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August 13, 2007

Me and the Snobs and the Little Guy

MIchael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Back in this posting, I took a gratuitous swing at the European concert-hall tradition. Challenged by Jult52 about whether that was necessary -- and of course he's right, it wasn't -- I responded with some thoughts that Donald has urged me to turn into a free-standing posting. So without further ado, although with a little additional dolling-up ...

Well, "Suck on this" wasn't exactly meant to be taken as a considered (let alone defensible) critical position ...

But, what the heck, to indulge in a little earnestness for a sec: I love the Euro high-art traditions. What I don't like (and what I think screws up a lot of American arts discussions and arts education) is seeing American art through a Euro-derived, high-art fixated lens. Sometimes it's helpful, but much of the time it blinds people to the riches we have, or makes them much too modest about them.

A lot of our best art (it seems to me) is folk, popular, self-created, entertainment-driven, commercial, eccentric, and/or hard-to-categorize. Much of it wasn't even intended to be taken as art. Meanwhile, our high-art style work, while sometimes amazing, is often either thin on the ground (hard to make a living at it here) or embattled, stressed, and self-righteous in a way that can weaken its quality.

As a result we have a culture that's very different from a Euro-ish one in many important ways -- it's scrappy, decentered, unofficial, making-itself-up-as -it-goes-along, and often coming at ya out of seemingly nowhere ... Work that wasn't intended as art -- movies, jazz -- becomes a hugely important part of world culture, while much of our self-consciously arty art goes nowhere at all.

So why do many critics, profs, and even civilians insist on applying inappropriate -- or at least what I consider inappropriate -- standards to what we do have? (I think I have a hunch why, btw ... ) Like I say, this kind of attitude can blind us to much of what we have and can make us too modest about how rich our culture is. It can also kill pleasure, and by god I love pleasure.

High-art-obsessed types tend to see things awfully hierarchically. One work is automatically more valuable than another simply because of the kind of work it is. A literary novel is automatically more valuable than a collection Dave Barry columns, for instance. Seriously: It isn't uncommon to run into someone in the books world looking at something like a Dave Barry collection and sniffing, "Oh, that isn't a real book" as though he's just seen a dog turd on a sidewalk. Yet Dave Barry has been around for decades, and so far his writing seems to be holding up better than 90% of the lit novels -- the so-called "real books" -- from the same stretch.

Similar kinds of people in the visual-arts field view a gallery-style sculpture or piece of installation art as automatically more worthy of "serious" consideration than a hot rod. Yet the hot rod years were a glorious and influential episode in American culture. Would you respect an account of postwar American art that didn't include hot rods?

If you take the p-o-v of the Euro-high-art people, the results are pretty dreary and predictable: American culture looks like it's forever striving to attain a Euro-like dignity and failing to do so. It's never (or seldom) a glorious thing in its own right, and most of the time a tragic, almost-there failure. Hence the solemn and pained tone of most PBS documentaries about the arts, for example. (I mocked what I called "The Church of PBS" here.)

I don't mind making the analogy to the way certain lefties want the US to become like France or Sweden. I love much about France; I imagine I'd love much about Sweden. But I think that a lot of what works in those countries wouldn't work at all for us. I could be wrong, of course. But I think it's at least worth a moment's thought whether policies that suit small, centralized nations with strong traditions of consensus are policies that would suit a huge, sprawling, decentered, patchwork nation with a history of hostility towards government.

But back to the arts ... Applying the Euro p-o-v to the US is OK, of course -- I wouldn't propose passing laws against it. But at the same time I think it can do a terrible injustice to what we have, as well as to artists and civilians who might well find themselves enjoying art-and-life more if they set those kinds of values aside and applied the freedup energies to exploring (and enjoying) the kind of culture we do have.

To be completely honest, my gut-level hunch is that if we are to grow an even-more-rich culture -- and who doesn't root for that? -- it isn't going to come as the result of bashing what we have but of acknowledging it, enjoying it, investigating it, and respectfully contributing to it.

In my view, America is one of the zaniest and most dynamic art scenes ever. What we have may not be a "civilization" in the traditional sense, but it's a heck of a culture. (Even if an often infuriating and exasperating one.) Hence I like to bash -- or at least tweak -- evidence of people applying hierarchical, Old World-style thinking to American art whenever I run across it.

That's why, btw (and fwiw), I ran my series of postings criticizing the NYT Book Review Section for its fixation on literary fiction. (Installment one, two, three, four.) These editors and critics (ie., gatekeepers and gatekeeper-wannabes) discuss and present fiction as though the "what's important? and what will become literature?" questions are completely settled. They aren't, not by a long shot.

To be honest, I'm amazed that people can look into the history of American writing and not be struck by what a full-of-surprises, topsy-turvy process it has been. I'm also amazed that they can know and experience book publishing as it currently exists and not give their English-major brainwashings a little reconsideration ...

It's even more baffling when you take into account the fact that the NYTBR Section is staffed these days with Boomers and post-Boomers. The same generation that discovered (and asserted) the glories of movies and of folk and popular music turns out to have its nose in the air where book-fiction is concerned.

Is it really as bad as all this? I think so. While eating a sandwich the other day, I leafed through a catalogue of courses from NYU that someone had left behind. In the literature section I ran across a course called "The Modern Novel." Here are the authors on the reading list: Haruki Murakami, Ismail Kadare, Marisa Pess, Gary Shteyngart, A.B. Yehoshua, Jennifer Egan, Julian Barnes, Hilary Mantel, Philip Roth. Although there's an effort here being made to be fair and open in a multicultural sense, there's none being made to be fair and open in an artistic sense. Where is any recognition of the American narrative and popular traditions?

In the same catalogue was a course devoted to "Writing Women." The reading list: Charlette Bronte, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilmore, Jean Rhys, Margaret Drabble, Anne Carson, Lydia Davis.

In my view, these courses do a serious injustice to their subject matter. How can a course calling itself "The Novel Today" fail to include a single crime or horror novel? How can a course entitled "Writing Women" skip over such phenomena and talents as "Gone With the Wind," "Rebecca," Jacqueline Susann, and Patricia Highsmith?

They also do damage, I think, to their students, either infecting them with snobbery or putting them off reading. An always-easy example has to do with boys, who are said to be tough to turn into fiction-readers. Well, look at the fiction the schools give them to read -- what's in it for most boys? Most school reading lists couldn't be better-designed to send boys away from books and back to their Playstations. Imagine if, instead, the schools handed out (and gave well-deserved praise to) novels like "Semi-Tough," "The Choirboys," "Miami Blues," and "The Hot Spot." (I don't know sci-fi, so please forgive that lapse here.) I bet the result would be a lot more male book-fiction fans.

I could be demented, and I'm no doubt letting my ego run out of control. But in my blogging I see myself as standing up for both the kind of thing that American art often turns out to be, as well as for, y'know, the little guy who tends to be either too deferential towards the eggheads, or too reflexively dismissive of them. (The striving towards traditional Euro-style art has itself always been one part of our gumbo-like scene, after all. And it's had its glories to contribute. Gotta take that into account too!) Stand up for your actual tastes and pleasures, little guy! You turn out to be right more often than the eggheads do. At the same time: build on it, explore, don't be smug.

Incidentally, living in NYC (a branch of Europe in many ways) and hanging around Northeastern media-arty types and intellectuals, I may well give these topics more thought than they deserve. How would I know? Hmmm: I wonder what would be going through my mind instead if I were living in Iowa ... I'd probably be carrying on about what a bunch of clueless, square rubes we too often are.

Now back to the usual horsing-around ...

I ranted in a similar vein back here.

Thanks to Jult52 and Donald.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at August 13, 2007




Comments


I could not agree more. Woody Allen was a comic genius until he decided he wanted to be Ingmar Bergman, with the previsible results.

And DAVE BARRY RULES!

Posted by: Adriana on August 13, 2007 9:08 AM



Of the two best-crafted movies I've seen lately, one was lousy and one was superb. The lousy one was 'Capote', because it wanted to tell me something, under a New Yorkish assumption that I must be in need of some telling (about, you know, tolerance, compassion the fifties, white guys...take your pick). The superb movie was 'The Incredibles'. It wanted my money and felt it should earn it. Being so roundly entertained, I hardly noticed that I'd been set to thinking about families, teens, and about some important abstractions like risk, persistence...Damn, sounds like art! Every few years I dust off my copy of the Odyssey and give it a read (yeah, in the Greek) for much the same reasons.

