What is a responsible appraisal of rock?

by Andrew L. Minto

I was very pleased to have Mark Fischer revive a discussion I had entered into a number of years ago with the publication of a few articles. I admire him for bringing back to public attention a quarrelsome topic that is not kind to those who debate it. Knowing that he would likely take one on the chin (as he will in my critique) for staking out the position he does, one must applaud him for being honest about his thoughts and for being gutsy enough to share them. Fischer’s article represents the kind of work that launched me into the debate about rock music many years ago. I was dissatisfied with discussions on the topic that never penetrated below the level of personal opinion, artistic taste and subjective relativism—the same characteristics I find hampering Fischer’s discussion.

I have never espoused a pastoral action with my position on rock music. I have always left this to the conscience of the individual. My intention was to place the discussion on ground that I considered informed and critically oriented, so that an informed conscience could draw a decision and a more illuminated discussion than I had previously encountered could take place.

It surprises me, therefore, to be accused by Fischer of launching “attacks” on artists. In making this accusation, he violates the first rule of entering debates such as the one currently being waged about rock music, that is, he mistakenly interprets my well-reasoned critique of music, an art form and mode of communication, as a personal attack on the artists. We see the same phenomenon when the tags “racist” and “hateful” are thrown out as measures of defense in debates surrounding abortion and affirmative action. A careful reading of my articles will reveal that 1) I do not single out a single artist to criticize, and 2) I restrict my critique to the issues. Fischer would do well to follow suit. Misplaced accusations such as his do nothing to advance the discussion.

Fischer also claims that I and others are “surely misguided” for holding the positions we do. In examining his article, one is struck by two questions: 1) How does he arrive at such certitude? and 2) On what basis can he claim that I and others are misguided? The last question seems to me to be most critical: What is a guided opinion or conclusion? Unfortunately, Fischer does not provide us with a satisfactory answer to these questions.

Beauty and truth: really?

It is apparent from Fischer’s article that his opinion springs from deep personal conviction. Nevertheless, once submitted to close scrutiny, his opinion and others like it are not satisfactory in terms of dealing with the complexities of the problem of inculturation regarding rock music. In fact, I think he brings more confusion than clarity to the discussion. He implies that the opening quotations from me and others are examples of the denunciation of rock music by “social conservatives,” a stereotyping tactic that automatically requires the reader to be on guard with respect to the positions proposed by those quoted. Oddly, he omits a statement from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger quoted at length in one of my articles, which may be abbreviated as follows:

“In many forms of religion, music is associated with frenzy and ecstasy. Such music lowers the barriers of individuality and personality, and in it man liberates himself from the burden of consciousness….this type in rock and pop music, whose festivals are an anti-cult with the same tendency…is the complete antithesis of Christian faith in the Redemption. Accordingly, it is only logical that in this area diabolical cults and demonic musics are on the increase today, and their dangerous power of deliberately destroying personality is not yet taken seriously enough…”

These are sobering and prophetic words, especially when compared to those of Fischer. Ratzinger’s opinion harmonizes with my own, but I do not think Fischer would characterize Ratzinger’s opinion as that of a “social conservative.” Rather, Ratzinger’s words express the carefully considered position of a churchman, a theologian and a trusted teacher of the Church. His point of view has little to do with the larger debate about culture wars and social engineering that Fischer intimates. The tag of “social conservatism” only muddies the water.

Regrettably, Fischer rejects conclusions such as mine and Ratzinger’s without holding himself responsible to the task of dismantling the hard fought argument that proposed the conclusions. In short, his opinions, not arguments, are offered without the benefit of assuring the reader that hard-headed critical thinking went into them. It is troubling, for example, to observe Fischer claiming some very well stated criteria only to see that he does not hold himself accountable to them. He warns of making statements “in the abstract,” but proceeds to make his own abstract claims without foundation in the next paragraph. He never explains how or why artistic success in communicating is a competent criterion to lead one to a correct valuation of the artist’s product.

Fischer violates his own criterion again when he claims that traditional Blues music communicates “permanent hope….This is not escapism; it is exactly the opposite.” He gives no supporting evidence for his opinion. There is no hard-nosed analysis of Blues musical scores and lyrics to back up his abstract claim. There is no serious attempt to place these musical expressions within their cultural milieu. Moreover, Fischer holds an opinion not echoed by a single musicologist or music historian I am aware of. It is truly odd to find him accusing me and others of “musical ignorance” when he has not taken it upon himself to do his own homework.

