Alan Bradshaw: Marxist music studies

In contemplating music and capitalism, we might imagine alternative framings to “art versus commerce.” Art versus commerce understands music as perpetually compromised between musicians’ desire to produce l’art pour l’art in a context in which they must be commodity producers. In this regard, the challenge facing musicians is to register discourses of truth, authenticity, and subjectivity within the structure of commodity production (Frith and Horne 1987). Arguably, the primary theoretical reference for such analysis is presented by Adorno and Horkheimer’s ([1944] 1997) culture industry thesis, which posits a negative dialectic between orders of culture and industrial production. By focusing on the possibility of artistic production autonomy, a shift seems to take place wherein the spirit or aesthetic possibility claimed by the artist becomes emphasized and the music is analyzed with such spirit in mind.

However, such emphases perhaps dislocate the principle of revolution inherent to the Marxist tradition and instead, arguably, celebrate musicians’ ability to navigate corporate structures while clinging to vestiges of authenticity. Put differently, if the only possibilities of an acceptable music are to be found in sparsely attended concerts of privileged audiences (Adorno’s preferred Schoenberg compositions, for instance), then capitalism need hardly worry. This is all to say that the placement of the word “capitalism” as the dialectical “other” to music (as in music and capitalism) holds the possibility of moving analysis away from concerns with bohemian representation or obscure avant-garde formulations and instead toward a more radical orientation that wants to see music put capitalism on the ropes, so to speak.

However, such desire immediately runs against the problem that the Marxism mold of music analysis has long been, as argued aggressively by Krims (2002), in a state of paucity. By contrast, in other subject areas, most notably art history, there are stronger Marxist traditions of interpretation that follow from key interventions by scholars like Meyer Schapiro, John Berger, Griselda Pollock, and T.J. Clark. It is striking that visual art should have a far more vibrant field of Marxist analysis than music studies. In this piece, I wish to argue against the distinctly cozy middle class preoccupation with art versus commerce as the mode of analysis by arguing that it is grounded in a devastatingly destructive inherited romantic fixation on the death of the artist. I turn instead to lessons learned from the renewal of Marxist art history and ponder the possibility of a renewal of Marxist musical analysis.

As Krims (2002) argues, where music studies have been pulled into wider levels of interdisciplinary debate, such as in Music and Society by Leppert and McLary (1989), an anti-Marxist stance has tended to prevail. Where efforts have been made to introduce and demonstrate a wider grid of analysis for Marxism in music, as most notably in Music and Marx: Ideas, Practice, Politics (Qureshi 2002), the emphasis remains firmly on problematizing practices of music production and dissemination. A focus on problematizing need not limit analysis to critique, but it does suggest that critical analysis, as the end in its own right, is the most likely form of analysis to abound. The limit of this approach was perhaps best exemplified at the recent “Creativity and Institutions” workshop held at Cambridge University, where there was broad support among panelists for the idea of politicizing how musicians manage their careers but few ideas concerning how such a thing might happen. Perhaps this is because, as Krims (2003) notes, where there is a desire to develop a more valorizing mode of analysis, the work of Adorno presents an obstacle. For Krims (2003), Adorno’s insistence that music be listened to in terms of rubrics of mass production, standardization, false differentiation, and the regression of music generates a “foundational trauma in the subject” that prohibits any promotion of a music genre as political resistance or even a moment of disrupting the “deadening conformity of the music industry.” This is not to rehearse stale misreadings of Adorno as elitist and so forth but rather to say that for the field of music studies, the primary focus upon Adorno tends to result in a strangulation of radical intent.

Perhaps it is because of this context of post-Adorno trauma that instead of advocating a more radical understanding of music and its ability to contest capitalism, attention fixates on the bohemian desires of musicians—for example, consider Frith and Horne’s (1987) seminal analysis of art school students turned popular musicians or Cottrell’s (2004) ethnography of professional musicians in London (and though in a comparative non-league of scholarship, I add my own scholarship of around ten years ago). Bohemian desire emerges as a particular middle-class preoccupation—a struggle of the holders of cultural capital to assert themselves in spaces in which economic capital is preferred, as was famously argued in David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise (2000), wherein “Bobos” are bourgeois bohemians not actually concerned with any leftist political struggle, a phenomenon also noted in Heath and Potter’s big-selling Rebel Sell (2006). As explored by numerous writers, bohemian ideology has little to offer in terms of artistic production but rather is a lifestyle aspiration that has extended into a means of assessing musicianship and detecting cynical and sincere practices. Indeed, musicians often protest that the accusations of sellout are totally unhelpful inasmuch as they undermine the creative capacity of struggling musicians to survive in difficult circumstances, for example, Amanda Palmer’s recent Guardian essay. At worst, the bohemian demand celebrates the plight of artists and fetishizes their self-destructiveness. Moreover, the bohemian foundations of the art versus commerce conundrum severely limits the scope for any meaningful politics outside of middle-class preoccupations over who has the right to proclaim oneself “authentic” (for what could be more dull?) and the desire of audiences to enjoy the spectacle of musicians killing themselves (for what could be more despicable?).

