Friday, December 20, 2019

working, reworking... the last paragraphs 12/22

"A teacher of mine, Abe Ajay, an arch modernist, a friend of Ad Reinhardt who worked with him at The New Masses, used to complain that Beethoven ruined his music with images. 'All those wonderful notes and then... Birds!!'"

In art as in philosophy the questions relating to mimesis are the same in 1950 as in 1906 and 1860. Abstraction means abstraction from.  The works of art acknowledged as the highpoints of the time record the same desperate stab at representation: the crises of Manet and Picasso reenacted on new ground. With few exceptions later  art concerned with the “tragic and timeless” is an art of intent, made of a few gestures done with an air of high seriousness. I can enjoy the works of the Zero school without asking them to carry more than their weight. Rauschenberg’s best early works have all the terror in the nightmares of a closeted Willy Loman, or a character out of Tennessee Williams, without the melodrama. His best works are figurative and crushingly intimate. But Barnett Newman’s paintings are claimed to be in the grand tradition, and the claim is hollow. My glib cocktail party version of this is seen in the two images, of Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis, from 1951, and a still from the last scene of John Ford’s 1956 film The Searchers.  Both are attempts at representation and the thematics are nearly identical: the individual in the American landscape.  But where one originates in the specific and resolves to something approaching grandeur, but a grandeur only allowed for after an acknowledgement of tragedy and irony, both concerning the story and the artifice of film, the other is unabashedly both grandly self-aggrandizing and grandly unspecific.  Of the two, Newman’s high art is the one that deals in the wishful thinking foundational to kitsch.  But it’s also foundational to Modernism itself.  Modernism is aspirational, and kitsch is the ultimate in aspirational logic: to dream is to succeed; pretense is reality.  But again there is the difference between aspiration—desire—and its description.  

Pollock is a harder case; but the literature on him as well is still caught up with the romance of overreach.  I’ve spent a lot of time with Clark’s Pollock in Farewell to an Idea[i] Overreach is what the book is about.  Writing on the 19th century Clark pulls ideas out of material substance, but by the 20th he begins to push them in.  Despite his protests it was clear by then that he was never as interested in the working class as he was in the revolution, and we know now they’re not the same thing.  Farewell to an idea (more than once I’ve written it as “Requiem…” ); so he has no problem transitioning from Pollock to Adolph Gottlieb.  Gottlieb ended as kitsch, and Pollock began with it: look at Guardians of the Secret.  But Pollock at his best made paintings that even as a child reminded me of Uccello.  I remember that because I always thought that was strange, and beautiful.  Clark’s language reenacts the crises of modernity as defined by Modernism. His recent book is as mannered as its subject. Farewell to an Idea is an elegy, and a fitting one, but it doesn’t answer my questions about Pollock.  

Pollock’s paintings are commonly associated with music, with ‘free’ jazz, Coltrane or Ornette Coleman. I’m going to take a different tack, not because jazz doesn’t is the obvious parallel, but because it is. But it’s not the parallel favored by the high-brow intellectuals of modernism: the philosophers, for whom the parallels need to be high-brow as well (and more serious than art.) 

Classical musicians are modern people performing a historical art. As with lawyers, historical research is part of the job. That’s the strength and weakness of  performance of the classical canon: the works are no longer part of a living tradition. The strength and weakness of jazz is that it developed in the shadow of a great but dying one. You get the sense that in the mid 20th  century of a  century of a mutual sense of jealously and even awe between the classically trained and the brilliant autodidacts (or their heirs), and tragedy mostly attached to the latter. The Swing era will be remembered as a brief period when people working in a popular form thought of themselves as making art without the need to capitalize the word. Like the great Hollywood films of the same era the art comes out of the craft through great effort but not fuss. I don’t think it’s worth arguing anymore than jazz produced the most important music of the first half of the 20th century. But for now this is a sidebar. I’m interested in historians and craftspeople as opposed to philosophers, and the best discussion I’ve found of the tension between expression and communication, between emotion and form, is an exchange between two pianists in the classical tradition known also as scholars, but not pedants. 
Alfred Brendel describes a moment in one of Beethoven’s piano sonatas when the “chains of music itself” are thrown off.  This moment comes as the end of a slow progression towards an aesthetic or anti-esthetic “musical self-immolation” Modernism has always flirted with self-immolation, in art and politics: the sloughing off of the physical mediating form in the desire for pure experience.  And in the context of communication, of human exchange, that pure experience is one of unification, of one person with another, with a group, or with “the absolute.”  I’m going to include a long passage from the exchange between Brendel and Charles Rosen in the New York Review because it both explicates and exemplifies the tensions of the Modernist relation to culture and the meaning of culture and cultural history in the modern era and the present.  It’s a wonderful exchange between two people fully engaged with—and within—the tradition they’re discussing.  And very clearly Pollock’s in there too.

