Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Kingdom of Wolfe

I've been a fan of the writing of Tom Wolfe for quite a while. He is an accomplished writer in two different genres: the novel and "new" journalism. He is 86 this year, so can we still call it "new" journalism? Tom Wolfe is particularly known for his spectacular account of the first American astronauts in The Right Stuff, which was made into an equally spectacular movie. His novel Bonfire of the Vanities was also made into a movie. Some of his most powerful journalism, or perhaps we should just say "non-fiction" was in the 60s and 70s when he wrote incisive exploration of the social changes in books like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test  and Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, one half of which is an article about a gathering held in support of the Black Panthers by Leonard Bernstein in his Park Avenue apartment.

I am more a fan of the non-fiction than the fiction. Though I enjoyed the recent novel I Am Charlotte Simmons about modern college life, I never did get through A Man in Full nor Bonfire of the Vanities. Believe it or not, I just now got around to reading The Painted Word, which is an account of the marketing and promotion of the New York modern art scene from the 40s to the 70s. Perhaps an indicator of how deeply this latter book struck home is the astonishing levels of vitriol that greeted it.

All this reexamination of the work of Tom Wolfe comes as a result of reading his latest book, The Kingdom of Speech, which was just released last month. It too has provoked a tsunami of negative reaction from the scientific and linguistic community as it deals with language, the theory of evolution and the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky.

Tom Wolfe performs an excellent service, I think. His work in both genres tends to do two things: first of it, it introduces particular special world or community (astronauts, artists) to a wider readership and second, he punctures hypocrisy and pretension. This has always been a necessary function of writers since at least the 18th century, but I feel it is perhaps even more important these days because the degree to which public opinion is, not to say shaped, but outright constructed according to the needs of the intellectual elite is astonishing.

I want to just say a brief word about The Kingdom of Speech before talking a bit more about The Painted Word. As someone who offers pretty consistently criticism of scientific studies of music and musicians, I have an awful lot of sympathy for Wolfe's venture onto this turf. Scientists are a kind of priestly class in our society, regarded as the keepers of truth and wisdom even when they venture outside the field of science itself and into the mysteries of music. Alas, often the result is what I call "scientism" or the misapplication of scientific techniques and methods to either answer oddly uninteresting questions or to answer questions for which they are inappropriate. Bear this in mind during the following comments.

There is an excerpt from The Kingdom of Speech here which will give you a good sense of it. The Wikipedia article I linked above will also link you to some of the critical reviews. The most negative and thorough review is the one in the Washington Post by Jerry A. Coyne. Given the author's position as a professional scientist in the field of evolution, his description of Wolfe's book as a mixture of sarcasm and ignorance is not unexpected. So, the scientists hate this book, just as the artists and art theorists hated The Painted Word.

Now I am certainly not one to either criticize or defend Wolfe's take on evolution (nor linguistics, though I have a bit more grounding there as I took a linguistics course at university taught by a couple of enthusiastic Chomskyans) but I do notice a certain weakness in Coyne's critique. Discussing the claim that the brain of hunter-gatherers has capacities far beyond any required by the environment and therefore impossible to explain through natural selection Coyne writes:
it’s not as if modern Westerners are born with the ability to produce the Principia Mathematica, airplanes and skyscrapers — these cultural inventions depend on millennia of accumulated discoveries, and no single brain could produce them from scratch. Just as a computer programming language, even if originally designed to help solve one kind of problem, can support an unlimited number of other programs, so the brain may have been selected with a cognitive tool kit that can be applied to endless new challenges.
Not ability, no, but capacity, yes. And I boggle a bit at the phrase "the brain may have been selected." Isn't there a missing agent there? Selected by whom and for what? The scientist replies "by evolution for survival." Well, that is the exact question. How does evolution, that is to say the change in heritable characteristics over successive generations, actually produce a brain with the capacity to write the Principia Mathematica (or the Iliad and Odyssey) in tribes of hunter-gatherers? As I only dimly grasp, the answer is "it takes a long time"? Isn't that the same as answering the question "how did Beethoven write the Symphony No. 5?" by saying, it took between 1804 and 1808?

Don't think that I am advocating any kind of Intelligent Design, though. Wolfe is a spectacular writer and this does not lead to a sober argument, though it may be persuasive. What I take away from the book is that there are different ways of looking at language. The scientists tend to think that it "evolved" (however that works) from bird or animal sounds. Wolfe says that language is the greatest invention of the human mind, enabling all of our other accomplishments. I think that description has a lot more juice to it! Plus, the bonus is that I think that means we can start ignoring all those silly articles on evolutionary psychology.

The Painted Word was as widely reviled by the arts community as it was enjoyed by the ordinary reader. Wolfe was called a fascist and too ignorant of art to write about it. But in the case of both this book and The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe's advantage is that he is indeed outside the circle of professionals. All professional institutions whether of linguists or evolutionary scientists or promulgators of art theory take as a fundamental priority the protection of their tribe from criticism from outsiders. This means that there are certain kinds of criticism, the ones that cut through layers of fakery and hypocrisy, that are usually never allowed to see the light of day. Hence the need for a Tom Wolfe.

