Sunday, December 27, 2015

Kyle Gann on the word games of artistic movements and self-identification, some lengthy excerpts presented (for now) without comment
I don’t know whether it’s symptomatic of the decline of culture, but it seems that most people these days no longer understand the word game of artistic -isms and movements. A term denoting inclusion in an artistic movement is a kind of performative utterance masquerading as a descriptive one. A performative utterance, as J.L. Austin defined it, is one that is itself an act, one that changes the truth value of something by being spoken, like “I pronounce you man and wife,” or “I accept your offer.” If someone with the authority to make this statement says, in appropriate circumstances, “I pronounce you man and wife,” you can’t contradict him by saying, “That’s not true, they aren’t married.” The fact that he says it is what makes it true. Of course nothing in physical reality is changed by the utterance. The statement is a command that we should consider something to be changed.

Likewise, using an artistic term is an act of political demarkation; it only pretends to be a descriptive, and that pretense is its power. When critic Louis Leroy, in the April 25, 1874, issue of Le Charivari magazine, dismissed Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Renoir, and others as “Impressionnistes,” he was not describing them, as if he had said they were “tall,” or “Catholic,” or “wearers of berets.” The word “Impressionist” did not yet exist; the moment before he wrote it, it didn’t mean anything. His intent was to marginalize those painters, by insinuating that they had attached themselves to some deficient and trivial artistic principle (snidely inferrable from the indistinct word “impression”). By coining an adjective that had the appearance of objectivity, Leroy was performing the act of commanding the reader to regard those artists as mistaken and ins[i]gnificant.

The artists, however, as often happens, grabbed on to the word and subverted its meaning. They called themselves “Impressionists” in their next group show – not because it was an adjective with specific denotations that accurately depicted them, but as an act of self defense. By calling themselves Impressionists, they were telling the public, “Do not regard us as painters who have tried to master the conventions of realism and failed, but as painters who are working on something new, who have collectively perceived that there could be a different approach to visual phenomena.” By calling themselves Impressionists, they protected themselves from what they considered false criticisms, charges of deficiency based on inapplicable criteria. Years later, once those criticisms ceased to be common, they abandoned the term and went back to calling themselves merely painters. But the term itself has lasted in history.


The really sad thing is, I think, that the kneejerk adamant resistance to new movements indicates a loss of faith that new perceptions are possible. “I refuse to participate in your culture of word games,” means “I no longer want to build this culture up, I’m ready to start tearing it down.” Impressionism happened because a bunch of people realized about the same time that realistic art didn’t do justice to the way we really perceive color. Totalism happened because a bunch of people realized that, within minimalism’s stripped-down context, it was possible for people to perform and keep in their heads several tempos at once. A person convinced that there will be no more movements is a person for whom the history of culture is basically over, a person who believes that everything possible has already been perceived, and that there are no new avenues left open to us. We whine about the sanctity of the individual, but art grows by leaps and bounds when groups of people start to have collective realizations. 18th-century music sprang out of a 30-year slump in 1781 when Mozart and Haydn started copying and combining each other’s ideas – neither of them had been able to do it alone. Wagner’s music burst into flames when he discovered Liszt’s harmonic innovations. Modern art changed forever when the Abstract Expressionists started meeting every night at the Cedar Bar. Occasionally one person creates a compelling new language on his own, but it’s extremely rare. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our music, and consciousness of those things is not likely to dawn on only one person at a time. Artists need each other, and the anti-ism diehards want to imprison them each in solitary confinement. A sense of creative community, so crucial to the development of an art, is devalued by the ideology that pooh-poohs purported movements.

Or to personalize it: In the early 1980s, I had a lot of cool ideas about rhythmic structure. I thought those ideas alone would make me the King of Composers. When I got to New York and it dawned on me that Rhys Chatham, Mikel Rouse, Michael Gordon, and Ben Neill had all had the same ideas, I had to jump up off my butt, steal what I could from them, and raise my music to a whole new level to avoid being just one of the crowd. That’s how music history happens (even among the so-called American Mavericks) far more often than the more popular lone-genius theory. ...

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