Brendel: In Charles Rosen’s review of William Kinderman’s highly stimulating book on Beethoven [NYR, September 21], he raises a question about a quotation from one of my articles.  The context from which this quote is taken is readily available in my book Music Sounded Out (“Beethoven’s New Style,” page 71).  To sum it up: During the inversion of the fugue of opus 110, the constraints of polyphony are shaken off in a gradual process of foreshortening that is a feature of the movement’s return to life.  
…At the same time, the appearance of the augmented theme in its original, upward shape initiates a process of liquidation: when the basic key of A flat is reached, the texture has become virtually homophonic.  The goal of revival has been attained.  But Beethoven proceeds even further.  The lyrical hymn in A flat that carries the piece to its end becomes more and more euphoric until another, ultimate liberation is achieved: finally, after an exertion that surmounts two fortissimo diminished seventh chords, the “chains of music itself” are thrown off.  This last extreme effort amounts to a kind of musical self-immolation; it needs to be conveyed by the performance before silence takes over.  In my view, only an extreme metaphor could do it justice.

Rosen: I made no criticism of Alfred Brendel in my review.  I only wrote that I assumed he meant something specific by the grandiose expression “the chains of music itself”; I was reproaching William Kinderman (who occasionally writes program-notes for Brendel) with quoting from the work of other scholars out of context in a way that makes their phrases seem empty and pretentious.  There was, therefore, no reason to refer to Brendel’s book, although I am glad that it is readily available, since I was sure that the particular metaphor had some justification.  I agree that the lyric euphoria of the final page of opus 110 is extraordinary.  In his letter, however, Brendel has now added the additional metaphor of “musical self-immolation” which is less persuasive.  It is not so much its lack of clarity that is unfortunate (who is being immolated, Beethoven, the pianist, or the sonata itself?) but the Wagnerian resonance which can be applied to Beethoven only with a certain lack of tact.  Beethoven’s pretensions may be as great as Wagner’s, but they are less morbid and less coarse.[ii]

This is a conversation as I said from within a tradition, and an outsider is left to wonder what those last sentences with the words ‘tact,’ ‘morbid’ and ‘coarse’ even mean.  The definition of theology is the use of terms of objective knowledge in discussion based on subjectivity and sense.  But we live within our subjectivity and in this sense we live within theology. We can’t escape but we communicate, indeed the only way we do so, is by comparing terms.  

In fact Rosen’s letter made me laugh out loud and at the end I felt a shiver: the shiver I’ve felt watching great actors play with an audience.  Tact in Rosen’s sense is one’s proper relation to the question of the curtain in the Wizard of Oz; which one should maintain even knowing what’s behind it. And the shiver I felt is the shiver of recognition that the priest you’re arguing with is as much of an atheist or an ironist as you are, but that the fact of a godless world is nonetheless irrelevant. Rosen and Brendel are both arguing explicitly from within their culture because what they are each interested in, indeed preoccupied by, is not the truth value of that culture—or of culture as such—but its ability to foster a wide range of categories of event and experience. 

