Art/Entertainment bifurcation

The previous discussion of entertainment as a world paradigm only hinted at the origin of that paradigm. More to the point, it dabbled in connections between music as art and entertainment, and suggested that such a duality could be relatively recent in origin. In some sense, this distinction is about upper- and lower-class activity, and the simplest historical narrative involves a flip-flop of power between the two. In the current economic climate, the lower classes, by virtue of number (i.e. democracy), have achieved "artistic" control. One can construct a basic linear progression of this type, from the utter dominance of ancient tyrants to the mass-market politics of today. A progression of that sort can be rather illuminating with regard to the balancing act which established the classical style. However, such a naïve progression makes a basic underlying assumption, namely that popular music of earlier centuries was rather distinct from — even contemptuous of, as it is today — elite music. In fact, many people take very strong views on this point, related especially to what they retrospectively view as religious & other oppression. They are certain, often on whim alone, that a lively & distinct popular culture existed in the medieval era, and might even (paradoxically) associate some surviving songs with it. They reconstruct today's divisions in their minds.

Fundamentally, the survival of sources is about writing, an elite activity, so that associations with a distinct popular culture can only be considered fanciful — at least insofar as one presumes a distinct or even hostile relation. What sort of historical relation can we find between "popular" & elite music? Moreover, can we trace art- or entertainment-based musical priorities? Any answers must be fairly tentative, given the relative lack of information. Working backward in time somewhat to the fringe of the modern era, we know that sacred & secular music intermingled closely. Themes — even forms themselves — were freely borrowed in the Franco-Flemish era. I have immediately side-stepped some important terminological concerns, by introducing a sacred-secular juxtaposition. We have no real reason to believe that the polyphonic courtly chanson was related to what we would recognize as popular music today. However, this era also presents us with the survival of manuscripts (Bayeux, say) which we conclude to have represented the popular music of the time. These themes then intermingle directly in courtly secular and sacred music. As near as we can believe, and by the 1500s the survival of narrative writing becomes fairly substantial, there was no real barrier between popular & elite music at that time. The same composers were certainly involved in both sacred & secular music, and we have at least some reason to believe that prominent composers were behind some popular tunes. Of course, the hardcore democrat might continue to assert that such composers were leaching the basic tunefulness of the general populace, which remained oppressed and unable to articulate its resentment of elite culture.

More extreme views of that sort aside, the close intermingling of elite & popular in the early Renaissance does not necessarily mean that such a situation existed earlier. One might speculate wildly that the great creativity of the era was facilitated by the breaking of such barriers, just as the classical era was facilitated by the rise of the middle class. Perhaps to some degree, but what we know of earlier eras also suggests intermingling: Juxtaposition of sacred & secular themes (and even texts) in the early motet, and work in all forms by individual composers such as Machaut. The earliest secular music we know arose directly from the aristocracy, but the class distinction between troubadour & jongleur is not believed to have been reflected in a significant distinction in repertory or activity. Note, in fact, that this little historical survey directly conflates the distinction originally sought. Indeed, as far as we know, the aristocracy invented "music for entertainment." After all, they had the leisure time — the need — to be filled. In these terms, the "classical flip-flop" becomes about which class(es) could demand entertainment. In turn, it becomes about the sophistication of that entertainment. Returning to the previous fifteenth century context, it is very clear that music for art was music for entertainment and vice versa, at least for the most part. It is essentially impossible to make a distinction.

The significant component of musical life removed from the foregoing equation is sacred music, i.e. music for ritual. Before that era, however, all indications are that there was less distinction between music for entertainment and music for ritual. Speculating about prehistory, the mere act of creating a song must have been cathartic, as vocal ritual helped to tame the psychological traumas of nature. The courtly love song was created as a sort of ritual, albeit a non- or even anti-religious one. From there, we find some evidence of intellectual divergence in the Church's protestations regarding increasingly elaborate Ars Nova liturgical music. Presumably there were conservative theologians at several points in medieval history who frowned upon a new artistic license entering the domain of sacred music. Nonetheless, if nothing else, surviving protestations prove that these concerns were frequently combined, even as their differing goals were prescribed. Again returning to a fifteenth century orientation, sacred works made heavy use of secular (art) material. Ritual mixed closely with art. To return to our underlying question, given uncertainties regarding earlier eras, we cannot necessarily know if there was a divergence between art & entertainment, but nonetheless I will accept that there was not, and look for such a bifurcation in the modern era. At the very least, one can reasonably suppose that there was a bifurcation after the 1500s. The more unsteady distinction in those earlier eras was between sacred & secular music. One might even hypothesize that ritual music was the basic stuff of lower-class music-making before the arrival of secular literature, seeing as it was intended to provide protection from the hazards of the world. Communion was a real need. From this point of extreme historical uncertainty on our part, there are various points at which sacred & secular music-making seem more or less close — a cyclical pattern which maintained after the 1500s as well, with differing religious or artistic movements sometimes increasing or decreasing that distance.

Today we cannot necessarily separate art and religious music. For the most part, though, we can separate them from entertainment, at least as I have contrasted aesthetic & entertainment paradigms. Jumping ahead from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, we can again observe clearly that music for art & music for entertainment operated in the same space, indeed were basically interchangeable. So the bifurcation we seek did not occur until the establishment of the composer as supreme alongside the distinct popular markets of the nineteenth century, and was not consummated until the unprecedented technological revolution of the twentieth. With it, we see bifurcations of complexity, masterpieces, and then the dissolution of a mainstream reference. In some circles, it would be easy to state that any bifurcation was the self-indulgent fantasy of self-proclaimed artists. Note, however, that popular culture also became overtly hostile toward not only contemporary classical artists, but classical art per se. The bifurcation was mutual. Rhetoric of "entertainment" became associated with the mass market, and we came to have music created for completely different audiences.

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Todd M. McComb