It really doesn't surprise me that the 'luvvies', as we call the liberal elites here in Australia, feel a certain emotional tug toward Islamic fanaticism. It's not just the beards. It's the frustration at not being able to establish their global cultural caliphate. We're still not all living in Le Corbusier wine-racks watching earnest people on publicly funded TV complain about the lack of funding for earnest people. Stupid Nascar dads!

Posted by: Robert Townshend on August 13, 2007 9:48 AM



"High-art-obsessed types tend to see things awfully hierarchically. One work is automatically more valuable than another simply because of the kind of work it is."

I'd say that's the modus operandi of 90% of the commenters here regarding the "superiority" of traditional, representational art over modern art.

Posted by: the patriarch on August 13, 2007 10:13 AM



patriarch ... I can't really speak for others, but my position is: (1) I find representational art more interesting than other types. (2) Convincing human representation more difficult to achieve than alternatives, thus demonstrating skill on the part of the artist. Note that in music, acting, writing, etc. skill is considered important, so why not in painting & sculpture? (3) Representational art has been dumped on -- unfairly, I think -- by the art establishment for most of the last century. So why not fight back?

The last reason is probably the most important motivation for at least some of us, not some "hierarchical" thing such as the early 19th century notion that historical subjects were superior to landscapes: We are tired of being pushed around and think it's high time we pushed back.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on August 13, 2007 10:44 AM



I agree with the overall sentiment, but the part about boys and reading really bothers me.

Basically you're saying that boys can't handle what was until recently considered a traditional liberal education. Should we not assign Shakespeare and Flaubert because they're full of girly stuff like feelings and relationships? Only very recently has anyone suggested that boys can't enjoy literature that isn't about sports or surviving in the wilderness or some similarly narrow, boring thing. If anyone had tried to make me read some book about football in high school, I would have been very, very resentful. In fact I was made to read some books in that vein (which makes me wonder whether this "feminization of the schools" trope is grounded in any facts at all). I am male and there I find nothing compelling or even very human in those stories. Maybe I need to read the books you name, but reading about them online just now--mostly, reading about the movies they all became, since some of those books aren't even in print anymore for all their supposed populist appeal--didn't really make me want to. Maybe I'm a snob but I'm not trying to be. I like what I like.

This is all tied up with the grim, joyless version of masculinity we have in America right now that schools should be working against, not enforcing.

Posted by: BP on August 13, 2007 10:48 AM



"We are tired of being pushed around and think it's high time we pushed back."

I'm sorry, but I laughed when I read that sentence. Representational art is everywhere, so who exactly is pushing you around?

Back on topic, my point in singling out the quote from Michael's post is that the most vehement and final value judgments I've seen on this blog regarding art have almost exclusively come from the those who seem to enjoy folk and traditional art and do not enjoy modern art, for lack of better terms. Those of us who do enjoy the latter, at least on this blog, have also sung the praises of some traditional art.

As one who believes jazz music to be America's greatest and most lasting contribution to human art, I pretty much agree with Michael in that America's genius is it's almost improvisational approach to art, and in its ability to produce art at all levels of society. Which is why I find it odd that so many commenters here, who also seem to agree that the artists mentioned in this post are true and great artists in the blues vernacular, a vernacular that relies heavily on improvisation and a certain malleability of form, do not enjoy the artists whom I see as the visual counterparts to blues/jazz music, namely those working in the modern, non-representational (to a point) forms.

I'm not saying that's bad or wrong, I just don't get it.

Posted by: the patriarch on August 13, 2007 11:04 AM



"Convincing human representation more difficult to achieve than alternatives, thus demonstrating skill on the part of the artist."

This has always been mystifying to me. Is art an athletic performance? When you look at a sculpture by Michaelangelo you don't immediately think of the skill it took--you wonder at its beauty. If you think about it you might appreciate the skill as such, but that's a decidedly secondary pleasure. I really don't get this way of relating to art.

Posted by: BP on August 13, 2007 11:08 AM



BP, in regards to your comment on arts and masculinity, I couldn't agree more.

Posted by: the patriarch on August 13, 2007 11:43 AM



I think the snobs are divided into two groups, though: 1) the disciples of modern, hip stuff; and 2) those who prefer stuff that's withstood the test of time. You're mainly talking about group 1, understandably given where in the country you are.

For group 2, genre fiction as well as most of current high fiction is a waste. You would probably see a lot of High lit from the past on their shelves, but they wouldn't reject low/popular lit if it had proven itself. They'd prefer Bach over John Cage, but I'll bet they'd admit that "Amazing Grace" is great music too.

Another reason that either group would be hostile to ennobling the low/pop stuff is that many who propose this -- though not you -- aren't saying, "Let's not feel so guilty about these guilty pleasures." But rather, "Garfield is just as high, deep, and serious as Wilde, let's expand the Canon."

You're proposing just to enjoy comics, and that treating them as High art is a mistake, but many of the pro-Garfield crowd who the snobs have run into -- probably mostly from their college days -- tend to belong more to this group than to yours.

I still think even the really good low/pop stuff has its roots in the higher stuff, sometimes appropriating it directly -- like Clueless. Imagine, a 1) comedy, with a 2) virtuous 3) heroine as the lead, becoming one of the most popular and celebrated movies of the decade. How did they do it? By copying Jane Austen!

Posted by: Agnostic on August 13, 2007 11:55 AM




I dropped out of my book club because after reading too many versions of the Oprah "woman finds herself" book I asked that we read the silver anniversary book of "For better or worse", and no one took it up.

Now, all these women do read the strip every day and enjoy it, but God forbid they should cosider it worthy of discussion in a literary circle.

Let's hear for the cartoonists, and the genre they created. A native American art form who does not bow to foreign models but sets the tone for others to follow.

Posted by: Adriana on August 13, 2007 12:56 PM



Michael,

Other than the book reviewers of the New York Times, who do you think is trying to maintain a Euro high-art tradition? At least since the 1960s, the trend has been very much in the other direction. In Europe as well as the United States.

How can you complain about high art snobbery when Barnes and Noble has a large selection of comic books (excuse me, what's the politically correct term — "graphic novels"), news media review rap music albums as though they were writing about Beethoven, supposedly serious galleries exhibit jokes pretending to be art, and coffee table books extol the wonders of Las Vegas signage?

Are you suggesting that movies aren't taken seriously enough? I think they're taken way too seriously.

Maybe there are people who think — to consider only the detective novel genre — that Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, Colin Dexter, or John Harvey don't write "literature." I don't know anybody like who thinks that, but I don't move in New York highbrow lit'ry circles. But who cares? It doesn't seem to stop anyone reading and enjoying their books, and a pretentious write-up in the NYT about a pretentious "serious" novel probably has little effect on its sales outside of New York and the mini-New Yorks that exist in neighborhoods of other cities.

Generally, though, the distinction between art and entertainment is worth maintaining. True, there is bad art, and there is good — nay, great! — entertainment. But art at least aims higher (which is one reason great art is thin on the ground compared with great entertainment). Obviously, they aren't watertight categories: great or good art is entertaining (in a more refined way than pure entertainment products), and art can be created in almost any medium, including popular music or film.

But it cheapens the culture to pretend that every creation that gives some kind of superficial excitement or pleasure is art. There are different grades of pleasure; those provided by art usually require more both of the artist and the experiencer.

Posted by: Rick Darby on August 13, 2007 1:02 PM



Hey, if modern art is as popular as its proponents say, then why hasn't it filtered down into more popular visual art forms, such as comics, graphic novels, and movies? It just goes to show that nobody really likes it much.

Quickly, the struggle is at the top for what gets passed onto the coming generations through the official channels of the literati, universities, and schools. The hallowed ground is what is being contested.

For the rest of the work not included in this lofty sphere, it seems its all pretty open. I think the age-old conundrum of Euro vs. American art is a little confused. It stands to reason that a country comprised of so many former europeans would have a lot of roots in Europe. American art is bound to be some sort of hybrid. Even jazz has heavy roots in Euro music.

