Tango as culture: anthropology vs criticism

Ethnomusicology is the study of music from the cultural and social aspects of the people who make it. … It is often defined as the anthropology or ethnography of music, or as musical anthropology. (Wikipedia)

When a student starts taking tango classes the discourse of tango is established by the way the teacher and others talk about the genre. Lets for a moment ignore the commercial aspects of this discourse and assume that the student manages to ignore all the talk about workshops, privates, and trips to Buenos Aires, and tries to break through all of that to try to get a deeper understanding of tango, the dance, the music and the culture. What they will inevitably arrive at is information that can be loosely called ‘anthropological’. He will find that tango is a culture confined to a specific area (Río de la Plata), practiced by its inhabitants, with music that is specific to that area and these people. To get an in-depth knowledge of tango one needs to be a sort of anthropologist, namely, to learn about the music and culture of these people who inhabit this place.

In characterising this framing as anthropological I am being generous and somewhat disingenuous because it is really touristic, or an impoverished sort of anthropology. A real scientific anthropology would utilise sophisticated comparative methods, eg., it would demand knowledge of music theory, and would compare this culture to other cultures to draw objective conclusions. What the tango student is faced with instead is a picture of a culture that is sui generis, that on the standard narrative, emerged out of a meeting of European and African cultures around the middle of the 19th century, that it is a popular culture, meaning not a culture of the elites but rather of the common people, and that produced a unified cultural idiom that we recognise as uniquely Argentinian.

We notice that this narrative creates a mystique about the form implied in the image of the Argentine people as having a natural talent to elicit emotional responses that the touristic consumers seek to acquire. It renders tango foreign, other, and exotic. It also gives those who are native to the form a special insider knowledge that requires no justification, proof, evidence or reasoning, on the assumption that cultural practices require no external justification: it’s just what people do. It’s, as Wittgenstein put it, a form of life.

Unfortunately this sort of anthropological/touristic framing is detrimental to the learning of tango. It implies that to come to participate in the practice one needs to ‘go native’, ideally by way of lengthy stays in Buenos Aires. Tango teaching and learning consists in finding out ‘what people in Buenos Aires do’. In terms of music it consists in learning the names of the orchestras, their recordings, and something about the history of the Golden Era.

The anthropological approach to tango education asks the student to emulate a cultural group without asking for reasons. However, since there is no real justification given or necessary this framing leads naturally to the idea that tango ‘evolves’. Since there is no particular reason to want to emulate this group beyond your touristic consumer preference it leads naturally to the idea that just as Argentinians created their local tango culture foreigners can take those aspects of tango that suit their tastes and create their own ‘nuevo’ or ‘transgressive’, or ‘alternative’ or ‘whatever you wish to call it’ tango. On the other hand, the anthropological framing gives traditionalists no basis for criticism of the new developments if they already promoted the idea that their own practice is sui generis, a form of life specific to a place and people, and an unjustified set of preferences.

The problem is that an anthropological framing is descriptive without being in any way prescriptive. Without some sort of a norm or standard of judgement that is exernal to the culture it is not clear how we are supposed to get from an is to an ought. As a result tango traditionalists, while they reject non-traditional forms of tango, have really no way to argue against them. One wants to say that the traditional tango practice is more authentic but why should one prefer authenticity in a postmodern world which rejects such notions. There are also economic barriers to acquiring the authentic thing in terms of the cost of travel, or bringing teachers, getting accurate information, etc. If these things are not available why not settle for what is available and affordable?

Of course the natives do not see the matter in that way. They feel that there are values in tango that are not merely utilitarian and so would reject that one could replace them with a cheaper substitute. But so long as they are stuck in the anthropological frame those values are no different from the values of any other cultural group: they represent the sentimental attachments of one group of people. Unless one has some other reasons for wanting to assimilate to that group this approach cannot really have any wider appeal.

To have an appeal that is wider and more universal what is necessary is not anthropology but art criticism. When we say that something is a work of art we do not mean that it is art of a particular cultural group. Art is assumed to have more universal appeal and, given that, the art critic’s job is to find a language of expressing these universal values thereby providing reasons for preferring some works over others. The art critic must find a language that identifies features that characterise good art and provide for standards of good taste.

The idea that tango is a popular form seems to invite an anthropological rather than a critical frame but that does not necessarily follow. Jazz is a popular form and yet it is subject to criticism no less than classical music. Thelonious Monk is considered art whereas Kenny G is generally viewed as kitsch. Cultural critics even address pop and try to provide reasons why Elvis Presley might be better than Genesis.

