Function vs. Art – in Context

 When I started to realise that my mind was shifting from thinking about folk music as Function towards thinking of folk music as Art, I believed this dichotomy was something I had built up myself and that it was something that existed only in my own head. Of course I could see signs of it also in my background, in comments from people around me etc. but my general idea was still that it existed mainly in my head. In a way, that was a good thought, because it meant that it would be easier to get rid of. I only had to make up my business with my self, I wouldn’t have to also take care of the outer world. However, I gradually realised that I am far from the first one to recognise this dichotomy (or Duality as I prefer to call it in the end): the conflict between Art Music and Functional Music.

The division between music as function and music as art is very much a division between folk/popular music and what we normally call ‘classical’ music. It is even so included in our language that another common term to refer to the latter is precisely ‘art music’. This division has not always been there though. Carl Dalhaus (1970) puts it in a historical context in his book Analysis and Value Judgment, explaining that before ca 1800 all music was ‘functional music’, music that was justified because of its genre. Music (and all other art forms as well) was recognised for its ability to fulfil the criteria (stereotypes) of whatever genre it was in: its ability to be functional. Then came the Romantic ideas of the Genius, the Artist and the Work and music would now be judged for its uniqueness and originality rather than anything else. Roughly at the same time came the idea of ‘folk music’, the genuine music of the people, and this served as a direct counterpart to the idea of art music. While art music belonged to the higher classes in society and expressed the idea of a composer-genius (and perhaps also the soloist-genius), folk music was the possession of the poor and expressed the soul of the People. Its value was in its anonymous, collective history, with unknown (and mystical/mythical) origins.

When I realised that the tension between function and art was something I had learned from the world around me, rather than something I had made up myself, I was actuallt quite relieved. It made it easier to understand myself, and it became easier to think about, and discuss, the development and change I was going through.

In many ways, the function/art dichotomy, and its folk music/art music parallel, is very present in today’s Swedish folk music scene, as are a lot of the other romantic ideas from the 19th C about folk music. For me personally, one of the most important and interesting aspects of these ideas is how they have affected the thinking of the amateur community, which makes up the largest part of the world of Swedish folk music, and which forms a strong part of my own background in folk music.