March 25, 2014

Further discussion on the state of art

I received some interesting comments on my previous essay from fuffle (a Hubski contributor) that deserve a serious and well-considered response.  A link to my original essay is included below (in case my blog’s scroll bar isn’t working or you got here some other way).  Below that are fuffle’s comment in full (in blue).

I loved this, but to be fair to John Cage: some of his work requires, as you say, no inherent chops from the performers. But-
A) alot of his composition and prep-work was very... very impressive. In which case, isn't the work impressive for the underlying code, which illuminates technical complexity on the part of the composer if not the player?
B) 4 33 is just as much incidental music as anything else- wherein environmental response dictates the melody rather than the person on the stage. Schmancy? Yes, but I see very little difference between this and your assertion about perceiving the beauty of the sycamore. When attention is directed at the sounds in between sounds, people might just start to appreciate with more enthusiasm things that they'd otherwise ignore as just everyday drone.
C) Cage may have once been considered weird, but his work has since influenced the output of mad composers, man. Electronic artists, contemporary classical guys, guitar legends, score-writers... His work may not be, uh, listenable, but his WORK has inspired plenty of people you've listened to.
D) He's not that weird. Have you heard Stockhausen's helicopter quartet? There is some gnarly, indigestible shit out there (see note). Cage just has the most brand recognition. And if he has brand recognition, his art can't be that inaccessible, can it?
Ultimately, though, E) It could reasonably be argued that Cage is more performance art than music, and there is a lot more leeway granted in performance art for eccentricity. Does any of this nullify your overall argument? No. But to say that classical music died with the advent of Cage is pretty unfair, especially since there have been perfectly decent classical composers since Cage, and he was certainly not the first experimental composer to sincerely fuck with the rules of the craft. Hildegarde Von Bingen. The Artusis and the Monteverdis. Gesualdo. Obligatory Stravinsky shout-out,
Anyhow, I badged, but then felt a pang of regret about readily accepting the cheap shot about Cage and music. Still a great read.
note: there's this one guy- wish I could remember his name- who put out an "album" that was just him stuffing a contact mic up his buttle and railing his girlfriend. That right thar is the example you should have used.
(fuffle has recanted this note:  "bfv corrected me last week in that the work I referred to (Nymphomatriarch by Venetian Snares and Hecete) isn't really just raw footage of them bumping nasties. They bumped nasties and then sampled those sounds for beats/tones. It's nowhere near as esoteric as believed/led you to believe."

Yes, I savaged John Cage mercilessly and for the worst of motives – my own literary amusement.  Admittedly, he did not assassinate classical music single-handedly.  I’ve watched interviews with Cage and found him fascinating.  I even find his Zen perspective personally congenial.  I am acutely aware that there is a similarity between Cage’s perspective and mine – however they are not identical.  Cage considered 4’33” a musical composition; I do not consider my perception of a sycamore against a winter sky itself a work of art.  I assert that our appreciation of art derives from our appreciation of other things in the physical world.  Cage asserted, effectively, that there is no distinction between art and the physical world as perceived.  My assertion defines art within a broader context; Cage’s assertion does the opposite – it renders the word “art” practically meaningless.  By Cage’s definition, dog turds could be art.  You wouldn’t even have to put them under a spotlight at MoMA – you would just have to perceive them.  Perhaps I snarled at Cage unfairly, but Cage attacked my dearest friend – the English language.

I don’t doubt for a minute that John Cage was influential – that is, in fact, the crux of my critique.  Had he been unknown he would have been completely harmless.  Cage is not all that weird by what passes for contemporary standards, but he helped to lay the groundwork those who followed in his wake.  One can argue that many people before Cage were violating the rules of their time, but there is a difference between violating an art form’s traditional norms and violating its fundamental definition.  I may think that Pablo Picasso produced a large number of very bad paintings – but I have to admit that they are paintings.  On the other hand, if I say I-70 is my most recent painting (and I wasn’t the guy who painted the dashes down the middle) I am doing nothing more-or-less than obfuscating the word “painting”.

The history of culture rarely turns on single, pivotal events in the way that military history does.  The Post-Impressionists did not defeat the Impressionists decisively in the battle of Mont Sainte-Victoire.  What one sees instead are trends, influences, styles, and so forth.  Things move gradually.  Cage, if not decisive, was still significantly influential.  If what Cage delivered was not exactly a deathblow, it was, at least, a milestone.  I think what is important about Cage is that once he attacked the very definition of music, mere trifling with odd keys and rhythms seemed rather tame.

