Friday, October 05, 2012

J. S. Bangs on rhyme and reason, and the abjection of the past in fantasy literature

J. S. didn't exactly plan for these two to be bookends of an overarching idea but I'm presenting the links back to back because I think they do present an overarching idea, one that can be summarized by his use of Eve Tushnet's observation:

"Realism" only works for people whose worldviews are already accepted as realistic. The rest of us must make do with genre.

Everything old tends to get new again and if rhyme has become hip now it might be because after generations of poetry teachers telling you that you need to grow up and stop doing end rhyme so much a bunch of writers may have decided that that stance is silly.  A lot of tedious music, art, literature, theater, dance and film has been made in the name of "progress". 

If you read Alex Ross' book The Rest is Noise he wrote about the ascent of serialism and atonality in American academic music in the 1960s and 1970s.  The Cold War was raging along and in reaction, partly, to the aesthetic ideology of "socialist realism" a lot of American composers decided (with some help from government funding and foundations) that writing music that was not at all traditionally tonal was the most democratic and intellectually honest thing to do.  The champions of the European avant garde had, by and large, fled in the build-up to the Second World War and often settled in the United States. 

It was almost a patriotic duty for a serious, academic composer to eschew the popular stuff like conventional melody and harmony.  Even someone as popular as Bernstein could still have semi-nice rather than glowing things to say about Gershwin, who really came from the pop side of the pop/art divide and whose forays into concert music inspired some of the biggest names in "serious" music to be more than a little dismissive of Gershwin's work.  I hardly need do more than ask readers how many of them have heard Gershwin's "Summertime" compared to hearing a Virgil Thomson work of any sort.  I'm aware that given how I blog about music there's going to be a sample bias because anyone who comes here and recognizes the name Atanas Ourkouzounov has probably actually heard Virgil Thomson music.

But while in academia and "serious" music major and minor chords were being cast off right and left (there's a joke in there not just about the profligacy with which the high-brow cast off tonality, it's about the different ways in which different political interests contrived reasons for this) the popular culture in the West began to plug in and rock around the clock.  Sure, you could point to all the stuff in pop music and talk about how bound it was to older styles but people were listening to it.  For the advocates of atonality tonal music was about as bad as the 19th century.  Some people caught in some kind of middle-brow snobbery would look down on popular music without realizing that compared to Stockhausen or Elliot Carter pop music was at least preserving some semblance of tonality, however expanded and attenuated it might be and this, really, no further than the harmonic devices employed by Debussy.  There's not much in the heavy metal I've heard that can't be traced to folk music from Scandanaiva or central and eastern Europe, to get absurdly sweeping about that.

Neither the archetypal renegade nor reactionary is really representing the vast and fascinating continuum of the arts in any media.  Even in the Baroque we can go back and see the old style and the new style and how composers could adapt to one or the other and synthesize. 

In the 20th century the West was full of people trying to cast off the rules and break the mold.  In the 21st century as digital storage and algorythmic analysis of cumulative works becomes more practical we are getting people philosopically musing on how nothing is original and how everything derives ins ome fashion from the past.  All may be flux and Heraclitus may have been right to say you can't walk through the same river twice but let's suppose we ask another question, woudl he still have tried catching fish in that river a week after he uttered his axiom?

What Bangs has touched on thematically across two posts in two years is something I want to play with and bring into a bit more light, if possible.  On the one hand in the 20th century there was an abjection of the past.  The idea was that whatever the past was it was some benighted epoch of ignorance and stupid people doing evil things or making uninspiring this or that.  There's a whole emotional/social narrative of a Dark Ages that is something you conveniently didn't have to live in or live through.  We judge the past and consider ourselves better than it, however we define that past.  That was often how things could be perceived and conceived and told in the 20th century. 

But then at the other side there are those Baby Boomers who had kids growing up to love the Beatles and to consider it to have been a fantastic life to have grown up during the 1960s.  Baby Boomers make movies congratulating themselves on having "changed the world" or "changed everything".  There can be a praise of the past that is appealing to those who can look back and, in some way, call that past something connected to their present.  It is something we all sahre even when we don't want to admit we share this impulse, too.  There is somethign in which each of us can say with some pride and some nostalgia, "I was .... when X was ... and things aren't as good as they were back then."  Alert and longtime readers won't have to make too many guesses as to where some probably unwarranted nostalgia might nest here. 

