This All-too-solid (Female) Flesh...

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Yuja WangJessica Duchen has been berating her fellow critics for getting into a swivet about concert dress. Her basic stance is: calm down and listen to the music, as that’s what matters. Which is a nice way of turning the complainers’ arguments back on them. If they object to female performers dressing in trendy and attractive clothing because classical music is supposed to be timeless and above the concerns of the flesh, then they should put their attention onto the performance instead of wittering on about mundane things like clothes.

It’s an interesting article, though, in the way it veers between a no-nonsense pragmatism on one hand and a well-developed instinct for clothes snobbery on the other. You’ve got the concert-dress as work-wear argument coming out in support of bare-footed Ott and velvet-trousered Uchida: practical and comfortable is what matters so that you can get on with the job of playing well. (Though, as Janet Radcliffe Richards pointed out in The Sceptical Feminist, if practicality really were the primary issue, you’d be as likely to wear pink crimplene as denim dungarees.)

On the other hand, you’ve got the nuanced distinctions in her discussion of orchestral dress between the stuffiness of tails, the untidiness of colours or the problem of looking like wine waiters in white dinner jackets. The precision with which she draws these distinctions is reminiscent of Kate Fox on the difference between the English middle-middle and lower-middle classes. Interestingly, all this is predicated on the assumption that an ensemble needs a uniform in the first place, which she asserts is a given, but is very much up for grabs in other types of ensemble.

She knits the two themes together nicely at the end by presenting as catty a dig as you are likely to read about a novice soloist’s sartorial misjudgements, but the criticisms are couched in terms of utility rather than taste. It’s not that the dress was strapless, it was that it needed hitching up; it’s not that the skirt was tight, it was that she needed to play the cello in it.

The basic cultural problematic that lies behind both the tensions in her own argument and the articles she comments on is that classical performers stubbornly and unreasonably insist on having bodies, when the genre’s adherents would really rather they didn’t. The distinction between serious and popular music is underpinned by deeply-embedded cultural oppositions: spirit vs flesh, eternal vs ephemeral, universal vs particular. The presentation of classical music has striven since Schopenhauer to let us encounter the Absolute by downplaying the physicality and earthliness of its performers. We may treasure their individuality, but it is an individuality of imagination, of artistic vision we are supposed to admire, not their shapely ankles. It’s really not about sex. Oh no.

(That’s why instrumental music is seen as a higher art than opera, of course. It can be hard to deny the particular and fully-embodied nature of an art form when you have people dressed up in costumes singing words in stories that are patently about love and betrayal and the like. Though it does sound more spiritual on LP.)

So of course popular musicians can go around flaunting everything; they’re supposed to, indeed. And of course the dresses that Yuja Wang has been criticised for are really very tame in their degree of flaunticity compared to her pop-music contemporaries. (And they’re sensible enough too: she can walk in them, she can play in them, and she can bow without her boobs falling out – that’s all I want from a concert dress.) But they still break the categories: spiritual music is getting associated with a performer appearing ostentatiously in the flesh.

And when the spirit/flesh dichotomy starts to get played out on women’s bodies, there is a quite specific discourse that immediately gets invoked: good girl/bad girl, virgin/whore, Mary/Eve. Female classical musicians are supposed to play Micaela to popular music’s Carmen, Ilia to pop’s Elettra.

That’s why critics get all hot under the collar when they see attractive young women dressing in such a way as not to hide the fact they are attractive whilst also being top-notch classical soloists. They would probably deny it if you put it this directly, since at a conscious level they’re all quite reasonable human beings who live in the modern world, but our cultural myths still tell us deep down that if you are female and you want to access spiritual or intellectual mysteries, you are supposed to renounce your sexuality.

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