Saturday, January 24, 2015

from The Guardian: "I dreamed a DreamWorks: how to reverse the failing studio's fortunes" i.e. don't try for Shrek 5

In the grand tally of films by DreamWorks the only two that Wenatchee thought were solid were Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon (haven't seen the sequels for either).  Much that could be said about DreamWorks face has already been said. 

edit:  let's see if this variation works

arguments for a lost middlebrow? Comparing ArtsJournal writers Scott Timberg and Terry Teachout on the loss of a cultural middle
AF: The meaning of middlebrow is a bit slippery in the book — it includes indie rock. Unlike Dwight Macdonald, I want middlebrow art to exist — but do I have to like it?

Timberg: Middlebrow has always been a complicated/ ambiguous concept – or set of concepts – and I may have done it no favors here.

When I lament the loss of middlebrow, I’m not saying I want nothing but overplayed warhorses at symphony orchestras, nothing but Matisse shows at the museum, etc. What I miss is the notion that art is somehow clarifying or restorative, and that a broad public education and media push is worth investing in. Middlebrow means Leonard Bernstein on TV, Thelonious Monk on the cover of Time, Anne Sexton learning how to write a sonnet on public television, Lionel Trilling and Auden leading a book club for non-scholarly readers, public school art classes, etc. It says there’s something valuable about culture that goes beyond money (what the neoliberal or capitalist values) or shock value (what much of the cultural left values.)

Middlebrow, whatever its fault and blind spots and earnest pieties, values literature and the arts as aspects of human achievement.

Don’t think indie rock is really middlebrow in any way, but I included it in that section about “Restoring the Middle” because it (like indie film) is built on mid-size budgets and a middle-class audience. If you say you like, say, the films of Spike Jonze and bands like Pavement or TV on the Radio, your taste may have a bit of the avant-garde in it (or what we called in the ‘90s “cutting edge”) but economically, they are in the middle. (That is, they are neither blockbusters nor micro-finances shoestring operations, both extremes which have grown in the 21st century.)
And, no, you don’t have to like it. (I often don’t.) It’s about an ecosystem, not any of the individual flora and fauna within it. When it dies, everything around it starts to wither.

I.e. the middlebrow may still suck and all but we need it for a healthy cultural biosphere.  It seems a bit strange but perhaps lamenting the loss of the middlebrow culture is as much a lament for the decline of a middleclass as it actually is.  Another bit from the site.
... lot of what my book describes involves unintended consequences, and I think this is what happened here. This is a place where I never intended to end up; I was once a Wesleyan English major besotted with postmodern literature, experimental music and French theory, so I had to go against a lot of my instincts to see that it was the middle, not the edges, that needed restoring.
But in a nutshell, the people responsible for passing down the value of art – humanities professors and culture critics, for example, and media-savvy artists like Warhol – lost their nerve, or their faith. The priesthood stopped telling the flock that art was sacred or transcendent or a path to wisdom, and began calling it sexist, built on hegemony, a formation of cultural capital, an endlessly deferred signifier, etc. Some of this was true, at least in part. I don’t want to sound like Bill Bennett or Lynne Cheney and reject it all. But there was a price to be paid in the longterm for this.
And this overlapped with a movement going back to 19th century Paris – romantic bohemianism – which separated art from the marketplace and divorced the bohemian from the bourgeoisie. A lot of great art and poetry comes from that period. But all this stuff has consequences.
One writer who brought me around to seeing all this, by the way, was David Foster Wallace
Even a cursory observation of some boy band that was at one point known as The Beatles might have made a case for the middle.  Maybe "Revolution Number Nine" was just a knock-off of stuff that had been done earlier by Stockhausen but the point should not be lost that mainstreaming musical ideas explored by Stockhausen is not something every pop band has ever done.  So, yeah, maybe we do need the middle. 
One of the difficulties of consigning the Western canon of the arts to some dustbin of imperialist/colonial oppression is that you can end up throwing out the good as well as the bad.
Let's take a recent piece in The Atlantic.  Michael Godsey penned a little something wondering whether education in the US provides wisdom, the sort of wisdom that has in the past been transmitted through things like the Bible or Shakespeare or various authors:
But as a man who used to be a high school student interested in pursuing wisdom, I’m almost startled to find myself up late at night, literally studying these anchor standards instead of Hamlet itself. I’m making plans to teach the students how to "evaluate the sufficiency of the evidence" instead of asking them, "Who here sympathizes with Hamlet, or Ophelia, or any character, and how so?"
I get it: My job is to teach communication, not values, and maybe that’s reasonable. After all, I’m not sure I would want my daughter gaining her wisdom from a randomly selected high-school teacher just because he passed a few writing and literature courses at a state university (which is what I did). My job description has evolved, and I’m fine with that. [WtH are you sure?] But where are the students getting their wisdom?

