The annihilation of art

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Here’s some music for you to listen to while reading this blog:

A little while ago someone I know made a few insightful observations about poetry. I’m not anti-poetry, and I don’t think he is either, but he makes a good point: Poetry has for decades been caught in a vicious cycle of self-isolation. An elite chooses experimental, inaccessible poems and fills the journals and anthologies with them. Readers drift away from poetry, deriding it as pretentious. The elite learns to associate inaccessibility with quality, and criticism with amateurism, and produces more and more inaccessible works, which it is capable only of praising, never of criticizing. Their tastes drift farther away from the mainstream, casting more and more readers out. Poetry that does not meet their criterion for obscurantism is not published; poetry that does, is not read.

I’m going to paraphrase my friend here:

You mention that to many people you know, poetry is “too difficult, too vague, or too subjective.” I would argue that in many cases, this seems a very accurate description.… And likewise, poetry is often allowed to succeed where other forms of art would not. Many poems are so highly impressionistic that listeners and readers are left struggling to find meaning in the words….

With music or prose or artwork, we can point to something exact and have our opinions judged fairly. I dislike the singing; the characters are bland; the colors are mismatched and give me a headache. All valid criticisms. But when you approach poetry, criticism from the uneducated is treated as such….

For poetry to escape the taint of elitist disdain, it needs to rid itself of the shell that is formed around it. Is this a condemnation of all poetry or even most poets? No, not at all. But the popular conceptualization that poetry is a pastime for a small group of intellectuals, as unfair as it might seem, is grounded in a subjective grain of truth. For the people looking in from outside, poetry is often not some beautiful song waiting to be digested, but a pretentious chunk of purple imagery that revels in its own depth and inaccessibility. Which is, I think we can both agree, a sad state of affairs that harms those on either side of the window.

… We’ve all heard people say they dislike rap, or country, or dubstep; the most common response amongst those respective genres is to attempt to convert the doubter with “good” examples from that genre…. In my personal existence, poetry was never handled the same way.

This isn’t isolated to poetry. Orchestral music has taken exactly the same march into isolation and cultural irrelevance since about 1920. Jazz followed later, starting maybe around 1960. Literature started down that path with Ulysses, and Joyce kept going down it for the rest of his career.

The visual arts, meanwhile, went in a similar but weirdly opposite direction, taking the quickest and easiest route to driving away the common folk. By the 1930s, the goal in architecture, sculpture, and painting was to make everything as simple, boring, and ugly as possible. This 1938 building in Brooklyn wasn’t a slapdash cost-saving construction project; it was a celebrated design by a famous modernist architect. Notice how its color perfectly matches the mixture of dead grass and mud on the ground in front of it.

Brooklyn project William Lescaze 1938

And it wasn’t long ago that if you walked into a modern art museum, all you’d find would be a hundred variations on this:

cubist_sculpture

and this:

That YouTube video at the top? That’s a composition by Brian Ferneyhough. My renter is a composer. He’s trying to earn enough money to go back to grad school in music composition, and Ferneyhough, he says, is considered by many composers to be the greatest living composer. That piece isn’t modern at all—he composed it in 1966. 48 years ago. It represents the pinnacle of the past eighty years of orchestral composition.

To get accepted to grad school, my renter has to write something like it. He has seven folios full of his attempts.

I asked him if it bothered him that he’s spending his whole life struggling to make a kind of music that, if he succeeds, no one outside of academia will want to hear. It will never be played on the radio; it will never appear in a physical music store; it will probably never be played in a concert hall outside of western Europe. He says that this is only to be expected; few people have the intelligence to understand the greatest works in any art form.

An art form that is completely detached from culture. Isn’t that an oxymoron? Is it art, or is it a cult?

I asked him if it was an arbitrary social convention, or else if it was the next logical stage in music—if you rewound the clock and played the 20th century over again, slightly differently, would it inevitably lead to that kind of music, like geometry inevitably led to topology? He said he believes so; that Ferneyhough is not just different than Beethoven, but superior to him.

