Tango as culture: anthropology or criticism?

Ethnomusicology is the study of music from the cultural and social aspects of the people who make it. … It is often defined as the anthropology or ethnography of music, or as musical anthropology. (Wikipedia)


When a student starts taking tango classes the discourse of tango is established by the way the teacher and others talk about the genre. Lets for the moment ignore the commercial aspects of this discourse (will return to that shortly) and assume that the student manages to ignore all the talk about workshops, privates, and trips to Buenos Aires, and tries to break through all of that to try to get a deeper understanding of tango, the dance, the music and the culture. What they will inevitably arrive at is information that can broadly be called ‘anthropological’. He or she will find that tango is a culture confined to a specific area (Río de la Plata), practiced by its inhabitants, with music that is specific to that area and these people. To get an in-depth knowledge of tango one needs to be a sort of anthropologist, namely, to learn about the music and culture of these people who inhabit this place.

In characterising this framing as anthropological I am being generous and somewhat disingenuous because it is really touristic, or an impoverished sort of anthropology. A real scientific anthropology would utilise sophisticated comparative methods, eg., it would demand knowledge of music theory, and would compare this culture to other cultures to draw objective conclusions. What the tango student is faced with instead is a picture of a culture that is sui generis, that on the standard narrative, emerged out of a meeting of European and African cultures around the middle of the 19th century, that it is a popular culture, meaning not a culture of the elites but rather of the common people, and that produced a unified cultural idiom that we recognise as uniquely Argentinian.

We notice that this narrative creates a mystique about the form implied in the image of the Argentine people as having a natural talent to elicit emotional responses that the touristic consumers seek to acquire. It renders tango foreign, other, and exotic. It also gives those who are native to the form a special insider knowledge that requires no justification, proof, evidence or reasoning, on the assumption that cultural practices require no external justification: it’s just what people do. It is, as Wittgenstein put it, a ‘form of life’.

The consequences for the anthropological framing for tango pedagogy are devastating. In order to come to participate in the form one needs to ‘go native’, ideally by way of tourism and lengthy stays in Buenos Aires. Tango teaching and learning consists in finding out ‘what people in Buenos Aires do’. In terms of music, it consists in learning the names of the orchestras, their recordings, and something about the history of the Golden Era.

The anthropological approach to tango education asks the student to emulate a cultural group without asking for reasons. However, since there is no real justification given or necessary this framing leads naturally to the idea that tango ‘evolves’, and so there is no particular reason to want to emulate this group beyond one’s consumer preference. Thus, this framing leads naturally to the idea that just as Argentinians created their local tango culture, foreigners can take those aspects of tango that suit them and create their own ‘nuevo’ or ‘transgressive’, or ‘alternative’ or ‘whatever you wish to call it’ tango. The anthropological framing gives traditionalists no ground to be critical of the new developments if they already accepted that their form of tango is sui generis, specific to a place and people, self-justifying and therefore a mere preference.

An anthropological framing is descriptive without being in any way prescriptive. Without some sort of a norm or standard that is exernal to the culture it is not clear how we are supposed to get from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’. There is no basis any sort of criticism. As a result tango traditionalists, while they reject non-traditional forms of tango, have really no way to argue against them. One wants to say that the traditional tango practice is more authentic, but why should one prefer authenticity in a postmodern world which rejects such notions. Moreover, there are real barriers to acquiring the authentic thing in terms of cost, finding teachers, getting information, etc. If it’s not available or costly why not settle for what’s available and affordable?

Of couse, the natives do not see the matter in that way. They feel that there are values in tango that are not merely utilitarian, and so would reject that one could replace them with a cheaper substitute. But so long as they are in the anthropological frame those values are no different than the values of any other cultural group: they represet the sentimental attachments of a group of people. So unless one has some other reasons for wanting to assimilate to that group this approach cannot really have any wider appeal.

To have an appeal that is wider and more universal what is necessary is not anthropology but art criticism. When we say that something is a work of art we don’t mean that it is art of a particular cultural group. Art is assumed to have more universal appeal and, given that, the art critic’s job is to find a language of expressing these universal values, and thereby to also provide reasons for preferring some works over others. The art critic must find a language that identifies features that characterise good art, and provide for standards of good taste.

The idea that tango is a ‘popular’ form seems to invite an anthropological rather than a critical frame, but that does not necessarily follow. Jazz is a popular form and yet it is subject to cultural criticism no less than classical music. Theolonius Monk is considered to art, whereas Kenny G is generally accepted at kitsch. Cultural critics even address pop, and try to provide reasons why Elvis Presley might be better than Genesis.

