Dear John

I like to get random mail. Here’s one just out of the post bag:

Dear Professor Hutnyk,

I’m doing a feature for the October edition of Museums Journal about live music in museums, and the fashion for getting rock and pop bands in particular to play in museums. Recent examples include Duran Duran playing at The Louvre, British Sea Power playing at the Natural History Museum, and Simian Mobile Disco playing at American Museum of Natural History. I was wondering if you might be prepared to comment for the piece?

Specifically, it seems that there is an increasing divergence between what was once considered high and low or pop culture, and that where traditionally those people who might visit museums would not listen to popular music, now it is more acceptable that their cultural palette would include both – would you agree? If so, is the cause of the divergence due to changing tastes or the power of market forces, or both, or perhaps something else entirely?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,

My reply:

Hi Patrick

I’m not sure what you mean by an ‘increasing divergence between what was once considered high and low … culture’ since the example you offer, of pop music in museums, actually suggests a convergence doesn’t it? I think that is what you probably meant – and curiously enough, this is precisely the argument I think many people intentionally miss in the work of Theodor Adorno. As I argued in Critique of Exotica (Pluto 2000), the charge against Adorno is that he is elitist, but his point is rather different I think, in that he was saying that both Beethoven and mass cultural forms were both being turned into product for the ‘culture industry’. Henceforth all culture would be produced ‘as if’ it were industrial product. We can all see this today in the repetitive blinking of signs, and brands, and branded museums; in the ways galleries like Tate, the V&A, as well as the BFI, or any number of museums market themselves; and in the ugly boosterist (new-labourite) terminologies of ‘creative industries’ that some hope will provide London with the ability to side-step economic ruin after manufacturing moved elsewhere and we spent all the spare cash on the 2012 Olympics. In this context Adorno seems to have never been more relevant. Consider what is happening at museums – the restaurant, with laminate tables and mood lighting, the ubiquitous coffee outlet (Eat Me or Costly Coffee whatever they are called) and of course the bookshop. Mind you, I miss London‘s old great bookshops (Compendium, and other Leftwing bookshops – with only Haussman’s still flying the flags) but I do think the Tate Modern bookshop is a piece of utopia. So might Adorno – he himself has become a culture industry too of course. There are several new biographies since the 100th anniversary of his birth, many of them available for sale in the ‘critical theory’ section of Tate Bookshop, and elsewhere. The Detlef Claussen one is particularly good, but I also liked the Jager one..

By the way, your example of Duran Duran is not the first but rather one in a long line that might be traced back – see the Horniman Museum for older examples (I guess all that ‘ethnic’ music started something huh – the aural in museums is often neglected when those spaces have such great resonance). Anyway, Duran Duran had the culinary wants of wild beasts – they take their name from Barbarella don’t they – so I guess they might have had a splash of Adorno on their cultural palette also.

In any case, I’m not sure I can help you for your article, but I think Teddy could. The Rottweiler is always worth a look.

all best

(Pic is Alaska – a dog at the Terriet Music Festival in Wales, duly commodified).

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