Saturday, September 17, 2016

perspectives on how Western art history become its own problem across media, a long form guess at the ways in which the ideology of Euro-American Romanticism wore itself out

First off, HT to DZ over at Mockingbird for highlighting this first article at Another Week Ends:

DZ spent a paragraph or two on it and since this is Wenatchee The Hatchet I'm going to write ... let's say about 4,500 words on the subject.  And the subject is how people came to hate poetry and what this can tell us about the history of poetry, poetry criticism, and how this connects to the history of Romantic era ideological commitments to what art is and what art ought to achieve and how the Romantic era festooned art and arts criticisms with some burdens that we have to deal with in poetry, art history, and also music and musicology. My general proposal is that a common thread in all these things is an unexamined burden brought in by postmillennialist modes of apocalyptic thought that I believe should be rejected but to get there we need first to survey what the ideological troubles with Romantic era optimistic apocalyptic and rhetoric proposed and for that ... we can finally start off with the article DZ mentioned at Another Week Ends.

Making a poem was never quite as simple as making a table, because it required inspiration and passion, but it did involve studying techniques and following rules. Indeed, the laws of poetry were natural laws, which had been discovered by the Greeks and could be learned from their example. [emphasis added] The English poet Alexander Pope agreed, writing in his “Essay on Criticism”:

Those RULES of old discover’d, not devis’d,
 Are Nature still, but Nature Methodiz’d;
 Nature, like Liberty, is but restrain’d
 By the same Laws which first herself ordain’d.

That was published in 1711, so clearly not much had changed in the previous two millennia. But turn to Percy Shelley’s essay “A Defense of Poetry,” written in 1821, and you will discover that the meaning of the word poetry had undergone a fantastic transformation. Poetry, Shelley says, is “connate with the origin of man,” and “a poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one.” Poetry comprises every creative activity of human nature, including the arts, politics, and science: “The institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life” are all in some sense poets, since they shape reality in the light of their vision. Shelley even speaks of “the poetry in the doctrines of Jesus Christ,” as if Christianity itself were just one enormous poem.

The Romantics, faced with a disenchanted universe, attempted to discover a new source of enchantment in the human imagination, and poetry became a metaphor for that creative, life-enhancing power. [emphasis added] Poetry used to mean poems. Now poems began to seem like just one habitation, and far from the grandest, of the force that is poetry. Naturally, this fateful division between poetry and poems had enormous consequences for the way poems were written. After all, if poetry is ineffable and infinite, there is no reason it should be bound by the mechanical laws of meter and rhyme. In the modern age, poetry became antinomian.

Thus we find Emerson arguing, in his essay “The Poet,” that “it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.” The metaphor of growth cancels out the old metaphor of craft. [emphasis added] For Horace, a poem was something you had to learn how to make, at the expense of great effort. For Keats, “if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.”


For Lerner, as his use of the term the social suggests, that hope is not just individual and spiritual, but collective and political. Poetry is linked, in his vision, to the possibility of a total redemption of human society, of the kind Marxism used to call “the revolution.” In particular, his fusion of aesthetic, political, and spiritual messianism brings to mind the work of Walter Benjamin, the 20th-century German Jewish theorist. Lerner’s previous book, the novel 10:04, was saturated in the Benjaminian concept of redemption: the idea that the world as we know it carries within itself the possibility for transformation. Key to this vision is the idea that salvation will come from within, from a rearrangement of the world, rather than through an external power or a god

... The Hatred of Poetry is a subtle inquiry into poetry’s discontents, and a moving statement of poetry’s potential. It can also be read, though, as an example of the dead end into which modern poetic theory has been led by its grandiose aspirations. [emphasis added] As long as we focus on what poetry isn’t and can’t be, how can we rediscover what it once was, and might be again?

It's not just in the realm of poetry that we see laments of the burden of 19th century Romantic ideological tropes about what art is and ought to be. If the trouble with poetry may be likened to a topic that has historically been a theme celebrated in poetry, the beauty of a fair maiden, then the trouble with poetry has been that no real woman can possibly compare to the impossible standard of the manic pixie dream girl and that this has become the at times tacit standard by which poetry is judged by those who judge poetry.