During the 1930s, the entire European artistic landscape seemed determined to drive people away from art. I think this made nationalism and fascism possible. People outside the elite sensed that culture had deliberately rejected and ejected them, and so they united to destroy it.

It’s seldom a good sign to find yourself in agreement with Hitler. But if Ferneyhough is great, I don’t want to be that great.

The march to self-isolation always starts with great works by a great artist—Picasso, Stravinsky, T.S. Eliot,  Miles Davis, Joyce. People imitate them, and try to take it further. Then it goes too far, and no one can admit it’s gone too far because by that time everybody in the elite power structure of that art has gone on record praising it.

Is this a uniquely 20th-century event? Has it happened before in history that the leaders of an entire art form deliberately isolated it from the masses? As far as I know, it hasn’t.

I think this couldn’t happen before the 19th century because art was funded by patrons, and the artists had to please the patrons. The patrons didn’t have careers in art, so they didn’t have to always find something new and weird to try to stay ahead of the crowd. There were professors of art and of music, but their opinions didn’t matter much.

It bothers me a lot. Orchestral music was, to me, humanity’s greatest achievement, and now we have annihilated it, and many other art forms, and no one understands why.

How and why did a single generation of artists destroy half of the West’s artistic heritage? Is modernism really the single cause behind 20th-century elitism in music, poetry, sculpture, art, and literature? Why didn’t it succeed in literature? How can we make sure it never does? I really wish I had answers.

And I really want to know whether the stuff is actually good, and I’m just too dumb to see it. But I don’t see any way of ever knowing that, even in principle. If the only way people ever come to appreciate Ferneyhough’s music is to be told they can never understand music unless they appreciate it, and to listen to it over and over trying to appreciate it, how can they know whether they appreciate it because it’s good, or because they’ve gotten used to it?

You can’t tell by the color

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In one corner, against the wall, colorful cushions have been spread out over a Persian carpet. Some of us are sitting propped up against the cushions. The wine and vodka are homemade, but you can’t tell by the color.

Reading Lolita in Tehran, IV.15

You can’t tell by the color?

Changing that one word from “taste” to “color” says so much.

The narrator is describing a party in Iran in the 1990s. Wine and vodka are illegal, and Persian carpets are shyly subversive, because they represent pre-Islamic Iran. The wine and vodka are homemade, and of course you can tell by the taste. But you can’t tell by the color.

That means the party is a success. It paints a picture of normalcy, an illusion that they can enjoy as they would a movie (if they were allowed to see any good movies). That’s all they can hope for. They don’t expect to enjoy the wine and the vodka. They just want to be able to pretend that they do.

Collateral damage in Hamlet and the Merchant of Venice

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This is how a lot of stories form: The writer wants one thing to happen, and slowly assembles the forces needed to make the characters do what they have to do for it to happen. And the writer sometimes twists the story nearly to the breaking point to do that.

Critics think that things that stick out oddly from stories are clues the author dropped as to what’s going on. That’s typically not the case. The one thing the writer wants to happen is gonna happen, and probably pretty smoothly. The weird stuff that sticks out is peripheral. It’s the collateral story damage from the big idea.

I spent the last few hours reading The Merchant of Venice. Shylock, a Jewish money-lender, loans 3000 ducats to Antonio, under the stipulation that if it is not repaid, Shylock may claim a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

Lots of critics have argued over whether Shylock is supposed to be sympathetic or despicable. Everyone in the play hates him, and always has, because he’s a Jew. He has been severely put upon all his life. The jokes the Christians make at his expense, unlike in the rest of Shakespeare, aren’t even supposed to be funny. So he’s sympathetic, and Shakespeare was a closet progressive.

But, wait. Shylock is cruel, and wants to kill Antonio, whom everybody else agrees is the best guy ever. Even when offered double his money back, he spurns the money and wants his pound of flesh. And nowhere in the text does anybody question the abuse that’s been heaped on Shylock. The word “Jew” is an insult to the end. So he’s despicable, and Shakespeare hated Jews.