Isn't it a bit strange to have a people that will abject the past of their ancestors while havinga  nostalgia for their own individual past?  I'm not saying it's impossible I'm just saying I don't quite get it.  Americans may have a meta-narrative of overcoming the great obstacle or failure of one's own family and upbringing through the powerful discovery of "real" "community" or "logic".  I admit to beign skeptical about that kind of stuff. 

In the arts I'm not sure I could describe myself as a traditionalist or a proponent of new-(insert field here).  Like I said earlier there's an amazing continuum of possibilities and options and it is that spanning of time and space that makes the arts so fascinating now.  Anyone who would attempt to break the rules and defy conventions by now has to recognize that in the information era and the age of the internet it will be impossible to break any rules.  This does not mean that nothing new can possibly be made.  Even Arnold Schoenberg, champion of dodeccaphony, once remarked that there was still plenty of music to be written in the key of C major.  That which seems to be old and even old-fashioned does not have to be tedious and pointless because billions of people have discovered or enjoyed things before.  Put in very blunt terms none of us would have been born to be possibly reading or writing on a blog if the only things that were cosnidered worth doing were the things that haven't been done before. 

But as a friend once complained about an aspiring writer, tehre's a writer who writes as though nobody had any idea what sex was before he started writing about it.  I recall coming across a silly headline with a silly sentiment that Christopher Hitchens writing about death was finally an honest book about death.  That author may have just been unaware or forgot that Ecclesiastes did a decent job being honest about dying being miserable and the end of everything.  Since it was a book canonized into a religious text it would make sense why a Hitchens fan might have overlooked it, though.  Part of why a lot of the "modern" from the 20th century can seem played out in every art form is because it could get too precious and too self-aware but the bad kind of self-aware of proposing something that "mattered". 

Sometimes things happen that change the nature of an art form.  Not everyone wants to admit the action/adventure film is an art forum but Raiders of the Lost Ark,with that one scene where Indy shoots the swordsman, did change action cinema.  The protagonist was willing to skip to lethal force rather than fight a foe on equal footing.  The protagonist was willing to press a substantial combat advantage and skip what was at that point the expected and for that time, "inevitable" sword fight.  Or so the legend goes.  For the sake of discussing how innovation happens in the arts the legend is useful for my point, that not all innovation is necessarily done on purpose.  Innovation doesn't have to be done on purpose to be compelling.  Conversely, as a survey of the work of J. S. bach goes you might be hard-pressed to find Bach's formal and conceptual innovations as a composer and yet no one could contest the significance of his influence. 

If in the 20th century the great pioneers in the arts broke the rules, thought outside the box, and came up with things that were new the 21st century, 12 years in, may be full of an anxiety of influence stretched out on a massive canvas and painted in alternately dour or chirpy tones.  What we often forget if we don't bother to study enough history of the arts is that cycles of fragmentation and consolidation are common.  When fragmentation became the value it was important to be part of that iconoclastic, transgressive process.  It was in the late 1990s, perhaps, that Leo Brouwer said that the academics have missed the boat on fusion as a movement, wasn't it?  It was easy to dismiss jazz/rock fusion and other forms of fusion like progressive rock (and, really, it IS easy to be dismissive of a lot of progressive rock anyway).  But generations of failure were not without success.

While we are primed by an emotional/cultural narrative in which the Beethoven or the Mozart is the "real" artistic hero we are coming into a time where the Haydn or the Bach could be a hero, in the sense that consolidation, assimilation, and summation are just as fun as iconoclastically pushing the envelope and breaking hte rules.  In a global information network such as ours, I tentatively suggest, assimilation and consolidation is the more challenging task before us. 

In many cases assimilation will happen in ways that are not easily grasped without a lot of research.  For instance when anime began to trickle into the United States the big eyes got complaints.  Never mind that the big eyes were simply one of a dozen ways in which anime was indebted to the saucer-eyed characters of Walt Disney.  The British invasion in pop music was in many ways British boys repackaging the music of black American musicians in a way that made the music less exotic or intimidating to white audiences in the U.S. 

Fast forward a few decades and the influence of Asian action films slowly worked its way into American action films so that The Matrix appeared and showed that if you assimilate enough of Yung-woo Ping's choreography into the gun-fighting people will respond to it like it was something never seen before.  In an American cinematic context it was sorta kinda new. For anyone with even some exposure to Asian cinema it was basically not much different from what you'd have seen in John Woo's Hong Kong films.  The early Beatles were not necessarily that far off from Roy Orbison but, hey, what's wrong with being influenced by Roy?

