Producing Culture, Provoking Empathy

I am continuing to puzzle over the intuitive leap I made the other day to “There is no transcendence, only empathy.” If you haven’t read the post about that, you probably should do so before you read what follows. Today I’m writing about other ways of trying to understand creative work. For better or worse, much of this post is going to be in an academic mode, though I’ll do my best to clarify any jargon. Ready? Here we go.

There’s a game academics play that involves reducing your dissertation to a single sentence. Mine (which you can find a link to in the “works” tab) boils down to “music is a product of its time.” This is a pretty common conclusion for musicologists to reach. It is also, on its face, facile. How could something not be a product of its time? Is it instead something from the future, accidentally abandoned by time travelers? Seriously.

I find, though, that a lot of nonacademics need reminders of this common sense point. People—westerners, anyway—have a tendency to buy wholesale into both Romantic mythologies of music and the ancient Classical ideas of music of the spheres and universal harmony. This pushes music, especially “classical” music (stuff written for the concert hall) into a transcendental space, and leads to utter nonsense like “music is a universal language.” (Uuuuuuugh.) I listened to somebody at a workshop (for English teachers) expound enthusiastically on this idea as he explained how he was learning about jazz. (Aside: music is not a language. The semiotics of music are hella messy and culturally constrained. Philosophers who write about music frequently have unhealthy fixations on the European canon and zero understanding of any kind of nonwestern music.)

Music is cultural production. It is made by people, mostly for people. As cultural production, it is limited by cultural constraints. That doesn’t mean innovation is impossible, only that it is limited. You can do crazy things from inside cultural context! Late Beethoven (especially the quartets), for example, is a marvelous cul-de-sac of musical geometries that have only tenuous connections to what surrounded them. Even rebellion takes its form from what it rebels against.

Anyway. My idea about empathy as a kind of transcendence sidesteps the question of cultural production. Fundamentally, “there is no transcendence, only empathy” occupies a shaky conceptual space that is simultaneously about audience response and about the ontology (philosophy of existence) of art. The transcendence-empathy theory also involves epistemology (philosophy of knowledge), because it suggests something about how art functions to encode and convey understanding. Culture doesn’t come into it until you get several layers in.

I leaned a lot, in my dissertation, on the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu wrote about culture and power;  the idea of “cultural capital” derives from his work. (Cultural capital is the set of knowledge and skills that marks one as an elite without necessarily involving material power. As an academic with a broad liberal arts education, I have a ton of cultural capital despite what I get paid as a high school teacher.) Bourdieu writes about “field” and “habitus.” Field is the available conceptual space. The field of cultural production, for example, includes everything from romance novels to symphonies. (There are axes to the field, usually, but they’re not mandatory to understanding the concept.) The field of power, which Bourdieu (and I) spend a lot of time on, is a way of understanding who has power and who doesn’t. Habitus is the way individuals navigate the field.

auditorium chairs comfortable concert

You have some expectations about what you do in a place like this. That’s the field at work. [Photo by Pixabay on]

Bourdieu’s theory doesn’t touch empathy or anything about the semiotics of art…at least beyond representing spaces in the cultural field and field of power. By Bourdieu’s theory, concert hall music (“classical”) occupies a space in the field closely aligned to the field of power. Think about the stereotypical image of a classical concert: musicians in tuxedos and black gowns, wealthy older people dressed up for a night out. There’s a lot of stereotyping in that image, but there are reasons it exists. It’s important to understand that music’s place in the field changes over history. Opera, which carries the same associations as classical instrumental music, began as a display of aristocratic wealth and became popular entertainment before gradually resuming its place as music for the elite.

So where does empathy fit into that? Let’s go back to the specific works I mentioned—particularly the Vincent Valdez paintings. Like most artists, Valdez occupies many different spaces in the field depending on how we’re looking at it—as a Latino from San Antonio, as an art school graduate, as a recipient of grants and awards. I saw his work in a museum on the campus of a state university, which has its own place in the field and lends a certain institutional credibility. By working in a “prestigious” medium (painting) and having that work displayed in an institution with authority (the Blanton), Valdez occupies a space in the artistic field that aligns to a significant degree with the field of power. None of that takes away his experiences navigating the broader field of power as a human being.

This is how we fit the one thing into the other. Art as a vehicle for empathy rather than transcendence can bridge distances in the field of power, even if the work as a cultural object is limited to a specific spot in the field (concretely as the museum, abstractly as a work in a medium with high cultural weight). Conceiving of art as cultural production doesn’t automatically preclude the intuition that I had at the museum. I can look at Valdez’s work and experience it empathetically despite the raft of privileges that go with standing in an art museum on a Wednesday afternoon.

I’m still not convinced that “There is no transcendence, only empathy,” entirely holds together. Experiencing art empathetically is great, but ignores many of the other elements of cultural production that affect the work, the creator, and the audience. The paintings that provoke an empathetic response in me won’t do the same for everybody else, because my experience is mediated by all the things I bring into a museum with me. The harder we push to universalize, the more the holes in the idea show.

Can something be true without being universal? Probably! Next post in this series is going to come at the question of empathy and transcendence from the other side, focusing on where our western idea of transcendental art comes from.



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