Secular wisdom in the public schools seems like it should inherently spring from the literature that’s shaped American culture. And while the students focus on how Whitman’s "purpose shapes the content and style of his text," they’re obviously exposed to the words that describe his leaves of grass. And that’s good. But there is a noticeable deprioritization of literature, and a crumbling consensus regarding the nation’s idea of classic literature. The Common Core requires only Shakespeare, which is puzzling if only for its singularity. (A respected colleague recently called this stipulation "offensive," immediately rejecting "the audacity of elevating any of [Shakespeare’s] plays over anything ever written by anybody else.")

It seems particularly noteworthy that in a review of Timberg's Culture Crash, someone made the following acerbic observation.

Why hasn’t the fate of creative professionals gotten the attention Timberg thinks we deserve? He thinks it’s a residue of either the romantic expectation that artists are misunderstood geniuses who do their best work from garrets or pervasive anti-intellectualism, “part of a larger revolt against experts and expertise.” He even brings in reference to the Puritans. But much more likely, it’s the fact that the remaining media organizations and the digital platforms that are the distribution channels for cultural work are the ones whose bread is being buttered. The people at the tops of those distribution channels are doing great.

“If we’re not careful, culture work will become a luxury, like a vacation home,” Timberg writes. It’s a good line, and one that anyone who values a diverse cultural ecology would want to affirm. What he doesn’t want to admit is that, absent direct patronage, professional culture workers have often depended on outside sources of income. For some it was the second job (in the post-war period, that job was primarily teaching, a job indirectly subsidized by the government in the form of the G.I. Bill fostering a new population of students). For others, it was something unrelated (meet pediatrician William Carlos Williams). For many (more than we have usually acknowledged and certainly more than today’s BFA and MFA students are aware) it was a trust fund, family member, or a spouse of means. That cushion made it possible for a talented person work on a novel or a painting until the work could earn respect, if not a proportionate wage for the work the artist put into it. Maybe the market would respond, and maybe it wouldn’t, but at least the creative person had a chance to find out.

That’s one of the reasons that pop culture exhortations to follow one’s bliss are so maddening. They imply a kind of privilege at the very heart of the class structures Americans are eager to say don’t exist. The fraying of the middle class is not just something that has happened to creatives. It’s just that Timberg never thought that what had happened to unionized manufacturing workers could happen to the educated type of knowledge workers who worked at the LA Times
It's ironic when American culture sorts feel obliged to mention Puritans in the 21st century because whatever flaws the Puritans had those people wrote a lot.  Ever try to read The Christian in Complete Armor by William Gurnall? The arts have always been the work of those with the leisure to work on them.  If there's a crisis in the creative class perhaps we could just throw in a cranky observation from someone like Paul Hindemith about how the problem with American musical education was that all it was good for was teaching people to be music teachers who would teach music teachers.  The idea that music could be taught so that amateurs could make and enjoy music ... maybe that wasn't so on the table.  As music became more and more about what was committed to recordings the idea that music could be something people played together on a weekend rather than hitting the theater to see a movie (indie or otherwise) may have played a century-long role here. 

Debra Cash is right to point out that without a clear grasp of the patronage systems that have been in place a lament about the loss of a creative class can be missing a few important points.  To the degree to which composers and musicians are expected to directly monetize what they do and struggle to find ways to do that in the face of corporate patronage there can be an invitation to "follow your dream" that doesn't account for economic realities. 

