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January 20, 2003

Tacit Knowledge -- Noise, age, fiction, pop

Friedrich --

As you know, I like folk wisdom, professional knowledge, rules of thumb -- the things people know but often don't get around to expressing, the general rules that can be such a help in getting you into the ballpark. Partly this is me, I'm sure. Partly this is because of the nature of the arts -- a field in which personal responses, quirkiness, feelings and sensations play an important role. Loose rules of thumb are often all there is to go on. Exceptions allowed, of course, for those extremely-formal art forms, such as ballet or the writing and performing of fugues, where correctness and strict technical knowledge play a large role...

In any case, in years and years of following the arts, I've talked to a lot of people in the field and scribbled down a few of their rules of thumb. As these rules come back to me, I'll pass them along. Hey, a few came back to me today as I was doing some shopping.

  • Loud noises. Young people like 'em better than old people. Boys like 'em better than girls. People generally start disliking loud noise in their late 20s -- it stops being experienced as exciting and starts being experienced as annoying and painful.
  • Women like fiction more than men do.
  • Many people start losing interest in new pop music in their late 20s.
  • In middle age, many people who read a lot of fiction in their youth turn to nonfiction, especially history.

Is any of this backed up by deep, serious sociological studies? Possibly, though I don't know of any. But these are a few of the loose rules that people in the entertainment, culture, and arts biz find useful, and some of the bedrock of common sense on which culture is built.

Got any to add?



posted by Michael at January 20, 2003


I agree with your rules of thumb, but maybe not the assumptions or reason behind them.

* Loud noises. Young people like 'em better than old people. Boys like 'em better than girls. People generally start disliking loud noise in their late 20s -- it stops being experienced as exciting and starts being experienced as annoying and painful.

Yep. This is true. I still crank the occasional song, but I turn it back down afterwards, unlike in my youth where the volume would stay high. I've taken to holding my ears at movies during the jet-take-off decibel attacks (and taking cotton to put into my ears for movies with lots of explosions in them).

* Women like fiction more than men do.

I think this has more to do with the kinds of fiction published than any bias of either gender. (And there is a "who has more free time" issue, too. We still have a lot of moms out there with time to fill whilst the kids are in school, thank God.) More romances and "human interest" stuff is published than action, war, spy, etc. genres.

Sci-fi has devolved into novelizations of TV shows or previous movies, or mindless series. What's left is gender feminist dystopias where everyone's kind of a gloomy, asexual david bowie as ziggy wondering around feeling bad about the way things are. (All this achieves is it makes the reader yearn for the days when Capt. Kirk would be pulling his boots back on while his recent space conquest is preening in the mirror.) The "Norton Book of Science Fiction" edited by
Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery is a primary offender of this sort. I don't think it even has a selection by Asimov, which is indefensible, and it contains nearly non of the seminal works of early sci-fi.

I think if there were more stores about things men are interested in, there'd be more fiction sold to men. There's a reason "The Firm" put Grisham (those first few pages - wow).

* Many people start losing interest in new pop music in their late 20s.

I've noticed that it depends on which audience you're talking about. I've noticed that the people who were interested in "street cred," how "cool" and obscure a band was, and particularly if they were the only one who listened to them tend to drift away from music as they age, because it was never about the music for them. It was a societal, peer group thing rather than a music thing. Also, kids who just latched on to one genre, say hard, screechy rock, tend to abandon music in their late 20s.

However, those who like many kinds of music, and don't care how cool it was or is, listen to music their whole lives. We are fortunate enough to have a lot of neighborhood get-togethers on my block, and I've noticed to a person the trend I outline above. If they liked Neil Diamond AND Led Zeppelin AND Prince AND Surf Punks, etc. when they were young, they're still exploring now. If they liked Husker Du, Seven Seconds, or (heaven forbid) the heavy metal hair bands of the 80s I refuse to name, they could care less about what's on the stereo at parties.

* In middle age, many people who read a lot of fiction in their youth turn to nonfiction, especially history.

I think the primary cause of this is due to the finite number of really good fictional works. I'm an avid reader, and I have hit the point where I've read all the classics I intend to (which is most of them - I'll never make it through "Ulysses"). I've read the entire body of work by authors I love and have to wait for new stuff. So I have to wait for gems like "The Life of Pi" by Yann Martel to drop from the sky if I want some good new fiction.

Also, as Paul Simon says in "The Obvious Child," "I don't expected to be treated like a fool no more." A lot of "new, hot" authors are young, and their writing shows it. They're not very experienced or wise, and thus really have nothing to offer an older reader, because the older reader simply knows more about life and living it. So they are adverse to reading obvious bullsh!t that you believe when you're young, but move past with wisdom.

Two good recent examples of this are the movie "About Schmidt" and Franzen's infamous "Oprah" novel, "The Corrections." The main subject of both of those fictions is an older couple, but both have the same deficiency in that they are a good external OBSERVATION of how some older couples behave, but both completely lack any insight into their character's motivations and inner lives. We are treated to a bad puppet show where cardboard cutouts are moved realistically through plot points, but we still know nothing about the characters because the respective authors are simply too young and know nothing about them themselves.

Further, the current literary novels foisted on us are typically pomo, navel-gazing, masturbatory, "every thing you know is wrong and by the way everything sucks" delusional (inexperienced) rants written in wooden, "clever" language that only the author's friends and fellow professors find intriguing. I'm looking at you, Jim Crace. You get a few of those under your belt and you start appreciating the Nora Roberts of the world. (Is she even a real person? No one can write that many novels in a year.)


