Musical Autonomy has a Social Justice Problem

American Musicological Society, 12 November 2022.

The idea that music is inherently unique or non-representational among the arts is experiencing a renaissance, instigated by the recent ontological and materialist turns. Abbate (2005, 2018) and Gallope (2017) extol music's ineffability, while Brown (2019) praises music for creating meaning outside the framework of capitalism. These issues coagulate around the idea of music's aesthetic autonomy, which appears to point toward a more relativist way of understanding music. As I argue, however, belief in autonomy as a special, ontological property of music conceals an interpretive politics that has withheld the status of “art” from black music.

I begin by considering Amiri Baraka’s (1963) analysis of a stereotype from early jazz criticism: that “bebop led jazz into the arena of art,” because it had shed jazz’s supposedly external associations with dance and swing. Thoughts like these demonstrate how the autonomy principle simultaneously constructs an exclusive notion of “art” and installs itself as gatekeeper. Then, I cite Guy Ramsey’s (2003) response that "any argument that music from black practitioners could exist within the autonomous realm should be considered a politically charged statement," because they imply "that America's black citizens had culturally 'grown up.'" What becomes clear is that autonomy cannot be allowed to define the conceptual boundary of art without conceding something to white supremacy.

Next, I attach this historical discourse to a theoretical one by tracing the influence of autonomy to the work of Theodor Adorno. While his invectives against early jazz for its affiliations with "popular culture" are well known, Adorno (1998) also drives a sharp distinction between music and language. Considering Adorno helps me show that philosophies that excise music from art, culture, or communicable concepts have historical continuity with negative valuations of black art.

Finally, I draw from Alain Badiou's (2019) reflection on the saying, "Metaphysics plugs the hole of politics," to conclude that assertions about music's autonomy, ineffability, exceptionality, or separateness from language and other forms of art are strictly metaphysical. They conflate the function of language with the ontology of music in a way that conceals a socially unjust politics of interpretation.