Be careful though--stealing the status of "high art" from the pretentious intellectuals might have the unfortunate effect of making them angry and vicious. The wailing and whining from this development is bound to be painful and unpleasant to anyone unlucky enough to be within earshot.

Posted by: BTM on August 13, 2007 1:19 PM



I'm happy to see my short comment generate such an interesting and broad piece from you, MvB. I actually agree with a lot of what you've written but you haven't addressed the traditional defense of high art, which is that people who can appreciate high art have no problem extending their tastes into more popular forms, while those with exclusive familiarity with popular forms have a difficult time understanding high art. So an admirer of Shirley Hazzard's "The Great Fire" will be able to pick up a Michael Connolly and understand and enjoy it, while an admirer of Connolly won't in most cases be able to extend their tastes to Hazzard. I'm interested in your view of this argument, which is by no means new.

Also, the Patriarch has been making the "popular art has won so what are you complaining about" argument several times here recently and I'd like you're response.

We have Pink's music rammed down our throats relentlessly so why isn't OK to turn around and say that I'd really prefer Stravinsky (or any high quality artist - substitute in a name), which we think is "better." So the snobbery is actually a form of resistance to the culturally relentless promotion of popular art.

I hope this won't be your last post on this subject.

Posted by: jult52 on August 13, 2007 1:42 PM



Michael wrote:
"I may well give these topics more thought than they deserve.

No, say on brother.

This is one of the hottest topics here at 2 BHs. The NYTBR would deny that it is involved in "cannon formation" but we know that they are; given that, there is very little discussion about what constitutes artistic literature.

Saul Bellow has an essay where he talks about the divide into large public books and small public books that the modernist movement brought about. The NYTBR has decided that small public books uniquely constitute the world of letters in America; the rest can fend for itself.

This is the paragraph where Dickens is mentioned in this discussion. As in: why can't we today conjoin popular tastes with quality writing, etc...? A hundred reasons that make an interesting sidelight to this discussion: but one point stands out: video culture, electronic culture has absorbed certain powerful techniques of Dickens' - plot and story line - and does it somewhat better.

This still leaves us with the question of language: how do we get artistic contact high - aesthetic bliss - from language?

More later, got to go -


Posted by: Doug Anderson on August 13, 2007 1:48 PM



"Hey, if modern art is as popular as its proponents say, then why hasn't it filtered down into more popular visual art forms, such as comics, graphic novels, and movies?"

It has.

"Even jazz has heavy roots in Euro music."

No.

"Work that wasn't intended as art -- movies, jazz"

What?

Posted by: BP on August 13, 2007 2:06 PM



"Hey, if modern art is as popular as its proponents say, then why hasn't it filtered down into more popular visual art forms, such as comics, graphic novels, and movies? It just goes to show that nobody really likes it much."

Visual art, particularly comics or graphic novels, are HUGELY influenced by modern art. Movies, too. The first things that come to mind are the fractured angles and POVs found in comics and the montage in movies. Both techniques are used very widely and simply do not exist outside the context of modern art.

Look, if you're thinking pure numbers, then of course more traditional forms of art are more prevalent, which has been my point all along. Popular art is called popular art because it's more popular. It's not being suppressed or marginalized. It IS being judged, along with everything else.

BTM does bring up a crucial point here:

"Quickly, the struggle is at the top for what gets passed onto the coming generations through the official channels of the literati, universities, and schools. The hallowed ground is what is being contested."

Of course it's what gets put into the canon that matters in the end. I'm wondering, BTM or others, what genres or artists you feel are being left out that should be in there? That's a genuine question, I'm not trying to be catty.

Posted by: the patriarch on August 13, 2007 2:49 PM



"Even jazz has heavy roots in Euro music."

No.

Yes. Blues scales are built on European folk music, particularly that of Ireland and Scotland. Jazz is a blues-based music. Also, big band arrangements borrow heavily from the classical tradition. Ask Ellington.

This is not meant to denigrate jazz at all. As I've stated, I believe it to be the highest of all musical forms. Nor does it lessen the African influence on the music, which of course is massive. Jazz is the perfect storm of Euro and African genius. The music simply would not exist without both of those traditions.

Posted by: the patriarch on August 13, 2007 2:54 PM



Also, the instrumentation is almost exclusively European, save the revolutionary invention of the modern drum kit. I don't know who came up with that, black guy, white guy, etc. I'm guessing the former. HOW those instruments are played in jazz is the important part, of course. Plucking an upright bass? Fucking genius. Etc.

Posted by: the patriarch on August 13, 2007 2:58 PM



Of course jazz has roots in euro music--you can easily research this on the web. Many jazz greats openly admitted that they were influenced by euro music.

Abstract art is in no popular comics I can think of--does one blob talk to another in some obscure comic? That's pretty funny--a blob with a thought balloon! Nonsense!

Posted by: BTM on August 13, 2007 3:03 PM



BTM, I wouldn't characterize modern art as comprised of "blobs." If you mean abstractionism, OK, but again, plenty of examples of comics and movies using that. Check out the abstract backgrounds in many comics, and particularly some of Chuck Jone's cartoons. Very abstractionist. Anime uses it a ton in backgrounds, as well. I can't think of a specific use of it in movies, although I'd bet the farm there are a bunch.

Perhaps we may be confusing terms, here. "Modern art" covers a lot of ground, a small part of which is the abstractionism I think most people here dislike. I'm not a huge fan of much of it myself. (Mondrian? Blecch. Pollack? Yes, please.) However, to pick the graphic arts (comics, movies) of all things, BTM, and say that modern art, or abstractionism in particular, is not an influence is to ignore much of those art forms' histories.

Posted by: the patriarch on August 13, 2007 3:57 PM



Sorry to keep going on this, but another interesting parallel between jazz and modern art is how both deconstructed the traditional forms to come up with something new. Jazz took classical instruments and basically invented new ways of playing them, most dramatically in the rhythm section. Drums, bass, etc. From this, I'd say America's greatest contribution to the arts is its willingness and ability to deconstruct existing forms of art! Yippee!

Posted by: the patriarch on August 13, 2007 4:07 PM



The BBC's old Third Programme on the wireless used to define much of High Art by what it broadcast: some literary stuff, heaps of classical music, some jazz, and commentaries on the cricket. Just the ticket.

Posted by: dearieme on August 13, 2007 4:37 PM



Saying that jazz has deep roots in Euro music is like saying Ravel had deep roots in Africa.

The most recognizable feature of blues scales--blue notes, usually the third and fifth scale degrees, flatted by a microtone--are African in origin. While the modal outines of these scales might sometimes superficially resemble British Isles folk music, that can be said of pretty much any music that uses modal-ish scales (which is to say most, all over the world). The call-and-response structure of blues is also African.

European elements were laid over those roots only gradually. Of course jazz greats were influenced by European music, but influence isn't the same as saying their music ultimately sprung from European roots. Certain strains of jazz--Ellington's big band stuff, for example--drew very heavily on European music. But jazz from bebop on was pretty much its own thing. If it was drawing on European music much at all, it was contemporary music.

You can go too far with the idea that blues and jazz in America came straight out of Africa, certainly, and it has been fashionable at times to do so. But the African roots of this music do run very deep.

Posted by: BP on August 13, 2007 5:05 PM



Saying that something has an "abstract background" doesn't really mean much. You could zoom into any part of a realist painting and read it as abstract. The thing that makes the comic successful and desirable reading is the realistic part, both the drawing and the characters.

Posted by: BTM on August 13, 2007 5:09 PM



Roger Scruton wrote a book about all this highbrow/lowbrow stuff: The Intelligent Person's Guide To Modern Culture. It might be up your alley, Micahel, seeing as you like Scruton and all.

By the way, Interiors is actually a very good flick indeed.

Posted by: Brian on August 13, 2007 8:54 PM



Essentially, popular art, as opposed to high art, irons out the complexity and gravity of the Truth of Things (I know that's a gassy phrase but it's the best I can do) and delivers a simplified and sanitized version of the TOT.
This does not mean that high art cannot be playful (much of Mozart) or popular art be sincere (I'm thinking of Sondheim's Send In The Clowns). It means that the playfullness of high art is more serious because closer to the multifaceted truth of things than the seriousness of popular art, even at its best.
I'm sure some of you are thinking that I've set up a straw man by comparing Mozart To Sondheim. Not so. Send In The Clowns is a great, moving song. Limited by form. All popular art is limited by the form it takes, its self-imposed restrictions. The leeway for play (within its own forms to be sure) is greater for Mozart, greater for high art because the ambition is greater.

