Archive for November, 2011


Paging Dr. Frankenstein

Walk into any Best Buy. Compare their inventory of, say, Shostakovich or Stravinsky or even Bach (!) to that of, say, Lady Gaga. They’ll likely have more copies of one LG album than they will CDs in their entire stock of the other three artists.

How does this happen? How does such a disparity between superficial, throwaway “art” and intelligent, meaningful content come to be? Obviously, Joe Consumer plays a large role here. I’m often sickened by what we, society, make possible with the benediction of our dollars. The casual listeners (who vastly outnumber those who take music seriously) are more influenced by peer pressure than by honest evaluation of content. I include even those who suppose they’re being “different” in that assessment. They listen to what they suppose is countercultural because they’ve been told that’s what you listen to if you want to be countercultural!

But fools and their money are only part of the problem. More than a few stitches in the monster that is Lady Gaga and her ilk have been sewn by those who would identify as part of the minority that takes music seriously. These people dizzily fall all over themselves spinning post hoc rationalizations for the eructations of the Lady Gagas and the Marilyn Mansons of the world.

Why do they do this? In part, it’s a frantic attempt to be seen as open-minded. In the current arts climate, which is shot through with postmodernism, nothing sounds so much like a death knell as an accusation of dogmatism – whether or not that accusation is well-founded.

Another reason is that they suppose they’re demonstrating their own cleverness by inventing those rationalizations. “You think there’s not much to this pop tune? Deep down I’m not particularly moved by it, either. But take a look at my grandiose exegesis (read: castle in the sky) of it and you’ll understand just how clever I really am!”

Lucubrations like this are the result. Another example is the piece by Edward Docx I wrote about a few posts ago. In it, he attempts to elucidate the alleged profundity of purposely strange art, such as might be produced by Gaga, or David Byrne. In the Frere-Jones, she makes this bewildering statement: “Some of pop’s most delightful figures endure exactly because we can’t figure out what they are up to.” So we’re throwing all our money and admiration at people and products we can’t figure out? That seems very sensible. Not. The fact that there’s no perceptible logic at work in “what they’re up to” would suggest to me the inferiority of what they’re up to; that even the “artists” don’t really know what they’re doing. The reason Bach always pops up in “best composers” lists is because we can pinpoint exactly what it is that makes his music superior.

The real effect of these monuments to pseudo-intellectual onanism is that legitimacy is conferred to that which doesn’t deserve it.


Argument from authority

In my first year undergrad music history course – when I was even younger and more stupid than I am now – I wrote a short essay in which I opined that Beethoven’s orchestration grew worse and worse as his deafness progressed.

This was not my own idea, however. I came across this idea while reading some essays by Leonard Bernstein, who is still revered as a musical authority by most musicians, including the prolific music critic for the New Yorker, Alex Ross.

My professor, who had apparently never read the Bernstein essays, took exception to the claim about Beethoven’s orchestration. She asked me on what grounds I made such a claim, and could I point to examples of obviously bad orchestration? I then spent an evening listening to the 9th symphony and marking all the spots on the score that I thought represented less than ideal orchestration.

In retrospect, what I had singled out as defects in Beethoven’s orchestration were really defects in either the performance or the recording.

Bernstein was wrong on two counts. Beethoven’s orchestration was fine. That’s error number one. Error number two goes deeper. Orchestration is a necessarily imprecise art. There is no one arrangement of instruments that works best for any given piece of music. If that were so, transcriptions and arrangements would be impossible. As long as one writes more or less idiomatically for each instrument, and the music itself makes sense – in the abstract – things should work out.

My professor was absolutely right to question my assertion, but I have to wonder if she still would have, had she been aware of the Bernstein essays.

Being successful, as Bernstein was in a big way, does not mean one’s ideas are unimpeachable.


If only…

I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time. Over at Prospect Magazine, Edward Docx has written an article titled “Postmodernism is Dead.” In fact there are quite a few articles out there that proclaim the same thing: here and here, for instance.

That would be welcome news. Unfortunately, I think these diagnoses aren’t taking into account the deeper-seated disease of which postmodernism is perhaps the quintessential symptom. A disease that is very much still with us. I quite honestly believe a major driver of the postmodern movement is laziness, in the form of a lack of intellectual rigor. Postmodern relativism is a natural refuge for those who wish to achieve artistic or academic status, but who don’t have, or don’t want to invest the time and effort in cultivating, real skill or insight. Indeed, this article begins by stating as much.

A sub-driver, if you will, is, I think, a naive conception of “fairness.” Anything in pomo-land can be worthwhile, as long as you dream up a slick, post facto rationalization for it. Nothing should be “privileged”; nothing should be judged. This particular feature of postmodernism is infuriating because: 1) of course art and philosophy should be judged! Despite the frantic cries of postmodernists, we are not living in a world constructed entirely of subjective perception. The objective, real world is out there and can serve as the source for objective standards by which to judge art and philosophy, along with all sorts of other thought in other disciplines. And 2) it represents rank hypocrisy. Terry Eagleton (yes, I know – a surprising source for actual wisdom) wrote about it:

For all its vaunted openness to the Other, postmodernism can be quite as exclusive and censorious as the orthodoxies it opposes. … It is a thoroughly orthodox heterodoxy, which like any imaginary form of identity needs its bogeymen and straw targets to stay in business. … It is animated by the critical spirit, but rarely brings it to bear upon its own propositions.

But getting back to the article I linked to first. The interesting thing about Docx’s piece is that it’s a sort of eulogy for postmodernism. He waxes positively wistful about some of the wonderful things we’re throwing away by allegedly abandoning it. This, for instance, is supposed to be profound postmodern insight:

Different groups of people use language in different ways, which in turn can lead to looking at the world in quite separate ways.

Polysemy is not a profound concept. When we wish not to be misunderstood, we can take greater care to be more precise with our language. Conveying our intended meaning is not impossible.

Another important (and alleged) postmodern contribution he cites is that postmodernism is responsible for improving the way we treat our fellow humans:

Postmodernism has helped Western society understand the politics of difference and so redress the miserable injustices which we have hitherto either ignored or taken for granted as in some way acceptable.

How can this possibly be when postmodernism challenges paradigms indiscriminately? What if the dominant paradigm, or worldview, or narrative, or whatever you want to call it, is a good one? Postmodern relativism is explicitly not about determining if one way of doing things or treating others is better than another way. How could denying our ability to ascertain objective reality lead to something we could all call an improvement? No, improvements in inter-human relationships stem from just the opposite: discovering natural and objective phenomena, most often via the scientific method. Modern biology can show that there is nothing intrinsically better about any given race, or about either gender. It can also show that many discriminated against conditions, for instance, homosexuality, are not perversions of nature, but part and parcel of it. Therefore, bigots have no real recourse but to admit their bigotry. Getting in closer touch with reality is how we improve ourselves, not by divorcing ourselves from it.

I think postmodernism has been a tragedy. It has conferred a kind of legitimacy to all sorts of nonsense. People might indeed quit calling the relativistic stuff they produce “postmodern”, but despite the pronouncements of death, I think we will have something like postmodernism with us as long as we have intellectual laziness and naive egalitarianism with us.

November 2011