Rethinking Contemporary Musicology: Panel at the Royal Musical Association 2019 – Part 1. Papers of Larson Powell and Eva Moreda Rodriguez

At this year’s Royal Musical Association annual conference, at the University of Manchester/Royal Northern College of Music, I was very pleased to convene a panel on ‘Rethinking Contemporary Musicologies: Disciplinary Shifts and the Risks of Deskilling’ (12 September 2019). These featured the following speakers and papers:

Larson Powell (University of Missouri, Kansas City, USA): ‘Film-Music Studies between Disciplines’.

Eva Moreda Rodriguez (University of Glasgow): ‘Are We all Transnational Now? Global Approaches and Insularity in Music History’.

Darla M. Crispin (Norwegian Academy of Music, Oslo, Norway): ‘Artistic Research in Music: Brave New World – or Harbinger of Decline?’

Peter Tregear (University of Melbourne, Australia): ‘Telling Tales in (and out of) Music Schools’.

Below, I reproduce my Introduction to the panel in full, then give a detailed account of the first two papers (as some of these are drafts for chapters in the book, I prefer not to reproduce them verbatim). In the second part of this, I will do the same with the other two papers and also give some wider reflections of my own on the very well-attended and constructive event.

 

Ian Pace, Introduction

Twenty years ago, in 1999, Nicholas Cook and Mark Everist published the co-edited volume Rethinking Music. This followed in the wake of a series of publications now associated with the ‘New Musicology’ from the early 1990s, but the scale of this publication and its appearance from such a major publisher as Oxford University Press indicated how various tendencies had entered the musicological mainstream. Twenty years later, Peter Tregear and I are in the process of co-editing a new volume, Rethinking Contemporary Musicology: Perspectives on Interdisciplinarity, Skills and Deskilling, which will appear from Routledge in 2020. This brings together a range of leading scholars who all offer critical perspectives on both developments in English-speaking academia which were relatively new when Cook/Everist was published and the state of play in more long-established realms of research and teaching. Four of the contributors are here and will be giving papers, most of which relate to their chapters in the book.

I would emphasise that this book deals specifically with English-speaking academia. This is not because of any type of provinciality, let alone any assertion of centrality of Anglophone contributions to the disciplines. Rather, the editors simply feel that the issues at stake in the Anglosphere, while far from homogeneous, are somewhat distinct from those elsewhere, and as such warrant separate consideration.

Amongst the other chapters in the book – this is not an exhaustive list – are Paul Harper-Scott on musicology, the middlebrow and questions of demographics amongst academics, Christopher Wiley on popular music education and the question of specifically musical engagement, Mu-Xuan Lin on body politics and gendered orthodoxies relating to contemporary composition and the ‘New Discipline’, myself on the application of ethnomusicological approaches to the study of Western art music, then Michael Spitzer on the state of musical analysis, Alan Davison on that for music history, Nicole Grimes on neo-liberalism and the study of Western art music, and case studies relating to issues provoked by the work of Richard Taruskin, Nicholas Cook and Georgina Born, written by Frank Cox, me and Joan Arnau Pamiès respectively.

In general, the contributors can be said to share varying degrees of scepticism towards some aspects of such Anglophone musicology which can be said either to have become orthodoxies, or are sufficiently widespread as to be worthy of critical interrogation. In short, it is time to cast a critical eye on what the discipline has become. Key questions which recur in many essays have to do with the demands of interdisciplinarity, especially whether some allegedly interdisciplinary work entails more than a superficial injection of a handful of concepts or buzzwords from other disciplines (as has been argued by Giles Hooper, another contributor to the book) rather than more rigorous engagement, and the complementary issue of ‘deskilling’ of musicology.

The term ‘deskilling’ was coined by Marxist theorist Harry Braverman in his Labor and Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review, 1974) to characterise the lowering of skill levels as part of a process of progressive estrangement and alienation of workers, relating to the division of labour, in the process increasing their dispensability. As musicology has supposedly become more diverse, many of us argue that various core skills and knowledge, not least relating to basic musicianship, notation, familiarity with history and repertoire, and especially theory and analysis, can no longer be assumed on the part of students, graduates, and indeed many academics themselves. This reduces the possibility of broader interactions between those working in different sub-disciplinary areas, and limits the ability of many to contribute to certain types of core curriculum.