Consider the example cited above, of the musician making recordings with the microphone shoved up his rectum.  Things like this are what the avant garde must do when someone who came before has upped the ante.  In the 1930’s you could still be fashionably radical by banging away at a piano like George Anteil – but how is that even interesting after Cage?  But if you can no longer raise eyebrows by being merely discordant, you can at least still raise them by being blatantly disgusting.  Again, this is not a matter of taste or of degree.  It is a watershed distinction – a difference of kind.  I’d be willing to bet that a chimpanzee watching someone shove a microphone up his own ass would be disgusted, but it would be a toss-up whether the same chimpanzee would prefer Richard Wagner to George Anteil.

Here, really, I need to take a step back and talk about what separates the last century and a half or so from the entire previous history of the arts.  I think it is fair to say that the great majority of artists who worked prior to the late 19th century were trying to achieve some standard of excellence.  From that point forward excellence has gradually waned in favor of the pursuit of originality.

Ancient Egyptian relief carvings, rigidly stylistic as they are, are beautiful.  They are beautiful because the artists who produced them had an idea of excellence.  Egyptian sculpture does not require the context of museum for us to recognize it as art.  One may or may not have a taste for ancient sculpture, but one knows that it is art regardless.  Drop a Roman statue into a landfill, and the garbage man would know that it does not belong there.  Toss half the contents of MoMA into a landfill and the garbage man would never notice.  You’d need an army of academics in rubber hip waders to sort it from the rest of the trash, and even then they’d probably be wrong at least one time in three.  By contrast, if you could have taken an average Vermeer to ancient Egypt I have little doubt that nearly everyone, high and low, would have marveled at it.  They may or may not have tried to copy its style.  They may or may not have found it somehow blasphemous.  They would have known it was art.  I have listened to some cutting-edge contemporary music and, frankly, if I heard it coming through the wall of my apartment I would not assume my neighbor had sophisticated tastes, but rather that he had a serious plumbing problem.  I only know it’s art if it is packaged as art.  And then, if you’ll forgive me, I still have doubts.

I don’t wish to insult anybody’s sensibilities here.  Well… actually I do – but I’m willing to throw myself onto the trash pile along with them.  I did go to art school, after all.  Put me in a museum and I will stare with rapturous solemnity at a nice Mark Rothko color field painting, knowing full well I could achieve a very similar mental state by going outside and staring at a random patch of sky.  I know when I stare at the Rothko that I am engaging in an art act, and that other people passing through the gallery will see me as an aesthete admiring something beyond the comprehension of the common herd.  Academia has created a group of people large enough to support nonsense.  If I stare at a random patch of sky, on the other hand, the same people will only think I’m off my meds.  Do I like the Rothko really?  I don’t know.  How could I know?  It depends on whether one believes my conditioned response to something is definitively me or not.  Did Pavlov’s dogs really like to salivate at the sound of the bell?  So it is with everyone.  We all have our own unique conditioning histories, dependent on where and when we were born, how we were educated, etc.  It is quite hard to overcome the impression that our particular place in the universe is absolutely normal.  It’s only relatively normal – really.

To get back to the distinction I raised earlier though, excellence and originality are very different kinds of goals.  The arts did change under the regime of excellence, but they did so in a gradual, organic way.  You could have swapped the romantic period in classical music for the baroque without the whole world exploding.  When the emphasis began to tip in favor of originality, however, art acquired a definite and self-destructive direction.  In the pursuit of excellence, one tries to express one’s concept of art to the of best one’s ability.  In pursuit of originality, one tries to destroy whatever concept of art happens to prevail.  The Impressionists made blurry paintings and that was fine – enough to irk the traditionalists of their day.  And then we got Matisse, who annihilated the third dimension and all the lovely refinements the Renaissance had achieved.  After that, Mondrian, et al, gave up on paint things altogether.  De Kooning and Pollock extirpated any meaningful requirement for skill.  Et cetera.  The worst thing you could say to an artist when I was in school was not that his or her work was crude, but that it was derivative.

