusion and that excitement is their gift to us, as the phrase goes, “more than money can buy.”

This is not to deny that I myself, organizer of tours and feeling responsible financially to the others, succumb to contractual thinking, point audiences to the donation basket and hope they will be generous. But when all is said and done, I can easily remind myself that playing freely in front of others, together with the highly varied responses we get, is more than enough reason for doing what we do. Coming to this conclusion has been a long road, for I did sign that contract decades ago and had to discover the suffering inherent in it. It takes clear thinking to break free of it, and the will to know the actual situation one is in and what is one’s true desire in life.

Our unfree society, whose ideologues try desperately to prove otherwise, produces hidden anxiety, disappointment, and bitterness for all those who sign its contract. No one can ever get enough when they feel they deserve something substantial in return for their efforts, long years of service, and artistic product. Free playing lives and thrives in the cracks of that economic and psychological system. Paradoxically it seems, only when we refuse the social contract to please the other and demand our rights in exchange, is the free gift possible. People speak of the precious gift of life: here it is.

The line for almost all gigs that I and my partners play starts in the rear–first-come, first-served. That puts me in good company; the vast field of unrecognized musicians, the status of almost all my current partners. Unlike the cliques of career-oriented musicians, the field is unlimited, and adventurous playing is always a possibility, since our first thought is our own pleasure in playing and discovery. My only complaint is the long hours it takes to organize a tour, and the financial limitation on where we can go. To play the career game is not an option, for, as i argue in The Free Musics , that would limit the range of free playing, which is well worth the trouble. 

It helps to observe the situation objectively. Given the huge number of performance-oriented musicians today, it’s increasingly difficult for musicians to get gigs who have not sought or gained approval from the music world of media and institutions, or are not part of a career-oriented clique. For myself this has meant abandoning the search to perform in NY; I organize in the more accessible Midwest and South instead. I’d rather spend my time traveling than hassling. Now it seems the same in Europe, with the drop in funded series, whose independent curators usually paid little attention to a musician’s media value.

Today in the states it is rare for curators to make decisions by actually listening to the music and being selectively excited by it. Some operate in terms of relative market value, with of course the consistently media-supported names at the top, whom they will exclusively, or preferably book. Others cater to the bulk of musicians who lack such status. In either case, to make a decision based on a judgment about the specific music, as heard on a sample recording, is out of the question. For those booking musicians of no media significance it seems undemocratic to do so. No one wants to say, ‘THIS is the music I want to make happen.” That would be called elitist, and would be criticized for exercising the power to make decisions. Left-culture Americans in general don’t like to admit they have power; even when they obviously do–all power is supposedly evil, so it must be denied. They’d rather think they’re “serving the people”–which means every single one who asks to perform will be allowed to do so in an orderly, bureaucratic fashion.

Most audience members are good consumers; they trust in the media-created hierarchy, the brand names. They are egalitarian when they drop a couple bucks in the hat at a house show, but wouldn’t dream of treating socially validated musicians like that, or comparing the two acts musically. Musicians of no known value are lumped together on one plane, and the approved names on another, and like the rich and poor in our society,  increasingly the two are distanced socially and economically and never meet. Is the distance musically that great? What comes into play is a prime example of the “managing of consent”, which this audience would quickly critique if the topic were politics, but goes unnoticed here. Why is that? Is the honor of Art at stake?

If curators of media-recognized and of -unrecognized musicians wanted to be truly democratic they would take seriously the actual music of anyone who asks to perform, and book according to their judgment. They would have to be willing to  take risks and face criticism for the sake of the music. It might take a cultural revolution for that to come about.

 

Right now many are plunged into defending what they never imagined needed defending. They thought things were progressing slowly forward; suddenly the ground is ripped out from under them.  The hope is that somehow the world might get back on track, that is, the same track as before. That would mean this period of time is a total loss, a waste of time, a setback; the status quo might never be restored. The situation seems absolutely negative and destructive. Without glossing over the suffering coming down the pike, can we a imagine a future from which we look back and see that this situation has instead been positive?

This introduces the basic question I want to ask: how do we come to fundamentally new ways of thinking? How do we become frustrated on a deep level with the limitations of our thought patterns, our explanations and automatic behavior and responses? Why would we even allow frustration to enter without knowing there is a satisfying escape from it? Why, if human existence is the search for security and satisfaction, would humans disrupt their stability, which they can plainly see will plunge them into suffering? That suffering is not just internal conflict but isolation from others. You see a problem, a flaw in your thinking you share with others and you tell them about it. Those others might agree if pressed, but that makes them fear you and turn against you: “I don’t want to start down that road, I need the company of others. You must want to suffer, for peace of mind is easily available.” You say, “Bear with me” but to bear something is suffering. To undermine oneself, with no hope of overcoming the isolation, goes against the grain of the truism “man is a social being.”

