Thursday, November 1, 2012

What are the Real Fetish Objects?

About a week ago I was attacking Andrew Ross for what I called “an unfair attempt to conflate musicology … and music criticism.” Using Theodor W. Adorno’s “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” as a point of departure, I suggested that I was putting the fetish of a newly discovered Beethoven manuscript in opposition to Ross fetishizing the performance of “new works by living composers.” Shortly after writing that, I made one of my rare treks across San Francisco Bay in order to see the first revival performance of Einstein on the Beach at the University of California at Berkeley. I discovered that fetishes were still on my mind as I wrote my “examination” of this performance for

However, Adorno was interested not only in fetishization but also in that “regression of listening.” His point was that consumerist preoccupation with fetish status may cloud our capacity to perceive the object itself. He illustrates this with a very caustic (and, I suspect, highly accurate) sentence:
The consumer is really worshipping the money that he himself has paid for the ticket to the Toscanini concert.
Sitting there among the audience in Zellerbach Hall, I felt surrounded by such consumers, wondering if even one of them either knew or cared about what was going on up on stage or in the orchestra pit. I realize that sounds more than a little self-serving; but close inspection of a sample of those faces let me to hypothesize that most, if not all, of those folks were there to make a fetish out of the ticket on which the name Einstein on the Beach had been printed. This was not about the power of art to enlighten but about the power of possession to gratify.

Adorno’s words were particularly ironic because I have been using my national site to examine the recently reissued CD box Arturo Toscanini: The Complete RCA Collection. The amount of time I have put into this project (covering the individual recordings on the basis of a system of seven categories) should provide sufficient evidence that my attitude towards Toscanini is far more positive than Adorno’s. This is not to say that I passionately approve of every recording in the collection, but I suspect the energy behind some of my highly positive remarks would be strong enough to set Adorno spinning in his grave.

My point is that one should be able to write about Toscanini without turning either him, or any of the CDs themselves, into a fetish object. The good news is that I have already negotiated that risk with two other conductors about whom I have been far more enthusiastic, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Sergiu Celibidache, whom I have “examined” through both recent CD releases and a collection of DVDs. The good news is that any of these material objects is far easier to come by than a ticket for Einstein on the Beach; and I would like to believe that ease of access serves to facilitate our directing attention to the content presented by the object, rather than on the object itself!

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