Saturday, October 14, 2017

Criticism and Biographies

Reading the Wall Street Journal this morning I learned an interesting tidbit: the originator of our fixation on the biographies of artists seems to have been Giorgio Vasari, author of the famous 16th century Lives of the Artists. The reviewer notes:
These and many other stories—of the exploits and adventures, eccentricities and foibles, of the most prominent and successful artists of the Renaissance—feature in Giorgio Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists,” which gave us the Renaissance as we know it today. Art historians continue to learn much from Vasari’s “Lives,” a page turner that blends history, description, criticism and biography. The artists Vasari championed, such as Leonardo da Vinci, remain our cultural heroes. Those he neglected, Mantegna and Francesco di Giorgio among them, never recovered the reputation they once enjoyed.
Despite being first published in 1550, with a second edition following in 1568, Vasari and his book have over the past few decades received renewed academic attention as part of a broad scholarly turn toward the study of primary texts.
The problem here, as readers of my aesthetics series will know, is that the "primary text" is not the exploits and foibles of the private lives of the artists at all, but rather the artworks! As Wimsatt and Beardsley pointed out many years ago in their paper "The Intentional Fallacy" not only do the personal events in artists lives have an ambiguous relationship with the art, but even the intentions of the artist are irrelevant to the artwork and how we evaluate it!

But still, nearly every single book published on art and artists puts the life of the artist at the center. It used to be more the case that the format was "life and works" with the two separated to some extent. But the last two monographs I read, on Prokofiev and Sibelius, dispersed discussion of the works within the biography with the implication that the biography was the cause and the work was the effect. This is the great hidden assumption of most musical biographies. They reach their nadir with books like the one on Mozart by Maynard Solomon that relates the music to supposed deep psychological problems in Mozart's psyche. One of the real delights of Taruskin's book on Stravinsky is that you can read all (of volume one at least) without having the slightest inkling that he once had an affair with Coco Chanel!

If the writer of a biography of an artist is honest, then he will have to admit that all the events in the life he recounts not only do not explain or cause the art, they are largely irrelevant to the art. Sure it gives you that nice fuzzy feeling of knowing something to know that Bach had thirteen surviving children, but to know that is to know nothing about Bach's music. And you can know a great deal about the music without knowing a single thing about Bach's life. But still, we are fascinated by artist's lives. Oddly, some people are more fascinated with the lives than the art itself.

But trust me, if you want to know something about the artwork the only way is to examine the artwork. What the composer wore when he wrote it, or what brand of champagne he preferred or how much his publisher sent him in royalties will tell you nothing about the art itself. Speaking of champagne, let's listen to Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 6, which is often described as like a drink of cool, pure water (even though an awful lot of champagne was consumed during the compositional process). This is Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Swedish Radio Orchestra:

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