One of my musicology teachers wrote a short post that I got via email the other day. She was imagining a musicologist attempting to contextualize rap in the year 2093.  She is a brilliant mind, and I always find her thoughts compelling.  Go vistit her website here. The post put me in mind of another interaction with a musicologist from a few years ago. He was busy contextualizing medieval music for some undergrads. In the course of his lecture, he made the claim that art always emerged from its surrounding culture.

Now, I do like to contextualize art by looking at the culture that created it, but I think we have to be careful when we take that approach. The underlying assumption is that there is this mysterious thing called “culture”, and the by-product of this amorphous factory is an art form that is expressing the culture in some way. It’s an intriguing thought, and it explains a lot of stuff. The troubling part is the starting point. We assume that the art is not part of the culture itself, but only an expression of it.

I’m working from memory here, but I recall reading one of Miles Davis’ anecdotes of his time at Julliard. A musicologist said that black people played the blues because they were poor and had to pick cotton. Miles looked at the teacher and said something like, “My dad was a dentist, and we were rich.
I didn’t pick cotton, and I play the blues.” I love imagining that confrontation, but it underlines the point I’m trying to make very well. Miles and his music are not simply explained by understanding them as an expression of the culture. Art is always in a symbiotic relationship with culture because it is culture. Culture may press on art and shape it, but art also presses back on culture.

The musicologist I questioned a few years ago said, “I only know of one time in history when music changed and shaped culture. That was the Beatles.” I found it to be a curious statement to make inside a music department building that was training young people to go out into the world and teach music. It was a sort of tacit acknowledgment of defeat. It forces creative people to be exclusively reactionary instead of  working to change lives through creating works of terrifying beauty. That’s a horrible thing to instill in a young person.

I suppose I’m just trying to say, go change the world with your creative work. Don’t think of it as exclusively an expression of your culture. It will do that all on its own without you trying to help it. Your culture can be an expression of your art.