A turn of phrase in the recent Auteurs-vs-Superheros brouhaha struck me: Scorsese’s claim that the Marvel films ‘aren’t cinema.’ It’s a type of argument that has often riled me. In this genre of dismissal, one criticises something by claiming that it is not an example of the genre to which it has been ascribed. You can recognise this canard through its typical hooting: “That’s not art”, “it’s not even music”, “that’s not really theatre” etc.
Sometimes these arguments are aimed at artworks that deliberately stand on the edge of an artform, questioning what should or should not be included in a categorisation (John Cage’s silent piece of music, 4’33”, for example). But often they’re aimed at something that is pretty indubitably of its genre. If the Marvel films aren’t cinema, what the hell are they? This argument sometimes comes in reverse, with people praising something by ‘elevating’ it into a supposedly superior genre.
I think that these two strands represent similar of argument, neither of which is useful and which have their roots in a shared reservoir of classism and snobbery.
When we try to elevate or denigrate an artwork by ascribing it to a higher or lower genre than it is typically ascribed to, we solidify the idea that high art forms are better than low art forms. A particularly vexing example is the description of lyrics as poetry in an attempt at praise. (Nobel committee, I’m looking at you.)
There is a difference between lyrics and poetry: one is designed to be sung, the other not. This is reflected in their content: certain techniques are more effective in one than the other. Note that the argument that, say, “Bob Dylan’s lyrics are poetry” assumes this difference rather than undermining it. One could imagine an argument that collapses the difference between lyrics and poetry, observing the pitched nature of speech and the audiation that takes place during silent reading. This would be a valuable line of thought. But the argument that “Bob Dylan’s lyrics are poetry” is used not so much to collapse the gap between poetry and lyrics but to emphasise the gap between Dylan’s lyrics and other lyrics.
The argument loses its power if we concede that all lyrics are poetry or all poetry is lyric. Instead, the argument assumes that poetry is a higher form than lyrics and seeks to distinguish Dylan through his inclusion in it. This is a paltry form of inclusion, limited to the admission of specific instances of lyric-writing to the poetic pantheon rather than seeking to broaden the pantheon per se.
I am not arguing here from a relativistic point of view. Notions of quality in art are inseparable from our enjoyment of it. Evaluation is a vital part of our interaction with art; it is challenging and needlessly self-denying to divorce experience from assessment. I like Simon Frith’s line: ‘what needs challenging is not the notion of the superior, but the claim that it is the exclusive property of the “high.”’ We can praise some lyrics and denigrate others without having to re-categorise them according to traditional ideas of ‘high art’.
We can build interesting conversations out of our reflexive tendency to re-assign the genre of artworks. For example, I had a conversation with a composer of contemporary classical music who I respect a great deal. He claimed that the work that has sometimes been dubbed “The New Discipline”, in this case as exemplified by the superb group Bastard Assignments, doesn’t constitute music. Unlike Scorsese, he was clear that he didn’t mean this as a slight. He argued it was better understood as conceptual art, a genre that is certainly conceptualised as ‘high art’. (Though the categorisation of work as performance or conceptual art can be meant as a criticism, but that’s another story.)
Now, much of Bastard Assignment’s work exists in an experimental space at the edges of traditional genre categories. So maybe my composer friend had a point?
In this circumstance, I think it is valuable to ask oneself “what is to be gained or lost from strictly policing this genre boundary?” Once we begin thinking in this way, we see that discussions about genre are often concealing debates about aesthetic value and access to resources.
Scorsese’s comment, for example, is an aesthetic judgement cloaked in some provocative re-categorisation. He went to argue that the films were more like theme parks and that they didn’t convey emotional, psychological experiences. Here, Scorsese’s policing of the boundary is an attempt to assert what makes film valuable more than it is an attempt to assert what makes it film. An interesting contrast would be Ben Shapiro’s claim that rap isn’t music, as it doesn’t have harmony or melody. Here, the critique is too incoherent to spark anything more than a back and forth series of takedown videos.
The video linked above from 12tone is an excellent destruction of Shapiro’s argument, but it exemplifies the difficulty in engaging with these aesthetic critiques on their ground. It’s obvious enough that when Shapiro says that ‘rap isn’t music’, he is not making a purely aesthetic claim. Shapiro’s seeks to insult hip hop and, by extension, the community that creates it. Shapiro’s criticism of rap is part of a broader programme to lower the status of African Americans.
While this is an extreme example, aesthetic claims about genre are often about resources, inclusion and esteem. In the case of New Discipline work, the composer’s claim had implications regarding its inclusion in music programmes and at festivals and venues. The debate hinges around whether artists, audiences and arts workers benefit from its inclusion. This discussion can’t be divorced from aesthetics, of course, but we need to be clear that the consequences of these aesthetic arguments are material.
The material resources at stake are often connected to the more nebulous idea of esteem. When Dylan is given the Nobel Prize, it is not because his bank balance is dire need of a $1m infusion. Instead, it is because it is deemed that his work is worthy of greater respect. This respect is valuable per se, but it is not disconnected from materiality. Dylan’s Nobel Lecture was published; I am sure that the prize benefitted the sales of his collected lyrics. The Prize’s claim on esteem, then, is also a claim on the space in bookstores, the actions of publishers, and the column inches of newspapers.
In that spirit, I understand the desire to describe, say, Kendrick Lamar’s work as poetry. It may give him access to institutions previously closed to him. It may even benefit those less-famous artists who can claim a kind of transitive legitimacy: “If Lamar is like poetry, and I am like Lamar, and poetry is what you do, let me in!”
But to me, these claims risk leaving behind all but the most famous examples. Rather than asking why we limit literature festivals to literature, or classical music festivals to classical music, we plead exception for our favourites. These favourites are rarely up-and-comers. In my field, the resources given to emerging classical composers exceeds the space given to artists from other genre backgrounds. At the top of the field, you now see Johnny Greenwood and Laura Mvula given access to festivals like the Proms. But while emerging classical musicians are given Proms commissions, Greenwood and Mvula had to make their own way, and wait for fame to make their case for inclusion. Arguments for inclusion based on this type of reasoning thus risks re-inscribing artistic hierarchies, creating an inclusive veneer by privileging already well-resourced outsiders.
These arguments are complex. Many in non-commercial art forms are wary of dropping this protectionism, seeing the heft of pop music as an under-examined source of cultural power against which arts institutions form a meagre bulwark. These arguments, I think, are valid, but we need to be clear about the nature of the discussion. Simply saying ‘we won’t include X, because we only support genre Y’ isn’t good enough. Exclusions must be justified and the fight for inclusion must be explicit. Rather than trying to redefine art and genre to fit unjust institutions, we should reform the institutions.
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