This link between romantic conceptions of musicians and their self-destructiveness is age-old. For instance, Norbert Elias (1993) reads the life of Mozart as signaling an emergent prototype of artists not just who were hostile to the elites’ stranglehold over aesthetic values and their attendant stale conception of civility but also whose estrangement leads to the musician’s premature death. This archetype persists throughout the Romantic period—for instance, consider Goethe’s canonical Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) in which the poet makes the ultimate gesture of rejecting philistine values by committing suicide. Consider the English public’s adoration of Thomas Chatterton, the eighteen-year-old poet who committed suicide in 1770 and whose gesture came to be mythologized by popular plays as well as Henry Wallis’s famous portrait. The fetishization of destruction continued through the nineteenth century—consider, for example, Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece” (1831) or, most notably, Murger’s Scenes de la Viede  Bohème, which launched in Paris in 1845 and was adapted to opera by Puccini in 1896 (and whose contemporary relevance is maintained by its modern Broadway adaption into Rent). Throughout this period, we see troubled artists turn toward addictive behavior marked by the legendary absinthe-fueled alcoholism of nineteenth-century French artists for which market approval—in the form of increased valuations—was often forthcoming (for example, the case of Modigliani). While examples abound across the spectrum of twentieth-century music production of addicted and self-destructive musicians, it is perhaps only necessary to point toward the depressing list of jazz greats who died early to realize that the pattern has persisted and, arguably, is inherent to the bohemian definition of concepts like authenticity and purity that define the art versus commerce boondoggle. Bohemia, and by extension art versus commerce, must therefore be thought of as an ethos that, as Craven (1990: 341) bitterly notes, is a deadly curse that “transforms the artist into the stereotype” and creates a role for the artist as:

…starving and dying; the artist as a deviant and a suicide; the artist as insane and alcoholic; the artist as undiscovered genius whose greatness is not recognised until after his death. One is reminded of Van Gogh, Modigliani and Utrillo—the insane, the alcoholic and the drug addict, respectively. (Griff 1960: 221)

This is all to say that the bohemian celebration of the artist and its attendant concern with art versus commerce not only is reactionary but also marks a deeply engrained destructiveness within artistic production. By contrast, the turn toward considering music and capitalism allows for a much more interesting debate.

To explore how interesting the matter might become, attention is now turned toward the recent quest to ReNew Marxist Art History by Carter, Haran, and Schwartz (2013). Noting T.J. Clark’s Marxism (for instance, see Clark 1999), the contributors demonstrate how art can function as a disputed part of historical process that may work against dominant regimes of power (notably, Clark’s position arguably rehearses much of Adorno’s form of analysis with the key difference being that Clark’s work is experienced not as a foundational trauma but rather an effective “call to arms”). In this sense the question of a Marxist history of art becomes a question of what the canon is, how it comes to be represented and by whom, and also a question of how, and in what contexts, claims may be made for this socially constructed canon. In this sense, what becomes desired is a “social history of a social history of art,” a fundamentally institutional project that considers how the various interventions and theoretical disruptions within the subject were explicitly pitched against the discipline “in its more conventionally conservative, connoisseurial and neo-formalist variants.” Yet the authors also warn (crucially for music studies) that such interventions become appropriated in the hyperglobalized tycoon club that is the contemporary art market. For example, in his forthcoming book, Art and Value, Dave Beech (2015) demonstrates how academic critique often becomes included in the lengthy bibliography contained in “lot notes” during the auctioning of art works—such as a piece by Calder whose lot notes boast an essay by Jean-Paul Sartre! In this case, critique and analysis also become a means for titillating the tastes of the bourgeoisie and boosting skyrocket valuations.