At the risk of pointing something else out, we live in an era in which the economics of paths can make it seem as though an aspiring artist can choose one of a number of paths that in the past were not mutually exclusive but that "might" be now.  Bach could afford to have almost two dozen kids.  He was part of a lineage of musicians.  In the United States at this point it seems you could choose to build a family or build an artistic career of some kind but you're not necessarily going to do both unless you've landed a lot of money.  If the ideal of some kind of bohemian cultural innovator in the past was a life of sex, drugs and rock and roll it seems that nowadays you should avoid the drugs and you get to pick either sex or the rock and roll but you'll end up talking with a collections agency if you try to get both at the same time. Maybe in this era of America you've gotta pick the art or the sex whether or not its rock and roll. 

The idea that the arts could be pursued after you've done everything else you "have" to do to get by in life never even seems to be on the table.  It's as though there's this all-or-nothing thing about the arts.  You've either got to be a writer or a musician vocationally or you're not in the arts at all.  That doesn't seem to account for history, as Cash has noted in her review of Timberg's book. There were the trust funds and all that but there were also the teaching jobs.  To bring up Charles Ives, what he did was work in the insurance business.  Bach had a wide variety of duties that did not just include the required cantatas for the liturgical year. 

The political battles over the import of what classic literature, American or otherwise, seems to have been fought and won already.  It's not a huge surprise that a loss of a middle class might eventually include a lament for a loss of a middlebrow could span the political spectrum.  Timberg's been featured at ArtFuse and links to stuff at Salon.  Terry Teachout's writing is more likely to appear in, say, Commentary.  But it's interesting to compare Timberg's concern about a loss of a middlebrow to Teachout's comments.

All these things were manifestations of what I refer to in the introduction to A Terry Teachout Reader as the culture of “middlebrow aspiration”:
Just as city dwellers can’t understand what it meant for the residents of a rural town to wake up one day and find themselves within driving distance of a Wal-Mart, so are they incapable of properly appreciating the true significance of middlebrow culture. For all its flaws, it nurtured at least two generations’ worth of Americans who, like me, went on to become full-fledged highbrows–but highbrows who, while accepting the existence of a hierarchy of values in art, never lost sight of the value of popular culture.
Though middlebrow cultural aspiration was already on its last legs when I came along, small towns tend to be a bit behind the curve. Not only did I get a stiff dose of it, but it took: I studied music, tried out for plays, read books by the carload, and spent virtually every nickel of my modest allowance on records of every imaginable kind. What’s more, my parents, puzzled though they were by my burgeoning strangeness, backed me to the hilt. They took me to the public library as often as I cared to go, and later on they bought me an encyclopedia, a violin, a piano, a guitar, and an electric bass, spending money they couldn’t easily spare in order to give me opportunities they’d never had to explore a world of whose existence they were largely unaware.
Put this way it could almost seem as though the value of middle brow culture would be its capacity to understand and appreciate the value of both the "high" and the "low" without denigrating one or the other on the basis of some ideology of class warfare either in economics or the arts. 

It's not a particularly original observation that during the Cold War in the West classical music seemed straitjacketed by dodecaphonic academics while in the Soviet bloc Socialist Realism imposed a different kind of draconian set of rules on musicians.  Both were different modes of cultural repression.  If in the Soviet bloc music was considered bad if it took more than one listening to understand it in an era in which Elliott Carter was praised (not that he hasn't composed some music WtH sorta likes) the very idea of tonality was abjured.  Both enterprises could be seen as, well, a kind of ideological warfare in which whatever could have been the "middle", let alone whatever was on the "other" side was villainized.

The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart?  Well, anyway ... .

