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The benevolent face of elitism

Øivind Varkøy wants to give elitism a face. But first he has something to say about art and entertainment, quality and values, music education and arts policy – and elitism.

“I really had hoped that the days were gone when we were being told what is good and bad art”. This statement by Norway’s then culture minister Linda Hofstad Helleland sparked debate last year, when she attacked theatrologist and theatre critic Julie Rongved Amundsen’s assessment of Norwegian history plays. Øivind Varkøy responded to the minister’s words with frustration.

“I interpret the critic’s column as a warning about artistic quality in the history play genre, and I felt that the minister was trying to shut down the debate. If, as the minister implicitly did, we brand a critic elitist, then the critic has a problem, since Norwegians are none too keen on cultural elites.”

Why do people object to others voicing their opinion about what makes art good or bad?

“So-called ‘ordinary people’ have always had an uneasy relationship with so-called ‘high culture’, and vice versa. Just look at Bourdieu’s research on the topic. Of course, it is true that those we might describe as cultural elites have had ways of thinking about art and aesthetics that have marginalised and excluded large sections of wider society. We shouldn’t dismiss that. However, it doesn't mean that we should stop talking about quality. We just need to discuss it with this in mind. As for what constitutes quality, that will always vary. It’s not a static phenomenon. And of course we have to include all arguments in this discussion. Even an arts critic must be allowed to be part of the discussion. If not, we’re left with a tyranny of the majority, a populist outlook where quality of art becomes synonymous with performances and artists that draw a large audience. It turns quality into a quantitative dimension.”

If the arts were to reject critique – which is commonplace in most other fields – it will undermine art as a specialist discipline. The question is then what is it that makes art so unsuitable as a discipline?

“It’s clear that artistic and aesthetic quality is about a discipline. It could be craftsmanship, quality of expression and so on. The problem arises when we go from talking about these qualities, which most people will agree on, to talking about the values attached to them. This is a highly complex discussion, a value-based assessment of what is important and what is less important, what we should prioritise and not prioritise. It's a moral discussion in many ways. Which values do we wish to promote?”

“That’s why I became so frustrated when the culture minister felt it necessary to signal that this was an uninteresting discussion and that it was problematic to question the quality of the scripts used in Norwegian history plays, say. In my view, it is entirely unproblematic. Maybe it’s true that many of the plays have poor scripts and that perhaps they deserve better.”

The legitimacy of music

In your last book, Musikk – dannelse og eksistens, you write that you have been working for more than 25 years to ‘legitimise music education and the intrinsic value of musical experiences’. Looking at your first point, what are the difficulties around legitimising music education?

“The challenges are many, and they are long-standing. Certain school subjects are undoubtedly having to work harder than others to justify their existence. I've never heard of maths teachers having to justify their subject. We take maths for granted. Music, on the other hand, along with other arts subjects are having a hard time. They exist on the periphery of the curriculum, so to speak.”

“If we look at the history of ideas, many people have sought to legitimise and justify music education, starting way back with Plato. Most of the arguments centre around what music is good for beyond itself. More recently the curriculum has come to embody new arguments in favour of music education, and most of those arguments identify beneficial yet non-musical objectives.”

Can you describe some of these objectives?

“Developing tolerance of foreign cultures, a general capacity for creative thinking and work, inter-generational understanding, an understanding of culture in general, national identity and, perhaps even more importantly, an understanding of multicultural identity in which the multicultural perspective has filtered into the Norwegian curriculum. Both national identity and Norwegian identity can be problematic. How do we deal with them? It’s a big political discussion. To me, Norwegian culture is an entirely unproblematic term as long as it’s not used as a static concept, as long as it’s capable of being open and accommodating more recent cultural expressions when they arrive in the country.”

Music – useful for what?

In your book you discuss something most people would take for granted: the fact that music brings with it something good. But you admit it is not a given that music represents something good or promotes the objectives you mention.

“Firstly, I’ve been keen to problematise this idea that music is usefuland that’s why it exists. Even though the objectives are great, you could also argue that music is primarily about creating musical experiences, including as a school subject. But it’s also the case that musical experiences don't always need to be good. Many people, including music educators, have begun to point this out because we are seeing how music and music education can also create divisions between people. Music and musical conventions can exclude and marginalise people, andmusic can be used in a negative way in a nationalistic context. There are many examples of that.”