Self-heroicizing, to see oneself as an avant-garde that will later be joined by the others, perhaps after one’s death, is the all-too-human consolation that might keep one going. Or rather it kept some going in the past but has run out of steam. It is the view from a non-existent future, and may even be correct, yet it is a diversion that cripples the movement of thought, which is only present. That is, thought is movement; I am convinced this moment of what did not yet convince me a moment before, yet I am somehow the same person. That is a mystery even though it obviously happens, or we might say, happens to us.

We can thoroughly enjoy the place where we stand only when we learn to dance on this shaky ground. Humans need solid ground, known as knowledge, that the herd will return each year, that planted seeds will grow, and that the concepts planted through media, social pressure, and education will yield stability and self-recognition from one day, one year, to the next. And yet, for some reason that need is not enough. Apparently there is some excitement to abandoning security and embracing where thought and intuition takes us, following a path without knowing where it leads. This is not without fear, but a fear that provokes laughter and more boldness. That is how we originate ourselves and originate the world—see it new, make it new. That is living, not surviving, and we are probably not the fittest! We are launched: “Look ma, no hands!” Some will caution: “How foolish, you’ll surely crash.” Well, that cow has already left the barn.

When Trump lied boldly and with impunity he released us to think and act just as fearlessly. It’s our choice. The cannon is loose on a sea everyone knows is rocky, crashing around on the deck and threatening the ship. It is sheer, dumb weight, unaware of where it’s going, mere acting out. Trump’s self-unleashing was admired by followers as a desire for freedom. To us likewise it says, “unleash yourselves.” We are however free to do it differently. Instead of acting out, we can choose to be aware and act out of awareness. We can get our sea legs and move around swiftly and deftly, acknowledging but not trapped in worrying about the damage.

After the performance the other night, however, a Hamilton actor tried to batten down the hatches. He delivered a speech to Pence, in the audience: “Please, sir, protect us.” That was not a bold but a fearful act on bended knee, the humble peasant petitioning the king. Not a word of counter-threat if the petition is denied! Claiming to speak for us, it proclaimed our powerlessness in the hope not to be trampled by the army of elephants chomping at the bit, as if the king himself was not leading the charge. While the audience applauded, the speech effectively recognized and respected Trump’s power. It was exactly the response desired by those who have declared war on us. If not Pence, certainly Trump laughed up his sleeve at hearing it. Publicly he asked for the peasant to take back his plea; even a petition is offensive.

The bull in the china shop is already wrecking the place. It is futile and demeaning to go around trying to glue the pieces back together.

We are entering an era where those holding legal and armed power will seek to roll the entire world back to before the watershed of the sixties, leaving only technology and capital in place. Trump believes he has the power and legitimacy to accomplish this revolution from his perch above. As for those who resist, he has said he will change the libel laws, aiming to put any dissenting views out of business. This restitution of censorship will punish any media that opposes him, including posts such as this. After Trump’s election his campaign manager Conway threatened Harry Reid, the head Democratic senator, with legal action for his prior and preemptively any future criticism. Trump also did not deny he might still prosecute Hillary.

These are not fools talking through their hats. The arbitrariness of autocracy is right on target. Whatever they actually do, they intend to have a chilling effect, such as: “From now on let’s be a little careful what we say in public.” Such defeatism and plea-bargaining, as if we are guilty of something, is already filling the air.

The new situation Trump has created we can turn to our use, emancipating us from any such thinking. It is the old normal, pragmatic realism, and we are no longer obligated to follow it. A new reality is in the works and we’re already part of it.

The bullies talk big but fear us, as well they should. “We” are not only the massive Democratic party and major institutions but the 73% of eligible voters that either voted against Trump or were suppressed, sat on their hands in disgust at the choice, or simply didn’t care to vote. (That figure: 164 million out of 225 million eligible voters). The fox thinks he’s in the henhouse, which now includes those whom p.c. protected from hate, joined now by their erstwhile protectors–Reid, Hillary, the NY Times and all the p.c. liberals. And why would Obama himself be immune, should he stop being conciliatory? Or any of his voters who become disillusioned turncoats, as surely some will?