"people will look back on the current era of new music and characterize it in terms not far removed from tourism", by "new music" let's say new concert/classical music

wrote ... :
I sometimes wonder if, several decades from now, people will look back on the current era of new music and characterize it in terms not far removed from tourism. Because if there’s one thing common to the various kinds of music going under the new music banner right now (and a lot of music beyond that), it’s the pursuit and/or assertion of an aura of authenticity. Traditions, styles, vernaculars—so many new pieces I hear these days pledge allegiance to some form of authenticity, some repertoire, some community. A lot of times, such pieces are the result of a deep engagement with the cited style on the part of composer and performer; a lot of times, it’s simply an expression of momentary curiosity. But much of the listener’s intended satisfaction is to come from the feeling that the experience has been both unfamiliar and authentic. In other words: the ideal tourist experience. Which means that the real version and the airport version might, in fact, be equally effective.
Early American hymnody and shape-note singing might be two of the most quintessentially American musics there are, in that they live at a nexus of American anxiety—the disconnect between the way the country ought to be and the way that it actually is. Both were aspirational forms, specifically designed to be specifically American, and both were, in turn, often rejected as being too provincial and unpolished. You only really get a sense of this stew of influence and counter-influence in the context of its relatives: the more buttoned-down, reactionary New England hymnody of the later 18th century, African-American gospel, Gilded Age grandeur, maybe even modern Christian rock-pop, a continuous negotiation between exaltation and populism.
There might be something to this.  In popular music there seems to be a broad leveling of the aesthetic parameters.  There's a propensity for pop songs to start sounding the same across formal distinctions of style and genre.  If you use Marshall amps and old Gibsons you might be rock and if you use a Telecaster you "might" have country but the I, IV and V and vi may pretty much be the same.
In more "classical" parts, especially in what is sometimes known as new music, the dynamic can be a bit different.  Heard a piece a couple of weeks ago in which music had been composed around field recordings of frogs in Bali.  For those not familiar with the field recording approach to the more avant garde classical stuff ... well .... Wenatchee's not going to pretend to be intimately acquainted with that field of music.  There's some fun and interesting stuff in it but perhaps it is most emblematic or symptomatic of a kind of compositional tourism. 
Concert programs can tend to just get that way.  Mostly Mozart. Guitarists tend to inevitably get to music from Spain or central and south America.  Matanya Ophee used to talk about how he'd hear Polish guitarists playing Catalan folk songs but never recalled hearing Catalan guitarists playing Polish folk songs. 
One of the advantages of living in a place liked the United States a decade or so into the age of the internet is that we have access to unprecedented amounts of music with an unprecedented variety of styles.  A potential pitfall to this may be that what we do with that amounts to the above mentioned musical tourism.  If someone were sufficiently lefty or progressive in thoughts the idea of musical tourism as a compositional approach could be construed as symbolic of the imperialistic/colonial imagination in which Americans perpetuate a hegemony of cultural assimilation in which everything in some form eventually becomes "American".  :)  A kind of cultural Trapper Keeper 2000 ...
Since, as proposed above, attempts at genuinely American musical forms could be viewed as too provincial or ineffective it may be a fate of American music to always be an assimilative process. 
Two articles in the Atlantic spring to mind.  There's a more recent one discussing a book about the American songbook.
And a thematically related one about the end of jazz.
... The great overlap between the Songbook and the jazz catalogue largely explains a fact that troubles Gioia—that his book can enshrine “few recent compositions”—and raises doubts about his assertion, supported by passion rather than by argument, that “the jazz idiom [is] a vibrant, present-day endeavor.”
The Songbook and jazz evolved symbiotically. As the critic Gene Lees showed in an important essay in The Oxford Companion to Jazz (2000), the creators of both were musically sophisticated men and women who inevitably and profoundly responded to each other’s work. (Lees’s scholarship made clear the deep musical education of the jazz pioneers, and in the process put to rest the “subtly racist” idea that “jazz was created intuitively by a gifted but ignorant people in some sort of cultural vacuum.”) The result: the Songbook formed the lingua franca of jazz; its material provided the basis on which to assess a performer’s improvisations; and jazz musicians constructed their own compositions on the chord structures of its entries.
If the traditions of Tin Pan Alley songwriting, ragtime, and early blues all interacted to synergistically define the jazz age then the decline of the other two would make a decline in a third more or less natural.  If blues and the Tin Pan Alley era songbook have been on a decline or declined then jazz, which owed so much to both, would not be as prominent in the cultural landscape.  In order to appreciate the possibilities of musical reinterpretation and reinvention in one tradition you have to understand its engagement with the other traditions. 
By way of a possible contrast, the relevancy of Johnny Cash or Ray Charles may be in some way reduceable to the fact that they may have started in this or that genre but they retained to their dying years a capacity to interpret across formal styles.  The musicians we seem to lionize seem to be either those who are unparalleled specialists in a particular style of music or those whose ability to make music with an encyclopedic grasp of the variety and unity in a multiplicity of idioms.  The coherence of popular musical styles overall can be overlooked, especially by those who just don't like popular musical styles. 
If there's any point that can be overlooked in the dominance of popular music it would be the song.  People don't listen to instrumental music by choice in an American popular landscape.  IF we live in an era in which you get put on hold waiting to talk to a customer service representative or a government employee and you hear classical music or you hear Kind of Blue by Miles Davis then classics, whether jazz or concert music, become the sound of people not giving a damn if they respond to your enquiry in the timeliest manner, or that's how you might be tempted to feel about it. 
In a polemic over at Jacobin (surprise, right?) John Halle wrote:
The rock and popular music canon is almost exclusively defined by vocal music, that is, songs, many of them admittedly great songs. While we might call sonatas by Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann character pieces, Bartok Mikrokosmos and other staples of the introductory repertoire, “songs” that’s just a metaphor. These are works of “pure” music which cohere, not by a text with its own self-contained expressive content and narrative logic, but by a logic entirely based on the abstract relationships inherent in the pitches and rhythms. They are composed within abstract forms, large-scale plans dictating their unfolding in time of which at least an intuitive awareness is required for them to be fully appreciated by audiences
In a rare moment of invoking a line from Billy Joel, the musician went through a phase of complaining about "the tyranny of the lyric" and talking about composing instrumental music.  That's an evocative line, that tyranny of the lyric.  Does it suggest, maybe, that people don't want to listen to music that doesn't put the human voice front and center?  Does it suggest that there's a prison inherent in having lyrics because lyrics have to be about something long enough for people to keep listening?  Think of an old line from a Talking Heads album asserting that lyrics are simply a trick to get people to listen to music longer ... .
It's possible to lament that pop songs have existed in the straitjacket of the 3 1/2 minute envelope but let's not forget why that was, the limits of recording technology and production.  If Armstrong, Ellington and early jazz musicians mastered saying as much as possible in such a short musical moment the process and goal were pragmatic rather than ideological.  Sure, we can talk about how technology is never neutral but suggesting that Ellington or Armstrong were somehow complicit in some dumbing down of culture in how and why they wrote music that fit the strictures available seems a bit far-fetched. 
Now perhaps its possible that the symphony was the great big pot roast and the pop songs are chicken wings but the Romantic era saw an explosion of song, didn't it?  Maybe the shortening of scale has partly been offset by a broadening of horizons in some way.  Listen to the complete recordings of Robert Johnson without an appreciation for detail and you're going to feel as though thirty blues numbers by Robert Johnson sound as much the same as thirty string quartets by Haydn but both are great in their respective ways. 
Indulging in some fanciful thought for a weekend, the complaint about the potato chip seems easy to understand but perhaps the advantage the potato chip has is that the potato chip can vary in flavor in a way that a single cooked potato cannot.  We shouldn't forget the penchant for exoticism in concert music has been as much a feature as a bug in the classical tradition as the popular style.  While there are potential flaws with the sampler plate form of cultural tourism via music these days there were drawbacks to monolithic iterations of advocacy for a single culture.  I.e. Wenatchee The Hatchet loathes the music and ideas of Wagner.  If that's the pot roast then by all means let's stick with chicken wings. 
Not particularly a fan of "authenticity" as such.  The authentic now seems one of the more easily faked things.  Sincerity may be the new insincerity.  Bear in mind Wenatchee The Hatchet spent a decade inside the culture of Mars Hill so perhaps skepticism about "real" or "authentic" may be an overcompensating impulse. 
As for musical styles and the United States, might be impossible to improve upon Virgil Thomson's axiom that being an American composer is simple, first be an American and then just write whatever music you want.  Whether or not that ends up being a kind of composerly tourism or not ... may ultimately not matter.  But it's interesting to think about sometimes.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