What remains, at worst, is an atomised profession permeated by disputes and struggles for territory and power, in place of genuine quests for knowledge, however utopian such ideals might be. Such a situation is exacerbated and in some ways fuelled by neo-liberal reforms to higher education, pitting students as ‘consumers’, creating increased precarity for academics, and importing aspects of market culture as well as ever-growing strata of top-down management. Whilst many of the new musicological tendencies are advocated by those laying claim to ‘progressive’ political causes, at the same time they have often proved most amenable to the strictures of the commercialised university, not least through the post-modernist eschewal of conceptions of truth and knowledge with a degree of autonomy from their social function, in a capitalist society.*

Contributors to the book consider how his situation has come about, what are some of the ideological assumptions which underlie such a predicament, how this has been manifested in certain types of work, and what might be positive alternatives.

*This point may deserve more explanation than I gave in the introduction. My argument here is essentially that concepts of truth and scholarly autonomy and integrity serve as a brake on attempts to enlist academia in the service of the production of good capitalist functionaries. As such, post-modernists who jettison such things, or the likes of William Cheng and his acolytes (see the arguments of Peter Tregear below), facilitate such a process. It is no coincidence that many of these are strong advocates for heavily commercialised forms of music-making.

 

Larson Powell, ‘Film-Music Studies between Disciplines’.

Professor Powell began by identifying a growth in the field of film music studies in English since the publication of Claudia Gorbman’s Unheard Melodies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), but noted the difficulty in defining the field. He cited David Neumeyer, in the introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Film Music Studies, edited Neumeyer (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), on how film music studies are ‘a node between disciplines’ and how scholars ‘have begun to bypass the modes requiring highly specialized musical knowledge and jargon by moving toward sound studies’. Whilst accepting the need for broadening of established musicological methodologies in light of this specific technological context, Powell argued that when links to musicology are loosened, the result is often ‘imprecision and methodological inconsistency’. He cited James Buhler’s discernment (in ‘Ontological, Formal, and Critical Theories of Music and Sound’, in the Oxford Handbook) of three phases in film music theory: (i) the ontological, prior to World War Two; (ii) the methodological, linked to institutionalisation of the discipline, and incorporating structuralism, semiotics and psychoanalysis; and (iii) the ‘field theory’, a looser conglomerate of approaches. Buhler notes that when the term ‘critical theory’ is employed in film music studies, it no longer refers to the hybrid of Marxism and psychoanalysis which characterised the work of the Frankfurt School, but also areas such as poststructuralism, gender and sexuality studies, postcolonialism and race studies, narrative and cultural studies, and so on, without recognising the incompatibility of some of these. Furthermore, the forms of interpretation employed are usually limited to ‘semantic content or associations’, which are notoriously ambiguous.

Powell gave quite a severe critique of Anahid Kassabian’s book Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music (New York and London: Routledge, 2000) (for another critique of a different piece of writing by Kassabian, see my contribution here), not least on account of her (mis-)characterisations of the work of Adorno, which he called ‘schoolbook examples of cultural studies misconceptions’. Kassabian claims that Adorno, Stravinsky and Irwin Bazelon ‘all seem to suggest that music is outside of social relations, pure in some fundamental, ontological way’, which Powell found absurd in light of Adorno’s work such as his Introduction to the Sociology of Music (New York: Seabury Press, 1976; translated by E.B. Ashton from Einleitung in der Musiksoziologie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1962)). Furthermore, he noted that Kassabian’s ideas of ‘meaning’ were unconstrained by any technical musical engagement, nor by any sociological theory, and amounted to little more than speculation, held up in opposition to a straw-man notion of ‘absolute music’.