Music creates differences

Referring to the curriculum, you write that ‘music is central to adapted tuition in an inclusive education system’. You also say that music can help create, maintain or exacerbate disparities just as easily as it can do the opposite but that it has been difficult to gain support for this view. Why is that?

“Well, in this battle for legitimacy most people working in the arts in general, and music teachers in particular, feel a strong need for good arguments. It’s clear that if an academic comes along and says that music can have a negative effect, we are kind of obstructing a good cause. People would rather focus on the research that shows how music lessons make children better at maths, for instance, even though there is also research to prove that this is only partially true.”

“My agenda is to continue to argue for the importance of music both in education and in the arts in general, but we need watertight arguments. We can’t base our arguments on bad research, even though we like the results it produces.”

"Of course, it is true that those we might describe as cultural elites have had ways of thinking about art and aesthetics that have marginalised and excluded large sections of wider society. We shouldn’t dismiss that. However, it doesn't mean that we should stop talking about quality. We just need to discuss it with this in mind."

Øivind Varkøy Professor at NMH

Music as a goal and a means

“This is where I’ve tried to draw attention to the following questions: is it at all possible to argue for the inherent value of musical experiences? That our culture does not always require us to think about the utility of something or whether it’s gainful? That some aspects of life should be spared this focus on usefulness? This in itself can be an argument for music education as well as for performing arts schools and concert halls.”

Why isn’t this vision gaining more traction?

“Some blame neo-liberalism and the new economic regime that has been wreaking havoc in our part of the world, or indeed all over the world, for several decades now. But I think we have to go much further back. It’s deeper than that. I think it has to do with the fact that we’re living in a culture that is highly concerned with whether things are useful and where the bottom line is always an economic one. I’m looking to the classical sociologist Max Weber here, who in the early 1900s said that it has something to do with our Protestant puritanism. Everything that is good is either fattening or sinful. That makes it difficult to argue that the purpose of music is the experience itself. We feel a bit guilty if what we do cannot be used for something, if it doesn't lead to something productive.”

Curriculum and ideology

Although most people will feel that the objectives of music education in schools are good, there are still ideological elements in the music curriculum and an approach to musicteaching that we can describe as official arts policy in action. Does this pose a challenge for music teachers?

“There is a very clear link between education policy, as it manifests itself in the curriculum, and arts policy. The ideas about the importance of the arts described in the curriculum are identical to those set out in the government’s white papers on culture. That’s ideology, and it’s not so strange. Politics is about wanting to get things done, so it’s not problematic as such. They want to get things done in the arts, in schools, they want to influence people, plain and simple, through education. That’s what education is all about. But teachers need to be aware that there are certain ideological beliefs at play here. True, most of us can sign up to them and feel they don't pose a problem: democracy, inclusion, compassion, solidarity, those kinds of things. But we have to be aware of the ideological elements. They are not a neutral force.”

Are students told about the background to the curriculum and what the different concepts actually mean?

“At least in higher education such as the Norwegian Academy of Music,where we prepare music teachers and other musicians for working in the arts. We look at education policy to find out where the ideas are coming from, for instance. It would be an exaggeration to say we have these discussions all the time. But sometimes we do – on good days. The students seem to be interested in it. It’s easy to get them fired up in these situations.”

Art and entertainment

“Something that is difficult to discuss is the difference between art and entertainment, for instance. I often refer to the sociologist Dag Østerberg, who says that ‘one is art, the other entertainment’. That seems to be provocative to many.”

What’s your take on it?

“I agree with him. It has been interpreted by some to mean that classical music is art, while popular music is not. I don’t agree with that, if that’s what he meant.”

How would you have put it?

“I would've said that one is art, the other entertainment, but that applies to all genres. The boundaries between art and entertainment are not clear, of course. They will always be fluid.”

What about the concept of art?

“There are colleagues of mine in music education research who feel that we don't need it, because the term has been and still is associated with ‘high culture’. Similarly, there are American academics who believe that the term aesthetics is problematic because it’s associated with ‘dead white male thinking’ – which most things are, for that matter. Everything to do with Western, classical music becomes so problematic to some that they don't want to talk about art and aesthetics. And again, although it’s understandable from an historical and sociological perspective, I feel that we need the term art, just to remind ourselves that not everything is entertainment.”

Would you define art as inherent or conditioned?