Posted by: ricpic on August 13, 2007 9:28 PM



"I find it odd that so many commenters here, who also seem to agree that the artists mentioned in this post are true and great artists in the blues vernacular, a vernacular that relies heavily on improvisation and a certain malleability of form, do not enjoy the artists whom I see as the visual counterparts to blues/jazz music, namely those working in the modern, non-representational (to a point) forms."

Patriarch, I agree with what you say, but not without some reservations. I love music but am not esp. musical, and much of what happened in jazz after 1960 or so is incomprehensible to me, once the musicians started to move away from melody.

Non-rep. painting, which I know much better, has the same problem: it got too subtle and minimalist after 1960, when it began to leave behind the sensual pleasures of colour (=melody?). At any rate, in spite of much effort, I don't really get it. I love non-rep painters from Kandinsky to Olitski; it's their successors that I don't understand.

Of course, there are exceptions among some of the later abstract painters (many of them women), but most of them seem to me to be people of great natural ability who chose to limit themselves to an incredibly narrow range of form/colour/style.

It's as if a writer with a natural story-telling gift decided he/she were going to spend all his career writing variations on the same story (set in an office cubicle, with one character), in much the same words, with minor adjustments to their arrangement. Interesting as a writerly exercise perhaps, but not very rewarding to the reader.

Posted by: alias clio on August 13, 2007 11:04 PM



All music is limited by form. Mozart's forms are less limiting than three-minute pop songs, but they are often more limiting than Sondheim's. This all of course begs the question of why greater formal freedom always correlates with greater artistic ambition. It's pretty clear to me that it does not. Some of Schubert's best songs are purely strophic, about the most constrained form you can imagine. 70s prog rock has really elaborate, free forms and yet largely sucks.

As I've said before, the high/low art distinction seems mostly useless to me. But what's even weirder is the idea that any music written in the European classical tradition is high art and anything else is not. It doesn't follow from any of the definitions of high/low I've seen put forth in these discussions, even if we accept those definitions.

Posted by: BP on August 14, 2007 12:14 AM



Blues is one of the strands in jazz. Others I've seen listed include ragtime, church music, military marches, vaudeville and the folk music of, particularly, Scotland and Ireland. I don't much care for the racially-pure theory of jazz; I suspect it's about politics, not music.

Posted by: dearieme on August 14, 2007 8:41 AM



BP - Perhaps my emphasis on form was unfortunate.
Put as simply as possible: the scope of high art, what it tries for, is greater than what popular art attempts.
Scope, ambition: that's the divide.
That there can be lousy high artists and superb pop artists doesn't do away with the disparity.

Posted by: ricpic on August 14, 2007 9:22 AM



BP - I'm going to disagree with you and strongly about the roots of blues/jazz which are built on the European harmonic tradition, with variations and innovations, of course. Jazz and blues are based on triads; triads don't exist in non-European music. And blacks in the New World were largely cut off from Africa while they were clearly touched and influenced by American and European popular songs.

Posted by: jult52 on August 14, 2007 10:14 AM



Where are people getting this stuff about jazz? Either you all are including a lot more music under the category "jazz" than I or most musicologists are, in which case we're talking past each other, or you're just wrong. Using saxophones isn't much of a musical influence from military band music. The Scots/Irish influence is just not there, mostly--what jazz are you listening to? Yes, the "racially pure" theory is polemical and wrong, but no one really endorses it. That blues is the primary source material of jazz and that most of the defining characteristics of jazz derive from the blues, though, is pretty uncontroversial among people who actually study music.

ricpic--

My point was that, even if you do accept the high/pop distinction as useful, there is no grounds for putting all 18th century orchestral music with orchestras in the high category and all 20th century music with guitars in the pop category, except by virtue of pure coincidence (which would make me suspicious). The vast majority of classical music of Mozart's time does not meet your criteria for high art. It is formulaic, vapid, and neither strives for nor attains anything beyond momentary entertainment. You can hear it on classical radio a lot of the time. Conversely I would say that a large amount of pop music meets your criteria for high art. Maybe we don't even disagree about this.

Posted by: BP on August 14, 2007 10:17 AM



Jazz, yes, but the larger gift America gave to the world was its pop music, the music of the big bands, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary looney, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hammerstein, Jerome Kern; music that told stories, offered elegant lyrics, and some of the most memorable melodies ever wrought. It was lowbrow, it touched heart and soul, and thus escaped the snobs, which was their loss.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on August 14, 2007 12:47 PM



Corrections: Rosemary Clooney, and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Sorry.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on August 14, 2007 2:39 PM



As I've said before, the high/low art distinction seems mostly useless to me. But what's even weirder is the idea that any music written in the European classical tradition is high art and anything else is not. It doesn't follow from any of the definitions of high/low I've seen put forth in these discussions, even if we accept those definitions.

The whole notion of "high" art and "low" art is sociological, not artistic. High art is the art meant to be consumed by the upper classes; low art is meant to be consumed by the laboring classes. Which is why the most ambitious and progressive jazz, prior to around 1940, was "low" art, while the most vapid composition by a contemporary of Mozart is automatically "high" art.

Calling "ambitious" art "high", and "unambitious" art "low", might make sense in some abstract universe. However, this is not the definition that these terms originally carried in this universe. Because of that historical baggage, at this point trying to change these terms merely confuses things.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 14, 2007 3:50 PM



Is it all about snobbery? Is it all about social class? Or is there, as I maintain, an irreducible difference between what high art tries to do and what low or popular art sets as its goal?
High art is serious in a way that popular art can never be and in fact does not want to be. I'm sorry if serious carries connotations of ponderous or pompous but it's the only word that will do.
The popular artist above all wants his creation, to be...popular, social, acceptable. This, by definition, limits where he will go, where he will take himself and his audience.
The high artist of course wants his creation to be accepted. He doesn't write a poem or a musical score to place in a drawer. Or a painting to face against a wall. But above all he is after something ineffable, which is a fancy way of saying he is after something he can't even know he is after till he gets there. Then, when he is there, if he is one of the very few, he has produced a Beethoven's 7th or a Jackson Pollack One: creations that are in a different league altogether - because maybe, maybe, they can take the audience there - than any creation of popular art, no matter how skillfully made.

Posted by: ricpic on August 14, 2007 7:42 PM



Adriana -- Dave Barry's amazing, isn't he?

Robert T. -- That's some very shrewd and funny writing.

Patriarch (1) -- Others will speak for themselves, but I like a lot of modernist, high, and literary art just fine, though often not the stuff that's routinely pushed at us. I have my doubts that much of it will live on because "reading" so much of it is such a specialized skill -- I have a hard time believing that those skills are going to be aroudnd in 200 years. But that's just betting on the future, which is a dumb way to waste time. I do get a kick out of foregrounding architecture and playing Mr. Anti-Modernist there, because architecture is the one art with a super-strong social component. A bad building isn't a negligeable thing -- it can put a curse on lives and neighborhoods. Given that trad architecture has a batting average of around .900 and modernist-derived architecture has a batting average of around .001, it strikes me as worth wondering whether the modernist way is ever the right way to go in architecture. If you were a coach, would you ever put a batter who hits .001 in to bat?

BP (1) -- My impression is that boys were more enthusiastic about reading back in the pre-feminist, pre-post-modern days of the classical liberal canon. But I'm talking in this posting about what's become of reading and writing since 1975.

Patriarch (2) -- American art often has a strongly improvisational bent, doesn't it? I'm not sure I agree that the blues and modernist visual art have a lot in common, though. Obviously a lot of visual artists tried to lift something of the spirit of the blues and inject it into their own work. But the blues is pretty basic and mighty conservative. Bop and post-bop seem (to me at least) much closer in actual fact to modernism in the visual arts than the blues do (does?). If blues form equals representation, then bop and post-bop started to leave representation behind.

