At first glance, the figure of the Puritan analysed by Max Weber seems to be in direct tension with the ethos of the modern artist. But the latter resembled the former, in two important respects: in his sense of mission and in his ‘heroic individualism’. In countering the tendency to see the Protestant-bourgeois and the modern artist as arch-rivals, this article brings Weber’s characterization of the Puritan into dialogue with the aesthetic ethos of a key figure in American music: the modernist composer Charles Ives. Ives saw music as a weapon against the spiritual and aesthetic barrenness of modern life, and celebrated work and business over the ethic of ‘art for art’s sake’. His evocation of the Protestant ethic raises an important question for the sociology of modern culture: did American modernists ‘cultivate the arts’ differently to their European counterparts? It is argued that American ‘experimental’ music is different to European ‘serialism’ precisely in that it subscribes to a commitment to ‘practical action’. The article concludes by asserting that even those American composers who have opted for a ‘mystical’ route to salvation - for example, John Cage - have often replicated the Protestant desire to find beauty and ‘grace’ in the modern world.
- experimental music
- practical morality