Wynton Marsalis and the Paradox of Artistic Conservatism in the Progressive Age

Wynton Marsalis has positioned himself as a jazz conservationist and all purpose pop culture reactionary for the past several decades. From his lofty perch ensconced in the Lincoln Center, Marsalis has inveighed against the pernicious influence of avant garde, R&B and hip hop to howls of outrage on numerous occasions. Reviled by many in the musician community as a self-appointed authoritarian schoolmarm, effete royalist and uptight poindexter, Wynton is an easy target for any artist with modernist sympathies. As one would expect, Marsalis’ latest foray into the white hot culture wars has provoked yet another collective spasm of indignation from the social media commentariat. Brace yourself, proles. In an interview with Jonathan Capehart, Marsalis posited that hip hop is “more damaging than a statue of Robert E. Lee.” Cue autistic screeching.

Marsalis has been just as outspoken in his opposition to the degrading influence of popular music as he has been in defense of what he considers a more edifying, uplifting, and yes, traditional vision of black art. While his statement does not represent a radical departure from any previous public claims, it is yet another noteworthy cultural moment in our current climate of supercharged identity politics and battles over free speech. Not only does it parallel the absolute shitstorm that followed Kanye West’s recent public statements in support of Trump and Candace Owens, it draws attention to some deeper questions over whether being an artistic conservative of any stripe is even possible in the techno-progressive age.

Just as you can roughly divide people along conservative and progressive lines in the political sphere, the same can be said for the artistic. An artistic conservative would generally subscribe to the notion that tradition should be respected, have objective aesthetic criteria, and its practitioners should be held to the highest standards of excellence. The artistic conservative would not buy into the idea that good art is completely subjective nor should it be completely democratized. Conversely, the artistic progressive would hold that traditions only exist to be inverted, reinvented, cherry picked or demolished outright. Art is always in a state of forward motion and flux. Change is an unassailable good while stasis is oppressive and confining.

Given these two competing worldviews, I contend that Marsalis finds himself in a position roughly analogous to the position Christina Sommers found herself when writing Who Stole Feminism. In other words, Wynton has the thankless task of attempting to consolidate and conserve an artistic form which was already a modernist amalgam of numerous traditions long after the wild horses of modernity had broken down the stables and overrun the barricades.

This is the main reason I find the outrage from the progressive camp to be both laughable and redundant. As usual, progressives are blind to their triumphs. The modernist genie is already out of the bottle. Wynton has neither the ability nor the desire to squelch any artist from making the music he wants to make. He is simply voicing an opinion. How many young hip hop fans are even paying attention let alone being persuaded by his point? Is there any reason to believe that even one person will stop listening to Lil Wayne after hearing Wynton Marsalis’ opinion? And even if he did manage to persuade someone, why would anyone who disagrees with him even care? Isn’t music the province of individual taste?

Yet, I’d argue that this is where the progressives are shortchanging Marsalis and also shooting themselves in the foot. Since I’m a musician myself, most of the reaction I observed on social media came from other musicians. Predictably, progressives assailed his comments as fusty and clueless. The reaction to his thrashing of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Miles Davis’ electric period in Ken Burns’ jazz documentary was met with a similarly hostile backlash. Despite the fact that numerous musicians chuckle at Miles Davis’ savage putdowns of Steve Miller, the Grateful Dead, and even Marsalis himself in his autobiography, Marsalis’ knocks on rock and pop music get a completely different treatment simply because he’s attacking from a different ideological vantage point. Miles was a trailblazing badass whereas Marsalis is the backward looking stuffed suit. What’s also odd is that these very same musicians, even if working within the new music circles, generally value a certain degree of musical proficiency and historical perspective. These skills and knowledge are the products of the study of some kind of musical tradition. Generally, it’s the jazz, blues, country or classical tradition. As in the ones Marsalis venerates and wants to conserve for posterity.