“I’d be reluctant to call it inherent, although social anthropologists have discovered that the way we think about what we call art has existed in many cultures at different points in time. It’s relatively common to think that music can help us recognise, understand and comprehend ritual, mystical and philosophical phenomena. So it’s not a Western thing that people think like this about music. Rather, I'd say it’s a Western thing to want to stop thinking like this, that it’s we who are less representative – at least in international music education research, which continues to focus on anti-Western cultural tendencies.”

"It doesn’t take much to be branded elitist, or arrogant, in our culture. I’ve been called all kinds of names. If it’s elitist to say that one thing is art and another is entertainment, well then I’m elitist."

Øivind Varkøy Professor at NMH

Why do we hate classical music?

“At the moment I’m working on a short paper by a German colleague entitled ‘Why do we hate classical music?’ We will be holding a seminar on the topic in Italy this autumn.”

Do you know what your colleague’s answer will be?

“No, but I’m guessing it will have something to do with the fact that music education was long founded on classical music and folk musicat the expense of other genres. In Norway in the 1950s a distinction was made between good music – Western, classical music and Norwegian folk music – on the one hand and what was described as worthless noise on the other. The latter included jazz, pop, rock etc. It’s not that long ago.”

We are talking about a marked shift in our attitude towards music. If it continues at this pace, where will we be in 20 years’ time?

“I have no idea, plain and simple. But it appears that it’s becoming increasingly common to look at the classical music tradition in new ways. There are also some indications that we’re becoming more conscious of the need to train our emotional competencies and that the arts help us do just that. This is of course an instrumental way of thinking, but I suppose that’s unavoidable in schools. Schools are there to educate, but we have to make a choice. We don’t have all the time in the world when we teach.”

Giving elitism a face

You have said that you are willing to give elitism a face. What do you mean by that?

“It doesn’t take much to be branded elitist, or arrogant, in our culture. I’ve been called all kinds of names. If it’s elitist to say that one thing is art and another is entertainment, well then I’m elitist. As an academic and intellectual, I’m part of an elite by definition. I think it might have been [the historian] Trond Berg Eriksen who said that Norway takes no issue with sporting elites or financial elites, but we have a major problem with cultural elites and are loath to accept that some people make contributions in this field, be it research, academia, writing, art or whatever, and to accept that this is important to society just like other elites are. Elitism has become a kind of insult, even amongst people who would never dream of voting for a right-wing populist party. The left, too, has a problem with elitism. The normative meaning of the term has become negative. It describes someone with a condescending attitude. Someone who treats others with contempt. In an historical perspective, there is definitely something in that.”

Dialogue and respect

Where do we find such contemptuous and condescending attitudes today?

“I don't think we see them very often. But it’s difficult for me to say, because I’m part of it. Maybe I don't notice it. I don’t feel that many of my colleagues and others I meet in academia represent such attitudes. However, I do think it’s very easy to interpret us like that, partly because we use terminology that isn't easily accessible. What is clear is that in the past many people would boast about their knowledge of Beethoven’s late string quartets just to show off how cultured they were.”

“But research now tells us that this is no longer the way to go. It just makes you look like a nerd. Instead, as cultural sociology research has found, people nowadays flaunt their knowledge in other ways. Their broad knowledge. So you could say that this new broad, omnivorous cultural elite that criticises the old cultural elite is no less condescending, because there are still certain things worth caring about and particular ways in which to care about them.”

So the criticism levelled at elitism almost becomes synonymous with political correctness?

“You could say that. In academics and music –in music education research to be precise –there is a lot of political correctness with resentment directed against the dominance of Western culture. European self-hate, as someone called it. It’s become part of a kind of politically correct discourse.”

It seems that certain attitudes and views continue to take precedence over others, which in itself reflects an elitist mindset whereby some attitudes and views are deemed better than others. Why do we not have an academic culture where opinions are more equal, similar to the ideal being upheld when it comes to musical styles?

“Good question. The thing is that in research and academia certain discourses, as we call them, reign supreme. You could describe it as akind of political correctness. Music education, too, has placed considerable emphasis on popular culture in recent decades – at the expense of classical music, for instance. But as I said, I can understand that in an historical perspective. It’s when it becomes a hegemonic discourse that it starts to become a problem. That’s why I think it’s interesting to involve other colleagues in a dialogue about my work – people with different ideological attitudes. This requires there to be mutual respect. The strength of academia is its ability to cultivate dialogue. Again, on a good day.”