Kassabian claims that the relationship between musics and social orders is something that Western society has attempted to repress since the Enlightenment, and in a similar manner, ‘film music constitutes society while being constituted by it’. Powell characterised this as typical of ‘the amateur sociology of cultural studies’ which ‘sees society as an undifferentiated totality’, and uses the simple concept of ‘repression’ to encompass all of the various ‘subsystems of art, economics, morality, politics and law, a central component of theories of modernity’ (I would add that in Marxist terms these constitute key elements of the superstructure). She assumes that her readers share her own prejudices and assumptions, such as that high culture is repressive by its nature, while popular music is an emancipatory force; Powell then demonstrated how some of her claims of ‘our’ identifications with certain music amount to little more than brand recognition, and so ‘scholarship’ becomes little more than registering one’s favourite top 40 tune.

Powell then looked at Emilio Audissino’s Film/Music Analysis: A Film Studies Approach (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), which he finds considerably more edifying than the work of Kassabian, but not without methodological problems. Audissino takes more of a neo-formalist approach (this is a school of film studies heavily indebted to the work of Noël Burch, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson from the early 1980s onwards), and is sceptical towards ‘culturalist analysis’ without ‘some basic grasp and knowledge of the musical art’, though is vague on what the latter might amount to. Audissino rejects a ‘separatist’ view of the visual and aural aspects of a film, presenting as an alternative a view of a film as ‘as an integrated system of elements (say, a soup)’, whereby an analysis should ‘break down the single substance to its single ingredients (tomatoes, salt, oil, etc.)’ Powell was quite amazed by the idea that an integrated system of music and image (like a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk) might be seen as a ‘soup’, and in contrast presented the view from Ludwig von Bertalanaffy’s General System Theory (New York: Braziller, 1968):

A system can be defined as a set of elements standing in interrelations.  Interrelation means that elements, p, stand in relations, R, so that the behavior of an element p in R is different from its behavior in another relation, R’.

In a film, a piece of music ‘behaves’ differently to how it would in another film, or a concert hall, argued Powell, but the concept of the system means that its identity is not wholly dissolved in the process, as the metaphor of the soup might imply.

Audissino cites an analysis by Frank Lehman of John Williams’ score to Raiders of the Lost Ark in which a cadence is coordinated with the discovery of the Ark, and is ‘exactly in synch with the sun rays’. But Powell subtly probed the use of the concept of ‘function’ for music in such a context, whereby it implies a teleological view by which a coupling of music and image is required to be ‘effective’ or ‘work’. In contrast to this, Powell suggested that function ought to be a comparison rather than a teleology, and pertinently observed that ‘If one only grasps film music in relation to the image, one cannot imagine what other kinds of music could have been used’. Williams’ music is able to be visually functional by ‘straining the boundaries of tonal functionality’, which Powell compared to the Rückung or harmonic shift identified by Adorno in Schubert or late Beethoven (as discussed in Michael Spitzer, Music as Philosophy: Beethoven’s Late Style (Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006)).

To Powell, Audissino employs a concept of ‘effectiveness’ which is wholly in the ear of the listener, and as such renders a particular acculturated response as something absolute, as does Kassabian when talking about responses to pop music heard on a car radio (which she thinks more ‘natural’ than those experienced in a concert hall). But Powell alluded to a standard practice in film studies of listening to a sequence with the sound turned off and then on, which demonstrates its distinctive role and codes. He maintained that perceived effect (or German Wirkung), while certainly an important consideration, should not be the only one, and called for greater understanding of the craft of writing film scores.

For an alternative approach to the audio-visual relation, Powell looked to semiotics, claiming that this had had relatively little impact upon cultural studies, and differentiating the ‘encoding/decoding’ model bequeathed by Stuart Hall, which Powell felt had more to do with communications theory (I am personally a little unsure about this claim about cultural studies and semiotics in light of the influence of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1957; translated Annette Lavers as Mythologies (London, Paladin, 1972)) on the former field, though this could be considered some of Barthes’ loosest and most journalistic work, in comparison to his almost exaggeratedly analytical approach to semiotics elsewhere). Drawing upon Christian Metz’s observation (in The Imaginary Signifier, trans. Celia Britton et al. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982)) that film language ‘possesses a grammar, up to a point, but no vocabulary’, Powell noted how neither Kassabian nor Audissino ‘clearly define the relation of sound to image‘, instead simply ‘leaping straight from music to larger narrative or cultural signification’. He related this problem back to Gorbman and her argument that ‘musical codes’ are always overridden by ‘cultural’ or ‘cinematic’ codes.

