Don't You Know? Music Doesn't Need Experts Music Doesn't Need Experts
By: Oscar Muñoz

I. The useless expert

The possibility of independent thought is discouraged so naturally these days that it no longer even surprises us. Obviously, to think for oneself is always to think based on what others have thought -- we inherit language -- but the final result of any specific combination of words is always as unique as the personality that formulates it. Unique combinations are, however, precisely that aspect of thought which is most commonly discouraged and subsumed under one of very few ideological patterns. On the basis of certain norms of limitation, condemnation or approbation, we have sterilized our selves while at the same time achieving axiomatic uniformity. In order to guarantee the uniformity of our values we have created, as has been the case throughout a long and dark tradition, the figure of the expert. The expert thinks for us.

Things have gotten so bad, that we do not permit ourselves independence of thought even when it comes to aesthetic concerns. The composer Arnold Shoenberg offers a paradigmatic example. Schoenberg (in Criteria for the Evaluation of New Music) speaks of popular music as well as of something else he calls "higher" music, which, supposedly, can be properly evaluated and comprehended only by an expert. But in order to understand and appreciate Schoenberg's music for experts, it turns out that not just any expert will do. Schoenberg's expert must be highly competent. Competence of this rank and order is a nihilistic absurdity.

Take his Serenade opus 24 for instance. This piece is for seven instruments and is sung by a Bass voice which in one movement sings one of Petrarch's sonnets translated into German. Either we do not need experts or, in order to understand this piece with "high competence" we will require the following regiment of experts: seven instrumental experts (each of the piece's seven instruments is different) who can explain to us the excellence and clumsiness of both individual and collective interpretations; another expert in voice who will do the same for the singing; another expert in Renaissance poetry who, coincidentally, must also be an expert in the translation of ancient Italian into modern German and hence be capable of unearthing the entire universe of possible meanings of the poem; a musicologist capable of analyzing the numerical system and formalism of the composer; an historian of music who will know how to contextualize the piece for us in terms of a certain school of music or perhaps with respect to the music composed by other muicians at around Schoenberg's time; a sociologist of the arts who will bring to light the social undercurrents of the work; a physicist who can explain how and why the sound waves produced by this piece sound the way they do and not some other way; a neurobiologist to clarify for us the neural connections that music in general, and this piece in particular, stimulates in our brains; a psychoanalyst to help us understand the subconscious relations that induced Schoenberg to select Petrarch's sonnet as opposed to one written by Blake, and who, while we have him at our disposal, might as well watch over our own sanity and make sure we do not lose it in the midst of so many learned, scholarly Lords. Schoenberg demands a super-expert. The existence of such a person is as improbable as it is unnecessary.

Experts do not approve of art as does the ordinary person. This difference is explained by the divergence of interest among the differnt sectors of the population. Diversity of interest results from education and professionalization; it is determined by the use people make of their education. To priviledge one level of comprehension over another is a matter of personal or professional preference and this belies intellectual prejudices more than it exposes the supposed "essence" of the work in question. The expert is a professional of education and insofar as he represents a form of social authority: he must elaborate systems and structures in addition to defending and consolidating them in the face of other, newer, structures. Of course the expert who has discovered his principles basically through intuition and his own reflection will tend to be less tyrannical and more receptive to adverse opinion than an expert whose principles have been adopted from some other expert, as if in a process of cult worship rather than in a critical fashion.

When experts celebrate the sublime, the pure, the ideal, the serious, the occult, the high, the Art that has been betrayed, degraded and vulgarized by garbage art, lite art, popular art, low art they are either ingenuously or maliciously forgetting the relations of domination that underlie so-called high art.

II. The inertia of expert systems

The figure of the expert favors acritical models of education. Facts and deductions, this is the stuff that expert knowledge is made of. In his standardized professional milieu, the expert is no more and no less than the sum total of his standardized facts, his standardized deductions and the speed with which he proves capable of putting these to specific uses. Standardized testing, such as that practiced by Educational Testing Services of Princeton, New Jersey, measures individual aptitude for expertise. ETS testing, tests for people's ability to speak the standard language of standardized knowledge.

The cumulative character of experience, as much artistic as scientific or political as religious, is such that no individual, given the short span of his life and the limits of his experience, can possibly master the immense inherited forces of culture. But when experts speak, they speak as though they did control this vast, age old, source of power. This is because when experts speak they do not speak from experience, but as institutional talking heads. The mechanical nature of expert knowledge tends to integrate all new information into typical structures or "expert systems". Expert systems substitute life for abstract, mathematical simulacrum. Something like test scores.

Expert systems are languages. And like all languages, they obey certain rules of grammar. Standardized testing tests gramatical knowledge and its application. It tests for efficiency only and always, regardless of the field of expertise, in the same fashion. Consequently, with a different vocablary, doctors speak like the President of our government, the President speaks like a priest, the priest speaks like a philosopher, the philosopher speaks like a mathematician, the mathematician speaks like an artist, the artist speaks like a journalist, the newspaper man speaks like a lawyer and the lawyer speaks like a doctor: all of them united by a delerious methodological unity that holds no interesting promise for our future.

III. The impersonal authoritarianism of the expert

Experts are always confronting us with depersonalized theoretical frameworks to which we must adjust our own experience, regardless of our personal interests or of our existential values. Nevertheless, some people will insist, the knowledge of experts enriches our own experience insofar as the breadth of their perspectives permits us to understand the intricacies of reality with greater depth. The issue, however, is whether the vital experience of others ought to direct our lives. What needs to be clarified is whether the philosopher, the journalist, the politicain, the scientist, the artist, the priest or any other type of expert -- insofar as experts are the authoritative heads of our society -- does actually have some right or claim over my own beliefs that is not based in violence. With Juan Ramcan freely say: "Who knows more than I do, who, what man or god, can, has been able or will be able to tell me what my life is and what my death is, and what they are not? If there be anyone who knows it, I know it more than he, and if there be anyone who does not know it, I know it less than he." (Espacio). Obviously, insofar as I have been educated within a specific community, this community's experts have in their power the keys to the general configuration of my own existence, but they do not hold the keys to understanding or knowing what my own experience amounts to. It is on the basis of my experience as such that I have developed my beliefs.

The impersonal authoritarianism of the expert leads either to making converts of the profane or to the oppression and immobility of the profane. In either case the end result is castration, a castraton that impoverishes communication and thought. Rejecting the criteria of the experts does not suppose that, because each individual is the "expert" on his own experience, we all become monads closed off the one from the other. Experience is not a caprice. By shutting the door on the expert, you do not shut the door on friendship and communication. You shut it on boredom.

The repetitive musicality of uniform beliefs annihilates social vitality. John Stuart Mill opportunely emphasized this point: "Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral? Among them we may occasionally see some man of deep conscientiousness and subtle and refined understanding, who spends a life in sophisticating with an intellect he cannot silence, and exhausts the resources of ingenuity in attempting to reconcile the promptings of his conscience and reason with orthodoxy, which yet he does not, perhaps, to the end succeed in doing.(On Liberty). Nothing can be disparaged unless we are willing to take the risk of leaving out something which later may turn out to be indispensable. The gretest folly can be a brilliant intuition whose repercussions can only be glimpsed in the present. The mechanical factory of experts tends to crystalize thought into rigid social structures that do not adapt well to the fluid character of life, nor to the sudden appearance of new frameworks of experience that require flexibility in the face of maladjustment and destruction.

Music -- and music is any movement in our inteligence and sensibility -- does not need experts. Flowers don't either. And for similar reasons.