Sooner or later, the quest for originality makes someone shoving a microphone up his ass inevitable.  People simply run out of other things to do.  Technology may delay the act for awhile by opening up other avenues of exploration, but sooner or later the microphone will find its way into the hands of some ass that has tried everything else.  It has been more than four decades since Chris Burden took a potshot at an airliner with a pistol.  He later had a friend shoot him in the arm.  Both incidents were widely accepted as art by the academics and critics who get the final say.  One wonders how the arts community would have reacted if Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had eschewed any religious or political motives for the Boston Marathon Bombing, and declared instead that his motives were entirely artistic.  Wouldn’t the curators at MoMA have had to take him at his word, and sought out photos and artifacts of the event to fill a gallery?  How could they do otherwise?  By what standard would they deem such a bold piece of self expression not art?

Personally, I dislike being called an artist.  I do not dislike art – that is, I do not dislike what I define as art in the inner recesses of my brain.  What I do dislike is being called something that, in current usage, has no coherent meaning.  Throwing me into a category that contains both Rembrant van Rijn and Chris Burden is little more meaningful than calling me non-broccoli.  You might as well just bark.  An artist is a person whose name is on the little plaque beside the random object under the spotlight at MoMA.

All of this matters because, as a society, what we call art is some indicator of what we value.  If what we value above all else is novelty, it is hard to see how we can have a culture at all.  A tradition of upheaval isn’t merely tiresome – it’s an oxymoron.

March 12, 2014

Art for no one’s sake

I used to be a sculptor. This is to say, I used produce in art in some recognizable, formal, and even credentialed sense. A spectacularly rude physicist once pointed out to me – quite correctly I might add – that having a degree in fine art is almost meaningless. It means that you paid your tuition, showed up, and were bright enough to get through your general education classes. I’m not sure why I did it or why anybody does. You cannot be arrested for producing art without credentials – not yet at any rate.

Art school wasn’t always undemanding. I remember reading that Adolf Hitler was refused admission into the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. Perhaps the rest of the art schools in the world took note after the war, and concluded that keeping nascent megalomaniacs occupied by waiving the requirement for talent was a low price to pay for the sake of world peace. It would be nice if the general slackening of standards had been the product of sound reasoning – or of any reasoning for that matter.

I have no idea what the weirdly self-regarding class of people who constitute the art world are doing now, nor do I really care to know. It doesn’t seem worth the negligible effort of a Google search. I am deliberately and obstinately disinterested. Long ago, I found myself in the Museum of Modern Art looking at a formless tangle of bailing wire in the middle of a gallery. There was a spotlight on it. It was painted green – not by the artist, but by the wire manufacturer. It occurred to me that my fine arts education had left me fully equipped to talk about the bailing wire in a sophisticated way – discussing the importance of line, the complexity of the negative space, and perhaps even to venture a few words about the cultural symbolism of a chaotic pseudo-random object juxtaposed against the ordered and traditional backdrop of the museum’s hardwood floor.1 It was not a moment of epiphany exactly. It was more one of those moments in which the weight of accumulated evidence catches up with you, and for awhile you stand teetering under its ridiculous weight – a clown balancing an elephant on a unicycle. Such realizations always pass. You go on to the next minute, and the next. You forget that you have spent four years acquiring skills that in any other context would amount to a psychosis. If “artist” isn’t in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, perhaps it ought to be…

297.1 Delusional Disorder - presence of one or more fixed delusions, but otherwise functioning usually is not noticeably impaired.

     Specify whether:
     Erotomanic type
     Grandiose type
     Jealous type
     Persecutory type
     Somatic type
     Mixed type
     Unspecified type

Of course, a rigorous application of criteria like that would swallow up just about everyone. Delusions are what human beings do best. But really – is bailing wire art? A sane answer, I concluded, is that if an object needs the context of MOMA to make it recognizable as art, even to people who have undergone the cultural absurdity of being specially trained to recognize art, it isn’t art. If the definition of art includes “anything left under a spotlight at MOMA” we are done. I want some standards, however vague, even at the risk of hurting some potential megalomaniac’s self esteem and precipitating another world war. Art, whatever it is, might just be worth the risk.

The irony of my realization is that one of my art history teachers actually warned me in advance. She made me read Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word, in which he made the case that art objects themselves had become inconsequential – and that what really mattered now (the “now” that he was writing about being 1975) was what the art intelligentsia said about them.2 The art itself could be not merely poorly executed and meaningless, but even wholly imaginary. It was just a prop – an incidental starting point for clever criticism. Everybody in my art history class nodded and accepted Wolfe’s assertion. They took the exam and passed. The art students in the class went on to whatever peculiar fates art students encounter when they meet the unavoidable parts of reality. The bored rich housewives in the class went on to add Tom Wolfe to the discourse they attempted to impress their friends with. A thoughtful person would have hanged himself with bailing wire on the spot.