The only other rule of thumb I would add is, particularly with the advent of DVDs that show a movie in their true form, most older folks tend to wait for the DVD of the film, with the rare exception of the spectacles like "Lord of the Rings." I don't think movie executives are factoring in the eventual video rental portion of the audience when they are releasing movies, so they tend to skew to the young teenage boys who are the only group who has the free time, the cash, and the inclination to go sit it a big, loud, cold room to watch a flick.

(Sorry about the length of this.)

Posted by: Yahmdallah on January 21, 2003 12:52 PM


Most rock/pop music critics are from the "'street cred,' how 'cool' and obscure a band [is]" school (from my last post), which is why of all the critical voices out there for the various arts, rock/pop critics are the most useless. They are still trying to find the obscure band that makes them personally cool, and the music itself is always secondary. Pick any review and read it, and that becomes apparent immediately.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on January 21, 2003 1:05 PM

As I'm about to turn 43 on January 25, I find myself leaning more towards non-fiction and history. McCullough's JOHN ADAMS and Du Plessix Gray's AT HOME WITH THE MARQUIS DE SADE, were probably the catalysts. I've just taken an interest in Montaigne's essays, having read a rather compelling essay about them in Alain de Botton's book, THE CONSOLATIONS OF PHILOSOPHY. Andrew Sullivan, in his Bradley Lecture on Oakeshott, says that Montaigne was a favorite of Oakeshott. As for pop music, I recently looked at a listing of the top 10 popular recordings in my area, and didn't recognize a one! I recently purchased Bryan Ferry's latest CD, entitled "FRANTIC", which is delightful!

Posted by: Michael Serafin on January 21, 2003 2:09 PM

Durn, you just dissected me, and I didn't feel a thing. Except I've always been a huge fan of fiction -- but find myself resorting to genre more quickly, and I'm even getting burned out on that. A quick scan of my to-be-read pile shows lots of history (6 different books), the new Annie Proulx, and an old JG Ballard.

This isn't art or aesthetics, but it's a rule of thumb for me: the older I get, the more I hate the city. Clubs, restaurants, theatres, galleries and museums don't have much appeal any more. The only reason I stay is bidness and my city mouse wife&kids. Lots of friends are starting to feel the same way. That's gotta affect support for the arts...

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on January 21, 2003 5:04 PM

What Yahmdallah said, except for the part about loud noise.

I've always hated loud noise and crowds.

And I wonder if men use sports in some of the ways women use fiction? Certainly, rabid sports fans (male and female) tend to create complext narratives to go along with the stats.

Posted by: j.c. on January 21, 2003 6:35 PM

Hey All -- Many thanks for your observations and thoughts. As for me, I'm just passing along some of what I heard and learned as I moved around in the arts 'n' entertainment biz. Although, of course, I'm doing so because I suspect there may be something (common sense?) to these kinds of assumptions and generalizations.

So much of "getting an education" seems for some reason to consist of breaking us away from common sense, and making us doubt our own responses. The arts suffer from this, I think. People are forever trying and aspiring to "appreciate" art that they often turn out, on a basic level, not to like very much at all. And then they're unhappy and resentful. One architect told me that the hardest part of his job was getting clients to be honest about what they were really looking for. A typical couple would come to him with pictures of chic spaces and bare walls. He'd ask if they really liked what they were showing him. I mean, how'd they really feel about it? Well, it's so pretty, even if it is kind of cold and barren. How do you feel about living there, and in this way? And the conversation would go back and forth, and often the couple would finally say, Gosh, what we really love are windowseats and a nice porch. And they'd blush and feel embarrassed, because they wouldn't think that was ok.

Here's hoping that the web, which gives people who are interested in art yet who haven't completely lost touch with common sense a chance to find and chat with each other, will also enable people at large to find their way past and around those who'd make them feel bad about liking what they like.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 21, 2003 11:35 PM

Now that sports question is a good one. As a fictioneer AND a sports freak, I can verify the "complex narrative" part. Fantasy baseball, anyone?

MBH, this is gruesome: "to consist of breaking us away from common sense, and making us doubt our own responses." Particularly about something that is ultimately so bloody subjective. Is this really true? Challenging I can accept and enjoy, but outright denial of common sense seems kinda crazy.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on January 21, 2003 11:46 PM

I had written up this wonderful post in reply, and then I closed the comment box without posting it, because I am an idiot. Let me just say that I pretty much have found the same thing is true for me. I doted on loud rock concerts up until not too many years ago, but at some point it occurred to me that I wanted to do other things. Like not be crushed against smelly, sweaty leather-clad punks having my eardrums imploded and getting my feet stepped on. Lately I've been listening to jazz -- I used to think it sounded like random tuning-up noises. And so on.

As for reading, I don't know about the women reading more than the men, because my parents and grandparents of both sexes all read. I didn't pay much attention to anybody else's parents except to note that those Spanish soap operas seemed even more obnoxious than the English ones...

I find that I don't have the concentration to read much fiction these days, which is a good thing, because most of it just... I was going to say "sucks," heh heh. Most literary fiction, as you say, seems to be written by fresh young writers; therefore it all seems to be 1) memoir-type stuff, or 2) Culturally Important stuff full of long silences, elliptical conversations, ironic asides, and so on. I emerge from reading most of it with that airless headachy feeling you get when some acquaintance has been complaining about her problems to you for hours. Then there is genre fiction: I rarely read new mysteries, since they all seem to be about sicko serial killers; I don't read modern romance; science fiction is, as Yamdallah says, all PC these days, and very little of it has any sense of adventure -- most scifi seems to be nothing but cautionary tales about the naughtiness of the notion of humanity spreading its germs in space; fantasy is the most difficult genre to write well in and therefore contains the most crap, half of it LOTR ripoffs right down the the Elf/Dwarf/Human/Halfling arrangement, and the other half boring political sagas disguised as fantasy. So I read snippets of books, mostly non-fiction, in between blogging and eating.

