26 October 2021

Bodies and Artifacts (i)—Sennett's Graffiti

Richard Sennett
The Conscience of the Eye (1990)

I often saw this graffiti [of the New York subways] in my mind's eye when I listened to my son play the violin. The Suzuki violin method teaches a child to play music before he or she knows the names of the notes; the method stresses beauty of tone and expression from the first lesson. When a pupil first begins the violin in the Suzuki method, the teacher therefore performs a generous act. On the neck of the violin the teacher tapes down two little strips of blue plastic, so that the student knows exactly where to place his or her first, second, or third fingers... The beginner is thus spared that excruciating experience of playing sour, out-of-tune notes. By converting the violin into something like a guitar, the teacher makes the student the gift of pitch.

At first the student accepts this gift without reservation. You put your fingers down exactly where the tapes are and that's that—you've solved the problem of pitch. In this early stage one of the tapes on my son's violin once came off by accident; he asked me to fix the instrument so that he could play again. I suggested, with the parent's knowing, infuriating helpfulness, that he find instead where the finger goes by listening to the sound it makes. This proposal would have robbed my son, however, of the certainty with which he began.

As the lessons went forward he learned more and more to listen to how he sounded, and in the process those little bits of tape began to annoy him too. There was the day that he learned that the violin, made of natural materials, changes its tone according to the temperature and humidity of the weather; some days the blue plastic bands were accurate guides, other days not. Then he learned that the same note has different shades, depending on the key in which it appears. Perhaps his most decisive experience in using these tapes was the month in which he found out how to create vibrato on a string. ... As he moved through each of these stages, hearing more, the plastic tape seemed an arbitrary answer, precluding the ear's discoveries. About a year after he began, he removed the plastic tape with which I once refused to "fix" the violin.

Such progress on the violin is what musicians call learning to listen with a third ear. It can be described more philosophically: the student learns there is a correlation between concreteness and uncertainty. In music concreteness means the student hears as if he or she were listening to another person playing; one's playing then becomes a tangible thing to be studied. Uncertainty means, in music, that the more the student can hear himself or herself in this way, the less satisfying musically are gestures that are at first easiest for the hand. My son, once he began to listen with a third ear, experimented with holding his left hand in odd postures that produce sour notes under some conditions and sweet notes under others; when he conducted these experiments on his left hand he was less concerned with problem-solving than with problematizing.

It was, as I say, as my secretarial self wandered over the relation of the concrete and the uncertain in music during those scrapings necessarily attendant upon executing "Twinkle, Twinkle Litle Star," that the graffiti of the subway appeared in my mind. The metal subway walls or the brick walls of buildings had no inherent character for those who sprayed them; these were planes to write over, whereas my son was learning to explore things for their own properties. But the exploration of his materials had a disturbing result. What made him engage even more concretely with them was uncertainty about how to draw sound out of a wooden box fitted with strings. This education was turning him outward, to judge his own expression, orienting his senses to results rather than intentions. It was an education in the "it," whereas the children making graffiti knew only the declarations of the "I." To speak of making things in an exposed condition...is to talk about creating uncertainty and possibility in a thing. An untaped violin makes, in Hickeringill's diction, discoveries to its player. And there is a virtue to making something as an exposed, uncertain "it" rather than a declarative "I": the violinist became more critical of the quality of the expression than the graffitist, for he could judge the sounds as things in themselves.

Our culture puts a great value on concreteness, at the expense of abstraction. ... The emphasis on making things concrete is a reflection of the value modern culture puts on objects—objects endowed with solidity and integrity. ... The uncertain seems to belong in the domain of insubstantial hesitation and tender-hearted, inward subjectivity. But toleration of uncertainty is as much a part of scientific investigation as of artistic creativity. A scientist who proceeds methodically from one self-evident fact to the next discovers nothing. ... Focusing on the concrete is satisfied by discoveries which reveal the unexpected and the problematic. It is in this sense that there is a correlation between concreteness and uncertainty.

Power enters into this correlation. The implication in a Miesian, sublime object is of domination by the maker over the eyes of those who passively appreciate his or her creations, whereas a more uncertain object should invite reciprocal intervention. Graffiti on a New York street reflects this power relationship: the walls of the "I" dominate others who had no choice in their making, who cannot participate in their form, who can only submit to them—though with no awe. The graffitist repeats over and over again his "I"...he confirms his sign. This "I" establishes an aggressive rather than an exploratory relation to the environment.

(pp. 207-209)

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