1. Postmodernism and “the patriarchy”
I argue that contemporary tango scene is Argentine tango taken out of its original historical context of the development of European culture, and especially European music. This culture is characterised by a specific set of cultural values, beliefs and attitudes, such as sociality and beauty. These values have been shed, debunked and deconstructed since mid-20th century as markers of reaction, conservatism, oppression, kitsch, patriarchy, etc.
As a result these values no longer function to provide a basis of criticism and justification for cultural practices in the context of the new postmodern world characterised by individualism, subjectivism, relativism and progressivism. Progressive postmodernism aims to undermine the priority and legitimacy of any basic, foundational values that characterise Western culture and views them as inherently oppressive. They are viewed as merely the preferences of a particular “privileged” group, typically the “dead white males” which happened to be dominant. As such they have no more legitimacy than the cultures of “living marginalised/oppressed peoples”.
The problem for tango is that the Western or European cultural canon functioned as a bulwark against he onslaught of the market, consumerism and materialism. In the West culture has acquired the status of an “autonomous realm” that is beyond mere utility, a realm of ultimate, authentic or final values or ends that gives respite from the market. By deligitimizing European culture as a realm of authentic values postmodernism succeeds to blur the line between culture and the market, between ultimate and utilitarian values. As a result, the market intrudes into culture and takes over every realm of life. Losing the critical function of culture means that the market and herd behaviour decide the direction of commodified culture.
This new ideology of Political Correctness is channeled through progressive education in government schools and universities. It explains the wide disparity between how tango is practiced in Buenos Aires and elsewhere. The experience of tango will be proportional to the degree to which a given location is subject to the ideology of postmodernism, progressivism and political correctness. Buenos Aires itself is subject to these ideological forces and it is quite possible that the tradition will not be able to withstand the onslaught of these forces even there, and this is why it is important to understand precisely what is at stake.
2. Beauty and meaning
Postmodernism criticises and devalues beauty. It claims that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, a subjective and relative matter, and that there are not absolute judgements to be made. The waterfall is beautiful only if it arouses positive feelings in me. It then moves to the claim that since beauty is not an absolute it cannot be an ultimate value. It places all beauty in the realm of kitsch (or false feeling) unless it can be shown as a product of an immediate and hence an ‘authentic’ impulse. Authenticity is therefore removed from the realm of established art and placed in the realm of personal, individual expression, current feeling. Consequently, the postmodern approach to dancing emphasises lack of technique and emphasis on immediacy and primitive impulse and transgression.
My goal is to recover the traditional or classical view that beauty is a property of the object that is said to be beautiful. The beauty of the waterfall is a property of the waterfall itself and is independent of my experience of it. Also, beauty is not merely experienced but is discovered by way of a comparative method whereby we uncover the features that render an object beautiful or not. Finally, I hold that beauty is the realm of ultimate, authentic values that are beyond the realm of market utility and as such provide us with a foundation of aesthetic judgement that is not merely that which is useful or temporarily pleasant, and thus beyond mere fancy or impulse. Beauty liberates us not by way of “transgression” or abolishing of “the patriarchy”, but by way of transcendance to a higher realm beyond merely utilitarian values.
3. Authenticity, beauty and kitsch
The ideology of political correctness views authenticity in terms of either the spontaneous culture of a “marginalised group”, or else in terms of transgression against the norms of “the patriarchy”, which is just a slanderous code term for Western European culture. “Marginalised” cultures are viewed in opposition to the aesthetic norms of the mainstream art tradition.
Contemporary art on display in major art galleries approved by the academy in any large city rejects the beauty that has been the focus mainstream artistic tradition. It views the latter as culminating in reproducable kitsch. I agree Roger Scruton in the view that contemporary art ends up producing art objects that are “novel” and “interesting” but in the end become repetative kitsch themselves. Likewise, the interest in the spontenous culture of ‘marginalised’ groups (Hip Hop, Latin dances, etc.) cannot transcend the status of a merely touristic interest that renders these objects kitsch.