Musical semiotics, however, is a rich and pluralist tradition, often at best combined with rhetoric, hermeneutics or pragmatics, as detailed in Michael Spitzer’s Metaphor and Musical Thought (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2004) and Nicholas Cook’s A Guide to Musical Analysis (London: Dent, 1987). Powell drew various theses from this:

(i) it is very hard to pin down a ‘natural’ or unitary correlation between musical signifier and signified, as ‘Music does not simply ‘transmit’ a signal from sender to receiver’. To assume otherwise reflects the biases of communications studies, in departments of which film scholars are often employed.
(ii) this situation comes about because musical signification cannot exist without associated competencies, as argued by music semiotician Eero Tarasti in Signs of Music (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2002), and also by Kofi Agawu in the related field of topic theory (Playing with Signs: A Semiotic Interpretation of Classical Music (Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1991).
(iii) musical signs cannot be analysed in isolation, as the minimal units of meanings are not simply sounds heard in isolation, but utterances. Scott Murphy (in ‘Transformational Theory and the Analysis of Film Music’, in the Oxford Handbook) has shown this for popular film music scores, using neo-Riemannian theory.
(iv) access to what Jean-Jacques Nattiez (in Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music, translated Carolyn Abbate (Princeton, NJ and London: Princeton University Press, 1990)) calls the ‘musical object’ is not provided by a naïve approach to listening, where the listener hears only what they want to hear. Kassabian and Audissino, in a similar fashion, hear only their own cultural and academic conventions.

Powell advocated recent dissertations by Juan Chattah (‘Semiotics, Pragmatics, and Metaphor in Film Music Analysis’ (Florida State University, 2006)) and Alex Newton (‘Semiotic of Music, Semiotics of Sound, and Film: Toward a Theory of Acousticons’ (University of Texas, 2015)). Newton’s ‘acousticon’ is a new semiotic audiovisual unit, investigated through a combination of musical and visual analysis, while he makes a link to the topic theories of Leonard Ratner, Agawu, and especially Robert Hatten and suggests that film music theory could learn from art-historical iconography and iconology. Powell argued that one might also draw further on Spitzer’s work on musical metaphor and associated scepticism about certain uses of semiotics (when they become ‘a kind of glorified motive-spotting’, like a similar criticism from Nicholas Cook), so as ‘not merely to produce another castle-in-the-sky of system-building that could risk its own problems’.

 

Eva Moreda Rodriguez, ‘Are We all Transnational Now? Global Approaches and Insularity in Music History’

Dr Moreda Rodriguez began by noting how for over 200 years many have been fascinated by the idea of a global history of music, and how in contemporary times this coincided with moves towards internationalisation in many Anglo-Saxon universities who wish to recruit more international students and also, ‘more recently, to develop broader, more diverse, “decolonized” curriculums’. In this context, she proceeded with a critical examination of three attempts at writing such a history: Mark Hijleh, Towards a Global Music History: Intercultural Convergence, Fusion, and Transformation in the Human Musical History (New York: Routledge, 2019); Philip V. Bohlman (ed.), The Cambridge History of World Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); and the project ‘Towards a Global Music History’ led by Reinhard Strohm (Oxford University) under the auspices of the Balzan Prize for Musicology.

Moreda Rodriguez also alluded to her own experiences as an ‘international’ academic working at a British university, whose work focuses on her own country of origin, Spain, which is considered somewhat marginal within Western art music. This, she said, had shaped her perceptions of the ‘global’, not least when having to put together grant applications justifying the relevance of her research beyond the community of musicologists working on music in the same time and place. As such, she felt it necessary at least implicitly to engage with the questions underlying these ‘global music history’ projects. Moreda Rodriguez’s principal projects to date have related to music under the Franco regime, which led her towards history and political science, and the national and international nature of fascism; and on the early history of recording technologies, about which she noted that there are many localised non-Anglophone studies, but the more ‘global’ narrative is dominated by US or other English-language sources and issues without acknowledging this.