Posted by: Andrea Harris on January 22, 2003 12:04 AM

Hard to tell often whether these rules-of-thumb describe or create situations, though I suspect it's partly one, partly the other. The men/women fiction divide is a strange and persistent one, at least so far as book publishing goes -- it's about 60/40 women/men. Why, no one knows for sure, but it stays pretty constant over the years. Technothrillers bumped up the men's percentage for a while, but not by all that much. Grisham, bizarrely, is read by as many women as men.

I'm with all of you where sports is concerned -- it's drama-and-characters for men. And how about the WWF? Hey, did y'all realize that professional wrestling has actual scriptwriters, just like movies do?

The noise thing is pretty constant, too. I got the info from movie sound editors, who have a lot of experience. There was a bit of a crisis about five-ish years ago, just when every movie theater everywhere was finally being dolbyized. Why? Because movies were becoming so loud that older people (over 25, in other words) were not just complaining, they were refusing to attend. They found it painful. I'm told that the studios and theaters have gotten control and cranked it down a bit, hoping to re-attract a slightly older crowd. But I wonder if the older set isn't perfectly happy at home, watching DVDs. Boys especially seem to find loud noises exciting. Sad to say (though widely acknowledged as true), but with teen couples and groups, it's largely the boy who decides which movie to see, and the girl who puts up with the decision. And boys like to drag girls to loud movies.

I'm impressed by Yahmdallah's devotion to new pop music! He's a rarity, at least in my experience. I stopped following new pop music around the age of 30, and as far as I can tell so did most of my friends. Now that we're in our mid 40s to mid 50s, I'd guess that that there are only two or three who still follow new pop. Lots of us still poke around music -- but most have moved on to jazz, classical, blues, etc, and most have lost touch with what's new. Do many of you post-30 oldies still follow new pop? I'm betting Yahmdallah's unusual in his dedication...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 22, 2003 12:57 AM

Hey Scott -- Doesn't it seem that much much of what arts educators do is to persuade people to abandon their immediate, gut response and to search for some higher "appreciation"? How else to explain, for example, the esteem much modern-pomo architecture is held in? How many people really like concrete, bent glass, steel, deconstructed this 'n' that? But maybe you see these things differently than I do?

Philosoblog has a good post on the mindset known as "rationalism" that's enlightening on the subject, here.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 22, 2003 1:53 AM

OK, Michael, this has now reached the point of utter ridiculousness. Doesn't it seem that much much of what arts educators do is to persuade people to abandon their immediate, gut response and to search for some higher "appreciation"? How else to explain, for example, the esteem much modern-pomo architecture is held in? How many people really like concrete, bent glass, steel, deconstructed this 'n' that? you write. Michael, all art appreciation is like this: everything is an aquired taste to some degree. Most peoples' immediate, gut response to being sat down in a concert hall and told to be quiet for an hour while listening to a Brahms symphony will be "let me out of here!". Appreciation of any kind of art form is, um, "higher" than a "gut response". Hell, punk rock always sounds dreadful the first time you listen to it, a bit like beer tastes. If you've really regressed to the point that all you like is things you have a positive gut response to, then I pity you, although it would explain quite a lot: your permanent refrain that "I get it, I just don't like it" with respect to Modernist artworks could then be read as "whatever my head says, I'm going with my gut".

Posted by: Felix on January 22, 2003 12:04 PM


Is there any possible rejoinder to the accusation: "You just don't know enough to render an informed opinion. Run along now..." ?

The only true effect a statement like that has is it halts all useful conversation, and it labels the speaker as a status whore rather than a thoughtful critic - in direct opposition to the speaker's original intent.

Do you hear the phrase, "you harshed my buzz" a lot?

Posted by: Yahmdallah on January 22, 2003 3:33 PM

Hey Felix --

My point is that much modernist-derived art (and much modernist-derived art education) seems to have taken leave of its senses. It has lost track of common sense generally, and direct experience too. I'm right or I'm wrong, or semi-right or semi-wrong, but I'm certainly not writing a screed against education, or against trying out new things, or against learning about art, which is how you seem to want to take me. I'm not sure how anyone could look at this blog and think that Friedrich and I are making a stand against learning about art, or against expanding one's artistic horizons.

I'm not sure your own education-is-all theory accounts very well for, say, folk art, traditional art, or pop art, all of which (exceptions allowed for) tend to have a strong, direct, and immediate (ie., gut-level) appeal. I'm not even sure it accounts very well for the traditional higher arts, which (elite or not) make a strong sensual appeal, and rely heavily on shared assumptions, values, stories and languages. It's quite possible to go into an opera house, for example, and be blown away by the singing, the costumes, the tunes, the stories, and the staging. Happens all the time. Few people go into a well-done traditional church and aren't moved by the experience. And that Frans Hals -- helluva painter.

There was an uninterrupted continuum between the hymnbook used in everyday churches and Bach's most complicated compositions. The images you saw in engravings on flyers or in newspapers used the same basic language as the most high-flown aristocratic paintings. But it's the defining characteristic of modernism -- and I say this as someone who likes quite a lot of it -- that it tried to break away from all this. The painters were going to disrupt traditional space; the architects would throw out the traditional language of building; the writers would jettison narrative. In their place would be more abstract (and supposedly absolute, and superior) values. Modernism set art up as antagonistic to normal life, traditional values, and accessible pleasures. Art was supposed to be higher, better, more important than that.

