28 November 2007

The Abstract is Real

I have a problem with those who blindly claim allegiance to "The Arts." For one thing, if all of "The Arts" share one thing in common, it is our collective inability to define what "art" is in the first place. But to get to the real problem here, we need to go beyond this now rather superfluous observation and ask whether the very idea of a given individual embracing all art as good is not, in fact, an inherently disingenuous proposition.

Being an art where categorization runs rampant, music provides us with a microcosm of the problem with "The Arts." It is startlingly common these days for listeners to report that they like many different kinds of music, or even very occasionally that they like all kinds of music equally well. The former statement is critically dependent on how many total "kinds of music" there are in existence, while the latter, absurdly, would seem to presuppose knowledge of all extant music. In other words, the question of scale must first be addressed to evaluate the validity of either claim. This, however, is mere philosophical nitpicking; the real problem here is that the very concept of "liking" something (anything) requires an opposite (call it "disliking") simply in order to exist.

Put another way, it is impossible for everything to be "the best." If this were the case, there would be no best, only uniform mediocrity. Being an entirely relative concept, "the most good" means nothing except in relation to "that which is less good." It follows that in order to have likes, we must have dislikes as well, for the very idea of preference resists uniform projection.

It seems to me that the most likely reason anyone would desire to like everything is of a purely social nature. I'm sure that most musicians can recall an instance (perhaps many) where they minced words about a piece they didn't care for simply out of a desire to remain in someone's good graces. As a culture, we cave to herd mentality rather easily in such scenarios, if not inwardly, then certainly outwardly. In any case, when it comes to "The Arts," as with styles of music, I have my doubts as to whether any of us can, with any truth or validity whatsoever, report that we judge them aesthetically to be of equal merit. Whether or not this is actually the case, I can say with more certainty that I, for one, most definitely am not capable of this.

Despite having pursued a career in music, and hence being lumped in with other "Artists," I have no interest in most of the rest of "The Arts." Even within music, there is a line in the sand for me, and that line demarcates the border between the abstract and the representational. It has taken me until this point to figure out what it is that my aesthetic "likes" have in common: they are non-representational, non-linguistic, and non-sequential; in a word, abstract.

There is most definitely a tendency on the part of modern day commentators to view this as a sort of perversion or pathology. It may indeed be unusual, but I believe that there is one significant sense in which it is, in fact, highly rational. Take, for example, the difference between a Shakespeare play on one hand, and a Brahms symphony on the other (or, even simpler, a representational painting that attains a high degree of realism, and an abstract one that represents nothing in particular). In the case of the play, we must essentially pretend that what is going on in front of us is real even though we know it is not; same in the case of a representational painting. Abstract art, on the other hand, whether it be sonic or visual, is always real; as an NFL player would say, "It is what it is."

It is mind-boggling, in a way, that abstract art is generally thought to be more demanding and less accessible. In reality, it is the most accessible art there is, but perhaps it makes us that much more uncomfortable by putting us more directly in touch with the fact that to speak of liking something, we must dislike something else. As for likes and dislikes among "The Arts," I have a most intense dislike for things like theatre and film that present the audience with a choice between fantasy and reality while presuming that anyone in their right mind would go for the former. Personally, I'll take reality every time. Abstract art's lack of meaning, representation, linguistic properties, etc. is precisely what makes it so real; conversely, there is an element of artificiality to any presentation that presupposes the suspension of disbelief.

1 comment:

phil giampietro said...

That's an important point about the social attempt at liking everything. I actually take a lot of pride in knowing what I don't like. However, it is acknowledging the right for all art to exist in whatever form that seems difficult for some folks. Even the most borderline of works (Cage's 4'33" is the obvious choice, as discussed as it has been and as much as it takes on a completely different plane of meaning for some) serve the purpose of initiating thought and dialogue, not about types of music, but about art and how it effects our lives. I think that is more important that "like" and "dislike".