The unquestioned deference to a culture of pure individual expression untethered to any kind of traditionalism has resulted in an increasingly atomized marketplace. Just as religion provides a set of shared values and norms, a common tradition in arts can also serve a similar purpose. The irony is that musicians tend to denigrate pop music just like Wynton, but for slightly different reasons. They’ll shit on its lack of originality, the absence of real musicianship or its blatant commercialism. If anything, it was precisely because Marsalis put hip hop in his sights that prompted this particular bout of fauxtrage. Despite being a multibillion dollar industry, hip hop enjoys a permanent monopoly on being perceived as an edgy street art form that gives a voice to the Oppressed. Therefore, Marsalis was blind to the fact that racist old farts from bygone eras said the exact same thing about the music he currently canonizes. Get #WOKE, Wynton.

As expected, progressives seem to imagine Wynton as this quasi-fascist dictator who’s attempting to tell artists what art to make. Since we live in an age of liberal hegemony where unquestioned deference to progress is the orthodoxy, anyone who even suggests the idea of a conserved tradition with boundaries, limits and standards is branded a hidebound reactionary and a heretic. The reaction Marsalis is receiving also has parallels to the reactions Jordan Peterson is currently receiving over his secular defense of Christianity and traditionalism.

Is the knee jerk defense of artistic progressivism fostering a deeper appreciation for music with artistic aspirations that extend beyond the pop sphere? Or music which requires a higher level of complexity? Will the average hip hop fan give a shit about the numerous starving jazz musicians who stormed social media to denounce Marsalis as a retrograde dimwit? Even if Marsalis wants cordon off the jazz tradition and build an ideological border wall around it, will that prevent anyone from discovering Sun Ra or Albert Ayler? Or even J Dilla?

And then there’s the issue of preserving historical integrity when facing an onslaught of selective outrage that defines our Age of #SocialJustice. Current social justice narratives cast the entire sweep of history as nothing but a long chain of oppression and subjugation. We’re already seeing pop music being consigned to the memory hole for failing to the pass the hashtag friendly litmus tests. If an artist doesn’t live up to the feminist #MeToo standards, progressives are completely unmoved by calls for removal from streaming platforms. If Robert E. Lee gets sent to the dustbin for failing to meet ever shifting standards of woke piety, who’s to say that the records treasured by the progressive establishment won’t also be consumed in the fires of revolution eventually?

Marsalis has already responded to the considerable backlash with a lengthy and thoughtful post on Facebook. Anyone who doesn’t grasp his intent or the substance of his argument is being willfully ignorant, dishonest or both. But does his thoughtful response even register for anyone who reacted negatively to his argument? Like Sam Harris’ quixotic attempt to dismantle Ezra Klein’s hit pieces in Vox, Harris was forced to stave off the SJW zombie hordes simply for defending his right to voice an unconventional opinion.

Though they likely share opposing views, Wynton Marsalis has become a more genteel version of Ted Nugent. Every time he opines, it elicits paroxysms of contempt, but once you get past the vitriol, you’ll find an occasional grudging admission of respect.

At the same time, this controversy reveals the reason there has been a decades long conflict over who will have control over the levers of cultural consensus. Progressives reacted with customary autistic myopia as though the mere utterance of a controversial opinion would topple the secular liberal order. Each side knows that culture matters, but only progressives continue to affect the pretense of being underdogs despite the polar opposite being true. You are more likely to see progressives collectively high five one another over Black Panther than consider the possibility that NWA might have had an adverse effect on the black community.

In an anything goes culture of radical subjectivity, the artistic conservative faces an extraordinarily difficult task. When contemporary woke consensus considers gender a social construct, what chance does the artistic conservative have in promoting the idea of an objective aesthetic standard? Progressives are being myopic and greedy about the cultural marketplace. The progressive paradigm has triumphed unequivocally. So lighten up, progressives. The fire of artistic radicalism will not be extinguished if Wynton Marsalis takes a few shots at the hip hop empire.

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