Sunday, February 5, 2012

Max Horkheimer Meets Bon Iver

In Part II: The World In Turmoil (Reading #25), Max Horkheimer asserts the following: "What today is called popular entertainment is actually demands, evoked, manipulated and by implication deteriorated by the cultural industries. It has little to do with art, least of all where it pretends to be such" (p. 164).

I found this reading to be rather curious in its parallels to an article that was posted on Yahoo this weekend about the "underground" (slash everyone's favorite) Indie band, Bon Iver. (

In it, frontman, Justin Vernon, basically states that he flipped the bird and gave a big "F you" to this year's Grammy producers when they wanted to pair the group with a more mainstream artist for a live performance during "music's biggest night." Similar to Horkheimer's critique of the movie industry's big machine, moneymaking tactics, Bon Iver was exposed to the politics of popular music and fitting in with the "common judgment" (p. 158) as to who is the best of the present.

While it's inevitable and great (biased fan) for the band become more recognizable with its continued success (they were even on SNL this weekend), it's nice to see a group of artists sticking to their roots as Horkheimer critiques. "Individuality, the true factor in artistic creation and judgment, consists not in idiosyncrasies and crotchets, but in the power to withstand the plastic surgery of the prevailing economic system which carves all men to one pattern" (p. 158).

The Yahoo article concludes with an interesting question, however, that rivals Horkheimer's criticism's of mass societal following. Does this "stick it to the man" mantra really do justice to a work of art, or does it merely foster the elitist/commoner environment of which we can't seem to escape?

1 comment:

  1. VERY good post! As I was reading through Horkheimer's writing, I picked up on the distinct bitterness that so often tinges music critics' columns. I came away with a cranky feeling myself; who is this guy to tell us what is art and what isn't?

    But after reading you post, it got me thinking: Bon Iver (an artist whom my husband listens to almost religiously...I haven't quite acquired a taste for his style yet) is a great example of a truly individual artist. When I was reading the selection from the book, all I could think about was Bjork, and that seemed a bit too far out for me. At least I can understand what Bon Iver is saying...most of the time.

    I understand now, when put together with Luke's comment in class last week about how Lady Gaga went from original to a music industry Stepford wife, what popular art (in this case, music) can do to a culture. Indeed, I can't tell you how many times I've complained about how everything Katy Perry puts out sounds the same, or about how now so many female pop artists are dressing a la Lady Gaga because, I don't know, wearing meat dresses is "in" now.

    You can usually fit people into defined roles or segments, a sentiment stated by Horkheimer himself in the reading, but with Bon Iver, those dividing lines get a little fuzzier. He's not so easy to categorize. Nothing about him (his music, his clothing, his behavior, his overall image) really fits into where the industry (the "prevailing economic system") would want to put him. I think that the inability to categorize him or cajole him into performing for popular artists at the Grammys is what makes him an original artist.

    You're right; it's so refreshing to see someone who isn't going the way of Top 40 or going the opposite direction to the overused "hipster" music category.