Postmodernism and consumerism

“This is what people want”

Apologist for consumerism in social dancing

The contemporary tango scene is tango taken out of the context of the development of European classical culture that is characterised by cultural values, beliefs and attitudes, such as the importance of sociality and beauty. Such values and beliefs have been shed, debunked and deconstructed since mid-20th century as markers of reaction, conservatism, oppression, kitsch, patriarchy, etc. and as a result they no longer function to provide a basis of criticism and justification for cultural practices, and have been replaced by new set of postmodern values such as individualism, subjectivism, relativism and progressivism.

Left or progressive postmodernism* aims to undermine the priority and legitimacy of basic or foundational values that characterise Western culture and views them as inherently oppressive. They are instead characterised as merely the preferences of a particular privileged group, typically dead white males which happened to be dominant at an earlier time that we should want to transcend and leave behind. These values have no more legitimacy than the cultures of living marginalised people, indeed in the eyes of the postmodernist, they have less.

The problem is that the European cultural canon has had the role of a bulwark against he onslaught of the market consumerism and materialism. In Europe culture has acquired the status of an autonomous realm that is beyond mere utility, a realm of ultimate, authentic or final values or ends that gives respite from the market. By delegitimising European culture as a source of authentic values the left postmodernist perspective in effect leads to the blurring of the division between culture and the market, between ultimate and utilitarian values. As a result, the market intrudes into culture and takes over every realm of life. Losing the critical function of culture means that the market and herd behaviour decide the direction of commodified culture.

The new politically correct ideology is channeled through progressive education and my experience has been that the experience of tango is more or less proportional to the degree to which a given location is subject to it. Buenos Aires itself is subject to these ideological forces and it is quite possible that the tradition will not be able to withstand their onslaught which is why it’s so important to understand precisely their logic.

Beauty and meaning

Postmodernism in art, music, architecture, and dance critique and devalue beauty. It assumes that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, a subjective and relative matter, and that there are no absolute judgements to be made. The waterfall is beautiful only if it arouses positive feelings in the viewer. It then moves to the claim that since beauty is relative and not an absolute it cannot be an ultimate value. It places all beauty in the realm of kitsch, ie., transient and fake satisfactions, unless it can be exhibited as a product of an immediate impulse which is thereby rendered authentic. Authenticity is thus removed from the realm of established art and placed in the realm of subjective expression and current feeling. Consequently, a postmodern approach to dancing emphasises immediacy, primitive impulse and transgression.

My goal is to recover the classical view that beauty is a property of the object that is said to be beautiful. The beauty of the waterfall is a property of the waterfall itself and is independent of my experience of it. Also, beauty is not merely experienced but is discovered by way of a comparative method whereby we uncover the features that render an object beautiful or not. Finally, I hold that beauty is the realm of ultimate and authentic values that are beyond the realm of market utility and as such provide us with a foundation of aesthetic judgement that is not merely that which is useful or temporarily pleasant, and thus beyond mere temporary fancy or impulse. Beauty liberates us not by way of transgression or abolishing of the patriarchy, but by way of transcendence to a higher realm beyond merely utilitarian values.

Authenticity, beauty and kitsch

The current politically correct ideology prefers to view authenticity in terms of either the spontaneous culture of a marginalised group, or else in terms of transgression against the norms of the patriarchy, which in effect is just a slanderous code for European culture. Supposedly marginalised cultures are viewed in opposition to the aesthetic norms of the mainstream art tradition. The contemporary art pieces on display in art galleries approved by the academy typically reject beauty, or at least the kind of beauty that has been the focus mainstream artistic tradition, which are viewed as culminating in reproducible kitsch. I agree Roger Scruton in the view that contemporary art ends up producing art objects that are novel and interesting but in the end cannot help but become repetitive kitsch themselves, as art students simply mimic the latest avant-garde fad.** Likewise, the interest in the spontaneous culture of marginalised groups (Hip Hop, Latin dances, etc.) cannot transcend the status of a merely touristic interest that renders these objects kitsch.

