Authenticity: why dance only to Golden Era music

A. In Buenos Aires traditional milongas only play Golden Era tango music.
B. Why be so prescriptive? People can dance to whatever music they like.

Insisting on using only music from the Golden Era organised in a particular way apparently seems to lack any justification. Those who insist on following a particular canon risk being viewed as inflexible, dogmatic, reactionary. After all, we are dealing with musical tastes and there is no accounting for taste. If people today dance to non-traditional tango music what might be the grounds for criticising this? It’s all tango music after all.

Even those who do insist on a particular sort of traditional music take a self-consciously relativist stance and say that traditional milongas play this sort of music, and that this music is preferred by a particular group of people, namely, the traditionalists, and they have a right to hold on to their traditions. In other words, we are dealing with a particular group of people in a particular period of time who have a particular set of musical preferences. There seems, however, no way of justifying why this set of preferences should be in any way better than non-traditional ways of doing things.

Still, it does seem that those who defend the traditional tango music feel that the traditional way of doing things is somehow correct, and that the innovations are somehow worse. But there seems to be no way of expressing or articulating the reasons for this feeling other than to say that this is not our tango or how we do it, or how it’s traditionally been done.

Perhaps we can view the situation in tango as just a special case of the wider phenomenon of the difficulty associated with the criticism of contemporary music, and of art more generally. Many people feel that contemporary music is degraded and in fact worse than older styles of music, and that contemporary art is no longer really art, in particular, it is not beautiful or dignifying but is ugly, puzzling, kitsch and often enough degrading and disgusting. Yet the critics appear to endorse this art and so it fills up museums and commands high prices.

Although there is still a distinction between pop music and classical music, contemporary classical music that is being funded by government art institutions is often atonal music that few people actually want to listen to. Again, critics have come out against tonal music as full of clichés and therefore no longer art and found a way of justifying the funding, composing and performing music that no one wants to listen to.

The question is whether these wider developments in contemporary culture have any relation to the increasing presence of non-traditional tango music and non-tango music at milongas, and what it can tell us about its effects.

The philosopher of aesthetics Roger Scruton has written extensively on art and music addressing questions of art criticism. I believe that his writings are very relevant to the issues in tango and I want to draw attention to a number of points on which his ideas can illuminate the discussion.

Scruton asserts that much of what passes for culture today is a culture of “fakes” or “kitsch’” that is, a culture of inauthentic emotions. Art and culture, he says, has throughout history provided a source of truth and meaning, and of authentic feeling. At a certain stage, however, people have noticed that certain artists produce works that play on our emotions in an inauthentic way, that the emotions that are elicited in us are somehow fake.

The term kitsch from Yiddish came to be used to refer not merely to cheap decorations that produce a transient consumable emotional response of the sort characteristic of Disney characters but also of putative works of art that only succeed by being pretty and eliciting a shallow aesthetic response. A pastel-coloured picture of two young boys playing on the beach, an exemplar of contemporary art at the end of a tour of the Prado Museum in Mardrid comes to mind here.

Scruton follows Plato in the view that art succeeds when it is able to idealise beauty and make it transcendent. Art should aim to present us with transcendent meanings and ultimate values that are beyond mere utility of transient consumable feelings.

We can understand much of modern art that rejects beauty as a reaction against kitsch and cliché, and insistence that a work of art must present us with a novel and transgressive way of seeing things. In a reaction against artistic clichés and mere technique, now to create a work of art you need to do something completely new that has never been done.

Scruton argues that in reaction against repetition and artistic clichés (like the painting of two boys on the beach) contemporary art has in fact produced an endless set of “postmodern” clichés. Artworks today are really just an endless variation on Marcel Duchamp’s urinal.

Parallel developments are seen in classical music where tonality has been declared obsolete and atonality as the only way forward irrespective of whether people want to listen to atonal music or not.

On the other hand, in the realm of consumable pop music the degradation of taste and general dumbing down of the consumer has not escaped any intelligent observer. The music is now electronically produced with an endless repetitive catchy beat, dumbed down lyrics and ever more simplified melody. As Scruton remarks, in the song “Poker Face”, Lady Gaga mostly sings in a single note.

Scruton argues that people are dimly aware that pop is dumbed down and is not really all that good for their mental state but they can’t really say why. He suggests that one way to helping young people to learn to understand music is to teach them to play a musical instrument. They then can start developing a way of talking about music. I have noticed that at milongas which play particularly bad music the participants seem not hear the music at all. The music seems to be just background noise that vaguely coordinates their movements but often enough they hardly respond to it in their dancing. When asked they usually have absolutely nothing to say about it.

