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New Left Review I/59, January-February 1970

Richard Merton

Comment on Chester’s ‘For a Rock Aesthetic’

The impulse behind Andrew Chester’s attack on the notion of pop music is correct. ‘The pop critic’s attitude towards the music is generally patronizing in the extreme,’ Indeed. After contumely or scandal, patronage is the entrenched mode of bourgeois consumption of plebeian art. The question arises, however, if it is a Marxist response to this mode merely to invert its terms, and insist on the exclusively musical values of rebaptized ‘rock’, abstracted from the social formations of which they are one of the effects. Chester’s project, in fact, rapidly runs into shoals of contradictions. Rock is advanced as an authentically aesthetic category, capable of evicting the cultural illusions of pop. Yet rock itself is not ‘free from mystification’. Unsurprisingly: for it cannot cover all the phenomena of Chester’s own object. He himself later asks, what are the frontiers between rock, blues and soul? Many of the groups mentioned by him operate in the interstices ‘between’ them. In effect, no concepts for constituting the autonomy of rock as an aesthetic object are provided by Chester, so that his plea for one ultimately becomes a petitio principi. The absolute antinomy between ‘aesthetic’ and ‘cultural’ criticism with which the article begins ends by collapsing into an immediate identity: thus Chester can finally affirm that ‘aesthetics is the politics of art’. The danger of a mechanistic reductionism is exorcized at the front door only to install itself the more firmly by the back door.

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Richard Merton, ‘Comment on Chester’s 'For a Rock Aesthetic'’, NLR I/59: £3

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