Something similar could be said for film criticism, that things have gotten to a point where film critics can praise a film that is at least five hours long for its compelling realism and representational approach while for the rest of the movie-going public that isn't interested in that sort of film-as-compelling-art trope they want to go to a movie that does not replicate their day job.  If what the world of cinema needs is an unquestionably authentic and realistically naturalistic presentation of the world as it is then film critics should be writing reviews and film criticism about an eight-hour shift worked by someone by way of surveillance footage in a grocery store.  You can't get more cinema verite than that, can you?

When critical traditions insist upon instantiations of artistic ideals that may never have necessarily existed in the arts themselves, at least as presented by scholars or theorists, we can run into the whole non-tradition of the American symphony in the 19th century that you'll never get to hear ... though for reasons that will have to be some other blog post.  Romantic ideological commitments in the realm of the arts and arts criticism have in some sense left us no choice but to endure people complaining that there aren't any new ideas as though new ideas were the point of art.

And so we find that there are historians and arts critics who feel lately that one of the most damaging things about arts histories is ... arts histories and the unexamined ideologies that go with it.

The art world likes to ask big art-centric questions like "Can art change the world?" We usually answer "Yes." I usually disagree. Art can't stop famine in sub-Saharan Africa or eradicate Zika. But art does change the world incrementally and by osmosis. Typically by first changing how we see, and thereby how we remember. Raymond Chandler invented early-20th-century L.A.; Francis Ford Coppola forged our vision of the Vietnam War; Andy Warhol combined clashing colors that were never together before and that palette is now ubiquitous; God creating Adam looks the way Michelangelo painted it; Oscar Wilde said "the mysterious loveliness" of fog didn't exist before poets and painters. That's big. But art as we now know it has narrowed. These days our definition of it is mainly art informed by other art and art history. Especially in the last two centuries — and tenaciously of late — art has examined its own essences, ordinances, techniques, tools, materials, presentational modes, and forms. To be thought of as an artist someone must self-identify as one and make what they think of as art. This center cannot hold. Why? It is far too tight to let real art breathe. [emphasis added]

Our art history is organized teleologically — it's an arrow. Things are always said to be going forward, and progress is measured mainly in formal ways by changes in ideas of space, color, composition, subject matter, and the like. [emphasis added] Artists and isms follow one another in a Biblical begatting based on progress toward a goal or a higher stage. Cubism was "a race toward flatness"; Suprematism was "the zero point of painting"; Rodchenko said he made "the last painting"; Ad Reinhardt one-upped him saying he was "making the last painting which anyone can make." In this system synthetic shifts and tics combine into things we call movements like Cubism, Constructivism, Futurism, Art Nouveau, Color Field, etc. The problem is anyone who doesn't fall into this timeline is out of luck. This paradigm has been in place for 200 years.

It's beyond time for a new generation of art historians not only to open up the system and let art be the garden that it is, home to exotic blooms of known and unknown phenomena. It's time to work against this system. [emphases added] We can't say painting is dead just as women and artist of color started to show up in art history. Our art history has stiffened into an ideology that clear-cuts a medium, pronounces it dead (like undertakers) and moves on like conquistadors to the next stage. The idea that art has an overall goal of advancing or perfecting its terms and techniques is made up. Imagined. Idiotic. Except to those benefiting from this intellectual fundamentalism. Someday, people will look back at this phase of art history the way we look back at manifest destiny and colonialism.

Ah, yes, it's so easy to just insist that this changes, a pedagogy inspired by some kind of Herder-inspired German idealism of the Romantic era but teaching the history of the whole human race as an art-making species across the entire planet over its whole existence is a time-consumin gand expensive proposition.  Even if we were to talk about just the history of music in the Western world since 1900 there's problems, problems Kyle Gann has blogged about at length.

... With so many niches and such an explosion in the number of composers, there should have been more books, not none. Just because we don’t have a central musical style anymore doesn’t mean we can’t have a central narrative whose primary outlines everyone could accede to. And how can we have a meaningful new-music world at all without a narrative?

