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High and Low: Murakami and Cultural Cross-Sections

Updated: Aug 19, 2020

“I don’t think of it as straddling. I think of it as changing the line. What I’ve been talking about for years is how in Japan, that line is less defined. Both by the culture and by the post-War economic situation. Japanese people accept that art and commerce will be blended; and in fact, they are surprised by the rigid and pretentious Western hierarchy of “high art”. In the West, it certainly is dangerous to blend the two because people will throw all sorts of stones. But that’s okay – I’m ready with my hard hat.”

Takashi Murakami

The West is pretty rigid. But to an extent, it has to be.

The line used to be more dotted, but it was the unruly explosion of different cultures in the 20th century that has upset the clear, content, linear progression that Western music has tried to preserve. History should mean that lines get eroded and sanded down, but in reality, they splinter, fracture, and branch out further.

Choosing an arbitrary starting point, we can trace these lines, and work out where we are now. 18th Century Italy was a simpler time. Whereas now we have musics, then we had music, and that music was opera. Opera was a social stencil, a template for how society structured itself. You had, on one side, OPERA SERIE, (lofty art for lofty people), and on the other, OPERA BUFFA, (music about everyday people, for everyday people). High, meet low.

As music progressed and time passed, these distinctions remained. Early 20th Century opera composer Richard Strauss would often toe the line, swapping avant-garde elements for tonally satisfying crowd-pleasers to suit his audience (and his checkbook). You still had the culturally elite looking down scornfully at financially successful artless sellouts - Schoenberg once told Ernst Krenek that he wrote music for whores - but these debates all really remained within the concert hall. That is, until the the 1910s.

Now it all gets a bit blurred. And things get a bit less white (gasp). You have jazz and all its social problems (a genre NOT made for the concert hall!?), and then it just gets even worse. What do we do with blues! Soul! Rock! And worst of all, pop?!! That wonderfully simple, culturally oblivious European linear progression from Baroque to Classical to Romantic to Modernism gets stopped in its tracks. The umbilical cord is cut. Once enemies, the culturally elite and the classically decadent, the serie and the buffa, now have to realign as defenders of the concert hall against an even bigger threat, the threat of non-Western musics.

And here you get an even bigger rise in musical snobbishness. I mean, you have to really. As these other people get paid to make music for people to sing and dance to, the concert hall crusaders have to make music people fear and respect, and for little financial reward. These battle lines still remain in place today. One turtleneck-clad composer, Joshua Fineberg, has even created an equation to make this easier to understand. In his (genuinely un-ironic terms): "The success of a composer can be measured by taking the inverse of the composer’s market value: the more negative the market value, the more important the composer".

The musical genre that Japanese pop artist Murakami has chosen to collaborate with, hip-hop, confuses these lines even further. Born out of social oppression in the 1970s, hip-hop was a counter-cultural and fundamentally avant-garde artistic movement. Its greatest paradox though, is that it unashamedly begs for the most basic form of capitalism. It was, in its early days, antagonistic towards mainstream media, whilst demanding mainstream acceptance. And now its calls have been answered, as hip-hop has become the most listened-to genre in the world. It can no longer really be considered an avant-garde movement.

The difficult truth is that all these genres, whatever their initial conception, contain some of these lines within them. They may fade, but wrinkles still remain. High and low have changed their definitions so frequently in the past 300 years for the sake of social defense that there aren't really lines anymore, at least not straight ones. There are only circles that keep on turning, their poles always equally far apart, no matter what position we are in its track.

Murakami needs more than a hard hat. It's a full on war out there.


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