Chou Wen-chung

Excerpts from “What is Happening to Music? Commodification or Creativity?”

Opening Statement at a Symposium at the Pacific Rim Music Festival, May 2, 2005.

In the current phase of our economy, with capitalism turned “brutal” and “extreme,” as characterized by some sociologists, our economic priority leaves no room for culture or the arts.

About ten years ago, the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, concluded in his book, The Rules of Art, by making the observation that intellectuals and artists today need to emulate the “men and women of letters” of Voltaire’s time, and join internationally to resist cultural commodification.

In his book, From Dawn to Decadence, published five years ago, the American cultural historian, Jacques Barzun, argues that we are witnessing the end, not of the “European Age”, but of a global era, considering the impact of the “Europeanization of the globe.” And his reason? Once again, commodification has become such a negative force against democracy that ultimately it corrodes the society and decimates its culture. And, we should realize that the so-called “third estate” in culture, namely “journalism” and “criticism”, have been equally co-opted by now. They have ceased to function as independent entities for public information.

In short, a composer without market value is bound to be out in the cold — shut off from reality and out of communication with the public — all of which without the slightest inkling on the part of the artist or the public. That is to say, commodification creates a vacuum between the non-commodified and the public.

This then brings up the issue of “globalization.” What started out as a protective device to standardize trade practices around the world has since been transformed into a driving force for commodifying everything globally in the name of [the] free market. Those of us who worried about the appropriation of such terms as “non-western” or “world music” or began disseminating various musical heritages decades ago, never dreamed of merchandising other people’s heritages.

Six years ago, the Center for US-China Arts Exchange organized an International Leadership Conference on Conservancy and Development in Yunnan with over 90 experts from around the world and an equal number of experts from China. At the end, we issued a concluding statement called the Yunnan Initiative, for which I had the honor of serving as the principal editor for reconciling differences and wording.

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