BP (2) -- I like your way of enjoying Michelangelo! But as for skill... The role of skill (and skill that can be perceived by the viewer/reader/listener) in art may not be a primary thing, but it's been widely recognized by anthropologists of art as a necessary component in the arts of all cultures. It can usefully be thought of as a demonstration that the artist knows what the hell he's doing, which in turn gives viewers license/permission/whatever to go ahead and experience the art. Obviously, what this skill-set is that an artist can display and an audience can discern can vary widely ... But here's an analogy that might be useful. Say you meet someone new at a party, and that person appears to have no command whatsoever over spoken language. How much credence will you give what he says?

Agnostic -- Smart comments, tks. As for me, I don't really sweat the Canon that much ...

Adriana (2) -- Cartoons and comics rock too!

Rick D. (1) -- I don't mind making a distinction between art and entertainment either -- I think it can be really helpful in a practical sense. I don't mind it at all so long as it's allowed that some of what in the long term comes to be embraced and celebrated as "art of significance" comes originally in the form of entertainment, and that much of what comes originally in the form of "art" never goes anywhere. Which seems to me to hold most of the time so far as the arts of the U.S. go ...

BTM -- "Hybrid" is the word, isn't it?

Jult52 -- Thanks for setting me off, as well as for responding. Excellent ideas for further discussion too!

Doug -- You're right, I think. The impact of electronic culture on tastes and habits can't be overestimated. Plus : How to get people to read these days? Not a great era for us prose writers ...

BP (2) -- Albert Murray (a hero of mine) once described jazz as something like "What people of African descent did with European forms and instruments." Jazz, or 90% of it anyway, is very different from purely African music (as it also is from purely Euro music). One major difference: Most native African music doesn't use anything like what most people would consider "song form," yet most of jazz does. Gotta love that hybrid vigor! If this line of thinking interests you, you might get a kick out of Murray's book "Stomping the Blues." I found it a really eye/brain/ear-opening volume.

Patriarch (3) -- Actually popular art isn't called popular art because of numbers but because it's "of the people" -- in other words, it uses conventions and forms (and language) that are graspable by everyday people and that often have their source in them. It's informal (in the sense of "demotic") and not formal (in the sense of wearing a tux). And many, many worthy popular novelists have been no more popular in the numbers sense than the average literary novelist. A song doesn't qualify as "popular music" because it's #1 on the charts after all, but because it adheres to certain forms and traditions, and because it aims to fulfill certain expectations.

Brian -- I like that Scruton book! How'd you react to it yourself? He's a bit clueless where American art goes but awfully good otherwise, it seemed to me...

Ricpic - But what do you make of works like, say, "Gypsy"? Or Duke Ellington? Or Keaton's "The Navigator"? I think I know what you mean -- that, in principle, art-art allows for greater complexity than popular art does. But so far as practical results go, how true does that tend to hold? And especially in the U.S.?

A. Clio -- "Writerly exercises" is nice, tks. That's how a lot of contempo "literary fiction" struck me back in the days I was actually following it ...

Dearieme -- I could be wrong but I have the impression that the Brits don't stress out over the high-art vs. entertainment question as much as we do. Is that right? How do you explain it? Are y'all more secure so far as the "culture"-thing goes?

Richard -- That's one inspiring list of artists! Hard to beat the swing era, isn't it? In my personal canon it's one of the real peaks of Western art.

FvB - The sociological p-o-v is really helpful, tks for reminding us of that.


Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 14, 2007 8:02 PM



Quite frankly, I think all jazz is terribly overrated. Duke Ellington is not the equal of Tchaikovsky or Ravel. The classic Hot Fives and Hot Seven sides that Armstrong cut back in the 20s sound pretty dated to my ears and not just because of the technical quality of the recordings. Lately, I've been listening to a cross-section of Coltrane's recordings and what I hear is an outpouring of technical virtuosity that doesn't have much musical interest. I'll Take Stravinsky's Symphony Of Psalms or Poulenc's Stabat Mater over A Love Supreme any day of the week.

Much of the European music that was considered controversial and even unlistenable during the earlier part of the last century has by now entered the standard repertoire while the classic jazz of Armstrong, Basie and Ellington has met the opposite fate. Critics still spend a great deal of time writing about these jazz patriarchs but the lay audience for this era in jazz has over time shrunk considerably, and I doubt that it will ever recover its original popularity. The popularity of Kind Of Blue and A Love Supreme underscores this state of affairs.

It remains to be seen what happens to Davis and Coltrane but I wouldn't be surprised if they meet a fate similar to their predecessors. Our high valuation of jazz too often is a form of provincial boosterism.

Posted by: LBourne on August 14, 2007 10:26 PM



A response to responses:

MB
"Given that trad architecture has a batting average of around .900 and modernist-derived architecture has a batting average of around .001, it strikes me as worth wondering whether the modernist way is ever the right way to go in architecture. If you were a coach, would you ever put a batter who hits .001 in to bat?"

- How is that batting average calculated; by whom, using which criteria over what time frame? I happened to peruse a half dozen architecture, home design magazines at the bookstore today and I saw more hip, groovy, with it young professionals with their more modernist than not homes and furniture than I did updated Victorians or other traditional forms. You can't just say it's all propaganda and distortion by a cabal of mad modernists who control the publishing industry.

"Bop and post-bop seem (to me at least) much closer in actual fact to modernism in the visual arts than the blues ..."

- Absolutely. I've always used that analogy myself. It is interesting to note, however, that the tastes of a visual artist in music (or the reverse) do not necessarily show those correlations. In fact, I've found it very rare when it does happen. The painting style of Miles Davis shows a very different facet of his personal aesthetic than his music. MOMA released a CD of Jackson Pollock's favorite music, a Jack the Dripper mix-tape.
He listened to Jelly Morton, Louis Armstrong, Artie Shaw, Fats Waller ... the only Bop (if that's where you'd put it) was Coleman Hawkins' "Boff Boff (Mop Mop)"

"what this skill-set is that an artist can display and an audience can discern can vary widely ... But here's an analogy that might be useful. Say you meet someone new at a party, and that person appears to have no command whatsoever over spoken language. How much credence will you give what he says?"

- Every New Year's Eve for years I would listen to these doctoral candidates in physics discuss charmed quarks, and half the time, they couldn't follow simple directions to the package store and come back with what they went to get ... or keep their checkbooks balanced ... but I figured I should give them the benefit of the doubt. THEY seemed to know what they were talking about. Most of them now do things they really can't talk about.

"I don't mind it at all so long as it's allowed that some of what in the long term comes to be embraced and celebrated as "art of significance" comes originally in the form of entertainment, and that much of what comes originally in the form of "art" never goes anywhere."

- Granted, but where does art need to go? Some art forms are intended to be experienced as a shared event with others, theater, film, dance; others can be best appreciated intimately, a book, some musical recordings. Some art is incredibly timely, yet can quickly become dated and quaint rather than compelling. Some is ahead of its time, some turns out to be timeless and will have something new to say to every generation and that is what ultimately becomes part of the on going narrative of Art History.

FvB The whole notion of "high" art and "low" art is sociological, not artistic. High art is the art meant to be consumed by the upper classes; low art is meant to be consumed by the laboring classes.

That is certainly one way of defining the terminology and framing the issue, but it is far from the only way and is certainly less useful at this in the thread than those being used by ricpic and others. Over the years I've spent working with artists, whether they were rock musicians or abstract painters, what I've observed is that they know when they are following their artistic muse and when they are working at their craft to produce marketable product. These are not to say, obviously, that art and craft are disconnected from each other, rather it is to say that artists recognize a difference in what is, for them, personally, in their own work, "high" or "low" ... absent any issues of the ultimate consumer's social status might be.

Posted by: Chris White on August 14, 2007 10:57 PM



Mr. White:

By ignoring the historical roots of the terms in question, you confuse the secondary characteristics of these terms with the primary characteristics. You contrast low "market-oriented" art with high "muse-following" art. This makes sense in the artistic context of contemporary America, where popular (working-class) art has acquired a secondary quality of commercialism, and "muse-following" art (appreciated by the cognoscenti, an elite group by definition) has acquired a secondary quality of noncommerciality.