Scruton’s argument is that at some level people do make judgements about music even in the case of Pop, it’s just that they are the wrong ones. One typically needs to have some way of thinking about music by way of a comparison. There must also be the idea that listening to bad music is literally bad for you and that listening to good music is good for you, that what you listen to has consequences for learning and state of mind, eg., that it succeeds or fails in satisfying our needs beyond the transient feeling.

One does come across people who play classical music who nonetheless hold that same belief that music is just a consumer choice, who refrain from making judgements and implicitly do not see that the experience of music really matters. Classical to them is just as valid as pop. One sees this at outdoor music concerts where people come with picnic food and wine to listen to a symphony pumped through large speakers in sub-optimal listening conditions, distracted by the cheese, crackers, drink and conversation.

Although this is putatively classical music, it is hardly a case of sustained focused listening that is required to actively engage with the work. In some places people regularly check phone messages during a concert. Clearly, while playing an instrument and attending classical concerts can provide with a way of becoming more articulate and intelligent about music and making judgements about music, there are additional beliefs about listening and its significance, namely, you need to take it seriously as a source of authentic feeling and not merely view it as another consumer choice.

It seems to me that many, perhaps most people who come to tango are sort of like the musicians and audiences of classical music who view it as merely another consumer choice. They might feel that it is somehow ‘better’, that is, classical music is better than pop, or tango music is better than other latin music, or traditional tango is better than non-traditional tango, and they might even be able to provide some reasons.

These people would nonetheless struggle to move beyond mere cultural relativism or personal taste in justifying a preference for this rather than that. They still do not view the music as a source of authentic feeling which is intrinsically more satisfying and transcendent. For it is this move that is required in order to be able to say that the difference is that between art and kitsch, between authentic and fake feeling, between ultimate and utilitarian values. Without that distinction we are merely dealing with different consumer choices. This seems to be the current state of tango: it has been turned into a market of consumable fake emotions.

So in order to justify preference for Golden Era music over non-traditional tango music, other than on either culturally relative grounds or in terms of mere personal choice, one must say that traditional tango music is a source of authentic feeling and aesthetic experience in a way that non-traditional tango music is not. This requires on the one hand some understanding of how music is constructed in terms of rhythm and tonality, and on the other hand the idea that there is a difference between art and kitsch, between authentic and fake emotions, and that this difference is important.

You may understand music and say why Lady Gaga is not as good as Wagner, but still not see why that is important, so that you go to Wagner’s concerts and view that as a mere personal preference and consumer choice rather than as a source of transcendental experience and authentic emotion, so that you’re just as satisfied with a symphony in the park with ample quantities of white wine. Scruton points to opera producers who do a postmodern take on the material. Presumably these people understand music and how it works and they proceed to desecrate it nonetheless.

So there are two elements that seem to be necessary in order to resist the onslaught of kitsch in tango: informed judgement and consecration. You need to have some way of thinking about the material, a basic vocabulary about music and a systematic method of some sort. Also, you must see its importance as a source of authentic or fake feeling, as sacred or sacrilegious, as real or fake, as art or kitsch.

The assumption must be that there is such a thing as the sacred and the transcendent. That is, one must reject the cynical view of art as essentially an expression of originality and novelty through transgression and therefore as proceeding by way of desecration. Also, while kitsch objects such as plastic statues of saints common among some Catholics can be imbued with sacred meaning art succeeds in creating a language to communicate the transcendent experience of the sacred that has appeal beyond the simple devotee. In other words, we must assume that the experience of the sacred is real and important and that art is a medium through which we can experience it.

While it is not easy to articulate exactly which elements in art allow it to be a source of authentic meaning and emotion a comparative method offers a systematic way of trying to figure out what these elements might be. Scruton employs this method to discuss the difference between classical and modern architecture, and by virtue of which design elements the former succeeds and the latter fails to provide buildings that serve as desirable living spaces, such as the use of vertical vs. horizontal elements.

This comparative method can be used to similar effect in isolating the effective elements that provide for success or failure in art, music and dance. We may ask how tango music of the different periods differs, which feelings it arouses, what makes it more or less successful, authentic or fake. Similarly, we may compare different ways of dancing tango and ask whether the feelings and values that it expresses are more or less real and whether it provides for an authentic or meaningful experience or relationship, whether it’s in the realm of utility or of ultimate ends.