This erosion, this bleeding of the life out of art, has not been confined to the visual arts. The culture of relativism has claimed many other victims. Classical music was alive and well deep into the 20th century, but died a horrible death at the hands of intellectuals – and was still dead as of my last inquiries. One can give the approximate time of death as 1952, the year in which John Cage composed 4′33″ (Four minutes, thirty-three seconds). This “composition” consists of any number of musicians holding any combination of instruments while sitting (or standing, or lying down) in complete silence for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. It may be an exercise in Zen, as Cage himself seems to have intended it, but to call it music annihilates the very concept of music. It is the ultimate exercise in relativism.3 A performance by the world’s most gifted pianist would be no better than that of a complete novice – or, for that matter, than that of a corpse. With the death of the last of the traditional classical composers, the genre then drifted into the mathematical, mechanistic subgenre of minimalism. While sound did return after Cage’s fatal silence, the life and humanity of classical music did not. When I listen to Aaron Copland’s Quiet City, composed in 1941 – before the fall, I am moved almost to tears. It is sublime. Something important about Copland the man lives on in my experience. It is timeless, beyond the need of any explanation. Through the music I know something more about what it is to be a human and alive. Listening to any of the works of Philip Glass, on the other hand, only give me a sense of what it is to be a washing machine. There is no scope for interpretation or virtuosity in Glass. There is only mechanical repetition and a steady sense of strain.4 Most of us who live in advanced societies live lives similar enough to those of washing machines already. We do not need to have our helpless sense of regimentation reinforced by art. I’ve occasionally seen Philip Glass albums in peoples’ record or CD collections. I have never met a person who had two such albums. One is enough to show people how refined you are.

It is mainly the formally educated who are susceptible to this particular kind of cultural disease. The average man or woman might have very narrow or unimaginative tastes, but they know a naked emperor when they see one. You can seduce them with the most vulgar sort of dreck, but you won’t see them displaying bits of bailing wire on their sofa end tables or watching with false interest as Yo-Yo Ma does nothing for four and a half minutes behind his cello. Religion is the opiate of the masses – the elites require newer forms of nonsense to underpin what passes for high culture.

Is anything art really? Yes. There are basically two senses in which something can be art. The first is the sort of thing I’ve been criticizing above – art as an emblem of one’s personal or cultural identity. If you say that bailing wire is art you’re not saying anything about it – you are only saying something about yourself. You are identifying yourself as an aesthete. Of course, one need not be a snob to experience art in this sense. I have a hard time imagining that the average head banger loves heavy metal music as a sensual experience. You could get more-or-less the same effect by standing close to any dangerously loud machine. I think head bangers like being identified as head bangers, just as aesthetes like being identified as aesthetes. The other way of experiencing art is simply to let it effect you without you affecting it. If we could use an MRI to see into the brain of a person looking at a painting full of interesting shapes and beautiful colors, we would see the brain making interesting shapes and beautiful colors too. Responses to different stimuli do vary from person to person (no doubt Philip Glass and five other people on the planet really do like Philip Glass music) but when it happens it is about nothing but itself. Identity art is about – identity. The other sort of art just is.

The material world, whether natural or man-made, abounds in things that move us – presuming we have not become too numbed by other concerns. Art is just the duplication and refinement by human beings of those stimuli we find elsewhere. If there is an evolutionary reason that we have an aesthetic sense in the first place, it eludes me. On the other hand, the beauty I perceive in a sycamore tree against a winter sky is not diminished by a lack of justification. The thing in itself suffices.

The trick of making art in this direct sense is to dissolve oneself in the process of creation without holding some fragment of one’s consciousness back to admire what one is doing. It is to be the process – to cease to be a bundle of concepts, identity, and noise. It is very simple, but it is not a capacity that life usually encourages.


1 I think it was hardwood. It might have been otherwise.

2 This is really just a corollary of the postmodernist definition of truth: Truth is just what an authority says it is.

3 This oxymoron was deliberate.

4 To be fair to Philips glass, his music does at least leave you feeling something. It does at least attempt to be listenable. The compositions of the rest of the minimalists are even more extreme, leaving one with no more than a sense of what it must be like to be a clock.