Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Ethan Iverson remembering a paragraph from Tom Wolfe

 

As a teenager I thumbed through my mother’s copy of From Bauhaus to Our House without understanding much of it. However, one paragraph naturally stood out. Looking at it again I am struck by the perhaps needless cruelty of the author. Still, the larger point hits home then and now.
 
For that matter, in most of the higher arts in America prestige was now determined by European-style clerisies. By the mid-1960s, painting was a truly advanced case. The Abstract Expressionists had held on as the ruling compound for about ten years, but then new theories, new compounds, new codes began succeeding one another in a berserk rush. Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism, Hard Edge, Color Field, Earth Art, Conceptual Art — the natural bias of the compounds toward arcane and baffling went beyond all known limits. The spectacle was crazy, but young artists tended to believe – correctly – that it was impossible to achieve major status without joining in the game. In the field of serious music, the case was even more advanced; in fact, it was very nearly terminal. Within the university compounds, composers had become so ultra-Schoenbergian, so exquisitely abstract, that no one from the outside world any longer had the slightest interest in, much less comprehension of, what was going on. In the cities, not even that Gideon’s army known as “the concert-going public” could be drawn to an all-contemporary program. They took place only in university concert halls. Here on the campus the program begins with Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” followed by one of Stockhausen’s early compositions, “Punkte,” then Babbitt’s Ensembles for Synthesizer, a little Easley Blackwood and Jean Barraqué for a change of pace, then the committed plunge into a random-note or, as they say, “stochastic” piece for piano, brass, Moog synthesizer, and computer by Iannis Xenakis. The program winds up with James P. Johnson’s “You’ve Gotta Be Modernistic.” Joplin and Johnson, of course, are as cozy and familiar as a lullaby, but they are essential to the program. The same thirty-five or forty souls, all of them faculty members and graduate students, make up the audience at every contemporary musical event. The unspeakable fear is that not even they will show up unless promised a piece of candy at the beginning and a piece of candy at the end. Joplin and Johnson are okay because both men were black and were not appreciated as serious composers in their own day.
 
What strikes me about the "needless cruelty" of Tom Wolfe's book is how that "needless cruelty" is the baseline of social and political commentary.  If the tone seems lacerating and condescending from Wolfe regarding highbrow art it's possible it seems that way because Wolfe was targeting art but, more directly, a class. 
 
By the way, the Easley Blackwood string quartets are okay but I like Bartok's a whole lot more.  But the zinger about how you have to promise candy at the start and candy at the end lest people not endure all the musical broccoli and brussel sprouts in the middle doesn't seem too harsh.  I say that as someone who actually likes some stuff by Xenakis and Blackwood. I don't care hugely for Stockhausen overall and Babbitt ... eh. 
 
But Wolfe, as so many have been saying, had a singular focus on status and its trappings.  His satires on art criticism and the arts scene are first and foremost about what might be called the leisure classes or the chattering classes.  It may smell like anti-intellectualism to those who like Xenakis and think Wolfe is ripping on Xenakis.  Eh, possible, but he's definitely making fun of what people of an educated and leisurely class began to feel they were obliged to provide patronage to by way of money and attention in the 1970s.  As one of my music teachers put it, the 1970s was a rough time when official composers and teachers thought you couldn't write tunes any longer.  Even Leo Brouwer was doing avant garde stuff, although he managed to sneak in some sweet prog rock style rhythms into his avant garde guitar music.  Then he started writing tunes again, but I digress.
 
If the quoted paragraph was actually Wolfe being needlessly cruel that's still restrained and vaguely polite enough to name all proper names.  Nothing in there that's half as vitriolic as some of the comments you can read at slippedisc these days.
 

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