This worked out pretty well for a generation or two -- so long as the artists, musicians, architects etc were still coming out of traditional backgrounds. (Matisse, for instance, had very good classical training.) The results were wild and fun, and many people find early-modernist art accessible enough, and easy to get. Why? I'd argue that, despite the revolutionary rhetoric, early-modernist art is basically traditional. It was made to swing, it was shaken up a lot -- but it's still based in the shared culture and language. A couple of generations in, though, and that contact with tradition was lost. And once modernism started building entirely on itself, art and the larger audience came almost entirely apart. Art became a specialty taste, and one with (as Friedrich has argued) some of the qualities of a cult. Personally, I don't blame this coming-apart on the larger audience.

Despite the EZ accessibility and popularity of a handful of modernist artists, much of this art has remained obscure and difficult for many people to grasp. Schooling is necessary to get a lot of it. The number of people who go into an Elliot Carter concert and are simply blown away is probably pretty small -- you need schooling to get it. Robert Wilson's a coterie (and largely acquired) taste in a way that Haydn isn't. And what the hell are those conceptualists up to anyway?

I know the answer, you know, Friedrich knows, and probably most visitors to this site know. But why? Because we've received the necessary schooling. (You wouldn't really argue that late-medieval early-Renaissance Italian peasants needed degrees in order to "get" Giotto's frescos, would you?) And what kind of schooling is it that we're given? It's schooling that tends to deny the validity of traditional forms (narrative, rhyme, tunes, coherence) and direct experience, and that exalts a lot of very esoteric stuff -- abstraction, self-referentiality, patterning, mind games. We're taught that a book whose wordplay and image patterns do this and that is superior to a book that simply tells a good yarn effectively and well. I've never heard, for instance, of a college lit class where Budd Schulberg's "What Makes Sammy Run" is studied -- yet it's a stunning example of narrative fiction, the kind of fiction most people prefer.

Why would an arts schooling even want to do this? We're broken of our perfectly natural responses, as far as I can tell, in order that they can be replaced by a whole different -- and supposedly better and higher -- set of values and responses. We're turned into art "appreciators," wandering through galleries of conceptual art, listening to tapes or reading flyers that explain what the artist is up to, and hoping against hope to have a great art experience. It all (or much of it) needs explaining. And by whom? By a class of priest-like intellectuals and experts. Let's take notice for a moment of the fact that this priestly caste tends to endorse and promote art that needs their intermediary-ship. Coincidence? And, hey, it also sounds a little like the Catholic Church, placing itself between worshippers and God, and then demanding to be paid for access.

One of the consequences is what we've all noticed: the contemporary popular culture and the contemporary elite culture are too often at war with each other. Many perfectly intelligent, sympathetic and interested people who don't happen to be arts specialists are pissed off by a lot of what the self-conscious art/lit/music world does. And many specialists are contemptuous of ordinary life and pleasures. As far as I can tell, most nonspecialists would prefer that the self-conscious art worlds simply dry up and die; and most self-conscious art-world people can't stop going on about how hopeless America is.

I'm not sure you agree with my description of how things stand, but I'm certainly doing my best to be true to how I've found things. (It would take quite a lot to persuade me that the description above isn't true.) So I wonder: Is this a good state of affairs? I don't think so. It seems to me to weaken the experience of culture and impoverish discussion about it. It's also historically quite a peculiar situation, that the elite crowd and the popular crowd should be so completely at odds. I'm amazed more people don't realize this.

I'm all for a good arts education (not that I've seen too many examples of it -- I certainly wasn't given one). And I'm all for taking chances, trying new things, expanding horizons, and learning about other traditions and values, though I don't know why anyone should be obligated to pursue such a program. (I'm devoted, myself -- but I'm a weirdo arts buff.)

But I do think that the art/lit/etc worlds are slitting their own throats if they put down, renounce and deny those things and values that most directly give pleasure. Gut-level, commonsense things. (Artists can do what they please, as far as I'm concerned. But I do get annoyed when they do specialist things and then complain that the masses could care less about what they do.) I've met architects who complained that architecture school ruined them -- that they'd gone into it looking forward to making beautiful buildings and came out of it equipped only to make ugly buildings no one likes. I've taken poetry classes with people who've been outraged to discover that your typical poetry class these days doesn't teach traditional poetic forms. Creative-writing (as in short-story and novel) classes don't teach storytelling or strong characters, they teach word and image games -- ie., how to write a short-story few people will want to read.

Traditional forms are dealt with dismissively by the arts-education establishment. (If you want to say that this isn't the case, I think you're obligated to explain why it is that traditional forms are so rarely taught in the schools these days. I know of only three architecture schools in the entire country where traditional building forms are taught, for instance.) If you want to learn to work in traditional forms -- if you want to learn how to tell a story, say, or paint a representational image -- you're likely to wind up going outside the academic arts establishment: you might study screenplay writing, for instance, or illustration. Someone who likes writing rhythming-and-rhyming verse might wind up in Nashville or Austin working with performers.

Imagine an intelligent reader. She happens to like good stories and strong characters. This isn't a despicable preference -- it's one that's has been shown by most people in most cultures at most times. Say she wants to read something new. Is she going to turn to contempo "literary fiction"? If she does, she'll probably be angered and frustrated. So this intelligent reader will probably wind up reading popular, commercial, or genre fiction. (Some of which is first-rate, by the way.) The lit world just lost a reader. Do you blame this fact on her? And do you really not find this state of affairs bizarre?