At the request of my department chair – and he so rarely asks me for anything, I could hardly have turned him down – I am teaching a 20th-century music history survey course, or rather, music since 1910. I’ve been dreading it, and my fears are so far confirmed. First of all, I have long been convinced that you can’t do the entire 20th century in a survey course. To me, third-semester music history should be 1900-1960, and the fourth semester should take over after that. Not only is there way too much material, there’s no unifying idea to the first and second halves of the century. The year 1976 seems to remain a popular stopping point for many professors and textbooks, and I wonder if anyone (besides me) has ever taught a 20th-century class in which the last three decades got as much attention as the first three.

... In 1967, musicologist Leonard Meyer published a fiery book that was widely read at the time: Music, the Arts, and Ideas. In it he predicted “the end of the Renaissance,” by which he meant that there would cease to be a musical mainstream, and that instead we would settle into an ahistorical period of stylistic stasis in which a panoply of styles would coexist. This seemed an outrageous forecast at the time, but Meyer’s prescience has been greatly confirmed.

The new generation of composers is conflict-averse, its discourse reduced to a broadly tolerant pragmatism. However much the young composers believe they have blessedly transcended ideology and partisanship, though, they have nevertheless inherited some of the previous attitudes in a less articulated form. Instead of distinct categories, what we have is a continuum of opinions along the accessibility/difficulty scale: how much should the composer keep the audience in mind? What should be the relation, if any, to pop music? Is the educated elite of academia a sufficient audience? Should the composer ignore all questions of perceptibility and follow his pleasure? Is there, indeed, any way to predict what music will go over well with an audience and what won’t? Does the long tail phenomenon of internet distribution render all such questions moot? What is most typical of American music at the moment, I would argue, is a large-scale, implicit, almost publicly unarticulated debate on the social use of music, of what it is made for.

Since it was reading Gann's blog that introduced me to Meyer I'll just quote some stuff from Meyer as to the nature of the problem of perspective and the plurality of artistic styles.

Leonard B. Meyer
Copyright (c) 1967. 1994 by The University of Chicago
ISBN 0-226-52143-5

page 179-180

Although diversity had been growing since the seventeenth century, the fact was seldom squarely faced. The very ideology that nurtured pluralism tended, until recently, to eclipse its presence and obscure its significance. To believe in progress, in a dialectic of history, or a divine plan was to acknowledge, at least tacitly, the existence of a single force or principle to which all the seeming diversity would one day be related. [emphasis added] To accept the Newtonian world view, or later the theory of evolution, was almost inevitably to subscribe to monism and to look forward to a time when all phenomena would be reduced to, or subsumed under, one basic, encompassing set of laws. The notable achievements of science were taken as proof that Truth was One. Behind the manifest variety of phenomena and events lay, it was supposed, the latent unity of the universe which would eventually be discovered and embodied in a simple, all-embracing model. Because the oneness of things was what was real, surface diversity and incongruity could be disregarded.

But this picture of the world is, as we have seen, no longer entirely convincing. [emphases added] The inevitability of progress, the reality of either a divine or natural purpose in things, the existence of a single set of categorical cultural norms, and, above all, the possibility of discovering some single fixed and final truth--all these beliefs have been questioned and found wanting. Not only has no unified conceptual model of the universe been forthcoming but diversity within as well as between fields has increased enormously over the past fifty years. And our awareness of this diversity has been intensified by the remarkable revolution in communication.

In an ideological climate in which determinism is doubted and teleology is suspect, in which causation is complex and laws are provisional, and in which reality is a construct and truths are multiple--in such a climate it is increasingly difficult to escape and ignore the pervasive presence of pluralism. Impelled by the human desire for simplicity, economy, and elegance, the search for an overarching unity will unquestionably continue. But at the same time it is necessary to recognize that the "dissonance" of intellectual and cultural diversity will probably not be resolved, in the foreseeable future, into a single, consonant "chord of nature."

The world is too big and the humans who have lived within it are too diverse to be able to boil it all down in the kind of ways Romantic ideological schools of thought assumed could happen.  But it's frankly too easy to kick the dead while they're dead.  If German idealism played a disproportionally large role in the Western conception of art and art history and we've had a couple of centuries to start recognizing the colonialist/imperialist implications of that there's another problem, which is not necessarily being squarely faced by artists and art historians that I'm currently aware of--the push for a truly global conception of art and art history that can encompass the entire world is the sort of thing that would seem the proper domain and concern of a truly global ruling class.  Only people with an interest in running the global arts scene or having a place within it as a market or as a ... kind of priestly practice, would seem to want to insist on having some space at the table.