However, your market-muse dichotomy makes no sense whatever in discussing, say, Bach. Bach, living in a time where there was no commerical mass media to allow artists to make a living out of working-class audiences, had no opportunity to "sell out for money" with low art. By making art for a courtly elite audience who wanted him to stretch his talent, Bach was monetizing his talent as much as he possibly could, at the same time as he was following his muse--a contradiction in your (secondary) terms.

But if we stick with the primary (historical) definition of these terms, we make perfect sense by describing Bach's music as "high" art, because it was clearly designed for an aristocratic audience, despite its money-making qualities.

My only point in bringing this up, is that by not sticking with consistent definitions we can chase our tails forever, particularly when we start making comparisons across historical eras--such as between European ancien regime high art traditions and American contemporary artistic realities.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 15, 2007 12:24 AM



Chris - I'm puzzled by your reactions to modernism and architecture. Smart, hip people woke up to the fact that much modernist architecture has been an anti-human disaster about 40 years ago. Did you skip class that day? Modernism played a big role in destroying American urbanism. Modernism has never figured out how to create enjoyable public spaces. Has there been, in all architectural history, another style or approach of which such damning things can be confidently said? So why stand up for it?

You write "You can't just say it's all propaganda and distortion by a cabal of mad modernists who control the publishing industry."

Sure can too. Just as the NYTBR people look at popular and narrative fiction and say "Not worthy of acknowledgement" and perhaps even "not really literature," the people in the academic, foundation, and press end of the architecture world look at traditional architecture and say "That's not architecture." They really do. I'm reluctant to say "Believe me, I know these people, I've pitched stories to these people, I've sat in on meetings with these people, this is exactly who they are and how they behave," but, well ...

What a great topic the subject of the music that artists listen to as they create is. I'd love to know more. I wonder if any relationship between the art produced and the music listened-to can be discerned in most cases. And does the music listened-to color the painting/sculpture -- if Ms. Artist is listening to punk does she paint one kind of picture, and if she's listening to baroque opera does she paint another kind? What do you find tends to be the case?

As for skill, are you suggesting that your doctoral-physics friends are incapable of sending off signals indicating that they're competent at physics? After all, if they can't give evidence that they can handle and juggle the elements of physics, then other physics types are going to ignore them. The "skill" thing seems to be a universal prerequisite to any kind of communication. Which of course makes sense -- unless a person gives evidence of competence, then all we're dealing with, as far as we can tell, is randomness and noise. What I do think some people who visit here don't get is what the skills are where stuff like neoconceptual art goes. People playing the neoconceptual gallery-art game are playing a different game than people playing the representational-painting game are, and the rules and skill-sets of these games are completely different from each other. Now, whether the neoconceptual-gallery-art game interests a given person, or strikes him/her as worth playing or making an effort to understand, or whether it seems overrefined or silly or insignificant ...

You write "Granted, but where does art need to go? " Beats me. Does art need to go somewhere? Is it up to us to come up with an answer to that question?

I don't mean to be flip -- I do realize that people inside the art world are forever asking such questions. Here's a fun John Perreault essay on the theme, for instance. I do marvel a bit about the concern, though. Isn't there plenty of art going on already? At least if your eyes are open to it. And won't artists do what they'll do anyway?

I could be all wet, but it seems to me that a key thing is an assumption that lies beneath the question "What does art need to do?" People asking this question always seem to be referring to one particular, teeny-tiny, narrow, tight little artworld in particular, namely the self-described "art world" that is covered by the press as "serious art."

If that's so, then my response to the "where does art need to go?" question is, more or less, "Hey, relax. The avant-garde gallery-art world may be cool and fun, and it may interest you and your friends and colleagues intensely. But in the larger scheme of things, it's not really very important. There's certainly no guarantee that History is going to pay any attention. Given that, why not try opening your eyes to the wide variety of things in the larger culture that are already being done visually -- TV graphics, cinematography, photography, ads, layout, comic books, sports design, web design, t-shirts, book jackets, crafts, even narrative and/or representational art of many kinds (sailing art is a big genre, for instance) ... It's immense. Tons of stuff is being done already. It's more than any one person can know or find out about. Why not look into it some? You don't need to will richness and pluralism into being. It's already there, if only you open yourself to it."

In other words, I think the self-conscious avant-garde gallery-art/art-school world 1) isn't terribly significant, 2) ought to get some sense of perspective on itself, 3) ought to get outside itself every now and then, and 4) self-inflicts a lot of agonies on itself.

Maybe art doesn't need to go anywhere. Maybe it's already there (and many other places as well). Maybe the real problem, so far as there is a problem, is with the egocentricity and narrowness-of-vision of the self-conscious avant-garde gallery-art world.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 15, 2007 10:21 AM



A better way of talking about skill in art is to say that artists need enough skill to achieve what they're trying to do. This sounds incredibly obvious but it seems lost on some commenters here. Judging all artists according to whether they have mastered a certain set X of skills makes no sense when some artists are trying to achieve something that actually requires skill set Y. You can debate whether the artistic project is worthwhile too, of course.

You can also to some extent talk about skill and artistic content separately. Many classical music people, for example, think that Mussorgsky was a genius but didn't know how to orchestrate (which is why we usually hear Ravel's orchestrations of his work).

Posted by: BP on August 15, 2007 12:41 PM



BP -- That doesn't quite cover it, though it comes close. If an artist has a skill-set that enables him to achieve what he wants to achieve but that skill-set isn't shared with anyone else, then what has been accomplished? An artist can play a pre-existing game, can play and extend and mess with a pre-existing game, and/or can try to establish his/her own game and lure other people into it by sheer force of genius/charisma/whatever. But without an audience no art-exchange happens. No one is under any obligation to crack any artist's private game, after all.

Incidentally, nothing wrong of course with someone sitting around playing with a private language ... It's just, well, who cares?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 15, 2007 1:09 PM



MB

"Smart, hip people woke up to the fact that much modernist architecture has been an anti-human disaster about 40 years ago. Did you skip class that day?"

I guess I did skip that class since I like a lot of modernist architecture. I also didn't know that there was only one correct acceptable architectural (or any other) aesthetic.

As for those magazines, I flipped through DWELL, Maine Home and Garden, Down East, Metropolis, Natural Home and a couple of others. While Metropolis and possibly DWELL might be part of some NYC based cabal of evil modernist gatekeepers perpetuating the worst case of aesthetic fraud in human history, I really don't buy the argument. Maine Home & Garden featured a home that was modernist at the core, with plenty of 'shingle style' references. Natural Home is all about being more ecologically aware. They had a very traditional urban townhouse with high tech green systems (heat pump, solar, etc.) and a modernist modular place with similar systems. Both young hip owners seemed very happy in their new digs.

My point is you seem to dismiss, out of hand, the very idea that anyone can LIKE modernism without being either a dupe or a shill. I'm a fan of New Urbanism; I like a nice bungalow or an elegantly restored Queen Anne; I also like a lot of modernist buildings. Why is that a problem?

As for equation between music listened to while painting and the paintings that result, I've floated an exhibition idea for a number of years without getting it off the ground of supplying artists with a set of CDs for the artists to listen to while they paint and then exhibiting the paintings in a setting where the music can be heard while the works are viewed.

The closest example of this concept I can point to was a collaboration between one of my client artists and her son, a well-known rock musician. She made works while listening to specific sound loops created by her son, which were in turn incorporated into the pieces with a system including proximity sensors, mp3 players and hidden speakers. New themes, ways of handling paint, etc. resulted from this process, which are now showing up in her "regular" work.

BP better made the point I was trying to make about skill set in a following comment. Perhaps it was just a precautionary attack because it has often seemed that many who comment on 2BH require faithful depiction of the real world before they are willing to accept that skill was involved. There are many overlapping skill sets, some less obvious to the casual viewer than others. My point was that there are many cases where it is not about any lack of skill on the part of the artist, but a lack of understanding on the part of the viewer.

Regarding where art goes, you were the one who expressed satisfaction that much of what is presented as "art" doesn't go anywhere. I was just wondering where it needed to go?