Hijleh’s book justifies the sole-author narrative by framing itself as a textbook as would be used in a US context, where students take a greater range of foundational, comprehensive courses than in British universities. He also claims that it should be viewed as a gateway for the development of musicianship, in light of which Moreda Rodriguez argued that it should be viewed as a companion to Hijleh’s earlier Towards a Global Music Theory: Practical Concepts and Methods for the Analysis of Music across Human Cultures (London: Routledge, 2016). She also noted the extent of Hijelh’s interest in music theory, manifested in investigations of the relative role of melody and harmony in different times and places, or issues of tuning and temperament, as well as the development of ‘global regions’ of influence and prominence at various periods in history. While these two axes suggested very promising results, Moreda Rodriguez felt the book to be let down by omissions and overgeneralizations. For example, he treats the Americas as a whole in the period from 1500 to 1920, but after then ‘the Americas’ becomes exclusively the United States. Also, he neglects the crucial years in the formation of a European canon (also the period which saw increased colonisation) with no mention of Bach, Handel, Mozart, Schumann or Schubert, while Hijleh does bring up Jordi Savall and a range of Spanish Renaissance composers, on the grounds of the musical exchanges between Spain and its American colonies in the early modern era. Moreda Rodriguez argued that an equally plausible case could be made for the global reach of Bach, Mozart or Italian opera.

She also hesitantly evoked the concept of ‘music history minus Beethoven’ as recently imagined by Leah Broad, in order to argue for the difficult place where this book is situated, neither wholly a textbook nor a research monograph. It would be unlikely to be of service to first year undergraduates who have only a partial knowledge of some of the musical traditions (though it was not entirely clear why Moreda Rodriguez thought so, though she acknowledge a sensitive tutor could use it productively). Instead, she thought it might have a more polemical aim: specifically to test, in front of other academics, ‘the viability of a single-authored, predominantly narrative music history’. In this, she thought he succeeded to a significant degree.

In contrast with Hijleh, who acknowledges that power in music and power in the real world do not simply mirror one another, Moreda Rodriguez noted how ‘power dynamics and otherness’ are central to the essays in Bohlman’s edited volume, many of which studiously disregard aesthetic and qualitative matters and avoid any engagement with musical detail. As such, the whole history of Western opera (itself undoubtedly something which has had global ramifications, as Moreda Rodriguez pointed out) is simply reduced to a perfunctory mention of its colonial aspects. While the introduction disavows narrative, the chronological ordering of the book – from non-European music during the Antiquity and Medieval Times, through ‘The Enlightenment and world music’s historical turn’, to ‘Music histories of the folk and nation’ – does imply something of the type. Despite various attempts to define ‘world music’, few try to ascertain how this might differ from a global history of music; any such venture is viewed as an academic exercise rather than something which could impact upon the regular work of musicologists. Chapters written from a position of great expertise, such as those of Peter Manuel (‘Musical cultures of mechanical reproduction’) or Bonnie C. Wade (‘Indian music history in the context of global encounters’) are nonetheless both rushed and founded upon too many assumptions to work as introductory texts, but contain too little critical or innovative detail to qualify as research chapters.

Strohm’s project has so far resulted in one edited volume (Strohm (ed.), Studies on a Global History of Music: A Balzan Musicology Project (London: Routledge, 2018)), while two more are in preparation. In his acceptance speech, Strohm expressed his motivation to ‘learn new things on the musical relations between geographical regions and chronological eras’, focusing less on narrative than attempts to ‘explore, through assembled case studies, parameters and terminologies that are suitable to describe a history of many different voices’. As Moreda Rodriguez, noted, at that stage such parameters and terminologies were not yet defined, but the publication and workshops suggest overlaps with the approaches of both Hijleh and Bohlman. She urged, as further outputs are published, investigation of whether these ends have been achieved more efficiently than in existing collections which relate single issues or questions to diverse cultures and contexts, but do not necessarily explore global or transnational issues.

In conclusion, Moreda Rodriguez anticipated the appearance of further such attempts at writing global music history, but also that the search for some ultimate such history will prove elusive. Many of them might reveal less about music history than about ‘the shared assumptions, values and trends embedded in the musicological community at particular moments in time’ as with the contributors to Bohlman’s volume in their ‘attempt to understand world music history under the now-fashionable lens of power dynamics’. As such, such works may be ‘less interesting as product than they are as process’.