You seem to want to set me up as anti-art. In fact, I'm very artsy, and very pro-art. But for me being pro-art doesn't mean cheering the art-world along its current merry way. Its current merry way is to my mind a self-destructive way; in my view, the self-conscious art/music/lit/etc worlds are doing little but making themselves ever more disliked, ignored, and irrelevant. In my view, the self-conscious art/lit/music/etc worlds would be far better off taking people's demonstrated preferences -- their demonstrated gut preferences, and gut reactions -- into account, and working with them rather than against them. I might well be wrong, but it seems to me that otherwise the art world will become even more of a niche market for snobs than it already is. I'd hate to see that happen.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 22, 2003 4:53 PM

Doesn't it seem that much much of what arts educators do is to persuade people to abandon their immediate, gut response and to search for some higher "appreciation"? How else to explain, for example, the esteem much modern-pomo architecture is held in? How many people really like concrete, bent glass, steel, deconstructed this 'n' that? But maybe you see these things differently than I do?

I am positively the last guy to ask about classroom educators -- I only made it thru high school thanks to the benevolence of 1970s Texas education standards. Nowadays, of course, I get my education from the Innernut and kind folks like yall and Felix and others, and yes, there are those who speak about art as if I'm supposed to believe that I'm crazy. Or worse, just plain dense.

My dirty little secret is that for a fairly long period in my life I was sincerely in love with that Bauhaus-style of architecture and design. Knowing NOTHING about it, or where it came from, or why it existed. There was something about it that appealed to me viscerally. The simple, clean lines; the lack of ornamentation; the exposure of the building materials; all that stuff that's SO over-sold and over-championed. Then I kinda sorta realized that these buildings were nothing but different-shaped boxes stacked up on each other. The only imagination used to design them was what wacko material was going to be used for one or two signature set-pieces. Reading Wolfe's book opened my eyes to the joys and abuses of architecture more than a little bit, too. The result is that nowadays I can (and have) spent hours photographing the Art Deco stuff out at the State Fair of Texas here in Dallas. That's a style I can really enjoy, and that enjoyment has lasted about fifteen years.

Well, that was overly long and lacking in insight, eh? FWIW, I really do love reading your architecture pieces, but hardly feel qualified to jump into the discussion. I don't know what that is holding me back -- never has before. :-)

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on January 23, 2003 9:13 AM

Michael --

Of course I don't think you're against learning about art, and of course I don't think you're anti-art.

But I do think that you're living in never-never land if you think that artistic languages (unlike any other languages) are somehow innate. One needs schooling in order to "get" Elliot Carterk, you say, whereas "You wouldn't really argue that late-medieval early-Renaissance Italian peasants needed degrees in order to "get" Giotto's frescos, would you?"

Not degrees, Michael, no, but a certain artistic language and vocabulary, yes. Let's take your example of the opera house. Yes, on the one hand, I'm sure that Moonstruck scenarios happen the whole time, when someone who's never been to an opera before gets taken to La Traviata and bursts into tears with the beauty of it all. But let's get this into perspective, here. I hang out with a lot of cosmopolitan and educated people here in New York, and most of the time, when I say that I'd like to take them to the opera, they get scared and apprehensive. I used to think that it was simple ignorance: if they'd never been to an opera before, they simply didn't know what they were missing, and if they went, they'd love it like I do. But then I realised that's not the case. Our musical vocabulary these days is built up around the 3-5 minute pop song, and around extremely assertive amplified drums and guitars. Singing is done from the throat, not from the diaphragm, into a microphone. Especially when you get into hip-hop, the language is a world apart from opera: someone who understands Verdi -- who speaks the language, and I don't mean Italian -- is likely to have huge amounts of trouble with, say, the Beastie Boys. For someone who doesn't speak the language, the average opera requires, firstly, a much longer attention span than they're used to; secondly, a much more active, as opposed to passive, listening style: you have to concentrate on the music, it's not going to bludgeon itself into your brain. (Nessun Dorma notwithstanding.) And if you try to latch on to the plot as a driving force, you're going to get horribly frustrated every time it comes to a screeching halt and some soprano or other stops and delivers a ten-minute aria telling us how much she loves so-and-so (which, of course, we already knew).

You know the whole thesis that cathedrals were the encylcopedias of the pre-literate world, right? The idea is that the stained-glass panels would tell stories and educate the local population which couldn't read or write. Nowadays, not one person in a thousand can get the information from those panels that the entire illiterate demotic got effortlessly. Languages -- vocabularies -- change. And where we're at now is a situation where, in fact, more people speak modernism than speak classicism. The appreciation of a Palladian villa is a sign of great conoisseurship, whereas the appreciation of the Guggenheim Bilbao (sorry, couldn't resist) is something that nearly anybody can do without thinking about it.

Or take fine art. How many truly, enormously popular artists are there from the pre-Modern era? Who's loved? Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso and Matisse of course, Dali, Warhol, Haring. Franz Hals? The population as a whole doesn't get him -- doesn't speak his language any more. Maybe Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Da Vinci do still have a following, but it's dwindling. Hals, I have to say, has dwindled: for most people, he's where, say, someone like Guido Reni was when you were just starting to learn about art.

Things move faster, these days, and our languages have evolved to the point where speaking Hals is like speaking Chaucerian English. Possible, but it requires training. Remember that in Van Gogh's day, no one really got him. Now, everyone does. We speak his language now.

Take a bunch of six-year-olds into an art gallery. They will prefer the Pollocks to the Vermeers, the Rileys to the Michelangelo cartoons. You want gut feeling? I give you modernism. You want something you need training to understand? I give you my hated Art History class on 14th Century Bologna. It's nigh-on incomprehensible to present-day students: our teacher was forever telling us to go back and read inch-thick history books just to get us to square one.