I don’t think Shakespeare cared one way or the other. I think he had one cool idea: “Imagine there’s a guy who offers up a pound of his own flesh as surety for a loan, and then he can’t pay back the loan. Everybody expects the guy who loaned him the money to say, “Oh, well, I was just kidding; a pound of flesh isn’t going to do me any good.” And then the guy says he really, in fact, wants his pound of flesh. And then, the first guy’s friends get there just in the nick of time with twice the loan to pay it back. But then, whammo, the other guy says, No. He wants his pound of flesh.

How do you get a guy to do that?

Well, you want Shylock to really, really hate Antonio, right?

Not really. Then you’d have to show Antonio doing something horrible to Shylock. And Antonio is supposed to be the sympathetic character. And Antonio would know Shylock hated him, and wouldn’t sign the loan condition, probably. And the whole story would get hijacked by the conflict setting up the Antonio-Shylock drama.

What Shakespeare did was very clever: Show that Shylock’s life is intolerable–everyone hates him for what he is; he is forced into being a money-lender because the law allows him no “honest” profession, and yet the same people who force him into that role despise him for it. Never let the hatred up. And then, have his own daughter hate him, too, and steal his money and run away with a Christian.

See, Shylock doesn’t hate Antonio. Shylock hates everybody. But especially his daughter. He wants to lash out, and Antonio is right there.

Shylock isn’t a representative of an oppressed race, or of a sub-human race. He isn’t a nuanced handling of issues of prejudice and race. The fact that viewers feel sympathy for Shylock is, dramatically, a colossal fuck-up. It makes no sense, coming as it does not as the climax of a drama, but as the warm-up to the funniest (well, only funny) scene of a comedy.

Shylock is a plot device. Shakespeare needed somebody who could be put under enough pressure to want a pound of somebody’s flesh, somebody who hadn’t really done anything bad to him, so much that he wouldn’t take any amount of money instead.

That’s how stories get written. The critics focus on the strange things in a story, like Shylock, as if they were clues to hidden secrets. They aren’t. The strange things are the things you don’t notice you screwed up while you were paying attention to your one big thing.

Shakespeare wrote Shylock too well. He made him a real character we could sympathize with. That made the courtroom scene tragic instead of funny, and it doesn’t fit the story that it’s in.

On to Hamlet.

Lotsa theories about what Hamlet is about. It’s about death. It’s about disease. It’s about mortality. It’s meta-fiction. It’s about indecision. It’s about fate. It’s about the moral depravity of a man who has lost his faith. It’s about a woman who has no control over her life. It’s about the inability of language to tell a coherent story.

There’s this one part in Hamlet, it’s kinda memorable. Goes like this:

To be, or not to be–that is the question:Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them. To die- to sleep-

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to.

Shit.

That’s the one big idea. Hamlet is a question: Whether ’tis nobler to suffer insult and disgrace, or to end it with violence that will inevitably spin out of your control. It’s the kind of question that has no answer. (See: American middle east policy.) That’s what literature is for. Thinking about things that have no clear answer. The play is about revenge and its costs. It doesn’t wind up with a simple message: “Revenge is bad, kids.” Hamlet chooses to take arms against his troubles, and the viewer sees the result. The entire play can be explained as either (A) things showing how bad Hamlet’s troubles are, or (B) things showing the cost everyone will pay for Hamlet’s revenge. That’s why Ophelia has to kill herself, and that’s why Hamlet has to be cruel to her. That’s why the play ends with the very boring scene of Fortinbras taking over Denmark (the very thing Hamlet’s uncle opened the play worrying about): Without that scene, one might think Hamlet was noble because he saved his country from a usurper. No; in doing so he just gave it away to an invader. The weird stuff, like Hamlet killing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and being cruel to Ophelia, and the Fortinbras business, are just where Shakespeare was trying too hard to show those two things, instead of letting Hamlet be true to his character. They’re not themes; they’re the collateral damage.

At least, that’s my theory today.