21 December 2009

Generation Gap, and a Credo

There are plenty of things I'll never understand about events that took place before I was born, but I'm having an exceptionally hard time wrapping my head around the way composers who are roughly my parents' age talk about the musical epoch in which they came up, the era where dodecaphonism ruled the day, and where failure to sound "modern" enough would get you burned at the stake. Could it really have been that bad?

I ask this not out of spite but rather curiosity. I could do without dodecaphonism myself, and have no interest in defending it (though atonality broadly construed is another matter). I simply don't understand why it was so hard to grow some balls and do what you wanted to. The arts in general being as marginalized as they are today, it's certainly hard for someone my age to sympathize much with artists who fear marginalization so acutely. If you don't like being tackled, you don't play football. You could become a kicker as a compromise, but it's not your god-given right to make the team. Plus, you might get tackled anyway.

Of course, you can always argue that art isn't a choice, but rather something that chooses you. I hear that on some level, but I'd have to say that's a pretty darn entitled artist who would dare to go that particular route in the course of such a debate. The line between a self-aware purposefulness and a naive sense of entitlement can be hard to see sometimes, and because I wasn't around, I can't know just how truly oppressive things were circa the mid-twentieth century. Since I have been around, though, I've certainly heard a lot of bitching about it. Suffice it to say that my interest is piqued.

Long story short, if you want people to like you, don't become an artist. Just don't. If you do, you will first become bitter and frustrated at how hard it is to find two people who agree on anything, and second, you will end up abandoning your life's work trying to get them to agree on you. It's not popular taste or institutional myopia that's stifling, but rather the artist's desire to appease it at all costs. To do so merely validates its perceived authority, which is otherwise built on quicksand, but which in this way becomes self-fulfilling and is therefore perpetuated.


Chris said...

I only just now realized you had a blog, or I would have commented on this earlier. Do you know Joseph Straus's article "The Myth of Serial 'Tyranny' in the 1950s and 1960s" (Musical Quarterly, 1999)? After some quotations and an opening paragraph, he writes:

"But the idea of serial domination is essentially false. The status of serial music in America during the 1950s and 1960s and a host of related questions (who held prominent academic positions? who received grants and awards? whose music was published, performed, recorded, and reviewed?) are empirical matters, subject to resolution by factual, objective inquiry. In the statistical study that follows, I will show that serialism never came close to dominating any aspect of American musical life--indeed, that it remained a visible but effectively marginal phenomenon
throughout the period."

Interesting stuff.

Stefan Kac said...

Hey Chris,

Good to hear from you. I haven't read that article, though I'm aware of it via this
post, where its validity is called into question.

There's little hope of finding an impartial observer on this matter, and frankly, I could give a shit if we do or not. Once the minimalist backlash has passed, everyone will have had their turn, and new generations will find fruitful opportunities for synthesis where our parents' generation could only manage petty bickering.