Occupy said “We are the 99%,” a dream of common interest and unity. We open our eyes and see that Trump has brought this closer to reality. And let’s not forget: Occupy did not just follow the rural/urban demographic split. Some of those 61 million who pulled the Trump lever were awakened by, active in, or supportive of Occupy just five years ago, and are waiting to see what will happen now. Many voted simply for the one promising the most radical shakeup of the status quo. That’s what we have now. There is something in this that we have also desired. Really, how many of us wanted business as usual?

People are frightened of violence and fear we are moving into that situation, with all those holding the weapons trained against us. That is reasonable, but the surest path to violence is to act weak and beg sympathy from those with whip in hand; it will not save us. Dogs sense fear as a sign of submissiveness and attack, yet it is their own fear that is behind it. We must not be fooled by those who have unilaterally declared war on us. This is not 1932 Germany, they are not Nazis, and we are not weak unless we choose to see ourselves that way. They are the few and we are the many.

Our speech should be, “If you so much as breathe your putrid breath on us you will be digging your own grave. We are watching your every step and do not fear what you can do. You stand on the love and loyalty of your so-called constituency but we have the will and ability to pull them right out from under your feet. We will isolate you and force you into a dungeon of misery; then you will be the ones begging protection. At best we will allow you to eke out your lives without physical harm, which is more than you offer us.”

Reading about Arthur Rimbaud’s “Season in Hell”: “The Future is his domain; hence, like Nietzsche, he refuses ressentiment’s obsessive nursing of past grievance.” * (Ressentiment is very close to resentment, but as Nietzsche used it, is rage that is both personal—psychological–and social hostility to those considered the cause of one’s misfortune.)

This was in 1870 or so, when the concept of Progress towards a better future for all was widely believed. Rimbaud had a grievance against the world, and saw himself not as a poet, one of the acceptable roles, but a visionary. His mission lasted from age fifteen to nineteen, when he gave up in despair, but it was still enough time for him to be celebrated today as the greatest poet/visionary of modern times.

It is that Progress, Rimbaud’s youthful though ambivalent faith, which has disappeared, yielding a collective ressentiment that is the major motivation for the Trump presidency.

For those who detest history, I’m sorry, but history has brought us to this point. Of course, it is a narrative and is debatable, but without that debate, based on facts and interpretation, we will never get beyond anger, self-pity, and withdrawal into helplessness. War has been declared on us, and as I said in my last post, it is time for an avant-garde not dependent on the old guard, its defense of “art,” its institutions and media.

Neoliberalism, beginning in the late 70s and coming to power with Reagan, set out to eliminate the visionary future that was the successor of Rimbaud’s vision. It had sustained not only socialists but the working class and the American Dream, whose locus was the Democratic Party, the reason that is today called “the left.”  Neoliberalism reduced Progress for all human existence to the trickle-down from above theory—first let the rich get richer, then maybe something will be left over. This returns us to the medieval platitude that we will always have the poor with us, “us” being the powers that be. Progress would henceforth be the sole domain of the global advance of capitalism, with nothing allowed to stand in the way. That was the plan.

This divided the political sphere. Political liberals wanted compromise; they still believed it possible to base the social order on capitalist expansion and have social benefits for all. In the sixties this was called “guns” (the “hot” war against Vietnam, since any Communist country would block world capital/market expansion) and “butter” (the Great Society—Medicare, Poverty Program, Voting Rights, etc.). Conservatives said this was unrealistic; capital needed everything it could get its hands on to survive and to expand. They were right, capital is always in crisis if it can’t expand, and it is “too big to fail.” The Great Society would have to be sacrificed, along with any regulations for human benefit that hamper expansion. For instance, a future for human existence requires response to the damage capital has done to the environment. To deny climate change and refuse to make the massive corrections it requires is to say, there is no future for humanity except what capitalism permits.

Since all this takes place in a democratic form of government, enough people must be persuaded and organized to execute the design. This is why neoliberalism had to be joined to neoconservatism, which was the validation, fostering, and politicization of ressentiment. It was a package deal. One hand takes away the better future-for-all and the other offers a better future limited to some. It is more palatable to call it respect and dignity. These are believed to be a limited commodity; such that those who are not getting their share must take it away from others. The new vision would be a seeming contradiction: the future would return us to the fifties, the period before Civil Rights began the sixties expansion of the ranks of those the government recognized as full humans.