Imagine being asked to judge a poetry competition where the  entrants are asked to write on the same subject. Comparing the results you’re not comparing the poems’ relation to the objective truth of the idea, event, or object -their assigned subject- but the poets’ ability to build a complex and evocative description out of their perceptions and responses.  You’re not judging the ability to see a thing in absolute terms, but the ability of each poet to make you see what they see, which still must begin with the assumption that at a basic level you already do, since the object or theme has a common, public, form. From a simple commonality, a common denominator, a tea pot or spare tire, each participant is asked to develop a perspective which is then reformulated in language (returned) as a new and more complex common form.  The process is one of group mimesis,  collectively developed representation, through conversation and debate of individuals about the community and the world they share.  The external world -in an absolute sense- is secondary to the social, and to the method of description, the world as experienced and responded to in time. This is the foundation also of the rule of law. 

The vulgarity in Wagner and incipient in Beethoven—hence the need in Rosen’s terms for ‘tact’—is not the vulgarity of subject but of the composer’s assumptions about and attitude towards language.  Beethoven is in a line of gradation with Wagner, Gerome and Helmut Newton, in the sense that Wagner indulges a bombast that Beethoven at his best merely passionately describes.  Wagner’s music is written for Wagnerians in the same sense that Newton’s photographs are made for voyeurs, yet identification—as pseudo-community—is encouraged but not yet a requirement.  All communities are communities of selves and others.  Collective identity, as imaginary collective unity, is either a false—unrealizable—ideal, from fascism to The Singularity, or mere collective reflex: the community of tech geeks, fetishists and junkies. 

The experience of the sex act is social, formal, communicative, and if the world is seen as the social realm, world-creating.  The moment of orgasm as reflex is aformal, asocial (isolate), ecstatic and if the world is seen as social, world destructive.  Sex as performance is a form of communication; orgasm is artless.  The pretense of an ‘art’ of orgasm is vulgar.  The popular understanding of Pollock’s work is as an ‘act’ of ‘expression,’ as orgasm not structure.  Mondrian saw structure. The what and how of communication for Pollock’s work are complex; as complex in their way as the question of orgasm in Beethoven.  

What Rosen is debating with Brendel is the increasing presence of instrumentalism in form: the growing tendency to craft to reflex that reaches its apogee in the illustration and the false community of the fetish: of pure instrument.  Wagner is preaching to the choir (and Pollock is in there somewhere); Gerome is a soft-care pornographer playing to an audience, Newton and his audience are almost interchangeable, his form of communication identification with the masturbator, which is to say barely communication at all, one step away from the final shift, the final descent from interpersonal communication to masturbation in public.  

If communication is a circuit, reflex is a short.  The fantasy of the premature ejaculator is a state of eternal orgasm. It’s also the logic of the perfect economic man.  The mania for progress becomes no more than simply the desire to go faster.  If knowledge is measured in conclusions not in processes then the shortest distance between two points, the short circuit, is the obvious choice. Pornography and technical illustration is the model of art in a technocracy: immediate gratification. This is the crux of the struggle over the human imagination that begins in the 18th century, with the rise of idealist anti-humanism.  

In 2003, I asked Jack Balkin, Knight Professor of Constitutional Law at Yale, if there were any discussion between legal scholars and musicologists and historians such as Richard Taruskin, known for criticizing theories of originalism in musical performance.  In the various overlapping intellectual interests that marked my childhood, the connection was taken as a given.  I still take too much for granted about what others take for granted, but Balkin was the right person to ask.  Here’s Taruskin, from his keynote address at the conference, “Law, Music and other Performing Arts” at U.T.  Austin in 2002

About ten years ago I received out of the blue an offprint of an article[iii] from the University Pennsylvania Law Review… by Professors Sanford Levinson of the University of Texas and Jack Balkin of Yale…. I read it with fascination and gratitude, the latter simply because the authors had so well understood the position I had taken in the debates about what was then known as authentic performance practice in music. My musical and musicological colleagues seemed unable to hear what I was really saying when I said that their ideas of historical performance practice, on which the claim of authenticity was based, derived from a selective reading of history in the service of a modern—or, more strongly, a Modernist—ideology. 
All works of art… are subject to social mediation.  It is, indeed, the price of living…. Ought it to require a musicologist and a pair of legal scholars to come up with such a truism?  Maybe not, but apparently it does.[iv]

If all communication is communication among individuals through mediating forms -of which language is the prime example- then beyond the most rudimentary functions we operate always on speculative induction and generalization, and we should be clear: we build most often on foundations of desire and hot air.  Only in language can you live on the 10th floor of a building that doesn’t reach the ground.  It amazes me that philosophers have built careers without having to respond to our model of the law as formalized adversarialism: mandated moral semi-consciousness. My ignorance is why I took for granted that more than one or two scholars of constitutional law would have read Taruskin. I assumed philosophers understand that we’ve chosen the rule of law because we understood the dangers of the rule of reason. 