Therefore, I hold that the postmodern strategy cannot overcome the problem of kitsch. I follow Roger Scruton in the view that it is impossible to experience authentic beauty unless we take the position that some objects have the status of sacred or transcendent objects, that allow us to transcend the everyday reality, and that they are final, and not merely instrumental, and that they are vehicles for creating meaning in life. By contrast, the objects created by politically correct cultural academia as well as the market fail to provide meaning and leave us empty and dissatisfied once the interest or utility has been exhausted.
4. Historical context: subjectivism and expression
The politically correct postmodernist ideology leads to an anthropological approach to social practices. Thus, writers and commentators typically either ask what a certain arbitrarily defined group of people (in this case so-called “milongueros” in Buenos Aires) do. Alternatively, they take a “phenomenological” approach, describing their experiences and feelings in learning and dancing tango.
These methodological approaches miss the fact that tango as a dance and a music has a history that is rooted in the European tradition of art that going back hundreds of years. Without understanding this history, the anthroplogy and phenomenology lacks the context necessary to provide real understanding, and renders these things as in a vacuum, sui generis, emerging out of nowhere and without any specific place in our cultural genesis. It fits in with the relativism and subjectivism but in the end leaves us confused and ungrounded.
The claim is not that the anthropological and phenomenological approaches have no place, but that they must be located in a historical context. Progressives reject the study of history on the grounds that it is merely the story of “dead white males”, and slander European history as nothing more than the story of colonialism and oppression.
Shedding a proper historical context, anthroplogy and phenomenology become relativistic.
If we consider the proper historical context of Latin music and dance generally, and tango specifically, we find that these practices have their origins in English country dances, subsequently spreading in Europe as “contradanza”, and that the specifically latin music emerged in Cuba, subsequently termed “Habanera”. This historical context can provide us with an understanding that can inform our understanding of tango music and of tango dancing as a social practice, other than as merely in terms of individual and subjective experience.
Subjectivism and relativism tend to view cultural forms as a matter of transgressive expression, that is, loss of inhibition and rebelliousness. Anthropological texts on dance and music written by progressive sociologists always emphasise these transgressive and non-conformist aspects, usually as a matter of imaginative interpretation rather than any sort of objective fact. Postmodern dance always rejects strictures of classical beauty and emphasises dance as an expressive form in the sense of “self-expression”, “transgression” or loss of inhibition of impulse.
However, if we take a historical approach and view tango as continuous with Contradanza and Habanera it is more likely that dancing is essentially a social practice rather than an individual and expressive one, in which one transcends one’s individuality. It is pretty clear that viewing tango as a self-expressive practice is incompatible with viewing it as a social one, the two tend to be in tension with each other.
Learning and dancing tango ss a matter of conforming or fitting in with the music, one’s partner and other dancers. This is quite different than learning it with attitude that it is a stimulus to “personal self-expression”. There is expression, namely, in the music. The music expresses certain feelings and emotions. When we dance we express those feelings, identifying with them. Only in this way are we able to participate in the practice together with, and not against, other people, when we share the feelings expressed in the music with the others.
6. Commodification and choreography
Undermining art as an autonomous realm opens up practices like tango to commodification. The commodified dance market requires that dance teachers package their dance product in terms of ‘pretty’ or ‘cool’ choreographed steps and patterns or routines. Dance classes are fronted by teachers who demonstrate the routine to the students who then attempt to perform it themselves.
Learning is assumed to be linear, progressing from simple steps to complex routines. At an intermediate level students progress to workshops that focus on ‘technique’, typically meaning the learning of adornments, or perhaps ‘musicality’, where they typically they will learn a pattern tailor made to a particular type of tango music. The focus on choreography and the assumption of linear progress of steps has the result that learners focus on the feet and neglect their posture, embrace and the music. These are always compromised for the sake of complex step patterns.
An alternative to this is to stick to walking and some basic patterns and focus on the embrace, posture and music. The steps, rather than being markers of mastery, are viewed as variations on walking while in the embrace, with good posture, and while listening to the music. From this perspective, set choreographed patterns are not viewed as the product itself but rather as a means towards improvised dancing whereby the steps naturally emerge out of variations on walking.