Saturday, March 19, 2011

classical music is false catagory

I hate "classical music": not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past. It cancels out the possibility that music in the spirit of Beethoven could still be created today. It banishes into limbo the work of thousands of active composers who have to explain to otherwise well-informed people what it is they do for a living. The phrase is a masterpiece of negative publicity, a tour de force of anti-hype. I wish there were another name. I envy jazz people who speak simply of "the music." Some jazz aficionados also call their art 'America's classical music," and I propose a trade: they can have "classical," I'll take "the music."

For at least a century, the music has been captive to a cult of mediocre elitism that tries to manufacture self-esteem by clutching at empty formulas of intellectual superiority. Consider other names in circulation: "art" music, "serious" music, "great" music, "good" music. Yes, the music can be great and serious, but greatness and seriousness are not its defining characteristics. It can also be stupid, vulgar, and insane. Composers are artists, not etiquette columnists; they have the right to express any emotion, any state of mind. They have been betrayed by well-meaning acolytes who believe that the music should be marketed as a luxury good, one that replaces an inferior popular product. These guardians say, in effect, "The music you love is trash. Listen instead to our great, arty music." They are making little headway with the unconverted because they have forgotten to define the music as something worth loving. Music is too personal a medium to support an absolute hierarchy of values. The best music is the music that persuades us that there is no other music in the world.

progression of music

All music becomes classical music in the end. Reading the histories of other genres, I often get a funny sense of déjà vu. The story of jazz, for example, seems to recapitulate classical history at high speed. First, the youth-rebellion period: Satchmo and the Duke and Bix and Jelly Roll teach a generation to lose itself in the music. Second, the era of bourgeois pomp: the high-class swing band parallels the Romantic orchestra. Stage 3: artists rebel against the bourgeois image, echoing the classical modernist revolution, sometimes by direct citation (Charlie Parker works the opening notes of The Rite of Spring into "Salt Peanuts"). Stage 4: free jazz marks the point at which the vanguard loses touch with the masses and becomes a self-contained avant-garde. Stage 5: a period of retrenchment. Wynton Marsalis's attempt to launch a traditionalist jazz revival parallels the neo-Romantic music of many late-twentieth-century composers. But this effort comes too late to restore the art to the popular mainstream.

The same progression worms its way through rock and roll. What were my hyper-educated punk-rock friends but Stage 3 high modernists, rebelling against the bloated Romanticism of Stage 2 stadium rock? In the first years of the new century there was a lot of Stage 5 neoclassicism going on in what remained of rock. The Strokes, the Hives, the Vines, the Stills, the Thrills, the White Stripes, and various other bands harked back to some lost pure moment of the sixties or seventies. Many used old instruments, old amplifiers, old soundboards. One rocker was quoted as saying, "I intentionally won't use something I haven't heard before." A White Stripes record carried this Luddite notice: "No computers were used during the recording, mixing, or mastering of this record."

The original classical music is left in an interesting limbo. It has a chance to be liberated from the social clichés that currently pin it down. It is no longer the one form carrying the burden of the past. Moreover, it has the advantage of being able to sustain constant reinterpretation, to renew itself with each repetition. The best kind of classical performance is not a retreat into the past but an intensification of the present. The mistake that apostles of the classical have always made is to have joined their love of the past to a dislike of the present. The music has other ideas: it hates the past and wants to escape.

fashion and the avant-garde

What will we wear in the future? Probably not so many logos.

The elite fashion world is showing signs of leaving them behind. The newest fashions from Hermes have only a tiny H stitched into the center of the button. Dolce and Gabbana are chucking their D&G label because it's been ripped off one too many times. As soon as the elite lose interest, we know a fashion trend is on the way out. Is haute couture dead? I doubt it. Paris won't let itself grow old. Some people were shocked when the staid houses of Dior and Givenchy hired avant-garde English designers John Galliano and Alexander McQueen to head their houses. But this is how it always has been. The elite aligns with the avant garde to create the new, and both embrace outrage.

