Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Culture Without Art

The Smart Set, published by Drexel University, succinctly says what we all have come to fear: we are now a culture essentially without art. The article is titled "Artless" and the writer, Michael Lind, gets right to the point:
The fine arts don’t matter any more to most educated people. This is not a statement of opinion; it is a statement of fact.
As recently as the late 20th century, well-educated people were expected to be able to bluff their way through a dinner party with at least some knowledge of “the fine arts” — defined, since the late 18th century, as painting, sculpture, orchestral or symphonic music, as distinct from popular music, and dance/ballet.
After outlining the situation as it seems to be today, he continues:
What happened? How is it that, in only a generation or two, educated Americans went from at least pretending to know and care about the fine arts to paying no attention at all?
Here is part of his answer:
Having lost their royal and aristocratic patrons, and finding little in the way of public patronage in modern states, artists from the 19th century to the 21st have sought new patrons among the wealthy people and institutions who have formed the tiny art market. It was not the mockery of Pop artists but the capitalist art market itself which, in its ceaseless quest for novelty, trivialized and marginalized the arts.
Now I am a pretty big fan of capitalism generally, but yes, it does not seem to generate high quality artworks, but rather a whole lot of flashy trivia like pop music, pop art and popular movies. He elaborates as follows:
Capitalism, applied to the fine arts, created the arms race that led to increasingly drastic departures from premodern artistic tradition, until finally, by the late 20th century, “art” could be everything and therefore nothing.
The textbooks in my college art history classes lied about this. The texts treated the sequence from Cezanne to Picasso to Pollock as purely formal developments within a tradition unaffected by vulgar commercial considerations, like fads and branding and bids for attention — unlike, say, the rise and fall of fins on cars.
In fact Picasso, like Warhol and Koons after him, Picasso was rewarded by the market for pushing the boundaries a bit further for a progressively-jaded audience of rich individual and institutional collectors. The novelty-driven art they produced for private purchasers was and is different in kind from the traditional art commissioned for church and state.
UPDATE: Sorry, forgot to include the link to the article. Here it is.

Alas, I don't think we can extrapolate from the visual arts to music in this argument. Yes, perhaps things started out a bit like this. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring fits into the model pretty well, but once it was accepted--rather quickly considering the riotous first performance--Stravinsky fairly soon embarked on a quite different direction with his neo-classicist works like Pulcinella which only pushes the envelope in the sense of being an unexpected retreat from an advanced technical vocabulary into music that strongly references the past.

But the winds of modernism continued to blow strongly among composers (even Stravinsky, later on) and after the Second World War, the attempt to create a progressive music of the future took another step. But while commercial pressures and temptation may have had their effect on the visual arts (I don't know this to be true, but I am not enough of an expert to disagree), they certainly did not drive avant-gardism in music. There were no significant commercial rewards for Schoenberg, Webern, Bartók, Messiaen, Boulez, Stockhausen or Cage. True, their bold transgressions did lead to a notoriety which undoubtedly led to some funding, but not in terribly significant amounts. It enabled them to struggle on, minimally.

So, I think that we need to look elsewhere for an explanation of modernism in music. People like Schoenberg have tried to justify their technical advances through some sort of theoretical or historical analysis, but I find these unconvincing as well.

With great reluctance, therefore, as I congenitally hate this sort of explanation, we might need to seek a psychological cause. Music composition is, fundamentally, an intuitive process. You literally don't know what you are doing most of the time. For some reason, many composers had to stop writing the kind of expressive, audience-pleasing music in the style of the late 19th century and replace it with a jagged, dissonant, rhythmically disjointed style. Schoenberg provides the perfect example. In a very few years he moved from the delightful sonorities of the prelude to his Gurre-Lieder, to the astringent textures of Pierrot Lunaire:

What happened? The First World War happened, the first and perhaps most surprisingly deadly phase of the 20th century suicide attempt by Western Civilization. To acquaint yourself with this ancient history I suggest reading Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves who himself (and like Schoenberg) never quite recovered from the experience. He was a captain in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and fought (and was badly wounded) in the trenches. I can't find a reference for it, but as I recall, Schoenberg drove an ambulance during the war. Taruskin in The Oxford History of Western Music (vol 4, p. 679) says:
No composer suffered a graver creative crisis in the years surrounding the Great War than Schoenberg. The war itself, oddly, was not (at least consciously) a trauma for him.
As I said, composition is deeply intuitive and, in the absence of a better, clearer explanation, I choose to view the war and the tensions leading up to it, as an underlying force driving composers (and other artists) toward the extremes of modernism.

The First World War disrupted every European culture. The finest young minds of England, France, Germany, Austria and Italy died, horribly, in the trenches. The Battle of the Somme alone saw one million casualties. The casualty rate among officers in the trenches was 90%. Whether it was conscious or not, I suggest that this must have been a traumatic experience for Schoenberg and everyone else. Each movement of Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin is dedicated to a friend who lost his life in the war.

An entertainer's goal is to divert, charm and amuse his audience. Up until the 19th century, a musician could comfortably combine the roles of entertainer and artist. For Mozart it was no contradiction to write charming aesthetic truth. But an artist in the last hundred or so years has a different task: to transmit an aesthetic truth even if unpleasant. For the first half of the 20th century, wracked by horrors on a scale never previously known in human history, this truth was a brutal one. It is not surprising then to hear music that captures intense emotional distress.

The dispiriting thing about where we are at now is that composers seem to be struggling to find a way back from the aesthetic extremes, to discover how to survive the suicide attempt and learn once more how to be graceful, charming, diverting, but still remain artists. Essentially we have to reclaim part of the territory that is now ruled over solely by pop musicians. The only composer who has come even close to this is Philip Glass and a lot of classical musicians don't think that what he does is classical music.

We do live in interesting times...

Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin is like a fragrance reminding us of the beautiful world of Europe before it was brutalized by the First World War, a kind of musical madeleine:

No comments: