Julian Johnson and the value of contemporary music

Johnson, Julian, 2002. Who needs classical music? New York (NY): Oxford University Press.

As opposed to many modern scholars (for instance, Small (1998), DeNora (2000), Hennion (2015), and Born (2013)), Julian Johnson attributes a very different value to western art music than to what he calls ‘normative music’, such as popular music and most film music: the latter offers entertainment, pleasure, and immediacy, while the former offers a sophisticated synthesis of thought and feeling that emulates our own being while also offering a transformation of it. The temporal tension between being and becoming that is therefore found in western art music, makes it into a dynamic entity that mirrors the profound layerdness of human life in all its consonance, dissonance, and evolution (both realistic and utopian, predictable and unpredictable). Johnson argues that the current fast-paced society, with its focus on immediate bodily and libidinal pleasure, does not afford a type of engagement of the mind through time that is required to truly appreciate the value of western art music (both contemporary atonal, and older tonal western art music). At times, Johnson seems to dismiss, and even vilify, all forms of normative music as being products of our obtuse society, with which he implicitly blames the audience for not resisting the temptations of modern-day’s dominant musical culture, and ‘collectively refusing sophistication’. While I think that blaming audiences for not appreciating western art music is not a productive attitude, Johnson’s (highly Adornian) thoughts on the value of art of music, and how it differs from the value of normative music, definitely do justice to the weight that western art music can have, and as such could be of significance to my own work on the value of contemporary atonal western art music.