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Musical Platonism in Modern Culture

Goehring, Edmund J.

Not too long ago, the Atlantic Monthly, one of the better-known organs of
modern culture and thinking about it, ran a commentary on music in contemporary society by the art critic Jody Bottum. The main objective of
"The Soundtracking of America" (March 2000) is to topple music from its
present-day position of cultural supremacy. Bottum contends that music
does not deserve its place of superiority over the poetic arts, in particular,
because it is intellectually barren. Incapable of generating meaning without
help from elsewhere, music must latch on to an external, largely verbal
system of beliefs for it to have coherence or utility. Without such moorings,
music becomes a destabilizing force in society.
The desire to restore music to its old subservience to poetry, a position
it has not held for some two centuries, resonates strongly in many circles
of contemporary social/political thought, including academic ones. Not
only are Bottum's concerns related to ongoing questions about music's
place among the other arts; more broadly, they draw on a larger academic
debate about the ability of any individual discipline, not just music, to generate
its own meaning. The purpose of the present essay is to examine the
sources and implications of this modern effort to explain music through
external, non-musical standards. First, it will excavate the philosophical
roots of this anti-musical prejudice. Here, the argument will be that the
move to circumscribe music within the ambit of the verbal arts or a philosophical
system turns on a specific reading-or, more likely, a misreading-
of Platonic thought. Approaching music in this way leads both to
errors about the general nature of music and also to misinterpretations of
specific works. Second, this essay will suggest that there are other, more
compelling ways of conceiving music, including ones that grant music autonomy
from external standards without a loss of intelligibility or meaningfulness.

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Title
Current Musicology

More About This Work

Academic Units
Music
Publisher
Columbia University
Published Here
November 6, 2014
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