 

[To be continued in Part 2]

 


The Tory Government distrusts the arts and humanities – but what about academics?

The cover story of today’s Sunday Times indicates a plan on the part of the UK government to reduce fees in higher education.

Sunday Times 18-2-18

According to the story:

He [Education Secretary Damian Hinds] revealed that future fees would be determined by “a combination of three things: the cost [to the university] to put it on, the benefit to the student and the benefit to our country and our economy”.

Ministers expect this to lead to dramatic cuts in fees for arts and social science courses, which universities have expanded because they are the cheapest to run and make them the most money.

Under the plans, universities will be told to offer: more two-year degrees; sandwich courses, where students spend time in the workplace; and “commuter courses”, where they live at home to cut costs.

Various television interviews today with Hinds and also with Universities Minister Sam Gyimah have done nothing to dispel such suggestions, though precise details are vague. A statement from the Prime Minister is promised tomorrow, though it is unclear how much has yet been decided, how much will be the outcome of a review.

There are various outcomes I could envisage, few of them likely to be positive for those working in the arts and humanities in British universities. The items on the following list are not mutually exclusive.

  1. A re-introduction of the pre-1992 divide (though ministers will be at pains to stress how different it is), whereby the sector will once again divide into a series of universities in the traditional sense (probably the Russell Group and a handful of others) and others offering more vocational and technical courses (most of those which became universities after 1992 and maybe some others as well). This will be spun as entailing a new level of support for technical education, with the second group of institutions intended to be akin to German Technische Universitäten. The latter institutions will receive little or no support for research, and most lecturers will be on teaching-only contracts. The government money thus saved will be used to finance a cut in some tuition fees.
  2. A push for many degrees, especially in the arts and humanities, to be able to be undertaken in two years, delivered by a mixture of lecturers on teaching-only contracts (whose increased teaching burden would leave little time for any research), casual academic staff without permanent contracts, and postgraduates.
  3. A limitation of practically all government research money to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects, with nothing for the arts and the humanities, though the social sciences may keep some.
  4. A variant of 3, in which all or the bulk of arts and humanities research money is only available to those in Russell Group institutions.
  5. The introduction of a direct link between ’employability’ (as measured by the Teaching Excellence Framework) and the level of fees which an institution is allowed to set.
  6. An insistence that the majority of academic jobs be teaching only. Having a research position will then become one of the most sought-after things in HE.

Most of these measures, or some variants thereof, will be designed to enable the government to cut fees without having to pledge any more money for HE. I believe strongly in the abolition of tuition fees and re-installment of maintenance grants for all, but realise at present this is unlikely to be on the cards (even with a Labour government which pledges to abolish fees, but will be hit by the dire economic consequences of a Brexit they are doing little to stop).

The outlook for the arts is bleak, and especially for degrees in performing arts such as music, theatre, dance, or various types of spatial arts, which include a practical element requiring significant resources for appropriate facilities. Already, as a result of the introduction of the Ebacc (English Baccalaureate), there was a five-fold fall in the numbers of pupils taking arts subjects at secondary school in 2015-16, while other evidence points to a special fall in take-up and provision of music. When combined with other likely problems relating both to recruitment and access to research funding following Brexit, this will put various music and other arts departments in a highly precarious position, as some already are.

The arguments for the employment benefits of arts and humanities degrees have been rehearsed often, as for example in response to politicians such as former Conservative Education Secretary Nicky Morgan dismissing arts and humanities subjects and urging pupils at school to concentrate on STEM if they want a better career. I do not wish to dwell on these further here, not because I do not believe them to be true, but because I resent the debate always being framed in such narrowly utilitarian terms. Rather, I want to ask why many – including some in academia – have lost such faith in the value of the study of the arts and humanities as an end in itself, and are submitting to terms of reference which will always place them at a disadvantage?