I really think you need to get out of NYC more often. Even A (well, perhaps B) list artists and those well placed in "the art world" can curl your hair with tales of supercilious, self-important, self-righteous, navel gazing New York gallerists and their genius du jours. So much of what you're saying about appreciating different approaches and genres in ... for the moment let's call it visual culture ... is more "yeah, so?" than "hmm, hadn't thought of that." Again, this seems to be a byproduct of trying to blame an evil conspiracy for aesthetic fraud.

FvB

You're going to have to make a better case for your "historical roots" argument for defining "high" and "low" art primarily in terms of the status of their audience/support system. I would begin by asking why, if the class or wealth of his supporters are what made Bach and his compositions "high" art, the compositions of Irish harpist and composer Turlough O'Carolan are then considered "folk music"? O'Carolan (1670 - 1738) was roughly a contemporary of J.S. Bach (1685 1750). Both composed for the elite. Other than O'Carolan being a traveling man while Bach stayed close to home there must be some other factor involved.

Furthermore, I doubt you would find the students or faculty of Juilliard or Hartt would accept the notion that their efforts to educate students to become "high art" musicians and composers is primarily about who will foot the bill rather than about the aesthetic understanding behind those compositions and performance skill sets being taught.

Posted by: Chris White on August 15, 2007 3:16 PM



Chris -- I like your idea for a show, let us know if you ever get the chance to put it up.

You write: "I also like a lot of modernist buildings. Why is that a problem?" Did someone say it's a problem?

You write "I also didn't know that there was only one correct acceptable architectural (or any other) aesthetic." Calling the legacy of more than two thousand years of architecture history "one aesthetic" isn't exactly up to your usual standards! There are hundreds of aesthetics in there to be mined, exploited, messed-with, learned-from, and enjoyed, even skipping modernism, which I wish people would.

You write: "Regarding where art goes, you were the one who expressed satisfaction that much of what is presented as "art" doesn't go anywhere. I was just wondering where it needed to go?" Oh sorry, I misunderstood your point. Of course art doesn't need to go anywhere. I was quibbling with one of the pretences of the gallery-art world, which (like that of the literary world) is that they're especially important -- they're the people who are making what's eventually going to go down in the history books as artistically significant from our era. There's no guarantee of that at all.

You write: "I really think you need to get out of NYC more often." Could well be, and I should put you in touch with my bosses to get me some more time off. But if what I'm saying is such a been-there/done-that yawn, I don't understand why you'd bother to spend such a lot of time trying to counter it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 15, 2007 6:01 PM



Mr. White:

I wouldn't classify Mr. O'Carolan's compositions as "low" art. I suspect that the reason anyone does so is because he composed in a tradition that had strong working class associations, i.e., harping. As you can read at this website (http://www.contemplator.com/carolan/carlnbio.html#ossian),

There were three musical traditions in Ireland, art music, folk music and the harper tradition. (Complete Works) The harper tradition served as a bridge between art and folk music and was the primary conduit for the oral tradition. Carolan created a unique style by not only combining the two art forms but by adding elements [from] then-contemporary composers, including Vivaldi and Corelli.

The references in O'Carolan's music to contemporary high-art composers, and the fact that his music was designed for elite patrons, however, in my mind would clearly place his compositions into the high art bin. But again, remember my main point: the designation of "high" and "low" is NOT artistic in nature, but sociological. I didn't dream up class consciousness or this terminology, I'm not defending it as desirable, I'm simply pointing out that the high/low division began as an expression of class consciousness and continues to have much of that same aroma today.

As for your second point:

Furthermore, I doubt you would find the students or faculty of Juilliard or Hartt would accept the notion that their efforts to educate students to become "high art" musicians and composers is primarily about who will foot the bill rather than about the aesthetic understanding behind those compositions and performance skill sets being taught.

Really...nobody at Julliard or Hartt is conscious that classical music has a different audience profile than rap music? Just like nobody in the rap music business thinks people at Julliard are upper class? I think musicians, high and low, just might have a greater awareness of the class-associations of various genres of music than you give them credit for. (Which is no knock on them.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 15, 2007 7:41 PM



I'm going to take one final pass at this. I mostly agree with MB's central point [... the little guy ... tends to be either too deferential towards the eggheads, or too reflexively dismissive of them. ... Stand up for your actual tastes and pleasures, little guy!]

That said I far more often encounter those who are reflexively dismissive than deferential toward the aesthetic of "eggheads," especially in these threads. Furthermore in this context "eggheads" is used as a pejorative and standing up for having a taste for modernism regularly elicits attacks. It is this dichotomy I find curious and somewhat troubling. Most "eggheads" in the arts feel that they and their aesthetic are under constant attack from the huge clout of the "entertainment industry." If they become a little brittle in defense of their beleaguered art, it is understandable.

jult52 put this well when he noted, " you haven't addressed the traditional defense of high art, which is that people who can appreciate high art have no problem extending their tastes into more popular forms, while those with exclusive familiarity with popular forms have a difficult time understanding high art. .... the snobbery is actually a form of resistance to the culturally relentless promotion of popular art."

FvB I think you're overreaching. Can you find a "high art" harpist whose concert repertoire includes O'Carolan? If the wealth and social status of their patrons was the key to determining whether artists' works became considered "high" "low" (or "middlebrow" for that matter) why is one so much more likely to hear an O'Carolan composition at a folk music coffeehouse than a concert hall?

I would argue that "high" versus "low" status has always had much more to do with education rather than wealth per se. When education was one of the exclusive privileges that came with wealth this may have been less obvious. As education became more universal the relative status of art and aesthetics followed the academic rather than financial path upward. In short, the "class" distinctions that Juilliard students are most aware of as it relates to their art have to do more with how many classes they (and their presumed audience) have taken and degrees they've earned rather than how much their investment portfolio contains.

An aspiring musician whose interest is in becoming another Bach goes to Juilliard. He or she does so knowing his or her life will most likely be spent toiling in obscurity, hopefully from a tenured faculty position. A few grants and commissions might make it possible for them to afford enough actual composition time to produce a body of work before they die. An aspiring musician who wants to reach well-heeled backers and make a good living is more likely to go to Berklee to learn jazz, pop and jingle composition or head to Nashville with an electric guitar.

Posted by: Chris White on August 16, 2007 9:43 AM



MB--

"But without an audience no art-exchange happens. No one is under any obligation to crack any artist's private game, after all."

This is obviously true, but who's been talking about artists playing private games? Actually, isn't any work of art that anyone defends by definition not playing a private game, because it connects with at least one person? Or, in the case of the actual works under discussion, with many people?

Basically when people say that artists are only speaking to themselves, they are saying, "This art doesn't speak to ME, so anyone else who claims to get anything out of it must be pretending." You can't actually have a conversation with people who think this way.

Posted by: BP on August 16, 2007 11:11 AM



Chris -- Commenters will speak for themselves. I think you and I aren't far apart on a lot of these questions, we just spend time in different parts of the world. Though I can't resist making fun of PBS and NPR from where I live, I'd probably be addicted to both if I lived in the boonies. I do have a hard time thinking of the egghead/literary/gallery-art/PBS/faculty world as some poor beleagured victim of American insensitivity, though. These people often come from privileged backgrounds and are often very good at networking and feathering their nests. And their attitudes 1) dominate in the elite schools, in the elite press, and at the foundations, 2) do a disservice to everyone else by portraying American culture through a very narrow lens, and 3) are huuuuuuugely intolerant of dissent. (I blog for a reason -- the kinds of ideas and observations I make here are simply unacceptable to the art-media worlds' powers-that-be. They will not publish this kind of thing, or they'll do so very rarely, and only grudgingly. I blog under a pseudonym for similar reasons ...) If some visitors to this blog express some exasperation about this state of affairs, it seems to me completely understandable.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 16, 2007 1:02 PM



BP -- We seem to be turning in circles. But you're touching on and bringing out something that I think is a key characteristic about American culture by contrast to many Euro cultures: In the U.S., no one has to make the effort to crack difficult culture-languages.

A kid raised in France back in the day had no choice but to crack the whole French-art thing. The whole culture demanded it -- you coudln't achieve French-ness without taking on all those values. But a kid growing up in America is under no obligation whatsoever to crack any difficult art-language.

That's why some people, me included, think it's pretty funny when advocates of certain difficult art-languages carry on as though Americans should love, respect, and support, I dunno, workshop-style literary fiction, for instance. Realistically speaking, it ain't gonna happen. 9 out of ten Americans simply aren't going to think it's worth their while to go to all that trouble.