For the study of music and capitalism, such insights from art history are important especially for overcoming—what Krims calls—the foundational trauma of Adorno without having to reject Adorno’s Marxism. Specifically, in focusing on a critical potential of music to challenge dominant power, we might move away from identity politics (arguably a defining feature of Leppert and McLary’s Music and Society), which champions music that advocates on behalf of minority interest, and instead fixate not on the phenomenological experience of avid listeners but on the structural effects of music and its listeners as it challenges (or does not challenge) the status quo of capital accumulation. This is not intended as a disregarding of the “merely cultural.” The purpose is, after all, not to condemn identity politics research but to find a point of invigoration for studying music and capitalism that is different to previous moments of—arguably by now exhausted—invigoration. Such a means of engagement might champion, for instance, rallying calls for workers to find solidarity in trade union movements or the emphasis of a solidarity of class struggle that cuts across sectarian divisions; or the celebration of an avant-garde working-class aesthetic that notices and resents its appropriation; or the composition of anthems that allow crowds to sing in collective voice at antiwar demonstrations. The grid of analysis then becomes a question of a historical analysis of how the music specifically comes to make spatiotemporal contestations against capitalism and to assess particular moments of pressurizing power—of catering for new forms of gathering, shared experiences, and politicized subjectivities—and to understand the infrastructural conditions that lead to such possibilities. In a sense, such a research agenda continues in the mold of the Birmingham School but specifically seeks to know how exactly capitalism is being pressurized. Furthermore, such analysis probes the working assumptions and schools of theory that underpin the analysis itself, persistently casting reflexive doubt on the institutional mores and their impact upon analysis.

In the interest of nominating a recent text that combines Marxist art history with music studies, Owen Hatherley’s Uncommon (2011), which reviews the career of English band Pulp, is a great case in point (see an abridged version here). Hatherley provides a compelling analysis of Pulp’s output, detailing how the music upended class stereotypes and registered anger and resentment against the class warfare endemic to the late twentieth-century United Kingdom. Further, Hatherley locates the band’s career within a particular infrastructure structured around art school education, arts council grants, council housing, and the dole. The strategic undermining of this infrastructure allows a reading of Pulp to critique contemporary British politics and to notice something often overlooked in music studies: working-class musicians are rapidly disappearing from public view. Owen Hatherley’s text provides a template for where the study of music and capitalism might lead.

Alan Bradshaw teaches and learns at Royal Holloway, University of London, and also at Stockholm University.

Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. [1944] 1997. Dialectic of enlightenment. London: Verso.

Beech, Dave. 2015 (forthcoming). Art and value: Art’s economic exceptionalism in classical, neoclassical and Marxist economics. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.

Brooks, David. 2000. Bobos in paradise: The new upper class and how they got there. London: Simon & Schuster.

Carter, Warren, Haran Barnaby, and Frederic J. Schwartz, eds. 2013. Renewing Marxist art history. London: Art/Books.

Clark, T.J. 1999. Farewell to an idea: Episodes from a history of modernism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Cottrell, Stephen. 2004. Professional music-making in London: Ethnography and experience. Hampshire, UK: Ashgate.

Craven, Cesar. 1990. A pustule on the organism of Paris. In Cesear Grana and Marigay Grana, eds., On bohemia: The code of the self-exiled, pp. 424–429. London: Transaction Publishers.

Elias, Norbert. 1993. Mozart: Portrait of a genius. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Frith, Simon, and Howard Horne. 1987. Art into pop. London: Methuen & Co.

Griff, Mason. 1960. The commercial artist: A study in changing and consistent identities. In Maurice Stein, Arthur Vidich, and David White, eds., Identity and anxiety: Survival of the person in mass society, pp. 219–241. Glencoe, IL: Free Press of Glencoe.

Hatherley, Owen. 2011. Uncommon: An essay on Pulp. London: Zero.

Heath, Joseph, and Andrew Potter. 2005. The rebel sell: How the counterculture became the consumer culture. Chichester, UK: Capstone.

Krims, Adam. 2002. The hip-hop sublime as a form of commodification. In Regula Burckhardt Qureshi, ed., Music and Marx: Ideas, practice, politics, pp. 63–80. London: Routledge.

Krims, Adam. 2003. Marxist music analysis without Adorno: Popular music and urban geography. In Allan F. Moore, ed. Analyzing popular music, pp. 131–157. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Leppert, Richard, and Susan McLary. 1987. Music and society: The politics of composition, performance and reception. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Qureshi, Regula Burckhardt. 2002. Music and Marx: Ideas, practice, politics. London: Routledge.

Cite as: Bradshaw, Alan. 2015. “Marxist music studies,” FocaalBlog, April 14,