Like ethnomusicologists (who are a type of anthropologist) critics use comparative methods, and must know something about music theory and the history of music. Both, ethnomusicologists and critics differ from the natives in that they try to draw more general conclusions about the cultural practices, but they differ from each other in that the goals of ethnomusicology are primarily descriptive, whereas the goals of criticism are primarily prescriptive. Criticism does require an adequate description, so that disagreement about description, ie., about the facts, will make a difference to the critique, but in the case of criticism there is a normative component, that is, there is the assumption that things are to be preferred on other than merely personal, subjective or consumption preferences.

To the contrary, art criticism has assumed that art ought to stand outside of the sphere of mere utilitarian or consumer values and that it has a higher moral dimension. That is why the distinction between art and kitsch is so central to criticism. This distinction does not touch objects that are cultural artefacts of some group because the members of the group attach an authentic significance to these objects. However, some writers (Adorno?) have suggested that these artefacts become kitsch as soon as they are purchased by a tourist who does not attach that significance to these objects and for whom they are mere decorative trinkets. The question is whether this is not precisely what happens to tango when it becomes a mere object of touristic experience.

A major reason for the anthropological approach to the dissemination of tango has to do with the consumers themselves. Earlier generations have grown up with an intuitive understanding of the difference between real and fake, art and kitsch. With modernism in art and academic postmodernism we have an attack on the idea of authentic art. Modernism in art, music and architecture relentlessly debunks all traditional notions of good taste and renders everything equal and relative, a matter of personal preference and only worthy of attention if it is interesting or better, transgressive. proxy.duckduckgoModernist artists such as Andy Warhol elevated consumer products to the status of high art, and the ordinary person can no longer rely on art criticism for guidance on good or bad taste, being thrown onto the wasteland of loud consumerist promotion.

Given the loss of any basis for judgement of good or bad taste, the learner is thrown rudderless on the ethno-dance market to figure things out for themselves. They are now supposed to know what they prefer without being told what they ought to prefer. Since the average person with the now standard schooling in being non-judgmental can’t be expected to bear such a heavy burden they simply follow the guidance of the loudest marketers and the crowd. Contrary to what one might otherwise expect the contemporary tango is a case study in unscrupulous marketing, vapid consumerism and crowd behaviour. It’s hard to believe that people capable of discriminating judgment could respond positively to the dressed up kitsch promoted on tango websites and Facebook pages.

What is the alternative to the anthropological and consumerist paradigms currently in power? The conservative view of art, music and culture, at least the one that we have inherited from 19th century Romanticism, is that culture is the realm of authentic values that transcend ordinary utilitarian and merely hedonistic values. Writers on culture have recognised for a long time that all traditional societies distinguish between sacred and profane values. In European culture art has come to occupy the place of the sacred, and the aesthetic experience of the art object is not regarded as having a merely utilitarian significance. Art, including painting, music, dance and ritual, is the domain of sacred values or ends, and as such has a moral significance. Bad art is not merely unpleasant, but rather, pleasant or not, it is morally bad. Listening to bad music and surrounding yourself with kitsch art makes you poorer as a person. It debases rather than elevates because it is a source of easy satisfactions and fake emotions that do not demand any effort or sacrifice.

Art criticism is difficult because it is not easy to identify why certain art is better than other, or what makes it morally elevating or debasing. People were once able to follow their gut instinct and normal people still are highly suspicious of art that occupies contemporary art galleries, atonal music or modernist architecture. They still prefer to see classical architecture even if some are still drawn to the modernist curiosities, although it is questionable that they would choose to spend much time in them or live near them once they have taken the obligatory snapshots. In the same sense the consumer tango that we are served nowadays is largely a disposable product, a way to spend an evening in a foreign city.

An alternative to the anthropological framing is a view of how dancing makes us better and brings us closer to others. Traditionally dances have had a moral and truly social dimension in bringing people together. This more authentically moral, social and elevating aspect has been supplanted with ideas about exoticism, authentic cultures, tourism, fashion and hedonism that are typical of kitsch ethnodances like LA Style Salsa, Bachata or Zouk. Anthropology and tourism have inadvertently directed tango into a seedy, degraded neighbourhood on the false assumption that it has only the barest connection to European culture and is the product of the Latin brothel. Unfortunately this is a framing and a narrative that appeals to people already predisposed to be drawn to easy ‘transgressive’ touristic experiences.