The recent back and forth about Lionel Shriver's speech suggests the possibility that debates about what people at the table should get to do and who should be at the table, this metaphorical/sociological table of who gets officially recognized as artist/writer/musician, revolves around this kind of concern for art and arts history as something encompassing the span of humanity across time and planet.  Anything that could be identified as art that was nonetheless not made in an "art for the sake of art" kind of way probably can't be given admittance to the club.  Thanks to generations of Cold War propaganda for capitalism and socialism or communism, we've got a whole army of historians and critics who have been trained to think of those with political, ideological or religious differences as temperamentally and intellectually incapable of even making art, whatever art may be.

The Romantics made a lot of noise about rejecting rules and restrictions and casting off the petty constraints of society but there may have been more bluster than substance to that.  As Meyer put it in writing about the Romantic era in music:

ISBN 0-226-52152-4

page 201
... the Romantic repudiation of convention (and especially of neo-Aristotelian aesthetics, which had been associated with the ancien regime), coupled with the denigration and weakening of syntactic relationships, highlighted the presence of diversity. As a result, the basis of coherence and unity became an issue: How did disparate and individualized themes, diverse modes of organization, and contrasts of expression--al intensified by the valuing of originality--form an organic whole? How did the several parts of a set of piano pieces or the different movements of a symphony or chamber work constitute a cohesive composition?

page 220
Put aphoristically: radical individualism seeks to undermine the norms on which its expression depends. [emphasis added]
The valuing of originality and individuality was reciprocally related to the denigration of convention. A convention is a shared, common property; it belongs to the compositional community, not to the individual. And it does not seem too far-fetched to suggest that the emphasis on the importance of novel musical ideas was related to the concern of the elite egalitarians with the power of possession. Musical ideas constituted the main "capital" possessed by composers, and these ideas could be made manifest only to the extent that they were in some way different--that is, original.

pages 344-345
There is, then, an inherent incompatibility between radical originality and individual expression because the latter depends on deviation from shared norms for its delineation. Therefore, to the extent that the prizing of originality leads to the abrogation of such norms, the delineation of individual expression either becomes attenuated or requires ever more radical departures from whatever norms are still prevalent. [emphasis added]Thus, especially in those styles of twentieth-century music in which constraints have been affected by a compelling concern with originality, originality ceases to be connected with individual expression.

Meyer made an observation in passing that Richard Taruskin transformed into an entire essay ("The Scary Purity of John Cage" was the title if memory serves), which was that in purely ideological terms you couldn't get more Romantic than John Cage, he had all the ideological imperatives about music for which the Romantic theorists and admirers of poetry pined. Yet fans of Romantic era literature and art can tend to abominate Cage even though, as an expression of what the artistic goals of the Romantic era philosophers who wrote about art would seem to have wanted Cage arrived at creating musical works-as-philosophy that transformed whatever you happened to be hearing during the duration of a performance of 4'33" into the sublimest of all musical experiences (if you're into that kind of thing, at least).

The assumption of some kind of teleological destiny for the arts based on residual European art history theories predicated on 19th century European views may not yet go by the board but if we are going to drop all of that stuff we might want to play with a few ideas.  For instance, whether we're looking at Marxist theory or some kind of postmillennialist Christian impulse of the sort that drove the Social Gospel types in the 19th century or that inspires Christian reconstructionists these days, if there's a common thread in criticism of art history theorizing it's that the teleological approach is one of the problems. 

Let's go all the way back to that Atlantic feature about poetry with the stuff about Walter Benjamin and Marx:

For Lerner, as his use of the term the social suggests, that hope is not just individual and spiritual, but collective and political. Poetry is linked, in his vision, to the possibility of a total redemption of human society, of the kind Marxism used to call “the revolution.” In particular, his fusion of aesthetic, political, and spiritual messianism brings to mind the work of Walter Benjamin, the 20th-century German Jewish theorist. [emphasis added] Lerner’s previous book, the novel 10:04, was saturated in the Benjaminian concept of redemption: the idea that the world as we know it carries within itself the possibility for transformation. Key to this vision is the idea that salvation will come from within, from a rearrangement of the world, rather than through an external power or a god.

