28 January 2014

Exchange with Milo Fine (ii) – "*every* survival strategy is fraught with pitfalls"

[Previously: Foreword(i)]

[SK] At the risk of both lapsing into cliches and miring us unduly deep in the critical theory labyrinth, for me your last missive leads unavoidably to questions of a postmodern condition. One defining feature of postmodernity is the sense that everything has already been done, the ultimate triumph of the status quo since it can, at that point, not be meaningfully subverted.

[MF] I concur. *But*, I would draw a line -- however ultra-razor-thin -- between "meaningful subversion" and "subversion" (the marketing term.) Understanding that of course, as I stated previously, it's *all* -- "meaningful subversion" disruption, etc. -- part of the status quo. What is ideally sought in "meaningful subversion" would be a shift in the nature of the status quo itself. An impossible task! But, in my view, one worth pursuing anyway.

Aesthetically, at least, it's all too easy to feel that way right now;

Especially if it's a strategy for "getting over". [smile]

and yet I think you would agree that anecdotally there would seem to remain ample opportunities to subvert, or something akin to it, by incredibly simple means. I am, of course, reminded of this often merely by virtue of playing traditionalist music on a non-traditional instrument, to which positive and negative reactions alike tend to be exaggerated.

I'd call that "subversion" (the marketing term).

But of course, after the gig, we still have war, poverty, political corruption…

As if a course of action taken by any individual could immediately eradicate any of our ills; internal *or* external...

The second, less-cliched, possibly contentious but I think potentially more important aspect of the postmodern condition I want to raise is the self-conscious manner in which artists go about their work once it is not only established but widely trumpeted that the arts are "the harbinger of (human) potential," that they, so to speak, "matter." I often wonder if the whole endeavor isn't spoiled the moment we really, truly convince ourselves this is the case? To hone in on an issue of "wiring," I'm not sure it's possible for human beings to have such an eye towards our place in history as it is unfolding and not succumb to what Shunryu Suzuki calls in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind "gainfulness." Here is a "hurdle" if there ever was one.

Exactly! But, you know, the whole
business of a "self-conscious manner"
and fame is essentially the result of careerism(posturing)/marketing(words)/positioning. Additionally, once one reaches that artificial pinnacle, there is the tendency to just keep repeating the same thing that got one there; and thus insuring an income stream while diminishing the work if indeed there was anything left to diminish. To wit, the vast majority of the time, the emperor has no clothes. There are, of course, exceptions; at least in the quality of the work itself. But, I've always been troubled by the fact that so few qualitative "artists" even attempt to match the resonance of their work with the resonance of their daily life. This would seem to be a key in getting to something like "meaningful subversion". And let's not forgot the inherent paradox in the fact that we are simultaneously utterly insignificant and, for wont of a better word or term, sacred.

In any case, I know from experience that when material gain is at play, all bets are off, and this is for me, though I had little faith in the notion of arts activism to start with, the gravest unaddressed, practically unmentionable issue in that sphere. Charitable arts education work suffers tremendously when artists are paying their mortgages that way. I don't mean to imply here that you should have to take a vow of poverty to be an artist, or that artists involved in this work now are necessarily incompetent, but rather that hitching this entire wagon to our checkered (that's a kind description) network of public and private institutional arts funding more or less guarantees a reinforcement of the status quo, no matter who the artist-educators are or what they bring to the table. This supposed great vehicle of change truly has been co-opted for quite the opposite purpose, enabled by the bourgeois aspirations of our own ilk, for which we/they do deserve a fair share of blame, and which is itself a direct result of the monied outflanking the poor in arts access and achievement from the start. So it's a cycle.

Too too true. But, instead of attempting to "break the cycle", a better course of action would be to pursue "inner something-like-the-truth" without being at all concerned with an outcome. Can this involve seeking funding or entering into the field of arts eduction? Perhaps; at least to an extent. Keeping in mind that "untenability" and "ambivalence" are my watchwords, I am ambivalent about funding. Can one truly wash the blood off of robber baron fortunes by doing good work? Let's face it, these foundations are a front; a PR mea culpa for the heinous machinations which allowed such a fortune to be accumulated in the first place. Plus, keep in mind that in almost every case, all the money they're benevolently giving away is nothing but the interest on their investments. (Gotta keep the heirs living in the style to which they've grown accustomed.) Still, if one can face that reality, and proceed in as ethical a manner as possible, some small amount of blood can be, if not eradicated, then slightly diluted. (And, of course, there's the issue of getting grants being a "career" in itself, as careerists chase trend and fashion in an attempt to become one of the "anointed"/entitled whose place at the trough is assured.)

