ART AND DEMOCRACY
As an emissary from America to Europe, then from Europe to America, and finally between Americas; as a mediator between low culture and high society, and then between high culture and “low” society; as a shuttler between culture and commerce; and as a perpetual peripatetic whose selfhood was always defined by some sort of otherness, Gottschalk led an emblematically liminal existence—an existence on the borders—that defined a particularly “American” moment in the history of European music. It was a moment of confrontation that presaged the hardening of categories and the closing of borders.
The United States, the exemplary creation of Enlightened universalist politics, posed a perpetual threat to the European status quo. What it threatened was the security of traditional hierarchy. The American experience, which began with a revolution, was viewed in Europe as an experiment in social leveling, hardly less ominous than the revolutionary movements that were gathering force seemingly everywhere on the European continent between 1830 and 1848. Backlash against Americanism—defined in terms of commercialism, mechanical technology, and indifference if not sheer hostility to quality or excellence in matters of culture and conduct—was already well advanced by the time the young Gottschalk sailed for Europe in 1842. Pierre Zimmermann, the head of the piano department at the Paris Consevatoire, would not even allow an American boy to audition (even one who spoke perfect French and had been trained at home by Frenchmen), because “America produces steam engines, not musicians.”40 Instead Gottschalk studied in Paris with the German-born Charles Hallé, Chopin's friend.
The democratic, nonhierarchical spirit of nineteenth-century America, however partial or limited (in view of the simultaneous existence, until 1865, of Negro slavery, to pick only the most obvious contradiction), has been looked upon by some American cultural historians as having fostered a kind of populist golden age of art. Gottschalk's successful if overly strenuous career as an American public entertainer between 1853 and 1865, and his later activity as a grandiose musical impresario in Latin America, might seem to support the historian Lawrence Levine's contention that “in the nineteenth century, especially in the first half, Americans, in addition to whatever specific cultures they were part of, shared a public culture less hierarchically organized, less fragmented into relatively rigid adjectival boxes [i.e., “high” vs. “low”] than their descendants [i.e., we] were to experience a century later,”41 and that the loss of this sense of a shared heterogeneous popular culture, including the portion later defined and fenced off as “high,” was a grievous one for the subsequent development of art in America, and even throughout the world.
There is truth in this view, and we will explore it. It is most immediately demonstrated in the opposition Gottschalk faced from fastidious critics in America such as John Sullivan Dwight (1813–93), inevitably a Bostonian, who was an early advocate of what Levine calls “fragmentation,”42 and who deplored Gottschalk's popularizing and Americanizing efforts. But it is a one-sided view. Gottschalk, and other American artists, had their social troubles in America, too, owing not to their being Americans, but to their being artists. The place of charismatic individuals in a society that puts a social and political premium on ordinariness or conformity can be precarious, as Gottschalk's eventual fate bore out.
The morals charge and the attendant scandal that led to his exile from America reflected the social stigma and suspicion that attached to artists in American society. Indeed, the stigma and suspicion have lasted into our own time, as witness the perpetual difficulties encountered in establishing and administering government art patronage in America. Recall, for example, the persistent efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to dismantle the federal government's National Endowment for the Arts, and the moral vilification some American artists have personally suffered in consequence of those efforts at the hands of politicians who saw an electoral advantage in persecuting them.
Here European attitudes can be shown to differ considerably, in the direction of tolerance. Both Liszt and Chopin, as we already know, lived openly with women to whom they were not married (and who were married, or had been married, to others), and suffered little or no social stigma in consequence. In the case of Liszt, his reputation as a womanizer was in fact a distinct career advantage. Chopin and George Sand were once notoriously refused accommodations in Majorca, it is true. The reason, however, was not their depraved liaison, but rather Chopin's manifestly poor health.
(40) Gottschalk to his mother, undated fragment, ca. 1850; quoted in S. Frederick Starr, Bamboula: The Life and Times of Louis Moreau Gottschalk (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 50.
(41) Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 9.
(42) Levine, Highrow/Lowbrow, p. 8.
- Citation (MLA):
- Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 26 Sep. 2016. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007013.xml>.
- Citation (APA):
- Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Self and Other. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 26 Sep. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007013.xml
- Citation (Chicago):
- Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 26 Sep. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007013.xml