Having grown up around lawyers and literature professors –readers of fiction– debates over rationalism and irrationalism left me almost speechless. I’d forgotten that Plato hated lawyers as much he hated poets, and that his ideal was Sparta. The rule of law is the rule of public language and the public description of the world. Under the rule of reason justice is ad hoc, devolving always into the rule of the reasonable as defined by the strong. 

Taruskin is a musicologist. Brendel and Rosen are performers who write criticism, and as soloists are advocates for the causes that they choose.  Jobbing lawyers, like orchestra players, don’t always have a choice.  From the NY Times obituary of John Mortimer, Barrister and novelist, creator of Rumpole of the Bailey

Doing these cases,” he wrote, “I began to find myself in a dangerous situation as an advocate.  I came to believe in the truth of what I was saying.  I was no longer entirely what my professional duties demanded, the old taxi on the rank waiting for the client to open the door and give his instruction, prepared to drive off in any direction, with the disbelief suspended.”[v]

How in the context of modern social life does one make a statement or a proposition that acknowledges both the integrity of that statement—the speaker’s desire that it be ‘true’—and the possibility, most often the fact, that it doesn’t operate on that universal level?  How do we manage irony and belief, and the dual imperatives of integrity and sociability?  The passage above is the statement of a man who spent his life as a performer in the theater of law.  He understood the question, and his career was predicated on the response most of us take too much for granted to ever bother articulating.  Taruskin on the other hand, defending the “authenticity” of performing in and for the present,  defends censorship, even to the point of  arguing that we should stop listening to Prokofiev, regardless of the music itself, simply because he worked for Stalin.[vi] By his logic the greatest art of Europe, or any other culture beyond a few tribes of hunter gatherers, should be in deep storage. Concert halls should be silent. In his arguments with Rosen[vii] and Daniel Barenboim[viii], both get the better of him easily. Taruskin: “As one who regards Rosen’s literary output—all of it—as Cold War propaganda…”[ix]  Rosen replies[x], but it’s not worth the effort to go into details.  I’d argue with all of them that Schoenberg’s serialism was a desperate attempt to escape becoming a Hollywood competitor of Erich Korngold, famous for Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood –listening to Verklarte Nacht, I can’t help seeing Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland– and that Milton Babbitt’s music and  writing, “Who Cares if you Listen”[xi] aka “The Composer as Specialist”[xii] (a title too perfect by half) fit with every example of post war rationalism I’ve described: scholastic formalism, positivism, erudition as art, dead ends imagined as progress.  I’d argue that there are “bad” or “inappropriate” ways to play Bach, as there are “bad” or “inappropriate” ways to interpret the constitution. But those are arguments to be made and answered in debate, and censorship is refusing to argue and then demanding others do the same. No one mentioned above would disagree with Taruskin’s critique of originalism, just as none of them would agree with Babbitt’s diktats. Rosen was a friend and performer of his music, but he wasn’t a follower; Babbitt lost his argument from authority well before he died. Take away the positivistic moralism and the work is left to stand on its own, and the description and manifestation of a kind of desire, from a place and time. It will stand or fall as record or relic. In the end the terms are not Babbitt’s or Taruskin’s. History is the judge.  

Joseph Kerman on Babbitt the theorist.