In many continental European universities, there are battles to save rare subjects in the face of declining student numbers, but at least some measures are being taken to prevent these from extinction. It would be nice to imagine that the UK government (or the opposition) were backing similar measures, but evidence of that is in short supply. I wonder in how many other developed countries one would find a vice-chancellor of a major university declaring the irrelevance of the study of sixth-century history, as the late Patrick Johnston, of Queen’s University Belfast, did in 2016. I refuse to accept that the study of early medieval (or ancient) history is somehow automatically less ‘relevant’ than modern history – or that the study of Guillaume de Machaut is less ‘relevant’ than that of Madonna. Any measure of the relevance of history in proportion to the temporal remoteness of the period in question ultimately undermines the case for the study of history at all. There has also been, in the UK, a marked decline in foreign language degrees, no doubt linked to a decline in their study in schools. It is dispiriting and more than a little arrogant when those in Britain no longer feel it important to engage with any of the world’s many other languages.

There have been, and will be for a long time, heated debates about the value to individuals and society as a whole of various types of art, and especially regarding their purported humanising or civilising potential. Overwhelming evidence exists from the fascist era that individuals with a love for and firm schooling in high culture could still commit crimes against humanity. At the very least, this renders automatic assumptions of such culture’s civilising potential impossible to maintain. But one need not subscribe to the views of Matthew Arnold (themselves more complex and nuanced than sometimes credited) in order to believe that a society with only minimal support for and education in the arts and humanities to be one which is deeply impoverished.

So what should be included in teaching and research of these disciplines? I would argue that at the very least, students should be encouraged to explore not only the forms of culture that they would encounter anyhow, but also those of different times and places, not to mention less familiar or commercially successful genres. Such culture can benefit from being examined in its social, historical, geographical, political, ideological contexts, without in any way neglecting its specifics and technical details, which are not merely the by-product of such contexts. The relationships between different cultural forms (between music and theatre, between theatre and performance art, between literature and film, just to give a tiny few obvious examples) are also greatly important, as are the relationships between culture and the intellectual environment of its time/place/social milieu, the societal functions of various cultural forms, the nature and demographics of those who partake of such culture and their responses (i.e. the study of reception), the economic situation of cultural production, the role of changing technology, and much else.

Yet so often I encounter the dismissal of many of these things, including by some academics, in ways which mirror government ideologies, despite being presented in somewhat different language. In the case of my own field, music: government emphasis on STEM subjects is mirrored in increasing emphasis on technological skills in music over other varieties of musical study and musicianship (and in the case of research, favour bestowed upon anything which has a contemporary technological dimension), as if musical study is somehow more acceptable when it has some of the veneer of science. Positions become available for the teaching of commercial music, or functional music for another commercial medium (such as popular film or video games), more frequently than those requiring expertise in a historical field, or in musical cultures outside of the Western world. I was recently informed by one Professor of Theatre that historical study of that discipline has all but disappeared except in Russell Group institutions (though am interested to hear of any evidence to the contrary).

I accept that some of this is pragmatic, borne of desperate attempts to recruit and maintain students who have less and less of a foundation in music and the arts at primary and secondary school than ever. But I am dismayed at how many embrace rather than tolerate this situation. There was a time when the study of popular music (see this debate from two years ago on this blog) could reasonably be argued to inject increased diversity into rather rigid curricula. At best, this can entail the study of many different popular musics from various times and places, critical interrogation of the concept of the ‘popular’, consideration of various social contexts, means of production and distribution, not to mention relationship to other cultural traditions, languages, and so on. But when it means limiting a good deal of musical study to Anglo-American popular music of a restricted period (essentially that music which is already familiar to students), then the net effect for diversity is negative rather than positive. Ethnomusicologists (see another debate on this blog) eager to decry not only relatively traditional approaches to teaching Western art music, but also older approaches to their own disciplines which involved Western scholars spending considerable amounts of time in remote places, absorbing as best as they can the language, cultural practices, and so on, might reflect upon how precarious their own discipline might become if there is less of a place or welcoming environment for those interested in such things. The more musical study becomes simply about the application of a selection of methods derived from sociology or cultural anthropology to fields of musical activity close to home, the less reason there will be for institutions to support music as a separate field of study. The sociology and anthropology of music are vitally important sub-disciplines with multiple intellectual trajectories of their own, but if those engaged with them are housed solely in sociology and anthropology departments, they will then be in direct competition for students, funding and positions with the rest of those fields.

