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  • A Myth of the Twentieth Century: The Rite of Spring, the Tradition of the New, and “The Music Itself”
  • Richard Taruskin (bio)


“In the arts an appetite for a new look is now a professional requirement, as in Russia to be accredited as a revolutionist is to qualify for privileges,” wrote Harold Rosenberg, the champion of action painting, in 1960. Densely packed with ironies intended and unintended, Rosenberg’s marvelous sentence encapsulates the atmosphere in which many members of the generation now reaching seniority in the arts and the academy were educated. Indeed, it is tempting now to look back on that period as if on some kind of Brezhnevite stagnation, in which yesterday’s antitraditionalist sloganeering was appropriated to defend today’s reactionary traditionalism, and in which loyalty to the new was professed in order to resist change. The attempt to marry the Permanent Revolution to the Great Tradition led to a vast proliferation of newspeak and doublethink, for as Rosenberg went on to observe, “the new cannot become a tradition without giving rise to unique contradictions, myths, absurdities.” 1

We are still living with them. The historiography of art—and particularly, it seems, of music—remains the most stubbornly Whiggish of all historiographies, despite longstanding maverick opposition. 2 That historiography is still a Tradition-of-the-New narrative that celebrates technical innovation, viewed as progress within a narrowly circumscribed aesthetic domain. The hermetic and formalist side of this paradigm and the heroically individualistic, asocial side of it remain sources [End Page 1] of dissatisfaction to those of us who believe that this manner of accounting for the production and the value of artworks has had a deleterious influence on that very production and that very value.

Awareness has been growing that the two sides of the enduring paradigm are codependent, that in both aspects the resulting narratives have been tendentiously exclusionary, and that the ideology of the cold war, which sanctioned the association of logical positivism with democracy and of formalism with the defense of political freedom, has been to a long-unrecognized extent their artificial life-support system. The influence of the cold war on modernist attitudes in Rosenberg’s field has been energetically documented of late, sometimes with a tinge of conspiracy theorizing. 3 The single noteworthy attempt of this kind so far in the field of music has been an article by Martin Brody, “‘Music for the Masses’: Milton Babbitt’s Cold War Music Theory,” in which Babbitt’s scientism is somewhat benignly explained as a defense, on the part of a thinker formed (and scarred) by the “dangerously irrational” ideological battles of the 1930s, against a priori (which is to say political) constraints on conceptualizing “the nature and limits of music” and against the political exploitability of any “looser,” less intransigently rationalistic discourse. 4

Will the end of the cold war spell the end of all these redemptive mythologies and exclusionary strategies? Will we finally get beyond the poietic fallacy that focuses all attention on the making of the artwork, hence on the person (and the putative freedoms) of the maker? Will we see that artists’s shoptalk is not invariably the best model or medium for criticism? Will we allow that the context of technical innovation in the arts need not be confined to the history of art? Will we accept that what an artist will experience as “an irresistible pull within the art” 5 may have sources in the wider world, including some of which the artist may not be wholly aware, and that it is the historian’s or the critic’s job to describe them, however fallibly?

A major deterrent to enlarging the purview of art historiography and criticism along these lines is the unwholesomeness of what might be discovered, and the intolerable implications such discovery may be seen to harbor. Formalism has been a bulwark against such a threat. Its defenders have tended to impugn the motives of skeptics, who are accused of genius-envy and, more sweepingly, of hostility to the integrity of the individual. As one who has investigated, and who has felt it important to investigate, Stravinsky’s alarming political affinities, and drawn fire in...

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pp. 1-26
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