... Poetry is a figure for the unalienated labor and uncommodified value that Marx thought would exist after the revolution. This is a 21st-century artist’s Marxism, one that no longer hopes for real revolution, but looks to the imagination for anticipations of what a perfected world would look and feel like. [emphasis added]

That teleological approach could be pinned on some kind of Christian apocalyptic but if we're going to do that then let's be careful.  This would be the point at which it matters whether the kind of apocalyptic interpretation of history we're looking at is premillennial, postmillennial or amillenial in disposition.  Yes, this kind of stuff, theoretically, could actually matter.  The average premillenialist Christian in America has perhaps still been trained to await a Secret Rapture and an end of the world in as little as a few months.  These are not the kinds of people who are going to care about a teleological approach to arts history is probably the nicest and most succinct way to put it. 

Whether in a Marxist form, an explicitly Christian form or even a deistic form the long-term influence of postmillennialist optimism as an informing ideological variable in art theory and art history and criticism may need to be explicitly abandoned.  Maybe it's a bit much to say "need to be", and I'll just say I explicitly reject postmillennialism in its Christian, Marxist, and deistic varieties. 

At the risk of making a possibly wildly controversial statement about Christians and the arts and the avant garde is it possible that the reason so many of the innovators in the last 120 years came from Christian traditions that could be described as historically amillenial were more open to invention and innovation (traditional Catholic and Orthodox teaching seems more non-millenarian in practical ways) than in nationalist traditions that have been steeped in a more postmillennialist train of thought? Remember that essential to this proposal is the observation that, yes, a Christian who is an amillenialist still affirms and awaits the return of Christ but not in a way that imagines that we'll hand the world to Jesus on a silver platter because of our success at Christianizing the world; it's been that postmillennialist optimism that has presented itself as Christian but that has historically been implemented as nationalism or patriotism that I am explicitly skeptical about.

College students can really like to imagine that they have transcended genre or are not beholden to this or that tradition.  The ideological fetishes of Romanticism are still very much with us.  If you have no problem admitting you work in fairly traditional idioms in a traditional way with traditional methods that almost seems to defy the whole point of being at a liberal arts college studying the arts.  If you like to write sonnets the writing teacher may tell you it's time to move on.  Music students seem to want to cast off sonata and fugue as soon as they can pass the test that requires them to say they know what that stuff is. 

And yet it seems to me that the 19th century theorists and pundits botched sonata and fugue by interpreting it in terms of their own stereotypes and expectations.  It's been interesting to read that a composer like Angelo Gilardino can refer to sonata forms as obsolete as though they were obsolete on scholarly or historical grounds even before he began to compose music for the guitar; thus the guitar could be thought of as an instrument with a body of work that lacks sonatas and fugues even though all the prestige of the mainstream classical scene seems built around a body of literature that presupposes the sonata and the fugue, those venerable 18th century approaches to thematic development, as foundational to the Western canon. 

If that's the case then how could the guitar gain the respectability Segovia wanted for our instrument if its practitioners regard the forms of the mainstream canon inimical to the instrument?  But that's a hobby horse I don't need to sit on too long for this already long post.  I'm just proposing that the 19th century Romantics (or maybe even 18th century Romantics) had a blinkered and provincial view of stuff they considered universal.  The trouble is that the contemporary post-industrial West is probably not in a different position.  Try as we might we are not primed to imagine a truly abstracted and global human race.  And yet that is in some sense a holdover from Romantic ideology, an ideology that may in some sense by found bitterly and desperately wanting in light of its own criteria of and for artistic greatness.  As Meyer put it, Romanticism insisted on the repudiation of conventions but maybe the repudiation of all convention drained the arts of the way to express the individual in the way Romantics admired.  The Romantics were busy disguising their conventionality in the hopes it wouldn't be noticed and it wasn't until the 20th century that artists and musicians and writers actually cast off the constraints many Romantics pretended to cast off.  History showed what many Romantics thought about that.  The punchline may be that the late Romantics had the misery of observing artists who actually did what they pretended to themselves they were doing.

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