And as for your reader who wants good stories and strong characters -- what's wrong with Dickens? Well, you say, he's not new. OK, then, why does she want something new? Because she wants something that speaks her language -- the language of today, not the language of yesterday. Or maybe she'll turn to television instead -- something that wasn't available to Victorian Londoners.

Basically, what I'm saying is that there's no such thing as a "perfectly natural response", to use your phrase. If there were, then we would all be able to understand Chinese, Japanese and Indian art just as easily as European. But there isn't a Universal Language of Art which all people speak from birth and which the Modernists have shunned. There was just a pre-Modernist European language, which has now been replaced by something else. Most people these days love the Beatles, say. But I daresay they would have been incomprehensible to a 19th Century audience.

Anyway, enough rambling. Just a quick note to Yahmdalla: I never accused anybody of not knowing enough to render an informed opinion.


Posted by: Felix on January 23, 2003 11:28 AM

Hey Scott -- I'm with you on architecture. I got a pretty thorough modernist-academic brainwashing back in the '70s, when I was getting interested in art and such, and (to my shame) can still recall feeling outraged by Philip Johnson's AT&T building in NYC -- the one that famously looks like a piece of furniture. Why, it was a violation of what contempo architecture was and should be all about! Bit by bit, though, I somehow began to see my way through the brainwashing, and to be more honest about my actual responses to things. Then, some years ago, I took an architectural tour of Chicago and found myself thinking, Gee, I'm really with this whole Chicago-architecture-is-great thing right up through Art Deco. Gorgeous, impressive, amazing. But just about everything built in Chicago since strikes me as looking like utter hell. Since that tour, I've been (I think) much more honest about what I love and enjoy, and much happier for it. Hey, it's ok to love and be interested in buildings and architecture -- and still think much of the most-praised work of the last 80 years is a disgrace. It's also fun to poke further into the field and discover what the academic/official crowd either doesn't know, or doesn't want us to know about: that even in the last 80 years there's been a lot of terrific and likable building. Art Deco is one example. I'd love to read about your enthusiasm for it, and see your photos. I'd love to hear about what other kinds of buildings and styles you've enjoyed, too. Texas has some pretty great regional styles. Are you taken by any of them?

Hey Felix, I think our discussion is tripping over a couple of very obvious stones. The first is the fact that Giotto and Bach are matters of art history, not contemporary art. Of course many people are going to need a little help to find their way to enjoying such work, as they often need some help figuring out what's there to be enjoyed in the art of other cultures. It doesn't make sense to compare the easiness of people's experience of the contempo art of their own culture to their occasional difficulties in "getting" the art of other ages or cultures.

My point wasn't that Bach is as easy for a typical 21st century American to get as "Spiderman" is. My point was that Bach was much easier for nonspecialist people of his time to get than, say, Pipilotti Rist is for nonspecialist people people of our age to get. Bach was the common hymnbook kicked up a few notches in complexity and abstraction. Pipilotti Rist, despite her use of video and music, is doing something that's almost completely off today's nonspecialist's radar screen. Bach's era: continuity between folk, "popular" (if you will) and high. Our era: quite massive break between on the one hand folk and popular, and on the other hand "high" contempo art. How to explain this? The only answer I see is Modernism, and its conception of art as something like advanced science, and as something that must necessarily run counter to common taste and common sense.

There's the minor matter too of what kind of art. It seems to me that you're using pop/commercial culture to make points about contempo "fine art." I'm with you on the way much easily-accepted commercial and pop art is amazingly avant-garde. I've written about this in a few postings -- Times Square is Russian Revolutionary architecture finally realized, music videos are avant-garde shorts set to a beat, etc. Even so, I still think we could agree that very few of the zillions of people who groove to the sonic collage that is hiphop are going to find the work of, say, Bruce Nauman to be instantly accessible and enjoyable in the same way.

On the one hand there's that old puzzler: "What is it about American pop and commercial culture that makes it so successful?" Always a good and interesting discussion, and here's hoping we all get into the topic someday. Want to kick it off over on your blog? But on the other hand there's the question I, for better or worse, am trying to discuss here, namely: "has modernism gone wrong, or maybe just too damn far?"

Two different discussions, I think. But even when I do try to ponder the two questions simultaneously, I come up with reflections that (not surprisingly) confirm my point. Namely, that as the fine-arts world has forsaken common pleasure and enjoyment -- narrative, rhyme, figuration, melody, etc -- those elements and values have been picked up by pop culture. If you want stories and tunes, you don't go to the new fine-arts these days, you go to c&w music, movies, mystery novels, and (as you rightly point out) TV shows. I'd argue that this also helps explain the power and success of American commercial culture. Ie., the fine arts, so often complaining about the all-triumphing quality of the popular arts, have to some extent cut their own throat. How? By forsaking what people have demonstrated repeatedly that they most straightforwardly enjoy. The fine arts have given all that up to the popular arts, yet the fine arts world nonetheless seems to feel entitled to complain about the vulgarity of the masses. Thereby enraging those masses -- including many people who might otherwise be interested in what the fine arts are up to. I could be mistaken, but I suspect you and I are rather close on this.

Finally, I think we're tripping up over such words as "language" and "education." It seems that to you the fact that languages are cultural creations means that they can be chosen, manipulated, and twisted this way and that as we (I always wonder who this "we" is) see fit. I think this is where we disagree most deeply. To my mind, you're exemplifying the "rationalist," technocratic fallacy -- ie., believing that, because something is a cultural creation, it's therefore essentially arbitrary. My team (and I put it this way because I'm not adding much besides enthusiasm to what lots of better brains than mine have argued) sees culture as an evolved thing that is based in (though not completely determined by) biology and tradition. And we see the existence of constraints (one example of which is inherited cultural forms) as not just an unfortunate fact of life but an enabling principle of life and art. It ain't all arbitrary. Shared tastes, needs, and preferences; artistic genres, languages, and forms -- these elements are some of the grammar of life and art, without which neither is possible.

