06 November 2014

Reports of My Demise (v)

For middle class children fortunate enough to have access to them, The Arts lay out a uniquely treacherous path from success to failure, starting (and often ending) with the fact that you can major in them through the doctoral level at most of this country's best public and private universities. Many of my peers have sardonically labeled this a pyramid scheme, and I am not above backing that interpretation. Indeed, it is fair to say that we have done a very good job of building and sustaining institutionalized programs of pre-professional artistic training for the middle and upper classes to enjoy, and concurrently a piss-poor job of taking our work to the streets. The latter is, in fairness, and as anyone who has tried can tell you, easier said than done, and not merely on account of aesthetics or access: the centrist upper-middle classes and apolitical nouveau riche are hardly the only families who might balk at a child who wishes to pursue a professional arts career. For poorer Americans and recent immigrants with aspirations of upward mobility, I imagine the pigeonhole Western society reserves for its artists must look like a great place to continue toiling in economic purgatory, which of course in many ways it is. Predictably, becoming a rich celebrity is a more common aspiration, even though the odds of being able to eke out an existence teaching lessons and playing money gigs are exponentially greater.

Indeed, in the United States we have seen tremendous recent influxes of immigrants from cultures with radically different conceptions of art and music than those brought here by previous waves of Central Europeans and West Africans. And of course, it is hardly unheard of for such groups to bring with them as well regressive gender politics which greatly circumscribe both men's and women's roles and career options. This poses a great challenge, if not out-and-out crisis, to liberal multicultural idealism. For one thing, American Westernist arts organizations, especially orchestras and museums, which were founded decades or centuries ago with very particular cultural purviews are now being challenged by many on the left to better reflect today's America or lose their charitable status, intrinsically if not legally. The aesthetic results of such triangulation tend, predictably, to be disastrous, which is the first, best reason to seek a better solution. To be sure, a panoply of isolated conservatist vacuums is not that solution either, just a different kind of disaster. Culture is living and living things evolve! Decaying carcasses stink to high heaven, and so does formaldehyde. Synthesis irrevocably defines both American music and global postmodernity; it would be the ultimate regressive maneuver to artificially inhibit this essential human intellectual process out of a precious sentimentality for native cultures. Remember kids, space is curved, so let's not drift so far left that we end up on the right.

I am not saying that nothing is lost when the last exponent of a native tradition passes away. Nothing lasts forever, though, and the ritual maiming of our own traditions and institutions out of white liberal guilt is the least constructive response. What would behoove these institutions of ours is to seek and support multicultural, pan-stylistic artists who are smart, dedicated, and altruistic enough to push beyond facile pastiche and quotation into finer creative granularities; who do not merely dabble in various traditions but have made deep concurrent investments in two or more of them, achieving a pre-modern degree of idiomatic authority therein as a prerequisite to constructive synthesis; and whose constituent influences thus operate at deeper perceptual levels. All of that is to say: artists whose work clearly sounds different, but may not sound the least bit multicultural on the surface.

This question of surface, of course, points to precisely why this type of work will never be supported to the same degree as the orchestral composer who tacks a superfluous clave part onto his ersatz neo-classical drivel, or the atom-smashing puppet-master impressario who throws groups of Western and non-Western specialist musicians haphazardly together. These are affronts to non-Western traditions just as they are to Western ones; they are supported not on aesthetic merit, nor simply because they are multicultural, nor, I don't think, because of some vast liberal-multiculturalist conspiracy, but rather because their multiculturalism is transparent enough to be perceptible to administrators too dense to perceive it otherwise, and because those administrators see their lives flash before their eyes with each new wave of immigration. In other words, because we live in a "democracy," and because more is more.

The question of how our life experience finds its way into our art is in one sense almost too obvious to bear verbalizing: traffic is bad one night, you lose an hour you had blocked off for composing, you return to the piece the next day in a different state of mind and write something either slightly or wildly different than you would have otherwise. But of course this quotidian sense is not the one which the most overdetermined aesthetic identity politics invoke: in that sphere, rather, identity issues must be overbearingly worn on one's sleeve, laid on with brute force, and articulated with all the sophistication of a jackhammer. Victimry and deviance become coveted locations from which to make art, even as it becomes ever more apparent, and not least to theorists from this very milieu, that these are matters of degree for each and every one of us and not isolated, privileged perspectives that we either do or do not inhabit. Indeed, in contravention of so much overdetermined deconstructionist insistence that identity inevitably shapes aesthetics, the contemporary paradigm is not one where identity simply finds its way into the work, but rather one where it must be put there as conspicuously, self-consciously, and overbearingly as possible, as if out of fear that it might otherwise fail to turn up.

Is my evident skepticism about all of this merely a dressed-up version of "I don't mind x people as long as they act like y?" I am not an expert in any non-Western musical traditions, so I will eat my words here if anyone who is wants to put forth a compelling case that postmodern pastiche is an essential cultural and aesthetic value in one or more of them. Perhaps my privileging of "finer creative granularity" is a more contestable, Westernist maneuver. In my defense, the West best knows the dictum that influence begets depersonalization not as a multiculturalist battle cry but as a well-chronicled phase of juvenile misconception through which virtually all of us have passed and from which a few inevitably fail to emerge. Depth of engagement with a variety of streams is, rather, is the surest path toward individualism in our paradigm. The more and finer the granules, the less perceptible their individual sources; conversely, the people whose pieces sound like teetering Jenga towers of superficial references are the ones who have fewer influences and know them less thoroughly.

Style, be it a decadent aestheticist contrivance or an ancient aural continuum, is above all a trivial, surface feature that too often distracts us from deeper conceptual affinities among musical works. Tribalism is the ascription of ancestral thoughts and actions to all living genetic exponents, and hence the source of "us versus them" mentalities that blind members to such "deeper conceptual affinities" shared with other "tribes." And to be sure, it is in depth and not in surface, in reconciliation and not in tribalism, that any constructive multiculturalism qua multiculturalism must trade. Aesthetically that is. #SorryNotSorry conceptual art people, but in news to no one who reads these dispatches, I really just care about aesthetics.

To that end, a final thought: to construct a piece out of the coarsest stylistic granules is to make the underlying concept transparent and the surface contour uneven. Finding a "match" between two such granules is inherently a process of trial-and-error and minimally if at all one of exercising the will. It seldom rises beyond the level of an ironically inelegant mosaic comprised of just two unwieldy, misshapen panels. Sounds like...conceptual art, right? Indeed, conceptual art makes its nut in this space, not infrequently at the hostile, direct, and intentional expense of the pre-modern traditions referenced, and often in precisely the manner I am describing. Adherents of those traditions, even if they have no other use for conceptual art, could undoubtedly learn something by paying more attention to it; perhaps the world is trying to tell them something.

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