The central claim I make is that the contemporary tango scene is Argentine tango taken out of its original historical context, namely, 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 are in the process of being shed, debunked, or deconstructed since the 20th century as markers of reaction, conservatism, oppression, kitsch, patriarchy, etc. and therefore can no longer function to provide a basis of criticism and justification for cultural practices in the context of the new postmodern culture characterised by individualism, subjectivism, relativism and progressivism. Leftist or progressive postmodernism undermines the pririty or legitimacy of any basic or foundational values that characterises Western culture and views them as oppressive. They become merely the preferences of a particular group, typically ‘dead white males’, which happened to be dominant, but has no more legitimacy than the cultures of ‘living marginalised peoples’.
The Western or European cultural canon functioned as a bulwark against he onslaught of free market forces. Culture has always been considered as a realm that is beyond mere utility, a realm of ultimate values that gives respite from market forces. By deligitimizing European culture as a realm of ultimate values, postmodernism succeeds to blur the line between culture and the market, between ultimate and utilitarian values, so that 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.
These ideological developments, channelled through progressive education in government schools and universities, explain 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 and progressivism. 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.
Postmodernism questions and devalues beauty. First, it claims that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that it is 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. Then, it 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 ‘authentic’ impulse. Authenticity is therefore removed from the realm of established art and placed in the realm of personal, individual expression, current feeling. Postmodern approach to dancing emphasises lack of technique and emphasis on immediacy and primitive impulse and transgression. My claim 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. Second, 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, beauty is the realm of ultimate 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.
Today’s ideology views authenticity in terms of either the spontaneous culture of a marginal group, or else in terms of transgression against the norms of what it sees as the mainstream patriarchal Western culture. Marginal cultures are viewed as opposed to the aesthetic norms of the mainstream art tradition. Contemporary art sees the beauty of mainstream artistic tradition as culminating in reproducable kitsch. I follow Roger Scruton in the view that by doing so 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, the postmodern strategy cannot overcome the problem of kitsch. I argue, following Roger Scruton, that it is impossible to experience authentic beauty unless we take the position that some objects have the status of the sacred, that they 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 our life.
4. Historical context
The 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 academics always emphasise these transgressive and non-conformist aspects, usually as a matter of imaginative interpretation rather than objective fact. Postmodern dance moves away from the strictures of classical beauty and emphasises dance as an expressive form. 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. It is pretty clear that viewing tango as an expressive practice incompatible with viewing it as a social one, the two tend to be in tension with each other. Learning tango as a matter of conforming or fitting in with the music, one’s partner and other dancers is quite different than learning it with attitude that it is a stimulus to personal self-expression.
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 means 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.