A new word has cropped up in discussions among many of avant-garde clothing designers—intelligent. The Japanese desigi Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo, the Belgian designer Marti Margiela, Helmut Lang, and Ann Demeulemeester have all been making clothes that make you think about the way they are structured, their relation to the body, and our aesthetic presumptions. Margiela is the most avant-garde. His clothing is a half-made assembly of visible seams and recycled fabric. One gets to play an intellectual game with the clothes and look fabulous.

conspicuous outrage

Only high-status individuals can afford the pleasure of not pleasing. Protected by social position, they are free to create their own rules, and have been among the patrons and creators of avant garde fashion and art.

To fear being in "bad taste" or looking ugly or vulgar are middle-class concerns. The middle class are fashion followers, the most conservative of whom are dragged into wearing a style only because it has become so prevalent that it would be nonconformist not to. The upper classes only fear being mistaken for their middle-class imitators, which is why they abandon a fashion as soon as it is adopted by them. As fashion editor Diana Vreeland once advised a junior editor, "Never fear being vulgar, just boring, middle class or dull." Fashion begins in outrage, ends in mainstream acceptance, and reemerges only later when the imitators have long gone.

Outrageous clothes belong only on those with the right attitude. Compare the middle class beauty queens, the Miss Americas who smile as they parade in their evening gowns and bathing suits, who talk about social issues, travel with chaperones, and exude sincerity and earnestness, with the high-fashion model who smokes and parties, looks like a heroin addict, won't get out of bed for less than ten thousand dollars a day, and rarely smiles. Models have the world on a string, and they show it. Their job is to represent the elite, to astonish, to provoke envy, but not to please.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

medieval / renaissance art

In medieval times, the arts were predominantly in the service of religion, as they have been in human societies from the beginning. They were not regarded "aesthetically" as something meaningful and significant in and of themselves, but instead valued only insofar as they revealed the divine. Renaissance artists gradually replaced eschatological with anthropocentric concerns, but during the transition from a God-centered to a man-centered art their works portrayed either a familiar ideal/divine realm or the actual world in which they lived. The artists' "art" consisted of accurately representing that subject matter using craftsmanlike standards of beauty, harmony, and excellence.

- Ellen Dissanayake

orality vs literacy

Nevertheless, despite the artificiality of the poles of the oral-literate continuum, certain intriguing oppositions and comparisons can be made. Oral communication is, first of all, personal and involved. Speaker and listener must be face to face or at least in each other's vicinity, allowing for a shared experience. Common knowledge and expectations can be assumed, so that much can be taken for granted. A lot can be left out, and if the hearer is confused she or he can ask for clarification. Written language, by contrast, is impersonal and detached. Writers cannot presume shared knowledge, so they must be explicit where a speaker is implicit; precise and careful where a speaker can be careless; streamlined and sparse where a speaker can be redundant. Written language is primarily technical, concerned with logical and coherent explication or argument. Spoken language is vivid, idiomatic, and at least as concerned with facilitating a social encounter as with accurately and unequivocally conveying an informative message.

These differences between spoken and written communication are reflected in the kinds of societies and kinds of people characteristic of the two types. In oral societies, analysis and questioning are not encouraged-indeed, they are hardly possible in the literate sense, where one has a text that can be reread, checked, compared, pondered, classified, and interpreted. Hence people look to tradition and authority—which are preserved by means of proverbs, folktales, ritualized formulations, and so forth—for instructions on how to live. Their attitude concerning the validity of these cultural repositories is one of certainty and belief. Because the entire group is joined in the same beliefs or world-picture, it is characterized by a sense of communality, a submersion of individuals within the larger whole rather than their being expected to rely primarily on themselves.

- Ellen Dissanayake


In the Annunciation, Leonardo makes dramatic and convincing use of linear perspective. Everything in the painting recedes towards a single vanishing point on the horizon. This gives the impression that the angel and the Virgin share the same, unified space which extends continuously all around them.

Leonardo di Vinci - Annunciation (1474)