Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Ideology of Critique 6: Trust and Influence

Herewith, a bit of a ramble, a rant, a random walk.

Listening to music in the car while driving today, tired of the radio's mindless blather and drama, I put some classical music into the CD player: orchestral works by Claude Debussy, conducted by Pierre Boulez. Boulez, himself an avant-garde composer and champion of new music, is also a fine conductor of those kinds of music. He is disciplined, precise, yet not too cerebral. He has a masterful sense of orchestral color and balance, and brings out the music's lines with impeccable clarity. He is particularly good as a conductor of French composers, and the general European avant-garde.

Listening to Debussy got me thinking of the lineage of composers in new music since the Romantic era. There is a definite French-Russian-Japanese line of influence. You can hear it in the orchestration, in the tone colors, in the styles of music. Debussy strongly influenced Stravinsky, although the latter didn't acknowledge it too often; you can hear it in the way they both orchestrate woodwinds, for example in La Mer and in Petrushka. There have been centuries of cultural contact between the Russians and the French; Moscow looked to Paris for culture, for art, music, literature, and painting, throughout the Czarist era. Even a post-Czarist composer like Shostakovich, essentially a frustrated Romantic, shows traces of the French influence in his melodic phrasing and orchestration. And the Franco-Russo lineage influenced at least a couple of generations of modern Japanese composers, such as Toshiro Mayuzumi and Toru Takemitsu. Takemitsu in particular acknowledges the French influence, from Messiaen, Debussy, and others.

Lineage and influence are worth acknowledging. Artists who claim to be totally original never are. (Those who never make such claims are in fact more likely to be unprecedented.) In fact, a composer who claims to have had no influences gives away that he often just doesn't want to give his mentors credit; he gives it away by refusing to acknowledge any connections therein. This is a psychological kink about Originality that dates to the Romantic-era archetype of the solitary Hero-Artist, inventing new art out of whole cloth, influenced only by nature, original and often heroically misunderstood. What I find interesting is that the claim of utter originality often conceals an egotistical desire to reject influence.

There is a great and necessary humility in acknowledging one's influences, one's mentors, and one's lineage. In fact, the statistical average of successful accomplishment, for those artists who genuinely do create something new and original, is weighted towards the humble and the quiet. As much as I admire Stravinsky for some of his contributions, and some individual pieces, I believe that Messiaen quietly created a more lasting legacy of utterly original music.

There have always been original thinkers who quietly go about inventing new things. Sometimes we don't notice, or understand, them until their work is largely accomplished. The list of composers in this category is long. For example, Charles Ives was a curmudgeon and no doubt an egotist in person, but his music remains so utterly original that we still haven't caught up to its ideas; and he wrote in isolation, below the radar, not being as gifted at self-promotion as some other Moderns.

Driving through Paha Sapa, the Black Hills of western South Dakota, you see all these roadside billboards advertising tourist attractions. One of the most prevalent advertisements is for Mount Rushmore, but there are also billboards for the artist who carved the mountain, Gutzom Borglund, who has his own historical museum and interpretative center now, telling the Heroic story of his carving of Mount Rushmore.

Now, I've never visited Mount Rushmore, and have no desire to ever do so. To me, the whole enterprise is a colossal display of vanity and ego. First, there is the colossal vanity of the artist to carve the side of a mountain into the likenesses of four famous American Presidents. (And get the US taxpayers, via Congress, to largely pay for it.) Second, there is the patriotic-jingoistic ego of national pride invested in the mountain as a National Monument, which the taxpayers paid for, that has become one of those "must see" tourist destinations. Everyone tells you that you should visit it, if you pass through the region. Everyone shows you their snapshot portraits, grinning, standing by the railing of the viewing platform, the stone Presidents peering over their shoulders.

This entire enterprise of course ignored the wishes of the Lakota peoples indigenous to the Black Hills region, who rightly objected to one of their own most sacred places, the mountain named Six Grandfathers, being carved by an egotistical artist into a National Display, in which the most debased and lowest forms of patriotism are constantly rehearsed. But not the Lakota nation's, and not their display.

I highly recommend, if you want to visit a truly spiritual place in the Black Hills region, that instead of Mount Rushmore you go visit Bear Butte State Park, near Sturgis. It's another sacred place, but has been preserved, and kept sacred, held in trust and respect. The contrast is striking, between the natural landscape of Bear Butte, with trees near the trails often holding sacred tobacco prayer bundles, and the Heroic-Artist ego display of Mount Rushmore. At Bear Butte, you can hear the silence, you can see buffalo roaming the park, and see an eagle soaring over the butte.

