Monday, September 16, 2013

HIgh and Low

I think that the main reason that aesthetics is held in such low esteem these days is that it is fundamentally evaluative--it is about good and bad. I can't find the post right now, but quite a while ago I believe I linked to a Wikipedia article on music aesthetics that was so brief it was an insult. Whatever the case was then, it seems to be improving slightly because now Wikipedia has a bigger article on the aesthetics of music that actually tries to cover a bit of ground. There is even a page of aesthetic principles of music, though it is confusingly also called "culturally linked qualities of music." I put up a post long ago in which I attempted to distinguish good and bad aesthetic principles calling it "Aesthetic Virtues and Sins".

Not to blow my own horn (pluck my own string?), but I think my post does have to do with aesthetic principles, whereas the one on Wikipedia does not even seem to understand what an aesthetic principle is! Instead, it is a disorganized list of the supposed qualities of various musical genres like blues or doina that fails to mention what musical elements might give rise to these qualities. Here is one of my favorites:
 Duende is a quality of Spanish music, especially flamenco, and is a complex emotional quality
Wow, that really gets down to the details! I don't think I have ever seen a less-informative statement about music. Is this from a high-school essay? I think that the correct way to describe this list is "various unexplained terms referring to supposed musical qualities."

I think it is safe to say that the aesthetics of music is a largely misunderstood area these days.

What is aesthetics? The way I use the word it is a field of philosophy that attempts to discuss the basic problems of the perception and evaluation of artworks. My particular interest is the aesthetics of music which I try to pursue in a concrete and pragmatic way. In other words, I am not interested in the confused abstractions of post-modernism--except as an aesthetic error!

One of the problems with recent approaches to the aesthetics of popular music is that it has gotten so bound up with ideology (as in the criticism of Theodor Adorno) and with mapping high and low against classical versus popular, that the actual aesthetics are pushed to one side. I talk about that in this post.

If you actually want to do the proper work of aesthetics, then I think you have to be able to talk about individual artworks. Otherwise you are just doing ideology. Different genres of music do have their strengths and limitations, of course, but within that there can be major aesthetic differences in quality. When you are talking about post-WWII popular song, certain artists tend to transcend the genre. Is there any real argument that what Bob Dylan and the Beatles did was not of high aesthetic quality? But having said that, good criticism goes on to try and explain how and why this is the case. One almost taboo topic in aesthetics is the variation in quality between different works of the avant-garde. From reading in the mainstream media, one would think that every composer who managed to get mentioned did wonderful things. This is certainly the impression given by one of the best series of essays on contemporary composers, that found in the Guardian last year.

I don't mean to say that we should be always engaging in a kind of crude listing of quality: so-and-so is the best avant-garde composer of the 1950s, and Joe Blow is number two! Not at all. But if all you do is cheerlead then you are practicing journalism (and not very good journalism!) not criticism. If you are able to talk about what the composer was trying to do, then you should also go on to talk about how well he succeeded.

When we are talking about high and low art or culture, we do need to recognize functional success. The Twinkie is a successful example of a commercial confection. A waltz by Johann Strauss is a successful example of a Viennese waltz. We can contrast them with failed examples of each, though you have to dig around a bit!

To my mind aesthetics is a practical endeavor and one that can be quite entertaining. My "catty micro-reviews" posts are an example. But when I try and figure out how a Shostakovich string quartet is put together, that is also an example of musical aesthetics.

The thing is that I just don't see too much other writing on music aesthetics that is even trying to do anything similar. Or even that understands that it is possible.

That was a Viennese waltz by Johann Strauss. Here is something aesthetic to ponder: it is part of the style to slightly anticipate the second beat of the measure. Why is that?

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