I discovered to my astonishment that evolutionary and neurological approaches to literary criticism were now the Coming Thing in academic circles. Further research led me to a rapidly expanding, bullish, “neuroaesthetic” discourse purporting to explain the impact of paintings, music, and other arts by examining the neural pathways they stimulated. Wherever I looked, I saw the humanities being taken over by neuro-evolutionary pseudoscience: musicology, the law, ethical theory, and theology all sought a grounding in biology.And here is a representative quote from the review:
Aping Mankind is the book to read for anyone who has suspected something ludicrous in all those scientific “discoveries” which now seem to fly off the newspaper page on a weekly basis, whether the “discovery” that little girls’ preference for pink is a result of early hominid foraging patterns, or the “discovery” that Shakespeare’s poetry is so affecting because it stimulates certain neurons in the brain. Tallis demonstrates that our intuition of the silliness of this sort of thing is correct, that in fact neurology and evolutionary theory cannot tell us anything significant about even mundane activities like buying a can of beans at the store, and therefore grand projects of “Darwinian literary criticism” or “Darwinian theology” are, as he puts it, “rubbish.” Over and over again, Tallis shows us that the portrait of human life presented by materialism – of things like romantic love, or economic deliberation – bears absolutely no resemblance to human life as it is really lived and experienced by every one of us. It is that experience - the realm of conscious desire, belief, and action - which Tallis insists is the realm of human reality; his book is essentially one long relentless assertion of common sense against a delusive but entrenched academic orthodoxy.This has been a theme of mine for quite some time. The absurdity of the so-called scientific research into music and aesthetics has frustrated me on several occasions before: here, and here and here.
The Wall Street Journal, demonstrating their hipness, has an article on a scholarly conference on heavy metal music. This kind of study isn't all that new. I went to a musicology conference at Rochester in the mid-1990s that covered a lot of the same ground. The problem with all these sorts of studies is that the line between scholar and fan often gets obscured. These people are ones who have studied academic methods and want to apply them to their enthusiasms. This can work out well if the object of the enthusiasm actually has merit. But is that the case? Is heavy metal music worth this kind of attention? More pointedly, is it a scholarly study if there is no critique of heavy metal? Here is where being a fan lets you down because you are reluctant to point out deficiencies in your heroes. If you can't say something like "many of the songs on such-and-such an album reveal a decline in creativity" or "this group would be a lot more convincing if they learned to tune their guitars", then I question how valuable your contribution can be.
A lot of musicians have passed away recently including the enormously prolific conductor Colin Davis and the English composer Stephen Dodgson who wrote some excellent music for guitar. Check Norman Lebrecht's site for these and other stories.
NPR has an article on a talk given recently by Yo-Yo Ma about the nature and social role of the arts. As a skeptic I am somewhat, ah, skeptical about all this, but I have to admit that Yo-Yo Ma makes a better argument than most. Here he explains what he sees as the justification for seeking out cultural diversity:
Let's take my favorite example of creativity from science. In ecology, where two ecosystems meet, such as the forest and the savannah, the point of intersection is the site of "edge effect." In that transition zone, because of the influence the two ecological communities have on each other, you find the greatest diversity of life, as well as the greatest number of new life forms. The edge effect is where those of varied backgrounds come together in a zone of transition; a region of less structure, more diversity and more possibility. The edge is a time and place of transformation and movement.He demonstrates the idea of the listener completing the musical work by 'hearing' notes that cannot be literally sustained with a Bach Sarabande.
All this is very well, but I probably don't have to point out that I am suspicious of metaphors from science. Plus, if you want an audience to be sympathetic to your ideas you can't do better than play Bach for them. But of course, none of this is anything other than bowing to a particular idol of our time: cultural diversity. It would come as a considerable relief to me if Yo-Yo Ma or someone else of his stature were to stand up and say something against one of the deeply-rooted prejudices of our time. Something like "cultural diversity" is bunk. Now that would be interesting...
Let's end with a pretty good example of heavy metal, "Nothing Else Matters" by Metallica: