Friday, April 27, 2018

It's Not Even Past #9 - The Crisis of What is Art - Part 3 - 90%

So believe it or not, I was already going begin this podcast by using the example of hip hop to weigh the differences of how and when and why we should take popular art seriously. I wrote some of what follows three weeks ago. Then it was announced this week that Kendrick Lamar won this year's Pulitzer Prize for music in circumstances that the classical music world finds extremely controversial.

I honestly don't know why anyone cares. Awards are stupid, they don't matter. They do not reward achievement, they reward power and are a way for the the award committee to increase their influence. The vast majority of award committees bestow awards because they want to make some kind of grand political statement or a statement of office politics that advances their own careers by bestowing a favor on this or that person who can do something for them. The only award in the arts that matters is not that a work receive an award, but that the work be watched and listened to, often and actively. And on that account, Kendrick Lamar and a hundred other potential winners from popular music have so exceeded any classical composer in America in appreciation that I have no idea why such an award would even appeal to them.

Awards carry the foul stench of respectability. An artform becoming accepted by the establishment is, by definition, a sign that its ability to create work that subverts our expectations of what art can be is growing more limited. There are all sorts of critics in various fields who will tell you that the worst thing to happen to movies and jazz and many other American artforms was that they received academic recognition. Once they began to be grown in the academic test tube, they lost a large part of their general appeal; they ceased to be a regular ritual in the American way of life, they ceased to be subversive, they ceased to matter to people's lives in anything like the same way. So no matter whether or not Kendrick Lamar deserves a Pulitzer Prize, most compositions which get it don't. Let rappers and rock guitarists get it and seem thereafter as dull as us stodgy composers, and perhaps a tradeoff can happen that makes classical music subversive enough to attract just a million or two of Kendrick's listeners.

And even if awards were not a joke, the Pulitzer for Music was always clearly a bit of a joke.  It didn't just go only to composers, but composers of extremely academic credentials. The list of American composers who never got one is a bit of an honor role: John Cage, Phillip Glass, Lou Harrison, Alan Hovhaness, Conlon Nancarrow, Meredith Monk, Morton Feldman, even jazz greats like Ellington, Monk, and Coltrane were only awarded Pulitzers for lifetime achievement posthumously - but not even a lifetime Pulitzer for Miles, Mingus, Basie, Bird, Brubeck, Nina Simone,... The only two pieces of music that ever got the award that are unassailably standard repertoire now are Copland's Appalachian Spring and perhaps Ives's Third Symphony. Both were rewarded in the Pulitzer's first ten years. Meanwhile, there are Pulitzers rewarded for such luminaries as Leo Sowerby, Gail Kubik, Quincy Porter, John La Montaine, Robert Ward, Leslie Bassett, Richard Wernick, Michael Colgrass, Roger Reynolds, Mel D. Powell, Wayne Peterson, George Walker, Melinda Wagner, and Henry Brant. These are the names of the composers I've never heard of, and if I've never heard of them, nobody has.

This being 2018, it can't be surprising that an award which was so pointlessly elitist for the better part of fifty years would slip into a populist overcorrection. Is Damn really as good as all that? Well...  I'm sorry to say that I think it is absolutely not, and it would make my life a little easier if I could say that I liked it, but for a good 70-75% of the album, I really, really, didn't. At some points of the album I was somewhere between stifling laughs and gagging. And giving this the Pulitzer Prize is pathetically pointless political posturing, as pathetic as it was to give an award to a composer nobody listens to who might reciprocate by giving you the award the next year, it is perhaps pathetic on a revolutionary scale for a committee of non-specialists like those who now distribute the music Pulitzer, and who wanted a huge gesture like the Nobel's awarding Dylan the Nobel to show that we live in a new, revolutionary era, where the rules of what once was literature or music no longer apply, because the reciprocity becomes so obvious - they want more people to care about the Pulitzer Prize, so they give it to a major celebrity whose aim is a little further up from middlebrow and who at least tries to make something genuinely good in at least some songs. I'm obviously well too stereotypically old-fashioned to call myself anything like a connoisseur of rap or hip hop, but I can name a few albums I really enjoyed when I've listened to them over the years - De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising, Jurassic 5's Quality Control, Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet, and like everybody in college in 2003 it was impossible to get away from Outkast's double album - Speakerboxx and The Love Below. But I've been putting off truly giving hip hop an exhaustive listen to for years and years, though I suppose I've heard just about every song that the average white guy's heard. I suppose the reason is that the best thing which could happen is that I think it's great, in which case I'm yet another white guy who's seen as trying to seem cooler than he is, and the worst is that I would think it's terrible and spend the rest of my life trying to avoid the topic.

Regardless of what one thinks, one way or the other, about rap and hip hop being music or literature, or whether people who don't listen to hip hop consistently have a tin ear for what makes it great, or if racial bias informs such judgements, there were parts of this album I enjoyed very much, but I thought the human qualities of the album were lacking; I thought it was pointlessly, irritatingly, maddeningly self-obsessed. And because I know some people might say 'Evan's not taking this seriously enough' I'll tell you what I think of every track.

The first track, Blood, is in many ways the most interesting, it's a story that can be interpreted all kinds of different allegorical ways. Then we get DNA, which is, frankly, a not particularly profound or clever comment on race relations. Yah is just kind of a look at his life as a celebrity, and a generation that doesn't hear about Kendrick Lamar every day will not care nearly as much. Element I just found annoying, and while Feel is good, but I feel like I shouldn't need to point out that it's pretty goddamn narcissistic. As for Loyalty, it's a little creepy to feature Rihanna, whose relationship with Chris Brown was so famously violent, on a song about looking for someone who would die for their loyalty to you. Considering how many people who applauded this Pulitzer congratulate themselves on their sensitivities and progressivism, my hunch is that they turn a blind eye, or more to the point, a bruised eye, to the meaning behind this song, which seems to look at such violence with a kind of approval. The insights in Pride aren't exactly deep. I suppose Humble is a parody of bad or stereotypical rap, or at least I hope it is, because the best interpretation I can give to it is that seems like he's doing this song just to show his superiority to it. As for Lust, every time I hear the refrain 'Let me put the head in' I had to stifle a laugh. Love is a much better song, at least it expresses something giving, something that feels like it reaches out toward giving a piece of this incredibly absorbed self to another person. It took eleven songs, somewhere between thirty-five to forty minutes, before I was genuinely impressed by the poetry of Kendrick's rapping. In XXX, finally, I felt the visceral force that everybody seems to now say makes Kendrick Lamar the greatest rapper of this time, and perhaps any. This song is a real statement about America that says something complex about it, a song with a kind of Whitmanian breath and as much a kind of response to Whitman's celebration of America as Langston Hughes's. At least the first two verses of Fear seem to be about somebody who's not Kendrick Lamar, or at least not Kendrick Lamar after he became a celebrity. This is a song which shows that he understands the concerns of his most devoted listeners, but then it becomes about Kendrick again. As for God, just remember these four lines:

Everything I do is to embrace y'all/Everything I write is a damn eight ball/Everything I touch is a damn gold mine/Everything I say is from an angel. 
Either this is God speaking, or this is the rapper speaking, and if Kendrick means himself, he's a narcissist - like a dictator who fancies himself a gift to his people. Duckworth, on which the album ends, is another story, autobiographical this time, and not nearly as interesting as Blood

I've said many times when this podcast was just a blog, there are demonstrable quantitative facts about many artistic creators - there are too many objective facts about Shakespeare's innovations to argue that his greatness is only a matter of opinion, the fact of his 28,000 word vocabulary, the number of which he invented is said by most estimates to be in the thousands, the fact that virtually all plays followed the mould of Aeschylus and Sophecles until Shakespeare broke it more than 2000 years later: The same Aristotelean unities: minimal subplots, occur over 24 hours, and always exist in the same physical space. Or the fact that characters before Shakespeare did not have contradictory motives, there was nothing of the conflict between Iago's public self vs. his private motives, nothing of Hamlet's vacillation between his extreme rationality and madness. There were inklings of authors who could portray the messy inwardness of the human experience, perhaps a little bit of that inner life here and there in Chaucer, or in a number of characters in what's commonly called the Old Testament, but portraying inner human conflict was never the point of telling those stories. So you may disagree that Shakespeare is great, but because of these facts, the burden of proof is on you, not on those who assert his greatness.

Now, people like to point out that many hip-hop artists have coined as many words as Shakespeare. Does this mean that they're artistically as great as Shakespeare? Well, no, there are still a lot of other objective innovations that Shakespeare produced with which they have to contend. I will accept though, that if I wanted to prove that there is nothing great about hip-hop, and I certainly don't, then the burden of proof would be on me. 

But the innovations of hip-hop are clearly not fabricated, and because of them hip hop deserves much more respect than white people have often given it. What is fabricated in hip-hop, as it is in every modern genre of popular music, is the illusion that you need to be great in any sense to rise to the top of your profession. In the 60's, at the same time that The Beatles and Dylan and The Beach Boys were making albums which now seem like they will never die, there was no real difference between their popularity and The Monkees, The Archies, Herman's Hermits, Sonny and Cher... Most of us were around in the 90's, so think back, who was actually more popular: Tupac and Biggie, Jurassic 5, Public Enemy? Or was it Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer, Puff Daddy, DMX? I know which I remember from those years... Now as then, a marketable product is what really keeps the music industry afloat, and skill is something optional for celebrated musicians to learn rather than a necessity. So because of that, when we really start investigating popular musical genres, we have to expect that the appeal of at least half of it is not based on any real quality. Say what you will about those staid, wheezing old arts, classical training as a musician or actor or poet is a real skill it takes a decade to learn and the rest of your life to keep up. You may find it rather distant from your life experience, but the skill needed to produce it provides automatic quality control. Now I'm sure some people will view that as a straw man argument, but then again, the same people probably view everything I've said so far as exactly that.

Furthermore, think about the importance of the producer in nearly all forms of recorded popular music. A good chunk of the finished product is not made by the artist who gets the lion's share of the credit. I have no doubt that it takes great skill and practice to be a great rapper, and the skill it takes to rap well is much more obvious than the skill it takes to write a popular song, but the music behind the rhymes is almost completely ancillary to the skill of rapping, it usually seems to be done by somebody else, and when the rapping is good enough, does an impressive sample add something or does it get in the way?

This is not to say that the skill of popular musicians isn't often extremely impressive, but because the control of the popular musician, or even a jazz musician, is not as complete as a classical composer's, who gives the performer instructions on every note and exactly how to play every note, neither is the achievement, and I have a very deep hesitation about allowing for the thought that a great achievement by a musician who leaves so many details of the music for others to decide is on the same level as a musician who controls everything about the music. That's not to say that there aren't popular musicians who haven't produced great art, but no matter how out-of-date my views are, I still think it's a bit of a scandal to say that even though Lennon and McCarthy and Dylan wrote great songs, to call them great musicians, or titans of music on the level of even the great classical composers who wrote mostly song or lieder for voice and piano like Schubert, Mussorgsky, Hugo Wolf, Faure, Grieg, is a kind of artistic scandal. Yes, they wrote their own lyrics to go with their music, and sometimes the music in combination with the lyrics was great, but the two are so incredibly inseparable from each other that it's neither music or poetry in any sense that was conceivable in the various poetics of high art between the twentieth century and the Middle Ages. So then, let me ask you, Beethoven and Bach may be completely removed from our time, but how many people remember the great the names of the great chaussoniers and troubadours of the Middle Ages? You've no doubt heard of Marco Polo and Joan of Arc and Dante and Chaucer Richard the Lionhearted and Gutenberg and Charlamagne and maybe Giotto and Eleanor of Acquitane and Abelard and Heloise and William of Ockham and Thomas Becket. Particularly knowledgeable classical music lovers among you will have probably heard of Machaut, the singular medieval chaussonier who was also clearly an inestimably great composer, but how many of you have heard of Oswald von Wolkenstein? Aimeric de Belenois? Elias Fonsalada? Pistoleta? Peire Rogiet? I have no doubt that the songs of the Troubadours were as beloved within daily life as the greatest popular songs of our day. And perhaps that is a much more important achievement than their music being remembered in eight-hundred years. I once read an interview with the composer, Lukas Foss, in which he said that he loved popular music, but why not let popular music be popular and classical music be classical. The fragility of flowers is part of what makes them beautiful, and I still believe that for the most part, precisely because of their overwhelming popularity, these songs are extremely fragile. It's arrogant to think that The Beatles and Beach Boys and Stones, or today's hip hop and indy equivalents will mean as much to future generations and that they won't create their own music to love as they do their own families.

In today's demotic times, when the voice of the people is so important, it's a very popular intellectual belief that words mean whatever people decide them to mean. But the result of that is that the meaning of words, particularly in this internet age, may change so quickly that in just a hundred years or less, the words of today's music may seem as antiquated as the words of English Renaissance Madrigals seem to us. And if that happens, all that will remain to speak directly to future generations is the musical creativity, and unfortunately, not every great popular musician is Duke Ellington or Frank Zappa. Or perhaps popular music will have the unfortunate posterity of Italian Opera, which, however wonderful at times, one ought to admit is often a slightly simplified form of classical music that depends more on the personality of the singer than on the music itself. The two hundred years of Italian opera between Monteverdi and Handel, so popular all over Europe in its day as to defy belief, is basically an historical black hole. Every last bit of it has disappeared from the general repertoire, and nobody even seems interested in reviving it. Even the stuff that's still played and loved: Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, even Verdi and Puccini, are completely excised from their historical contexts. Operas like those by Rossini/Bellini/Donizetti, written for very specific singers with only three weeks between conception and performance, are treated like holy relics upon which one never tailors to the particular strengths of today's audiences or the the singers performing it. Hardly any improvisation, hardly any cuts, hardly any rearrangements taken into account for the size of the opera house, if an Italian opera lover of 1820 saw how Rossini was played today, she would probably not have cared that orchestras are so much bigger and technically better or that the production values are so much higher, she would have noticed how much longer the opera opera both seems and is from cuts and slower tempos, she would have noticed how the parts do never fit the singers like a glove, she would have noticed the laquered finesse with which orchestras play this very raw, crude music, and she would probably fall asleep.

Until Verdi and perhaps Rossini's very last few operas, it was doubtful that Italian opera was even meant for posterity. And Verdi particularly has been tragically excised from his context, he was once thought the great voice of the people whose operas contained political messages of freedom and subversion, is now a luxury product, so expensive to mount that only a scant handful of the upper class can ever afford to see a decent production of his operas. We can already see this process beginning with so many ageing rockers, who charge inflated prices for now conservative baby boomers to relive their rebellious youths and drag their well-off children and grandchildren to see them, or look at the ageing greats of African-American traditions like jazz and R&B, whose audiences now are just about entirely white. In the case of either Italian opera or American popular music, 99% of it was not written with any kind of posterity in mind, it was written to please and entertain a crowd of its own era, and it did so spectacularly.

Coming from the high arts, I really don't understand why people in more popular genres want our level of respectability. Has respectability ever gotten professional classical musicians or ballet dancers or musicless poets or novelists or painters or sculptors a better life? A rock guitarist does not need to be great at his craft to be successful, so when they work at their craft, they can work out of a sense of passion for it which they choose to have rather than the pressure of a compulsion, which any classically trained artist needs to have to advance even to the slightest degree. And yes, I know it's much more complicated than that, but really, ask yourselves, is that statement truly wrong? Why do classical musicians and actors seem so joyless when they're on stage? And why is joy so clearly part of what makes so much popular music so popular?

This joylessness was part of the overwhelming experience I had earlier this week, when I saw the extraordinary edifice that is Rothko Chapel for the first time. I just returned from a week in Houston. Houston is a wonderful city, much derided for being part of Texas and whose image in the popular imagination is, so I'm told, much more true of Dallas. But there is an enormous amount of fantastic art and architecture in this extremely wealthy city of oil with God only knows how many collectors who probably hired dealers of impeccable taste to curate their personal collections. But no work of art in all of Texas is as famous as the Rothko Chapel, which has to stand as one of the most ambitious artistic undertakings of the 20th century. The chapel has fourteen murals inside it of almost pure darkness, in a room so dimly, grayly, specifically lit that if you stare at the paintings for an hour at various angles, you'll have perceived thousands of shades of light within the darkness.

Now Rothko's most famous quote is when he said:
I'm not an abstractionist. I'm not interested in the basic relationships of color or form or anything else. I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. 
It is difficult to believe that Rothko's nearly monolithic blocks of color expresses any basic human emotion. And yet, like so many works of great art, if you stare at it long enough, you can convince yourself that what Rothko said was true.

There were moments when I stared at the murals of Rothko Chapel when I was moved nearly to tears. It's worth noting that the extremely depressive Rothko seems to focus mostly on negative emotions in this quote, but I don't know if these murals of basically monochrome color are capable of expressing any kind of basic human emotion, in some ways, what they can seem to express is still much deeper - not the emotions of this world, but the transcendence of the next. It is as though you come face to face with the world behind our world, the true world, and as your eyes adjust to the light, you begin to perceive what it's like to gaze into entirely new dimensions, luminous dimensions that exist within a seemingly dark void of the unknown, dimensions that we, as three-dimensional humans of this world, can stare at for our whole lives and yet never begin to possibly understand. I doubt there is a way that something so dark, and so seemingly inhuman, can portray ecstasy as we truly experience it, but if people spent enough time in Rothko Chapel, I think they could go ecstatically mad.

And yet... and yet... we don't exist in Rothko's world. Robert Hughes, the art critic for Time who was one of the funniest and grumpiest critics who ever lived, said of Rothko that his life was "a long, troubled preparation for a failure that eluded him." Yes, there must be transcendent dimensions out there, but since we will never experience them, what's the point of contemplating them? Another great quote of Rothko's is:

Another great quote of his is:
You think my paintings are calm, like windows in some cathedral? You should look again. I'm the most violent of all the American painters. Behind those colors there hides the final cataclysm. 
Five years after Rothko completed the murals of this chapel, the most famous living artist in America in the generation before Andy Warhol went to his studio, swallowed a barbiturate overdose, and used a razor to hack his wrists to death. There was something about abstract expressionism that seemed to deprive its greatest practitioners of the will to live. The famously macho and self-destructive Jackson Pollack died fourteen years earlier from a drunk driving accident that also killed the two women in the car with him. Six years before that, Arshile Gorky - perhaps haunted by the memories of losing family in the Armenian genocide and his mother's subsequent death from starvation, hanged himself. Nietzsche says to beware staring into the abyss lest the abyss stare back, and it's as though once the greatest American abstract expressionists had stared into those transcendent dimensions, the transcendent pulled them in. Perhaps they'd seen something that haunted them so acutely that abstract art was their only escape, or perhaps by existing for so much of their lives in dimensions not of this world, they found returning to the frustrations of this world too unbearable. What is the point of creating or experiencing great works of art that make you feel so bad you want to kill yourself? If what they have seen was the truth, then is it better to go on believing a lie?

I have no doubt that in five hundred years, if rising sea level or racial tension does not reduce Houston to a smoldering embers, Rothko Chapel will still exist as the Sistine Chapel does. A monument of American art and the psychological abyss that was the twentieth century, that shows us a glimpse of transcendent possibilities. And what a dreary posterity that seems.

In this age when popular art forms, and even old classical artforms, can be reproduced endlessly through recordings and reprintings that completely remove their original context, Rothko's paintings are about their context, and completely defy reproduction. To experience them in any context but face-to-face is to miss their essence. And yet, contrary to what so many Marxist and/or Frankfurt critical theorists believe, the ability to reproduce its essence may be a sign of its quality, not its vapidity. How can Adorno and Walter Benjamin and John Berger and the like believe on the one hand that freedom is merely privilege extended unless enjoyed by one and all, and not believe that this also extends to culture, about which they believed that mass culture is a force whose only capabilities are corrosive?

The ability of a work of art to be reproduced and still retain some of its essence means that what it communicates is universal. Lack of artistic control is in some ways a copout of artistic achievement, but insistence on absolutes of artistic control can be an inhibitor of artistic greatness as well. If everything about a work of art is controlled and has to be seen in the exact right circumstances, perhaps that's a sign that the essence of the work is not nearly as deep as people would like to think.

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