Like ethnomusicologists (who are a type of anthropologist) critics use comparative methods, must know something about music theory, and the history of music. Both, ethnomusicologists and critics differ from the natives in that they try to draw more general conclusions about the cultural practices, but they differ in that the goals are descriptive for the one group, and prescriptive for the other. Criticism does require an adequate description, so that disagreement about description, ie., about the facts, will make a difference to the critique, but in the case of criticism there is a normative component, that is, there is the assumption that things are to be preferred on other than merely personal, subjective or consumption preferences.

To the contrary, art criticism assumes that art ought to stand outside of the sphere of mere utilitarian or consumer values, and that it has a moral dimension. That is why the distinction between art and kitsch is so central to criticism. This distinction does not touch objects that are cultural artefacts of some group because the members of the group attach an authentic significance to these objects. However, some writers (Adorno?) have suggested that when these artefacts become kitsch as soon as they are purchased by a tourist who does not attach that significance to these objects and for whom they are mere decorative trinkets. The question is whether this is not precisely what happens to tango when it becomes a mere object of touristic experience.

A major reason for the anthropological/touristic approach to the dissemination of tango has to do with the consumers themselves. Earlier generations have grown up with an intuitive understanding of the difference between real and fake, art and kitsch. With modernity, however, we have the academic ‘postmodern’ attack on the idea of authentic art. Modernism in art, music and architecture relentlessly dethrones and debunks all traditional notions of good taste and renders everything equal and relative, a matter of personal preference and only worthy of attention if it is interesting or better, transgressive. Modernist artists such as Andy Warhol elevated consumer products to the status of high art, and the ordinary person can no longer rely on art criticism for guidance on good or bad taste, being thrown onto the wasteland of loud consumerist promotion.

Given the loss of the skill of cultural criticism, the learner is thrown rudderless on the ethno dance/music market to figure things out for themselves. They are now supposed to know what they prefer without being told what they ought to prefer. Since the ordinary person can’t bear such a heavy burden they simply follow the guidance of the loudest marketers and the crowd. Contrary to what one might expect, the contemporary tango is a case study in unscrupulous, vapid consumerism and crowd behaviour. It is truly hard to believe that people capable of discriminating judgement could respond positively to the dressed up kitsch promoted on tango websites and Facebook pages.

What is the alternative to the anthropological, postmodern and consumerist paradigm that is currently in power? The conservative view of art, music and culture, at least the one that we have inherited from romanticism, is that culture is the realm of authentic values that transcend ordinary utilitarian or merely hedonistic values. Writers on culture have recognised for a long time that all traditional societies distinguish between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’ values. In European culture, art has come to occupy the place of the sacred, and the aesthetic experience of the art object is not regarded as having a mere utilitarian significance. Art, including painting, music, dance and ritual, is the domain of the sacred and as such has a moral significance. Bad art is not merely unpleasant, but rather, pleasant or not, it is morally bad. Listening to bad music and surrounding yourself with kitsch art makes one poorer as a person. It debases rather than elevates because it is a source of easy satisfaction that does not demand effort or personal sacrifice. It is a source of easy satisfactions but as such is a source of inauthentic, fake emotions.

Art criticism is difficult because it is not easy to identify why certain art is better than other, or what makes it morally elevating or debasing. People were once able to follow their gut instinct, and normal people still are highly suspicious of the so-called ‘art’ that occupies modern art galleries, and feel uneasy about the ‘gifts’ of modernist architecture. They still prefer to travel see classical architecture although some are still drawn to the modernist curiosities, although it is questionable that they would choose to spend much time in them or live near them once they have taken the obligatory snapshots. In the same sense the consumer tango that we are served nowadays is largely a disposable product, a way to spend an evening in a foreign city.

An alternative to the anthropological/touristic framing is a view of how dancing makes us better and brings us closer to others. Traditionally dances have had a moral and truly social dimension in bringing people together. This more authentically moral, social and elevating aspect has been supplanted with ideas about exoticism, authentic cultures, tourism, fashion and hedonism that are typical of kitsch dances like LA Style Salsa, Bachata or Zouk. Anthropology and tourism have inadvertently directed tango into a seedy, degraded neighbourhood on the false assumption that it has only the barest connection to European culture and is the product of the latin brothel. Sadly that is a framing and a narrative that appeals to people already predisposed to be drawn to easy ‘transgressive’ touristic experiences.