a general observation, let's put the "no true scotsman" defense away, especially if it's for "our" team

Whether we're looking at the life and times of a Mark Driscoll or a John Yoder or another hero for this or that team we're past the point where any of us can plausibly say there aren't some very ugly and putrid skeletons in the closets of our respective teams.  Now is not an era (if there ever even was one) to lean heavily on a "no true Scotsman" defense of "our team". 

In general it seems that it doesn't matter what the team is.  It could be Mark Driscoll or it could be Tony Jones or it could be John Yoder or Richard Dawkins or someone else.  Someone says or does something incendiary and a defense can be made on the idea that whatever bad might be historically associated with X is because X wasn't really that way but was Y.  Reality can be otherwise.  Just as it would be impossible to understand the Crusades without reference to religion it would be impossible to understand the Crusades with reference only to religion.  Wars don't get fought over religious ideals alone but over competitions for scarce resources.  Eliminate all the religions in the world and our supply of clean water does not thereby grow, does it?  Eliminating religion will not increase the labor market or put more food on the tables of people any more than making everyone adhere to this or that religious view will.  While a Hitchens, perhaps, could try to make a case that atheisms become malignant when they are treated like religions (i.e. Stalinist purges) that is itself ultimately a variation of "no true Scotsman". 

It's too easy to remind everyone else of the informal fallacy.  Knowing what it is doesn't make us immune from leaning on it to rationalize our own team allegiances. 

So there's some rumblings to the effect that a certain emergent leader handled a divorce badly.  Mistakes were made that someone was grieved by and apologized for?  Doesn't ... that ... sound kind of familiar?  Back in 2013 when the plagiarism controversy erupted there were those advising against taking those who were leveling accusations in public against the successful minister seriously.  There may still be people who think that Driscoll was somehow cyber-lynched rather than in some sense hoist with his own petard.  If quoting Driscoll accurately, in context, and with meticulous citation was all it took for Wenatchee The Hatchet to get identified as a watchblog or Driscoll critic then the bar was set remarkably low.  Wenatchee The Hatchet is a moderately conservative Reformed type and never really stopped being what would colloquially be identified as evangelical.  It could have been easy to decide to do what too often happens at evangelical blogs and fret about the threats from outside.  That didn't seem wise.  What seemed more necessary was to document the problems within the team. 

Would someone propose that it's bad form and bad theology to air the dirty laundry of the spiritual community?  Ever read the Book of Judges, ever, even once in your life?  Ever read even one of the prophetic books in the Bible?  It's strange to think how blind an eye some people turn to internal critique when the critique may be directed at someone they really dig because internal critique is how the majority of the biblical books, especially in the Old Testament, ever got written to begin with. 

At the risk of revisiting in quotes some things shared earlier (on September 25, 2014):
1. We must educate ourselves on how publishing and media industries work because the last year's worth of Driscoll scandals shine a light on how those industries may have made him a star to begin with.

2.  An unstinting internal critique of the actions and ethics of people on "our" team is vital and must be sustained and maintained even if it is awkward and painful. 
3. Identity politics as usual is not only not a way forward, it was one of the key reasons none of the last year's controversies did not come to light earlier.  This needs to change.

4. The last year's worth of controversy are simultaneously a commendation and condemnation of the state of "Christian" journalism and associated punditry, but the alternative is not necessarily blogging or "just" blogging, but a reappraisal of our ethics and interests in the public sphere
5.  Christians should not operate under the illusion that "our" heroes are not also capable of being monsters.
6.  We should attempt to understand the scandals associated with Mark Driscoll as indicative of the crimes and passions we excuse or berate in our various heroes as a mirror to critique our own loyalties and ethics.

It's one thing for an Evans to write that we must protect people over reputations but it remains to be seen whether when the shoe's on the other foot that's what happens. Looks like we'll get to find out how this plays out.

Meanwhile, Wenatchee The Hatchet's thinking about revisiting some string quartets by Rochberg.