Now let's talk about critical ego. It's not only the artists who can sucked into their own PR hype. Critics fall for this, too.

I know several very smart people who, because they are often genuinely right most of the time, tend to believe that they are right all of the time. But the truth is, no-one is ever right all of the time. I have one friend who has a real blind spot about this: he is actually right about 75 percent of the time, but he cannot even see the other 25 percent, or recognize it.

What this comes down to is hubris. Ego. Lack of humility. Self-inflation, rather than self-respect.

Every critic needs to paste a sign somewhere in their dwelling that they must look at every day, at least once. That sign will say: I can be wrong. For that matter, all avowed psychics should post the same sign.

Don't trust any poet-critic to get it right all the time. They can be utterly wrong. They fail most often when they come to believe that their opinions are never subjective. No critic is ever totally objective: a good critic must strive for objectivity, but knows they'll never fully achieve it.

Trust even less those critics who are not themselves artists, writers, or musicians. I am not saying that only artists can understand art, or write about art perceptively. I am saying, though, that a critic who doesn't make art is going to completely miss some aspects of art: most importantly, that art-making can be about process rather than product. Critics tend to focus on product, not process; well, that does give them something concrete to opine about.

Particularly untrustworthy are those critics who have an ideological axe to grind: who frame every review in terms of their underlying aesthetic, which they quietly promote, consciously or unconsciously, with every judgment they render on a new work. Such critics tend to assume that you're going to agree with everything they say, rather than form your own opinion.

I've noted in reading literary critics lately a tendency, probably unconscious, that I find very telling: namely, that hero-critics, like hero-artists, often seem loathe to acknowledge their own lineage of ideological influence. Academics must at least cite their sources, when they present a paper. But professional reviewers are not required to do so. It's not that they should, it's rather that some pretend to have no precedents for their ideological opinions. Subtly or otherwise, nonetheless, in their reviews they compile a list of what they feel art ought to be like, ought to do, and the forms it ought to take on. Even when I largely agree with a poetry or art critic about such matters, nonetheless I remain aware that their opinions conceal this thrust of ought or should. It makes me rebel, simply because it tries to tell me what to think.

The most useful reviews are those that lay out the merits and deficiencies of a work, then stop. Such a review might serve as encouragement or discouragement: intriguing you, or confirming your desire to avoid that particular novel or book of poems or museum exhibition. Did it succeed on its own merit, by its own internal logic? Did it measure up to some external list of attributes that someone once decided good art ought to exemplify? Did the reviewer just plain like it, even if they feel uncomfortable calling it a great work of art?

Actually, I wish more reviewers would just tell us if they liked it; that's like a friend recommending something to you that they liked, which might encourage you, knowing their taste, to go look into. Or, knowing their taste, reject as a waste of time.

A trustworthy reviewer is someone who is open about their own likes and dislikes, who you can come to trust precisely because of their openness about disclosing their own prejudices. Such a reviewer shows humility in not having convinced themselves that their every pronouncement is the word of deity.

The very best reviewers are those who can admit that they were wrong, and change their minds. There is simple, humane, human humbleness in admitting, You know, I was wrong. I take it all back. One can trust such a reviewer as a friend giving you their opinions.

Hubris is what prevents a critic from ever admitting that they were wrong, or even that they can be wrong. Such hubris tends to reveal itself, whether or not the critic in question ever realizes how much they've revealed about their own attitudes and biases. Hubris reveals itself by a refusal to engage in discussion or dialogue; by preaching a fixed opinion that is impermeable to disagreement; by a refusal to back down in the face of greater logic or more accurate data. Hubris is heavily invested in Being In The Right, and in proving everyone else wrong. You can't talk to such critics; they're not really open to it. Even if they profess a desire for dialogue, what they really want is abject, submissive, dittohead subservience. If you dare disagree, you'll find out quickly that you've become The Enemy rather than a friend.

I look at my own music compositions, and I realize that the French-Russian-Japanese lineage of influence on my music is far more powerful than, say, the German-English lineage, or the Italian lineage. Debussy was, after all, the composer in whose work I first encountered, in my teens, the whole-tone scale, as well as other non-triadic and non-tonal harmonies. I thought I'd grown past any influence he might have had on me as a young composer, once, but listening again today, I embrace Debussy's influence. Just as I have embraced the influence of Messiaen and Takemitsu on my own piano compositions. I don't mind at all hitching my lesser wagon to their greater ones.