The hipster response, for want of a better way of putting it, may be to cast the net wider for stuff that's harder and harder to find.  Indie music in the 1990s was in a sense very easy to get into.  Liking stuff because you were privileged with the special intel nobody else had was easier when there was nothing like the internet or Google.  This credibility was not just about the art if, at the risk of overstating things, there was nay point to the art as art.  The credibility was also about the scene.

Back in my teens I didn't think there'd be any artistically significant thing to come out of rap or hip-hop.  I didn't enjoy the music, didn't understand the music and I'll admit I still mostly don't get the genre.  But I don't see it as not-music.  I wouldn't have anticipated liking any country and I still don't care for "new country" because it sounds like warmed over "old rock" but I have come to enjoy Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Sr., some Willie Nelson, and some Merle Haggard.  John Prine may not exactly be country but some of his stuff is okay, too.  If you'd asked 17-year old me whether I would like either rap or country and consider them viable musical styles I would have scoffed at you.  I've mellowed on that.  I've come to a point where I may never like a certain style of music too much but I can find things in a musical style that I can respect or find interesting. 

While I suppose there's something to be said for "remix" concepts of art and human thought I don't feel any obligation to commit to that or to an older Romantic idea of "genius".  It's not like authors in the Enlightenment didn't consider the topic of genius.  "Genius" may elude us and it may be in one age thought of as a capacityto put together the new, in another it may be the capacity to "steal" the old in a way that makes it seem as though it were the thief's own idea.  Perhaps a review of even some of Bach's collected work could remind us that geniuses did make use of associative memory and recursive ideas.  So often movements seem to be founded on schools articulating a fixed point and a set array of ideals. 

If rhyme comes back in "literature" it never went away in other art forms.  If I'm right, and I'll hardly make any bets about that, the 20th century's epic fragmentation may have reached an end point and the 21st century in post-industrial societies invites new possibilities for consolidation.  For musicologists and music history fans we can remind ourselves that Baroque was not what the practitioners of that musical art called their stuff.  There was the old style and the new style, wasn't there?  There were those who made use of the Renaissance stylsitic heritage and also of the newer, emerging major/minor key system.  By the dawn of the Classic era there was a big mess of ideas and styles and devices available.  The emergence of the sonata cycle as an organizing set of forms for music didn't happen all at once. 

But at this point I've run so far afield of what Bangs was blogging about I figure I'm done with this post.  Go read both posts.  They're fun.


Headless Unicorn Guy said...

I hardly need do more than ask readers how many of them have heard Gershwin's "Summertime" compared to hearing a Virgil Thomson work of any sort.

How many recognize the names "Tarzan", "Conan the Barbarian", "Perry Mason", "The Shadow", "The Lone Ranger", and "Zorro" compared to the Serious Fiction of the 1930s?

All the above originated in Pulp, which was considered extremely-lowbrow popular fiction, thus unworthy of serious consideration.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes things happen that change the nature of an art form. Not everyone wants to admit the action/adventure film is an art forum but Raiders of the Lost Ark,with that one scene where Indy shoots the swordsman, did change action cinema. The protagonist was willing to skip to lethal force rather than fight a foe on equal footing. The protagonist was willing to press a substantial combat advantage and skip what was at that point the expected and for that time, "inevitable" sword fight.

And what genre was Indiana Jones?

Hint: He has joined the ranks of the above-named pulp heroes, as the first original pulp hero since the pulp magazines died in World War Two paper drives and their heroes transferred to TV.

Since then, the remake of The Mummy and originals such as Van Helsing and the first Pirates of the Caribbean carry on all the traditions of classic Pulp.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Then there's the entire superhero genre as a subdivision of pulp. Batman's pulp roots have served him well even if people still argue about which version of Batman is "legitimate". I can enjoy the Adam West Batman, the Dini/Timm Batman, Nolan's Batman and Dietrich Bader's Batman from The Brave and the Bold without having to assume there's one definitive "right" take on the character. And despite the pedigree of BTAS Gina Gershon worked better as Catwoman than Adrienne Barbeau in Batman cartoons, which I never thought I'd actually ever say.