Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Aesthetics: Categories and Criticism

Continuing my series of posts on the excellent book Aesthetics by Monroe C. Beardsley:

Once you decide that you are going to talk about aesthetic objects and you have very roughly defined what they are, there are three stages of talking about them. In order of difficulty they are:

  1. Descriptions
  2. Interpretations
  3. Evaluations

p. 65

Is critical analysis of aesthetic objects possible or even desirable? Doesn’t it tend to ruin our pleasure? But to analyze an aesthetic object is to get acquainted with its finer details and subtler qualities, to discover what is there to be enjoyed—to be responded to emotionally. The alternative to analysis is a half-cocked, crude emotional reaction to the gross, obvious features of the object. To analyze in the critical sense is only to see or hear better; it does not harm the object. An analysis uses certain categories or basic distinctions. So the question becomes, what are the proper categories of critical analysis? pp. 75-7

Two basic categories often used are the means, or execution, and the aim, or end. The problem here is the ambiguity built into these terms. Is everything the artist did up until the completion the means and the finished work then the end? Or is the end the effect on the listener/viewer? So this distinction really does not mark anything within the work itself. Typical questions like “how well do the artist’s chosen means achieve his end?” are unfortunate ones because they assume that we can know the ends and means in the artist’s mind when in fact we cannot.

Another not useful distinction is between “what” and “how.” What did the artist do and how did he do it? This is similar to the means/end distinction and with the same drawbacks. This distinction is not one between two different things, but merely between a less-precise and a more-precise description of the same thing. What did the composer do? He led the phrase to a cadence. How did he do it? With a ii6, V of V, V7, I progression. The second is just a more precise description of what was done.

Terms like “treatment” and “technique” are just synonyms for “how.” “Medium” is another term with varying and easily confused senses as is the term “genre.”

Setting these aside as not very useful, what would be a good set of categories for aesthetic analysis?

A very basic kind of distinction, and one that refers just to the aesthetic object itself and not to its relations with the artist or the audience is the part/whole distinction. As long as there are differences within the object we can discern parts from wholes and talk about the relation between them. Some musical examples: the individual notes form parts of a motif that can be joined with other motifs to form a phrase. Several phrases go together to form a section and two or more sections go together to form a theme or even a whole simple piece or movement. You can confirm this easily for yourself by examining how a simple minuet by Bach is put together. pp. 78-82

Beardsley makes a further distinction between local qualities and regional qualities. If I could translate his examples into musical ones, I might say that the timbre or pitch of a particular note is a local quality, but the fact that there are twelve notes in the phrase is a regional one as it applies not to any particular note, but to the phrase as a whole. A staccato vs a legato note is a local quality, but a crescendo is a regional one. p. 83

It might be noted that regional qualities depend on perceptual conditions. You can describe a crescendo in terms of the exact decibel level of each note, but the listener perceives it as a whole gesture.

For our envoi let's have the String Quartet op 20 no 1 in E flat by Joseph Haydn played by the Mosa├»ques Quartet:


Will Wilkin said...

The more I contemplate "critical analysis of aesthetic objects," the more I return to my long-standing position that words (and ideas they denote) are very different from the thing-in-itself. I enjoy some cd liner and concert program notes --especially when I was new to classical music and now occasionally when I want to more about the composer-- but more and more as the years go by I just let my ear tell me what the music is. Certainly no words will substitute for the listening (or, in visual arts, the viewing) experience. I don't mean this absolutely, as I still sometimes read about the work at ear, and maybe having heard a LOT over the decades helps me fit a piece in to whatever tradition/influences (or iconoclasm) out of which it grows, which is part of my appreciation for hearing both the familiar and the strange mixed in a work. I don't mean to over-assert subjectivity here, as I value learning about context of the work and the artist, but in many ways, reading about music merges more into reading about the mind of the writer, who, as a fellow-listener who shares my interest in music, is actually an interesting subject to me!

Bryan Townsend said...

This is a very valid comment, Will. If I could re-phrase, I think you are saying that the work itself and your direct experience of it is the most important empirical information. Absolutely. I find much of what is written about music to be ill-conceived, irrelevant, biased and misleading. However, there are some extremely important exceptions. I would put forth Richard Taruskin's book on Stravinsky as a sterling example. This huge book, filled with myriad details, is so well-conceived that all those details focus on the work and add enormously to our understanding of it. The cultural and musical context of the Rite of Spring was rich and complex and having a sense of it adds considerably to the understanding and appreciation of the music, does it not? But it is all in the way it is done and there are a host of books that, rather than adding to our understanding, actually detract from it.

Will Wilkin said...

Hear hear!

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Thanks, Anuj. I am delighted to have made your list, on which I see a lot of familiar names. Will the list be updated annually?