As Wikipedia notes:
Outside the art community, some reviewers noted that however unpopular Wolfe's book may have been in art circles, many of his observations were essentially correct, particularly about the de-objectification of art and the rise of art theory.
Abstract art in the forms of abstract expressionism, pop art, op art and conceptual art, needed a "story", a way of selling it to the patrons. Whatever the means used (and Wolfe describes them in The Painted Word), the goal is to enable non-artists to understand and appreciate the art. A theory of non-representational art was just the thing needed, so they came up with one and this in time led to the art tending to be an embodiment of the theory, hence the title of the book.

Our great misfortune, as in "we composers in the 20th century", was that the "story" of modernism in music, connected as it was to the complexities of music theory (atonal chromaticism, 12-tone method, hexachordal combinatoriality) was pretty hard to sell to the ordinary music lover. And once they heard some of the results, it was even harder! So while contemporary art triumphed and led to the apotheosis of the 12 million dollar pickled shark in a tank, contemporary music became shunned in the concert hall and then we were steamrollered by pop music.

I'm not pretending to figure out exactly why this happened, but in fifty years or so, I'm sure someone will write a book on it.

Here is that shark in a tank (the artist is Damian Hirst):

And here is pli selon pli (excerpt) by Pierre Boulez:

The theorists managed to convince us (or enough of us) that modern art was "cool" but that same project didn't quite work with the music. Or did it? Comments?


Anonymous said...

I'll address your last point by way of an anecdote. Evidently, Hitler's generals hated Wagner and dreaded those endless concerts they had to attend (and you know what would happen to them if they were caught yawning during Tristan's overture...) But it's hard to dread a visit to the latest Hirst exhibit because watching art takes no time and no effort. You can choose to admire a painting for 20 minutes or for 5 seconds. But you cannot choose to get your 5-second dose of Wagner once you're in the concert hall sitting next to Hitler. So I think there's a high market for modern art (like Hirst's sharks) because rich people have too much money to spend and it's a status symbol to have your "Hirst" at your Park Ave. penthouse. But it's ok because it requires no effort and no time. If you go to a Hirst exhibit it's really to network with your gazillionaire buddies and drink expensive champagne. None of these guys will be caught at a 3-hour atonal music concert because (a) it's dreadful and (b) they can't schmooze.

Am I saying that painting is dead as an art form? Yes I am. The good stuff is in museums and what sells among billionaires is crap. The visual arts have moved to film. But it's an entirely different art form that combines visuals with the word.

Why isn't there a snobbery market for modern music? Because there's no object attached to it: the difference between Mona Lisa (an object) and Beethoven's 5th (an idea).

Bryan Townsend said...

How did they feel about Bruckner, whom Hitler liked even more than Wagner?

I love your point! Something like it wandered vaguely through my mind as I was writing, but you put the point very, very well! Thanks.

Yes, the truth (or part of it) seems to be that contemporary art, for the most part, makes an ideal choice for interior decor among today's wealthy. But atonal music is far too demanding and disturbing! However, there are some interesting exceptions. Last May I was in Madrid for a few days and attended a performance of Schoenberg's opera Moses und Aron. It was far more interesting and aesthetically appealing than I anticipated AND the Teatro Real was full for the performance. In Europe at least, there is an audience for well-produced atonal operas!

Anonymous said...

The Nazis tried to reclaim Bach as the epitome of German culture. Now that makes me sick! I like Wagner a lot (I hate to admit) but I worship Bach. And Bach was as a good a man as it gets: faithful, loyal to his friends, humble, and disciplined as only a German could be. The Nazis need to keep their dirty paws off that glorious man!

Bryan Townsend said...

One of the great mysteries of the 20th century is how the highly advanced nation of Germany, who in the 19th century was responsible for so much of modern science and technology, as well as social and economic developments, could have become the vicious aggressors in two world wars and exterminators of Jews, Gypsies and other "undesirables" in the 20th century. How could a civilized nation have gone so wrong? The answer is undoubtedly very complex.

Christine Lacroix said...

Bryan are you really wondering how the Germans could have become 'vicious aggressors'? Seriously? Are you paying attention to what's going on in the world? Whip up enough fear, point to a scapegoat, and humans will amaze you with their creative barbary.

To the first Anonymous, I loved your comment. Maybe it's the same anonymous that answered Bryan? What's with you Anonymous people? Can't you at least identify yourselves with a fake name so we know if it's the same person commenting in a thread?

Bryan Townsend said...

Hear, hear about Anonymous commentators. We would like to know which "Anonymous" your are.

I do pay some attention to current events, I'm not always stuck in the 16th century. But I have often puzzled over how the Germans went so very wrong in the first half of the 20th century and then went so very right in the second half of the century. I was married to a German and am aware of their strengths. But the inhumanity of the Nazis, from the nation that produced Kant and Hegel, not to mention all those wonderful composers, well, that's a bit hard to understand.