Saturday, January 24, 2015

Taste and Creativity

In yesterday's Friday Miscellanea post I put up a quote from Picasso:
“Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness.” Pablo Picasso (quoted in Quote, Mar. 24, 1957)
Most quotes of this nature are designed to make you nod or shake your head for a moment before you go back to thinking about your ongoing hair loss, or overdue bills or sex. In other words, they intrigue us for a brief moment. But this one got me thinking. The face value of this quote is a simple statement of the modernist aesthetic: innovation is the most important thing in the arts. This assumption is camouflaged by the "creativeness" meme. "Creativity", like "diversity" and "equality" is one of those words that are often used to smuggle hidden assumptions into an argument. Wikipedia defines "creativity" as
Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new and in some way valuable is created
There are two components: newness and value. But what the Picasso quote and a lot of other talk about creativity submerges is the "value" aspect by highlighting the "newness" aspect. Picasso did a lot of new and striking things, some of which were valuable, while others were, perhaps, not so much:

What was particularly appealing about this to modernists was the simplicity and immediacy of the innovation. It gives a fresh glimpse at something in the world. Ok. But is this an artwork with great value? Not to me, particularly.

Picasso was disparaging taste because taste, one of those things that enables us to discern high-value over low-value, was for him an obsolete, superseded criterion. "Taste" was an extremely important aspect of 18th century aesthetics, so it underlies a great deal of the music we value the most: music by Haydn, Mozart and much of Beethoven. I talked a great deal about taste in my posts on the aesthetics of David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher. Taste is defined as:
the sense of what is fitting, harmonious, or beautiful; the perception and enjoyment of what constitutes excellence in the fine arts, literature, fashion, etc.
 You can see why Picasso hated the idea! The basic assumptions of his aesthetic are that what is new overrides what is fitting, harmonious and so on. Putting together the rusty handlebars and seat of an old bicycle so as to resemble a bull is much better art than something that is beautiful.

We can see three stages in aesthetics over the last couple of centuries. As I said, "taste" was the governing aesthetic of the 18th century and this includes most of the music of the century. Some of Bach's music falls a bit outside the boundaries as it elevates the intensity of religious feeling over the strictly tasteful. But in general, the criteria of taste are the criteria of the 18th century. Mozart never wrote anything that was less than poised, graceful, touching and beautiful. This starts to change with Beethoven who delved deep into his own individual feeling to create more demanding, intense music. By 18th century standards some of his later works, such as the last movement of the Symphony No. 9 and the Grosse Fuge, are not tasteful. This leads to the 19th century where the main criterion of aesthetics is feeling, not taste. Everything must appeal primarily to the feelings and emotions.

Then we come to the 20th century where the main criterion becomes novelty. Whatever you do, make it new!

So, in the 18th century we have Taste (Mozart, Symphony No. 30 in D major):

In the 19th century we have Feeling (Wagner, Prelude to Tristan und Isolde):

And in the 20th century we have Novelty (Stockhausen, Gruppen):

So let me re-word that Picasso quote a bit:
"Ah, novelty! What a dreadful thing! Novelty is the enemy of creativeness!"

If you are only trying to do something new, how are you ever going to do something good?


Rickard Dahl said...

Interesting post. I guess some of the best creativity comes from when you take something that works and add your own approach to instead of doing something completely different. This is why for instance Satie, Debussy or even Ives sounds good most of the time but Cage or Stockhausen doesn't. Satie, Debussy, Ives etc. added their own approaches to musical elements such as harmony, melody, counterpoint, rhythm but they never tried to break things apart completely and do things purely for the sake of novelty. Cage and Stockhausen on the other hand relied on throwing away almost everything for the sake of novelty.

Anyways, I found this interesting video:

It covers romantic ideals vs classical ideals. I've been thinking about how that might apply to music. Classical in this context is more rigid and based on knowledge while romantic is more fluid and based on emotions/intuition. But as the speaker in this video points out each person usually has a mix of both classical and romantic ideals. Either way, I've been thinking and came to the conclusion that music requires both approaches in most cases, at least good music does. Sure Haydn and Mozart were more rigid in their composing but it's plainly wrong to say that they didn't rely on their intuition. They did write music that did sound witty and intuitive. And Beethoven was indeed intuitive/emotional in his music composition but to say he didn't have rigidity is also wrong. In summary music requires both a fair amount of intuition (finding parts that sound good, that flow well etc.) and a fair amount of logical thinking (expanding ideas, creating a coherent structure etc.). Well, it's a pretty obvious point.

Bryan Townsend said...

I would be a bit leery of that video as it seems to be a kind of reductionist version of Nietzsche's dichotomy between Apollonian and Dionysian. I think that it can be misleading to map two categories like classical and romantic onto music history without looking at the details. For example, there was an awful lot of 18th century music that was very stormy and passionate indeed. And I would also argue that Romantic composers took a much more rule-based approach to musical form than did Haydn and Mozart.

But I agree completely that however you divide it up and characterize it, musical creativity demands all sides of our selves!