This is why I think that the postmodern strategy cannot overcome the problem of kitsch and follow Roger Scruton in the view that it is impossible to experience authentic beauty unless we take the position that some objects have the status of sacred or transcendent objects that allow us to transcend the everyday reality, that they are final and not merely instrumental, and that they are vehicles for creating meaning in life. By contrast, the objects created by the politically correct cultural academia as well as the market fail to provide meaning and leave us empty and dissatisfied once the interest or utility has been exhausted.

Historical context, subjectivism and expression

The postmodernist ideology leads to an anthropological as well as subjectivist approach to social practices. Thus, writers and commentators typically either ask what a certain arbitrarily defined group of people such as the milongueros in Buenos Aires do, or else they take a phenomenological approach, describing their experiences and feelings in learning and dancing tango. These approaches miss the fact that tango as a dance and a music has a history that is rooted in the European tradition of art going back hundreds of years. Without understanding this history the anthropology and phenomenology lack the context necessary to provide real understanding and render things like tango dancing as in a vacuum, sui generis, emerging out of nowhere and without any specific place in our cultural genesis. The relativism and subjectivism in the end leave us confused and ungrounded.

The claim is not that the anthropological and phenomenological approaches have no place, but that they must be located in a historical context. Progressives reject the study of history on the grounds that it is merely the story of dead white males and slander European history as nothing more than the story of colonialism and oppression. Shedding a proper historical context, anthropology and phenomenology become relativistic. But if we consider the proper historical context of Latin music and dance generally, and tango specifically, we find that these practices have their origins in English country dances, subsequently spreading in Europe as contradanza, and that the specifically latin music emerged in Cuba, subsequently called habanera. This historical context can inform our understanding of tango music and of tango dancing as a social practice other than as merely individual and subjective experience.

Subjectivism and relativism tend to view cultural forms as a matter of transgressive expression, that is, loss of inhibition and rebelliousness. Anthropological texts on dance and music written by progressive sociologists typically emphasise these transgressive and non-conformist aspects, usually as a matter of imaginative interpretation rather than any sort of objective fact. Postmodern dance rejects strictures of classical beauty and emphasises self-expression, transgression and loss of inhibition.

However, if we take a historical approach and view tango as continuous with contradanza and habanera it is more likely that dancing is essentially a social practice in which one transcends one’s individuality. It is pretty clear that viewing tango as a self-expressive practice is incompatible with viewing it as a social one, or at least the two tend to be in tension with each other. Traditionally social dancing is a matter of social conformity and fitting in with the music, your partner and the other dancers. This is quite different than learning it with attitude that it is a context for personal self-expression. There is expression, namely, in the music. The music expresses certain feelings and emotions. When we dance we express those feelings, identifying with them. Only in this way are we able to participate in the practice together with, and not against, other people, when we share the feelings expressed in the music with the others.

Choreography and commodification

Undermining art as an autonomous realm opens up practices like tango to commodification. The commodified dance market requires that dance teachers package their dance product in terms of ‘pretty’ or ‘cool’ choreographed steps and patterns or routines. Dance classes are fronted by teachers who demonstrate the routine to the students who then attempt to perform it themselves. Learning is assumed to be linear, defined in terms of the progression from simple steps to complex routines. At an intermediate level students progress to workshops that focus on technique such as the learning of adornments and perhaps also musicality, where they typically learn a pattern tailor-made to a particular type or piece of tango music.

This focus on choreographed movement patterns and the assumption of linear progress of such patterns has the result that learners focus on the feet and neglect their posture, embrace and the music. These are always compromised for the sake of complex step patterns. An alternative to this is to focus on walking and some variations on that, and then to focus on the embrace, posture and music. The steps, rather than being markers of mastery, are better viewed as variations on walking while in the embrace, with good posture, and while listening to the music.

Notes

*David Hicks argues that there is also a right or conservative version of postmodernism, which simply asserts

**There was an interesting exchange at a Q&A session (which I need to try to find) where someone pointed out that, while in the past great composers were regarded as avant-garde in their time, they became part of the classical canon within a couple of decades, whereas the avant-garde of the latter 20th century remain avant-garde to this day. I had a similar conversation when I asked a jazz bar manager why lately jazz bands just improvise without there being any time given to jazz standards, to which he replied that this music is avant-garde, then citing jazz players from the 60s. When all you hear is improvisation this itself becomes a jazz cliche.

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