9.6 The lack of intellectual debate about WCM


Pierre Bourdieu (1966/69) offered an overview of the processes by which an intellectual-cultural field forms and is sustained.[1] The relationships between gatekeepers and performers are easily recognisable in his analysis. Critics and artists form ‘mutual admiration societies’ of initiates, sharing the same values and aesthetic outlook (Bourdieu 1969, 94). In the larger scheme all are products of the same historical and cultural situation and are dependent on it. Bourdieu’s model assumes that both artists and critics are sustained by a shared admiration for the new which sets them apart from the mass. This is only partly true for WCM, needless to say: performance is always renewing itself, because performance style is always slowly changing, but on the whole neither performers nor critics are aware of that, only of how undesirable and counter to their whole notion of WCM it would be; and so they do all they can to prevent it. Yet there must be an underlying, discomforting awareness that change is always in the air, for it’s this anxiety that drives critics to an extreme language of condemnation for even the smallest divergencies from the norm. The mutual admiration forms, therefore, around the most convincing performance of the norm, which provides security and stability in the state.

Composers, performers and critics—the initiates—alone know how this music must be; and so the only legitimate role for the audience is to learn what the artists and critics know and to praise what they praise.[2]

…in the domain of consecrated culture … [the consumers] feel they are subject to objective norms and are obliged to adopt an attitude which is pious, ceremonial and ritualistic. … The existence of sanctified works and of a whole system of rules which define the sacramental approach assumes the existence of an institution whose function is not only to transmit and make available but also to confer legitimacy. (Bourdieu 1969, 107)

In this the whole system represented by the model in 7.1 cooperates. Bourdieu’s model, however, based in the practice of 20th-century art, assumes competition between divergent ideals and artistic movements (110). We don’t see that in WCM, barely even in the discussion and promotion of new composition, certainly not in the discussion and promotion of performance. And so it seems possible that one cause of the relative lack of intellectual debate about WCM within wider arts culture is precisely the lack of that opposition Bourdieu assumed between institutions and performers. What is there to debate when everyone agrees on what’s proper, and nothing noticeably new ever happens? What room is there for interesting discussion? Only the emergence of HIP in the late 60s (when else?) percolated, slightly and briefly, into general cultural consciousness.

And so we arrive at a situation in which WCM is so marginal in arts culture that a lead editorial in The Observer can remind us that the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony ‘featured Dizzie Rascal and Rowan Atkinson, Arctic Monkeys and the London Symphonic Orchestra.’[3] It’s a tiny example, but that the name of one of the UK’s leading orchestras is only partially known to the leader-writers and sub-editors of one its most culturally sophisticated newspapers gives a measure of the ignorance of classical music, and even its chief international institutions, at the highest levels of the educated liberal elite. (See also Chapter 18.2, on theatre criticism.) Such people no longer see WCM as something that they need know anything about; it’s effectively not part of the current arts scene. The UK may be (is) worse in this respect than some countries, but it is not atypical across the first world.

And this is one of the reasons why WCM can get away with running its own police state. No one else is interested.


Continue to Chapter 10: ‘Normativities

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[1] Bourdieu, Pierre. 1969. Intellectual Field and Creative Project. Information (International Social Science Council), 8:2, 89–119. Translation by Sian France of ‘Champ intellectual et projet créateur’, Les temps modernes, November 1966, 865–906.

[2] Since I wrote this Sir András Schiff has shared similar views with us.

[3] The Observer, 23 October 2016, lead editorial.

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