And since we don't have culture commissars able to enforce culture-commissar rules -- although god knows that we have a lot of culture-commissar-wannabes -- these 9 out of 10 will go off and find their entertainment and enlightenment elsewhere.

As a consequence, 90% of our energies go into creating culture that will appeal to people have no interest in specialized languages. In practical temrs, that means that much of our creative energy goes into popular and folk culture. Which tends to mean that 1) we have a very rich and dynamic popular and folk culture, and 2) our fine-arts worlds tend to feel beleagured and defensive, which of course weakens their creative output and pisses off a lot of people who might otherwise be interested in what they do.

Specialized art-languages are always and probably always will be in that difficult position in this country.

I suppose one could respond to this by spending a lifetime bemoaning how crude and unwilling to give "art" a shot Americans are. That'd be a little too quixotic a culture-life for me, though. I'd rather find the whole panorama interesting, look into it, and see what's there to be experienced and (one hopes) enjoyed.

I also find it horrifying that anyone would try to force specialized art-languages on Americans: modernism in architecture, "literary" fiction, etc. Great or not, these are very peculiar taste-sets, requiring in most cases lots of indoctrination, er, education to catch onto. Forcing it on people is only going to create vast amounts of antagonisms. Only a few people are going to appreciate having these tastes laid on them, whether by builders and architects or by profs, teachers, and critics.

I think advocates of this stuff would do better to try to accept that they're peddling what will always be a minority taste in a culture that's basically ripsnorting along in other directions. I think they'd do better to lure people in by seducing them.

I also think everyone would be better-served if we just accepted the fact that 9 out of 10 Americans are going to spend their lives interacting with popular culture. Nothing wrong with that, by the way, unless you think that Fred Astaire and Bette Davis and Count Basie (and Townes Van Zandt and Robert Altman) need to have excuses made for them. There's better and worse popular culture. There's popular culture that has been accepted worldwide as tiptop "art." Why not start with an acceptance of what is, and how things are? Those people who really are drawn to more specialized fields and tastes will find their way there, and everyone else will find their lives enhanced and richer (because they'll be better informed and educated about what they already love and come to quite naturally).

Plus, the 9 out of 10 won't be as hostile towards specialized art fields as they often are these days, which would be a nice thing too.

All this would require one big, difficult thing, though: That the culture-commissar set quit carrying on in such dictatorial, absolutist ways, and that they start being a lot more modest about their role in a society like ours. Somehow I suspect that that's going to be hard for them to do ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 16, 2007 1:25 PM



MB--

You are closer to these people than I am, so I should probably just believe you. But I wish you were more specific. Give us some examples of arts people acting like wannabe commissars. Change the names, details, whatever, just give us something to work with. Who are these people who scoff at anything the masses like? Again, you know these people, and I'm just going on what feels to me like the spirit of the age, which is postmodern, anything-goes, when it comes to art. The highbrow press writes about rap music. I guarantee you people have written PhD dissertations on those genre novels you mentioned, and gotten praise for them. There's plenty of representational art in galleries and museums.

Who is the enemy? Can you give us more than "I move in the art world, I know some people"?

Posted by: BP on August 16, 2007 3:44 PM



An aside:
*dreamily* "feathering their nests"...

Now, that's a pretty good job description, much better than "Residential Interior Designer".


Posted by: Tatyana on August 16, 2007 4:58 PM



Great post and a great discussion!

I'd add that there's also a hang-up about how high-arts & culture/academic folks in American talk about pop culture. The short version: the way we're supposed to talk about a piece of high art like, say, a Stan Brakhage movie, doesn't quite work if we're trying to talk about, say, Rio Bravo. Though some writers/critics make this work - see Michael Sicinski, for instance - for most people it just seems to get in the way.

I mean: in Cinema Studies grad school, we paid a lot of attention to American popular movies. But the profs and most of my fellow students did not approach them as popular movies. So, our prof presented Busby Berkeley's movies through the lens of Michel Foucault's theories and the class dealt almost exclusively with the question of to what extent Berkley's work conveyed a fascistic ideology. There was no discussion of the musical theater/revue elements that Berkeley was drawing from or anything else involving the practical, nuts-and-bolts issues of these movies as entertainments. These issues were beneath discussion and I was shot down by the professor when I attempted to bring them in.

Likewise: Putting hot-rods on display in a museum, next to little placards explaining why they are important, seems to be missing the point. (I'm reminded that Manny Farber wrote that Scarface was one of the best movies ever but also said that it was definitely not art like you'd find in a museum).

This is why, as much as I love Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's Fantastic Four comics, Robert Crumb's work in Weirdo, and E.C. Segar's Popeye comic strips - as much as I think these are among the greatest American arts & culture things - I'm not that enthusiastic about cartooning museums or "teaching" these comics in the college classroom, like you'd teach Faulkner. Not that they shouldn't be taken seriously, but part of what is great about them is that they don't come with "high art/culture" baggage - trying to load them down with it is kind of a drag. It's good to have conversations about arts & culture that doesn't assume a high art-centric p.o.v. or that bland "cultural studies" perspective that flattens everything out so that a toothpaste commercial is just as "interesting" as a Robert Altman movie. Personally, I liked that there was stuff out there that I could discover and engage with outside of any academic-high art-museum-"it's good for you"-"because you'll learn something about society" context.

Posted by: Jon Hastings on August 17, 2007 7:08 AM



BP -- Sure. From this posting: The New York Times Book Review Section, New York University, and PBS.

Architecture's always a fun example. If you look at the architecture magazines, at the columns written by architecture critics, and at the prestigious prizes, the kinds of buildings, parks, and public spaces that 90% of Americans prefer are almost completely absent. Instead, there's this hard-to-fathom stuff -- glinty, impressive, sci-fi -- everywhere, being talked about in language that seems to have no anchor in reality. "Architecture" is presented as a kind of branch of far-out research, where titanic geniuses are fighting an exciting battle to deliver new and dazzling visions unto the benighted, strip-mall-lovin' rubes. Pretty much all discussion of traditional architectural styles has been consigned to another category of magazine entirely -- the "shelter" magazines, where people talk straightforwardly about bedrooms, decks, porches, etc. Check out the list of Pritzker-Prize winners (the Pritzker is architecture's highest-status prize): Avant-garde startchitects, every one of them.

Fun fact: Of all the architecture schools in American, only 2 (or 2.5, depending on how you count) teach traditional architecture. In other words, architecture's media-academic-prize-awarding-foundation establishment had deemed the space-and-building interests, pleasures, and concerns of everyday people not-architecture. That's quite a bizarre state of affairs! As well as a dramatic turnabout from, say, pre-modernism 1900. Back then, architects saw themselves as helping people live better and more stylishly. They saw their business as helping out with porches, parks, trees, bedrooms, garages, etc, and working with (not against) what people generally like already.

What's fun and interesting is something you're highlighting, which is that, while the walls have come down in many fields (music, movies), the walls are still up in a few of them: book-fiction, architecture. Why should this be? I also think it's interesting that in a de facto way, all walls are already down for many young people -- for you, evidently, and for many young kids I know too it's all already a great big level playing field. DVDs and computer games share shelf space with books and comics, etc. It'll be fun to see how culture develops as y'all start to move into it and adjust it to your liking. And there's another fun question: What are the consequences (including the downsides) of bringing the walls down? I'm all for opening the discussion up to include a lot more than stuffiness generally allows for. But what is the quality of the discussion that ensues? Often pretty poor, it seems to me.

Jon -- Excellent points, tks. I don't know about you but these days I'm thinkin' that academia is hopeless, and that academics are worse. No matter what, they're going to make what they touch academic. "Film Studies" .... Brr, even the words send chills up my spine. Ie., "how to view and discuss movies in ways no one but your classmates can understand, or should even have any interest in." It's just something some academics do. Weird, no? Anyway, it's a great subject: You being a filmbuff, having been through Film Studies ... I'd love to learn more about what it was like for you. If you've got a bit of writing in you about it -- memoir, musings, jokes -- I'd love to run it on the blog here. Lemme know.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 17, 2007 10:20 AM






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