Fischer continues to immerse himself in the criterion of subjective relativism by elevating “experience of the music” above a “general theory.” The “general theory” of which he speaks is the poorly contrived conclusion that merely hearing rock songs means hearing “only ‘sex,’” a presumptuous conclusion that I do not indulge. For my part, however, I would like to know how one’s subjective experience of music provides a reliable criterion for determining the worth, the good or evil, of an artistic expression? I have heard the “this-is-my-experience” argument for any number of objectionable actions, including abortion, adultery, and thievery. It fails to convince.

Later in the article, Fischer laments the absence of serious attention to “a difficult musical and philosophical question.” This lamentation appears strange in an article bereft of philosophical inquiry either on the level of some proposed system or on the level of the history of philosophy. Both of these philosophical inquiries are found in the articles written by me.

Fischer’s philosophical presuppositions, however, are readily identifiable. He bases his opinion on a theory of aesthetics that owes its heritage to Enlightenment categories. Thus, Fischer indulges subjective relativism and appraises art for art’s sake. Art is thought to be evaluated on no other basis than whether or not it is good or bad art, but the criteria for making such distinctions remain obscure and abide only in the judging subject. Fischer also elevates the artist and his work to embody what the Enlightenment philosophers thought to represent the free, rational man, who is unfettered from such socio-political and religious restraints that are mediated by society and culture. Unfortunately, nothing of the kind of honest philosophical work to place the contemporary discussion of the issues within the context of a history of philosophy or within a reliable philosophical system emerges from Fischer’s article. He seems only capable of using the words “philosophy,” “abstract” and “philosophical roots” without knowing what they mean.

Interestingly, Fischer speaks of rock music as an “idiom.” He assumes, but does not demonstrate (as I do) that music is a form of communication. Yet, he appears unwilling or unable to come to grips with the difficult and complex issues surrounding communication and media. How and why does music communicate? Where is the engagement of the debate that appears in communication/media literature regarding how communication itself is not value-neutral—an insight especially true of music? He makes no attempt to grapple with the argument that music, like other forms of communication, strongly influences the shaping of public opinion and values—a subject treated extensively in journals of communication and musicology. Fischer has chosen to ignore the statistical and clinical correlation that has been demonstrated between rock music and problems in mental and physical health and development in young people. Nowhere does Fischer explore, as I and others have done, the relationship between music and its cultural antecedents. One is left to guess, for example, what “black culture” means to Fischer and why the largess of “black culture” provides a favorable assessment of Blues and Jazz.

In summary, the most that Fischer can contribute to the discussion of rock music is his shallow, uninformed opinion, albeit one that is held with deep personal conviction. With that observation, one may grant that he has the right to share it in a journal of opinion. However, on examination, I find his opinion devoid of critical thinking, substantive argumentation and demonstrable responsibility to the complexities of the issues. He is entitled to his opinion, but he lacks grounds for his claim that those who disagree with him are ignorant and misguided.

So, how should one enter the discussion in order to make a meaningful contribution and what should the shape of the debate look like?

The mode and shape of the debate

I can only speak briefly about this here. A survey of my articles will demonstrate that I have held myself accountable to the discipline and the criteria that I presently discuss. A positive and helpful contribution to the discussion will be responsive both to the needs of the audience, some of whom will desire a more critically reasoned argument than Fischer requires to form an opinion, and to the complex features of the issue under discussion.

1. Since the topic is music, the discussion must contain a competent and thorough understanding of music theory and history. The findings of reliable musicologists must be considered.

2. Related to the first point, musicologists and music critics of reputation agree that music is a socio-culturally situated communication. Hence, one must understand the relation between music and its cultural antecedents and/or context.

3. The meaning of art is a hermeneutical pursuit, thus the discussion must give more than lip-service to philosophical categories, trends and influences. A reliable philosophical system suitable to the complexities of the topic and a knowledge of the history of philosophy that demonstrates how such problems have previously been worked through are needed. This is where communication and social theories intersect.

4. Finally, when the discussion moves toward music and faith, a solid theological inquiry is needed. One’s conclusions about faith—what is proper to the gospel, how inculturation takes place correctly so as not to violate the dignity of the gospel and the mystery of the Trinity, what constitutes true praise, and how hymnology and music are to function in the church—will not be sufficiently grounded on aesthetics, but on theology.

With these points in mind, treated as a whole or individually, the discussion may proceed in a way that does not lack clarity and responsibility. In order to facilitate this ongoing discussion, I have placed a copy of my articles on the reserve shelf at the John Paul II library.

Mr. Minto is an Assistant Professor of Theology at FUS