As for public funding, I have no problem with spending taxpayers' money on work of deep resonance; work which, ideally, contributes to the, for wont of another better word, health of a culture/society. Unfortunately, most of what is funded falls far short of that reasonable expectation, and thus could be better spent providing food, housing, etc. for the underclass. (However, as we know, given the structure of organizations/bureaucracies, only a limited amount of the money earmarked for such worthwhile endeavor is actually used for the intended purpose; too much of it going to the usual parasitical suspects: bureaucrats, ancillary sub-contractors, etc.)

Working in arts education is likewise a tricky treacherous business, because these organizations/institutions aren't really interested in art, but rather, the *appearance* of art. I know people who have entered the academy as a survival strategy, and while despising the politics, etc. have nonetheless been able to maintain the overall quality and resonance of their work. To reiterate, when looking at/for "opportunities", one simply *must* look closely at the up-side and down-side of a given scenario. And, while the majority of even those who bother to objectively and ruthlessly assess a situation into which they decide to enter ultimately abandon their principles as soon as the money starts coming in, it is possible to make it work. To be clear, *every* survival strategy is fraught with pitfalls.

The notion of pop/rock as "parasitic" forms/styles gave me a chuckle, but I think it's a valid observation. Of course, as you say earlier, all creativity borrows from existing strands; and yet not all creativity is parasitic in the sense that it drains or ultimately kills its "host."

I agree. For instance, Henry Cowell, way back when, introducing so-called ethnic elements into his compositions, while a novelty (and something which generated attention) was, as far as I can tell (and pardon me if I'm being naive or, even worse, nostalgic!), done out of a genuine interest. This has become less and less the case, as appropriation and self-aggrandizement have gotten substantially more hand-in-glove.

Aesthetically, we both, possibly to the surprise of many who know us, can count a smattering of rock-(though not pop-)derived music among our very favorite.

I wouldn't say "my very favorite"; more like songs which spoke to me, for whatever reason. But, that has a *lot* to do with our basic wiring of which pop/rock is extremely aware; hence "hooks". It's sort of akin to my getting tearful watching some half-assed movie. The plot/script and acting gets to me, even as I know I'm being manipulated by the screenwriter/director "pushing my buttons." There is very little, if anything genuine therein, but I accept the sentiment even as I recognize the artifice. That stated, I do certainly sense and appreciate the directness/sincerity of some rock/pop music; often those that seemed underproduced. (And let us always remember the origins of rock and roll; the appropriation of Black rhythm and blues for a white audience.)

(Would you care to hip us to a short list? Or am I misremembering here?)

You're remembering correctly, but, for a lot of reasons, I don't care to go into specifics. Besides, my tastes in that regard are pretty fickle. Things often wear out their welcome quite quickly. After all, disposability -- built-in obsolescence -- is a key component of consumerism/commerce.

It is socially and economically speaking, rather, that I think "parasitic" is a perfect description. How many "jazz" gigs sprout up at newly opened restaurants and summer concert series only to (d)evolve into hosting the same handful of half-assed world-pop groups? Further, the compression of various musics from around the world into these salable, nearly indistinguishable reductions, always with a backbeat and a "chick singer," is an aesthetic issue, for some people an ethical one as well, and certainly a textbook parasite-host relationship, a prime example, my mother would not miss the chance to point out, of capitalism killing culture.

Couldn't have said it better. (Though let's give credit where it's due. There are plenty of packaged "dude singers" too!)

There is, on the other hand, traditionally what can only be called a symbiosis at work in jazz and creative music, at least where the players permit it to arise. It's a nice analogy, and especially for your groups.

Thank you. A primary reason it works for me and my collaborators is that I don't try to force any kind of symbiosis. (And it is a symbiosis which, as you know, while having jazz at its core, also encompasses many other impulses.) It happens as the result of mutual respect, sensibility and sensitivity. Put another way, I consider myself a facilitator/catalyst rather than a "leader". And, make no mistake, there is a clear line between the former and the latter.

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