Chou Wen-Chung

Writings by Chou

What is Happening to Music? Commodification or Creativity?

Excerpts from opening statement 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 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.

Here are some of the statements on culture and creativity:

1. The people must have ownership of their cultural legacy and resources.
2. An assessment of the cultural impact should be included in development planning.
3. Encourage creativity and innovation in all art forms founded on a thorough knowledge of one’s own heritage as well as a measured assimilation of ideas from other cultures.
4. Cultural understanding should be recognized as a prerequisite for international collaboration.

We need help. The fact is that only we, ourselves, can help us.

Let me make four proposals now:

  1. We restore the meaning of “creativity” and recognize the cultural value and personal commitment of the “Renaissance” men and women of the Renaissance Age, and of the men and women of “letters” of the Age of Enlightenment– both of European tradition; and of the Chinese wenren or “persons in the arts”– a tradition spanning a millenium and resonating throughout East Asia, such as the bunjin in Japan; and of course similar designations in many other cultures.
  2. We recognize the significance, not of “globalization” but of “worldwide heritages,” and we recognize that the future of our creativity can only be successfully built on an increasing diversity in heritage.
  3. The future is in the hands of the young, and therefore we must be resolved that our educational system be reformed to benefit from the knowledge and practice learned from more and more heritages.
  4. At least in the US, we should acknowledge the fortrightness and selflessness of those men and women who established such well-known American traditions as the New Music Edition, Composers Recordings Inc., and the American Music Center. We should also recognize that in particular the International Composers Guild (established in 1921) was the very first composer’s organization in the world. We need to emulate the spirit of those who founded these exemplary institutions.

By Chou Wen-chung

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Spiralis Music Trust

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Kimberly M. Wang, Eardog Productions, the Spiralis Music Trust and public domain.