My thinking about the arts proceeds from this point. (And if you start here, you'll wind up, as I do, thinking about such topics as genres, classicism, story, etc, mighty quick.) Your thinking about art seems to me to proceed from a conviction that anything is possible, and that it's up to art to explore and prove that point. But I may be wrong, and am eager to hear what you have to say about this.

What Friedrich and I are saying on our blog runs so counter to the typical art brainwashing and so contrary to the current art-world gestalt that I feel a need to cite a few things in our defence. The first is experience. We got the usual brainwashing, but much of what we've discovered in over two decades of mucking around the world of the arts runs counter to what we were led to believe, what the official artworld still promotes, and what many people apparently still are told. We've also both encountered what many people in the arts encounter -- which is the existence of lots of dissenters even within the world of the arts. An example: The official lit world will never tell you about this -- hey, yet another reason to visit 2Blowhards -- but in publishing, for instance, it's quite a common experience for starry-eyed former English majors to find themselves, a few years into their publishing careers, thinking thoughts like this: "Gee, you know, most of this contempo 'lit' writing that I'm reading, and being paid to promote, has almost nothing to do with why I fell in love with books. In fact, I dislike a lot of it. In further fact, I'm getting more I-love-books pleasure out of some mystery writers than I am out of the lit writers that the industry sees as its pride and joy. Hmmmmm."

The second is that there are now many, many brilliant writers and thinkers who have formulated arguments similar to ours. It's a whole, burgeoning field. People interested in these topics and approaches might enjoy the following quick list:

*Steven Pinker's books, especially "The Blank Slate."
*Christopher Alexander's books, especially "The Timeless Way of Building."
*Frederick Turner's books, especially "Natural Classicism."
*Denis Dutton's website Arts and Letters Daily.
*Duany, Plater-Zyberk and Speck's "Suburban Nation"
*Mark Turner's "The Literary Mind."

These are some of the real thinkers of this movement, while Friedrich and I are the battle-scarred ex-Marines, swapping war stories and cracking wise over the self-deceptions of the boys back in the Pentagon. I could be wrong, but I'd bet that it's a movement from which a great deal more will be heard; I'd also predict that the arts-world powers-that-be are going to spend a lot of time denying, freaking out, and getting hysterical about this movement. Why? Because these people are basically arguing that there may well be some connection between the biology of life and the nature and structure of cultural creations. From RNA and DNA to brain modules to language to artistic forms to the shape of cities and cultures, in other words. And this couldn't run more counter to the ideology of modernism, in which the current arts-world establishment is still completely invested.

Friedrich and I are obviously applauding this new movement. You probably aren't. But I'd love to hear your reactions to some of the thinkers and books I mentioned above. Agree or disagree with them, they're certainly worth wrestling with.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 23, 2003 1:37 PM


You wrote: "I never accused anybody of not knowing enough to render an informed opinion."

To me, your last post reads like a variation on "most people don't have enough info to render an informed opinion." You seem to state that any proper approach to an art form should be an informed one, with the implication that it will make the experience better somehow.

Take your statements on taking a neophyte to an opera. "I hang out with a lot of cosmopolitan [snip] it's not going to bludgeon itself into your brain."

You seem to be saying that if someone were to study the history of opera as an art form, learn the origins and development of it, have a working knowledge of its structure before they sit down to their very first performance, they are going to have a richer experience and will be predisposed towards having a positive emotional response (i.e. "liking it") to it. I disagree. It might even get in the way, frankly.

I will half-agree with you in that any initiation into a new or unknown art form has an element of difficulty because the neophyte does not "know the vocabulary" of the art form, thus all reaction the neophyte has must come from either a visceral reaction, or through the shared vocabulary the form has with one the neophyte is familiar with. By "half-agree," I mean I disagree that prior knowledge of a form is somehow going to change or smooth out the initial experience of it. How an artistic expression affects you will *always* be partially visceral, even if you're on your 100th experience with, say, a song or a story. The vocabulary of the form, and the corollary affects it might have due to your knowledge of the history or events that give context, can add another level and enrich the experience, increasing your view of the subtleties and layers (intended or not by the author). But this enrichment only really takes place after the initial reaction, and the initial reaction typically remains unchanged. You can't "educate" someone into liking a song or a painting.

Even if someone starts with the vocabulary derived from the modern pop song, he/she still is a vessel that can and will react emotionally to a musical piece - regardless of knowledge. I remember the first time I heard a sitar played in classical Indian style, the first time I heard Japanese Taiko drumming, the first time I heard Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares. I've not liked sitar music since, but love both Taiko and "Voix Bulgares." I now know much more about each, but my feelings remain the same - a sitar still sounds like metal peeling to me. Don't get me started on bagpipes.

I had this experience in a class (a very good one) on jazz. I had always liked jazz and had heard the really big hits like "So What" by Davis and "Take Five" by Bruebeck, not to mention the little teasers of big band swing upon the return from a commercial on the Johnny Carson show. So, I thought it would be great fun to have someone walk me through the halls of the past as it were. And it was. But what I discovered was that having additional information on a piece that would allow me to recognize an influence or an innovation NEVER changed my visceral reaction to the song. I still either liked it or I didn't. (This lead to a great disappointment, actually, with the first Duke Ellington song I heard. I was expecting to hear the voice of God, and instead it seemed like a lot of noodling around on horns.)