His writing of the 1950s had developed into a strange amalgam. Conjoined with a fanatical scientism, a search for quasi-logical precision of reference which tortured his syntax into increasingly Jamesian spirals for very un-Jamesian ends, there was an undertone of distress, even rage, erupting into repeated assaults and innuendos directed against various predictable targets. This scarcely contained emotion issued obviously (and openly enough) from the same sense of modernist alienation as was expressed very differently by Schoenberg or, to take an even more extravagant case, Adorno. But while Adorno was telling anyone who would listen at Darmstadt and Donaueschingen that modern music was decisively cut off from decadent bourgeois culture, Babbitt at Princeton was pointing out that avant-garde music could find its niche after all – though only by retreating from one bastion of middle class culture, the concert hall, to another, the university. Like pure science, he argued, musical composition has a claim on the university as a protector of abstract thought. (The complicity of composition and theory, it will be seen, was crucial to this argument, the complicity of theory and mathematics extremely helpful.) Instead of lamenting the no-doubt irreparable breach between avant-garde music and the public, composers like mathematicians should turn their backs on the public and demand their rightful place in the academy. Otherwise ‘music will cease to evolve, and in that important sense, will cease to live'.[xiii]

“Jamesian spirals for very un-Jamesian ends.” Kerman restates my arguments, marking the same line from the subjective but impersonal to the ‘objective’, formality to formalism, elision to denial, from bourgeois culture to technocratic anti-culture. But he ignores that Babbitt’s and Adorno’s prescriptions are variations of the same institutionalism, with the same positivist, Weberian, contempt for art. If Babbitt’s art succeeds it succeeds in spite of this. The undertones in his essays,  "of distress, even rage, erupting into repeated assaults” is matched in his music. The parallel is not science or mathematics but the other art music of its time: free Jazz. Formal logic is a cover.

Expressionism in the atomic age is the product of technocracy and the bomb, the emotion escaping the denial of emotion; it's the melodrama behind positivism, from Vienna to Weimar to New York, the relation of Strangelove to von Neumann. This is what Brendel and Rosen, and Kerman, as exegetes, interpreters not pedants, who are neither positivists nor emotionalists, rationalists nor irrationalists, are describing and debating. If music is formal, how can a gesture that breaks with the form, function within it? Rosen says Brendel defends farting in Church; he misses the logic behind the change. If Beethoven puts an explosion at the end of the metrical line, then formal art has become mimetic. One of my teachers, Abe Ajay, an arch modernist, a friend of Ad Reinhardt who worked with him at The New Masses, used to complain that Beethoven ruined his music with images. "All those wonderful notes and then... Birds!!" Abe wasn’t joking, but I laughed. This is what Schoenberg and Babbitt rebelled against, not Beethoven but the only option for those following him into the 20th century: the vulgar romance of Korngold and the program music of Hollywood, music of the classical western tradition no longer independent, now subservient to another form, the art of images. 

[i] T.J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism, Yale University Press, 1999
[ii] Letters, New York Review of Books, Volume 42, Number 18, Nov. 16 1995
[iii] Sanford Levinson and J. M. Balkin, “Law, Music, and Other Performing Arts”. 139 U. Pa. Law Rev. 1597 (1991) Available on the web:
[iv] Richard Taruskin, The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays, California, 2008
[v] Helen T.  Verongos  “John Mortimer, Barrister and Writer Who Created Rumpole, Dies at 85”,
NY Times,  Jan 17, 2009
[vi]  Taruskin, “Prokofiev, Hail... and Farewell?”, New York Times, April 21 1991;  
Taruskin, On Russian Music, University of California Press, 2010, p. 10
[vii]  Rosen "From the Troubadours to Frank Sinatra" (two parts), New York Review of Books, February 23, and March 9 2006. 
[viii]  Daniel Barenboim, “Music’s Dangers; An Infringement”, New York Times Dec 23, 2001
[ix]  Taruskin, “Afterword: Nicht blutbefleckt?” The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 26, Issue 2 Spring 2009.
[x]  Rosen, “Music and the Cold War”, New York Review of Books, April 7, 2011
[xi]  Milton Babbitt, “Who cares if you listen?”, High Fidelity, Feb. 1958
[xii]  Anthony Tommasini, “Finding Still More Life in a 'Dead' Idiom”, The New York Times,  October 6, 1996
[xiii] Joseph Kerman, Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology,  Harvard University Press, 1986  p. 101 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comment moderation is enabled.