Returning from a long vacation away from home, traveling, being on the road, I have started making art again. At this point in my life I have finally, after long striving, ceased caring what critics think of my art. I'm not making it to please them. Or please me, really. The art I make now is made for the sake of making; not at of it is intended to be lasting, permanent, durable. Perhaps some of it will endure, despite whatever ambition I may have for it. I find myself ambitious about the making itself, and the continuing growth of the process of making, from which I continue to learn much about myself, about art, and about life, and the world. I feel that this is the proper place for ambition: ambition about making art, rather than ambition for the fame of having already made art. Perhaps I am merely deluded: perhaps any attempts to be humble only present more ego, rather than less. Nonetheless, I truly don't want to be a Hero-Artist. I would rather be that monk in the scriptorium, decorating the eternal with a personal touch. It's not that I have no ego, no ambitions, or no opinions or ideas; rather, it's that I don't want my art to express those aspects of my self, but to go alongside, in a parallel universe, finding its own way, a companion, not a laurel wreath.

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Blogger 簡單嗎 said...

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1:12 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I know all the composers you list and have a decent selection of work by them in fact I was listening to Takemitsu only a couple of days ago. Mayuzumi is the one I know least well. I have the Nirvana Symphony and a string quartet.

Of the other three Messiaen is the one I listen to the least and I probably couldn't tell you one piece from the next with the possible exception of the Turangalîla Symphony although I could say the same for Takemitsu. I can enjoy their music but it doesn’t stay with me. And it’s not the lack of good tunes either although I do like a good tune. I listened to a lot of Debussy while still at school and sickened myself a bit. I prefer Delius these days who does that colour-wash kind of music almost as well or Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht.

Stravinsky is another one I spent a lot of time on at school and I know all his major works well. I asked my parents if I could sit up and listen to The Rite of Spring which the BBC slipped into the schedule late that night on the day he died. He was the first ‘great’ person whose passing I acknowledged.

On the whole I tend to veer towards Russian composers, at least I did for a very long time, and never get tired of Shostakovich or Prokofiev. And I spent a whole day a couple of weeks back listening to everything I have of Khachaturian; he’s someone I’ve delighted in for almost forty years. Ives I discovered a couple of years later and I fell in love with his stuff too. He was the first one that really got across to me that classical music can be fun.

I never tried to emulate anyone when I wrote my own stuff though. It was never that good. The same goes for my writing too. I have a handful of poems where I’ve written something in someone’s style just for the heck of it but they’re just bits of fun; that’s not who I am and I’ve never hero-worshipped anyone enough to try and write like them, not even Beckett.

As for reviews, as you know I take them seriously and I’m well aware how damaging they can be. Many reviewers have pumped-up egos and think what they have to say really matters. I never want to get like that. That said, I know I’m not stupid and I like to have my say. I think I have an opinion that is worth listening to . . . but that’s all I ask, listen to me and then make your own mind up. And if you think I’m wrong, tell my why. I don’t mind being wrong. There’s nothing worse than not realising you are.

Personally I like subjective reviews. I try to be objective but it’s hard. It’s like the book I’m reviewing just now. The phrase that keeps running through my mind is “there’s nothing wrong with it” and neither there is. Most people who like her kind of stuff – mystery/crime novels – will read it and thoroughly enjoy it so I have no reason to dismiss the work out of hand but I’m struggling to get excited about the thing; it’s just not my cup of tea. And here’s where a subjective review can do an author a disservice because there’s nothing wrong with the book . . . if you like that kind of thing. And I need to get that across without it sounding like a slight.

As for Mount Rushmore. Never been. Never will. I’d go to Disneyland first and there's no chance of that either.

5:38 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

You're a reviewer we could all stand to emulate, Jim. You're absolutely right about the pumped-up egos, but even more importantly, you're exactly on target about a reviewer just having his say and then the readers can make up their own minds. I appreciate your attitude towards reviewing, and I think we're on the same page about it.

I like subjective reviews, too. They're refreshingly honest, when one runs across one. I've done a few that way myself, here on this blog.

I think the subjectivity/objectivity thing is a continuum of many dimensions. It's never absolute, and it's never more than a case of relatively-objective/relativistically-subjective. In the end, the reader really does need to make up his or her own mind.

Thanks for the comments.

10:54 AM  

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