More widely, in many fields of cultural studies, especially the populist varieties which, as I have argued in some recent papers, are rooted in the work of the Birmingham School and especially that of Stuart Hall, commercial utility is equated with relevance, musical engagement is viewed as just another consumer activity, and research can amount either to conducting focus groups, or dressing up familiar informal chat about popular culture with a modicum of jargon. Any deeper critical engagement with popular taste, the latter empirically measured at one particular time and place, is dismissed as elitism. This amounts in many ways to an eschewal of arts education itself, and can lead to rather patronising ways of patting students and ‘the masses’ on the back simply for having the tastes they do, rather than encouraging them to venture beyond their comfort zones.

I do believe, after working in HE for 15 years (in multiple institutions), that most students who study arts subjects at university do so after having read some literature, heard or played some music, seen and acted in some theatre, looked at or produced some visual art, etc., and care about these and want to know more. They often seek help and guidance to navigate an overwhelming range of available culture, and also learn technical skills so as to be able to engage with this more incisively. Certainly not all will become equally drawn to all the manifold areas of study, methods, or emphases involved, nor could any realistically study all in detail in the limited time available for an undergraduate degree (for which I think we should be looking towards four- rather than two-year degrees, ideally) which is why we offer some degree of elective options. But I do believe it is important, indeed vital, that educators attempt to broaden students’ horizons, encourage them to explore beyond what they already know, and also consider the familiar from unfamiliar angles. Those educators, with years of experience in their own fields, are in a position to facilitate all of this. Not through spoon-feeding, teaching-to-test, or rote learning, but introducing what to students will be a plurality new ideas, new cultural forms, new contexts, and encouraging them to consider these critically.

I also realise this type of humanistic approach may not be attractive or feasible to some potential students, and this situation is unlikely to change without wider changes in primary and secondary education. With this in mind, I would not rule out questions as to  whether the removal of the pre-1992 divide has been wholly beneficial, and whether a need to maintain the pretence that all degree courses are roughly equal just entails a race to the bottom for all. But technical colleges are not universities in the traditional sense, and it benefits nowhere to pretend otherwise, as argued well by Marxist scholar Terry Eagleton:

Just as there cannot be a pub without alcohol, so there cannot be a university without the humanities. If history, philosophy and so on vanish from academic life, what they leave in their wake may be a technical training facility or corporate research institute. But it will not be a university in the classical sense of the term, and it would be deceptive to call it one.

Neither, however, can there be a university in the full sense of the word when the humanities exist in isolation from other disciplines. The quickest way of devaluing these subjects – short of disposing of them altogether – is to reduce them to an agreeable bonus. Real men study law and engineering, while ideas and values are for sissies. The humanities should constitute the core of any university worth the name. The study of history and philosophy, accompanied by some acquaintance with art and literature, should be for lawyers and engineers as well as for those who study in arts faculties.

I would not like to live in a narrow, utilitarian, technocratic society in which there is little wider societal interest in other times and places, in all the questions which the humanities raise, or one in which such interest and knowledge is limited to the upper echelons of society. Nor a society in which art has no meaning other than as a form of commercial entertainment, as some right-wing politicians in the UK have been urging for many years (see the notorious 1990 Westminster speech by then-Tory MP Terry Dicks, and the spirited and witty response by then-Labour MP Tony Banks). And I doubt that this type of society would be attractive to many, especially not those working in arts and humanities fields. But if many of them are not prepared to defend the ideals of the arts and humanities, acting instead as advocates for narrowly conceived notions of social ‘relevance’, defined in terms of being contemporary, technocratic, and generally restricted to the place and milieu of them and/or their students, what are the chances of any meaningful opposition to governments who would happily slash most of these?

Universities, the arts and the humanities, are not just means to ends but valuable in their own right. Cultures and cultural histories are far from unblemished things, to say the least, but it would still be negligent in the extreme to let them fade into oblivion. And allowing students to retreat into the comfort zone of the already-familiar is damaging to global citizenship. In some ways, those who advocate such an approach to education are already doing the Brexiteers’ work for them.