This, I think, is our fundamental disagreement (and sometimes I think we have to agree to disagree). I think you are saying knowledge about a piece of art, or a vocabulary, can drastically influence one's reaction to it. I think the influence is minimal, and the primary benefits of history and vocabulary are gained subsequent to the initial experience.

(By the way, apologies for the unintended snarkiness of my previous post to you. What sounds light and funny in your head initially, often becomes leaden and mean when you read it later. I experienced a failure of proper tone.)

Posted by: Yahmdallah on January 23, 2003 2:39 PM

Michael -- You say that Modernism has a conception of art as something that must necessarily run counter to common taste and common sense. You say that the contention that "there may well be some connection between the biology of life and the nature and structure of cultural creations" -- which sounds perfectly banal to me -- "couldn't run more counter to the ideology of modernism". I just don't see it that way. I look at modernism and see artists really responding to the way that humans feel and act, on a very visceral level. The Abstract Expressionists were all about that, and I'm sure you've heard all the stories about Rothkos moving people to tears. Minimalism was all about human-scale interactions with the work. People like Turrell and Irwin explore directly the way we see -- just like those Renaissance masters who invented perspective centuries before them. In music, there has been a steady increase in both complexity and discordance from the days of Gregorian chant to today. The amount of highly complex production work that goes into the average pop song is at least as great as that which went into the composition of a Beethoven symphony. In these days, when modern electronic pop artists like Aphex Twin or DJ Shadow worship at the altar of Stockhausen and Boulez, it's revealing to me that you have to resort to a visual artist -- Bruce Nauman -- to make your point about how hip-hop fans don't like high art. Fact is, the avant-garde music scene is now much more healthy and vibrant in downtown hipster venues than it is in Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall. They get it. In a slogan, just because I like Modernism doesn't mean I don't like Pinker. (I have some issues with him, mainly because I have issues with Chomskian linguistics, but mostly I think he's on pretty much the right track.)

Yahmdalla -- I would never, ever, advocate some kind of crash course in opera before going to it. As far as I'm concerned, by far the best way of learning to love opera is simply to go to lots of operas. Eventually, you get it, on that visceral level. Just like Shakespeare. No amount of learning plays at school is likely going to turn anybody into a Shakespeare fan, in my opinion (although it does have other, purely educational, benefits). But go to a really good production of Macbeth, and you're hooked for life.

I'm no fan of knowledge-about-art. I do think that it's important to be able to speak the language, though. Would I have any ability at all to tell a good Noh play from a bad one? No. Similarly, I can think of lots of instances where my initial revulsed reaction has turned, with exposure, into appreciation. Punk music, for one.

But I must dash...


Posted by: Felix on January 23, 2003 3:32 PM

Hey Felix,

Ah, another rock we're tripping over: you're talking about what the artists dig (and what they think they're doing, and are said by the priests of culture to be doing); I'm talking about their relationship to their audiences, and how audiences experience what they do. It's exciting that that a few current pop musicians dig Stockhausen. Groovy! So did the Beatles -- but, despite such a fan club, Stockhausen is still something for a teeny-tiny audience (of which I'm a part). The huge majority of potentially-interested bright people (even hiphop fans) would be utterly baffled by his music.

You write that "People like Turrell and Irwin explore directly the way we see -- just like those Renaissance masters who invented perspective centuries before them." I think you're appreciating Renaissance work in completely modernist terms. Nothing wrong with that, but I don't think it helps your case. I'd be thunderstruck if these Renaissance masters (or their peers and fans) imagined themselves to be "exploring directly the way we see," and I suspect their patrons wouldn't have stood for any such thing anyway. I suspect that their art was created and experienced much less in a white-lab-coat spirit -- "about perception," for example -- and much more in a spirit of providing fab, moving and striking images to decorate churches and palaces, to illustrate allegorical and religious stories, and to please their rich patrons and maybe wow the lower classes too.

Downtown kids are having a fun time scrambling high and low? Great: pleased to hear they're still doing it, and I'm looking forward to your club-and-concert recommendations. But your point is ... ?

Glad to hear too that you have no trouble liking Pinker and modernism both, and eager to hear about how you reconcile these pleasures. A few quotes from Pinker on the arts:

"In three circumscribed areas the arts really do have something to be depressed about. One is the traditions of elite art that descended from prestigious European genres ... The second is the guild of critics and cultural gatekeepers ... And the third, of course, is the groves of academe ... You can probably guess where I will seek a diagnosis for these three ailing endeavors. The giveaway may be found in a famous statement from Virigina Woolf: 'On or about December 1910, human nature changed.' She was referring to the new philosophy of modernism that would dominate the elite arts and criticism for much of the twentieth century, and whose denial of human nature was carried over with a vengeance to postmodernism, which seized control in its later decades... Woolf was wrong. Human nature did not change in 1910, or in any year thereafter ... Modernism certainly proceeded as if human nature had changed. All the tricks that artists had used for millennia to please the human palate were cast aside ... Once we recognize what modernism and postmodernism have done to the elite arts and humanities, the reasons for their decline and fall become all too obvious. The movements are based on a false theory of human psychology, the Blank Slate. They fail to apply their most vaunted ability -- stripping away pretense -- to themselves. And they take all the fun out of art."

Hey, I like some modernism (including some Virginia Woolf) a lot too, and have no problem with it as an innovation or niche market. But its claims to exclusivity, let alone universality, really bug me, and so too does its stranglehold on discussions about the elite arts.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 23, 2003 5:11 PM

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