Genius and Bad Faith
The conversations about race and repertoire that I mentioned just after the Sweet Adelines International Convention continue to thrive in both public and private spaces, and continue to present all of us with much food for thought. Today's post is in the genre of 'trying to nurture a vague hunch into full thought-hood'. If you are reading this, then I managed to articulate it enough to have something to publish...
The hunch is this: that the way classify certain cultural artefacts as 'art' or the product of 'genius' serves to protect them from genuine critical scrutiny. We may analyse them and discover cultural values that encode oppressive social relations, but that analysis does not dent the work's reputation or place in its canon. If anything, it just makes it look more important to be subject to all that attention: musicology as clickbait.
The example I'm starting from is of course 'Swannee'. Yes, it invokes demeaning stereotypes of African Americans, but, you know, it's by Gershwin. Gershwin's a genius, you can't just drop his stuff from the repertoire as if it were, I don't know, 'Way Down Yonder in the Cornfield'. It may be deeply offensive to some audience members, but they can just suck that up, because Art.
If you compare how we treat this kind of cultural output with, say, the way we treated the Sun newspaper when it published racist stories about Syrian refugees, you can see quite clearly the outrage-bypass we have when it comes to 'art'. A national newspaper produces something insulting and we rightly call it out as hate speech. A composer and lyricist of yesteryear build their message around racist stereotypes and we keep it in the standard repertoire. We may attempt to distance ourselves from it by treating it as a historical document, but we don't call it out as 'hate song'.
Now, I started off thinking about this in terms of a 'genius pass'. Write good enough music, and you get to transcend the social mores encoded into your work. But, the thing is, genius is not a neutral term, equally applied to all who achieve excellence. As Christine Battersby documents, it is a term that, in both origin and usage, arrogates godly powers to male creators. (And one could add: White men working in Eurocentric traditions, notwithstanding jazz's concerted project to appropriate the discourse for its own use.)
If the 'genius pass' is only readily available to one social group, who happen to be of the demographic that is still reluctant to share access to their cultural and economic power, then it starts to look a lot more like a form of Joanna Russ's concept of Bad Faith. If you look at the critical response to the work of women, or to that of people of colour, you see a systematic belittling of their efforts in comparison with the ostensibly objective standards of Genius. Depending on the identity of the creator, features you expect will be judged as perfecting the genre or as derivative conventionality, whilst unusual features will be judged as brilliant idiosyncrasy or technical incompetence. The concept of genius is one of the means by which the game is rigged against voices that may tell a different story from the one that maintains established privilege.
I'm thinking much more widely than 'Swannee' here by now of course. I'm thinking a lot about opera and orientalism, and about the objectifying male gaze on female flesh discussed by Roszika Parker and Griselda Pollock. But dynamic is the same: the 'genius' label allows the artistic canon to maintain and recirculate images of social groups whose access to power has historically been limited, that are directly implicated in the processes of that exclusion.
So this leads to the ultimate dilemma of a genuinely critical musicology, because it directly impacts on what we do as musicians: if you have to choose, do you pick the heritage that made you the musician you are, or the right to a fair representation of those whom that heritage maligns? My sense of self, and my patterns of feeling, are completely interwoven with the tonal, harmonic and narrative structures of the musics I wish to critique. It is hard to repudiate the past - however oppressive to yourself and others it may be - without also repudiating yourself. But is that music's genuine beauty a good enough reason to trample over the feelings of those it misrepresents?
The big thing that rises to the top for me here is the importance of calling bullshit on the Genius defence. If someone tries to excuse demeaning representation in a piece of art on the basis of its 'greatness', the question to ask is: would you find these attitudes acceptable if printed in a tabloid? And if not, why does exquisite workmanship make them better?