What popularly evoked generosity for the other, the election of Obama, would be fiercely blocked during his eight years and turn into ressentiment against the other, which neo-conservatism and its alt-right, gun rights, anti-abortion, Christian identity, and white supremacy groups had long been preparing for. Without a future for all there is no way to avoid ressentiment against those patronized by liberal governments, who seem to be eating up the future that could have been everyone’s.

The movement draws upon racism but is primarily an attack on the government, whose strength has been to act as buffer, protecting and advancing those “identities” that were added to the list of human beings in the sixties. The catchword for that protection was “p.c.” and its support can be called either guilt or concern for the welfare of others. Today when liberals are stripped of political power, no longer able to enforce political correctness, the guilt they relied on among those who were economically and socially secure is no longer effective. Not only that, the former protectors are  themselves joined to those they thought they could protect. This means a major distinction of class, in the shape of liberal protectors and recipient protected, has just been eliminated.

The white supremacist government backed by armed supporters just elected is attacked by liberals as ignorant. This is patently true and barely denied: Trump is a naif, openly amazed to find out what the job of president entailed, just as he had consistently disregarded factual truth. But the liberals are equally naïve and dumb if they do not see how this situation came about and continue as if nothing has changed. They act as if the return to the status quo—guns and butter, which has been the Democrats program all along–will change the situation.

People in shock see that the situation is deep with implications but it hasn’t yet occurred to many that the meaning of this revolution is that capitalism is maybe not too big to fail. Unwittingly, though the markets now think differently, Trump may be leading us straight to that failure, without the aid of any leftist visionaries. Revolutions are nothing if not surprises. We are caught unawares, woken up, rubbing our eyes: What do we see?

Nativist movements such as Trump are poised to sweep the world, and sweep away anything in the path of capital. We are in the opening of a revolutionary phase, but it is only the opening. To be as naïve as those who have declared war on us is like throwing in the towel before we’ve even gotten wet.

* Ross Posnock, Renunciation [2016], p. 88

Trump is the final triumph of neo-conservatism after almost fifty years of trying (Nixon’s “silent majority”). What looked to be on its last legs was able to grab the only thing worth having: power to implement its program. Neo-conservatism has been the populist sugar coating covering neo-liberalism’s class warfare, its cultural ally. From its origin neo-conservatism has been the counter to the sixties rebellion, which makes Trump America’s Nicolas Sarkozy, who in 2007 came to power in France with the promise to end “the spirit of 68” for good. Since it was neo-conservatism that galvanized the base, Trump, the neo-liberal minus the persuasive multi-culturalism, must fulfill it.

In 2008, when I heard Obama say at a local rally “and there will be poetry in the schools,” I openly wept–he hit my vulnerable spot right there. Now that even that dream is a laughing matter is of prime significance to artists and art-musicians today, for the grand celebration going on right now is at their expense. For those who want their music to be media-visible it should bring them to re-examine their relation to that sixties heritage and the place they might have in the new regime. Where Obama was a gentle neo-liberal, who promised a place for art, the new regime promises to be a brutal, authoritarian version, censoring anything that reminds us even vaguely of the free-wheeling artistic movements of the past. The compromise by which the sixties “artistic critique” was promoted in order to suppress its “political critique” is now abandoned. Say goodbye to “Everyone is an artist,” the populist mantra that has filled art and music schools since the 90s and was linked to social and even economic progress.

That puts artists who achieved careers under the old regime on the spot, since they owe their positions to a tacit agreement to represent the enshrined sixties heritage. They can either survive by taking a more submissive position (no balking at cutbacks),* or moving towards more politicized art (unambiguous propaganda), or hiding out (the honored position of modernist “internal exile” where invisibility is the price of doing art). A fourth option is to take the arts out of the safe, gentle-neoliberal mold all art and art music careers have depended on. That would create an avant-garde that is truly outcast and no longer playing the role of marginalized outcast, innovative experimenter, entertaining a self-confident liberal population. It would mean repudiating any position attained by fulfilling the needs of media and credentialing institutions. (Some of us are already there and have been for some time.) Unlike today’s, that avant-garde would have, as De Kooning put it in 1950, “no position in the world except that we just insist on being around.”

* I should add that the bastion-institutions on which professional artists rely will still have considerable largess to dispense. They will probably picture themselves in the anti-Trump camp (“culture vs. the state”) and  reinforce funding of their usual recipients. This will demonstrate that “freedom of expression is still alive.” For that the institutions will get the credit for their symbolic act, and the artists for playing their role. However, these institutions have already been hard at work in the job of curating–censoring–whatever is not to their advantage.