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Comments, ‘A Question Of Art’

Posted by acdtest on February 2, 2004

Comments On “A Question Of Art”

Weblogger and professional photographer Rick Coencas of Futurballa has most interesting comments to make on this archived article.

Mr. Coencas’s technical comments are right on the money, as I would expect them to be, and I find nothing in them to which to object. In answer to Mr. Coencas’s gentle demur that I made my case by limiting myself to the photography of natural landscape, I’d note only that the discussion was limited to that specialized venue as the central focus of the article was the color photographs of two natural landscape color photographers (Galen and Barbara Rowell) who photographed almost nothing but.

As to the two color photographers mentioned by Mr. Coencas, I’m somewhat familiar with the work of both, and the one, William Eggleston, can, to my knowledge, by no stretch be counted as a natural landscape photographer; and the other, Cole Weston, did natural landscape in color mostly in clear abstractions, which sort of treatment I explicitly exempted from my remarks as it was outside the subject treated. And the very few truly natural landscapes of Cole Weston with which I’m familiar are just as much kitsch as anything done by the Rowells.

My above remarks notwithstanding, Mr. Coencas’s post is well worth your time reading.

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Posted in Aesthetic Commentary, Photography, Worthwhile Articles Elsewhere | Comments Off on Comments, ‘A Question Of Art’

Let’s Hear It For Trash!

Posted by acdtest on January 13, 2004

Let’s Hear It For Trash!

ots of play has been given this post by weblogger Michael of 2Blowhards contrasting the professional movie- and book-persons’ view of trash and art generally, and in the books world in particular. The post is of ghastly length, but still interesting reading written as it is by a long-time professional observer of the arts biz, tendentiously biased though his views may be.

As an indefatigable cheerleader for all things pop cultural, and a hater of all things even marginally elitist even though himself a ressentiment-saturated crypto-elitist, it’s not surprising Michael’s post is a thinly veiled if uncharacteristically muted advocacy of books valued by pop culture, and one which makes the contrasting observation that professional movie people — whose business is, after all, rooted in trash — are, generally speaking, free and open-minded sorts accepting of both art and trash and well able to laugh at themselves, and professional book people, generally speaking, uptight, long-faced, unreasoning enemies of trash who take themselves way too seriously.

What was most interesting to me, however, was the comments thread attached to Michael’s post; a thread some 86 messages long at last count, and consisting of thoughtful and fairly lengthy comments by readers responding to Michael’s call for “any thoughts about what a more down-to-earth and pleasure-centric view of reading-and-writing might be like” (nice touch, that), and for a ‘fessing up to “any guilty reading-and-books secrets” his weblog’s visitors may have.

In that 86-message-long comments thread, the majority of commenters standing shoulder to shoulder with Michael’s take on things (Michael is forever saying or implying he encourages discussion and debate, but what he’s really on about, always, is soliciting agreement with his own views), there were but two clearly dissenting voices.

Said commenter Ulf, bravely:

Living, like I do, in the ultimate low-brow city, Las Vegas, I nonetheless would consider myself a book person, having worked in NYC publishing before moving here.

I admit that I’ve read very little genre fiction or whatever you want to call it. But not really for snobbish reasons, I’ve tried, I really have, but more often than not I find such books unintentionally funny, when the author threatens to trip over his own sentences.

To me, the real pleasure in reading is a pleasure of language, which is probably why I read a great deal of poetry. Contrary to popular belief, there are a number of fabulous living or recently deceased poets whose work seems to bring the kind of pleasure many who posted here are looking for. Why are they not buying that stuff? And they aren’t since contemporary poetry sells about 500 copies on a very, very good day.

To plug just a few: Fred Chappell (also a fine fiction writer), Kelly Cherry, James Merrill (who died too young), Glyn Maxwell, Paul Muldoon, Michael Hartnett and Tony Hoagland.

The pleasure of a well-written sentence/stanza far outweighs any need for literature to represent reality as I see it. The most fabulous fiction writer of the last couple of decades was W.G. Sebald, whose books, difficult though they may be, I challenge anyone to put down unfinished? I once found myself re-reading “The Rings of Saturn” three times before moving on to the next book, all within a few days.

The genre fiction I’ve tried to read has just not had that kind of pleasurable effect on me. My last attempt was “The Da Vinci Code,” surely a popular book by anyone’s standard, and I found myself laughing so hardily at the awkward prose and repetitive cliches (not to mention inept descriptions) that I could not follow the story for very long. I eventually gave up on the thing about 200 pages in.

And, just as bravely, commenter Jason followed with:

I happen to enjoy reading the New York Review, Proust, and Faulkner — so I guess that puts me in the books category. Not that I don’t also enjoy lighter fare like campy films, blithe.com, and fun short fiction. But there’s something deeply satisfying about rich, finely crafted prose that the cheap shit can’t replicate. Trashy novelas may offer ephemeral pleasures. Great novels stay with you. I find lines from Baldwin or even Kirk Vardenoe coming back to me at random points in the day. They speak to something beyond the immediate circumstances of their construction, they achieve something higher and purer. In short, they offer the reader wisdom, not just pleasure.

I absolutely agree that postmodern literary crit is pontifical dreck. And self-consciously “literary” fiction is unbearable. But the best stuff in life requires effort. And I’ve found the most satisfying fiction is indeed multi-layered and difficult and, yes, literary.

The ratio (2/86) is about what would be expected in a matter such as this, but still encouraging. It suggests the poisonous pop cultural tide has not totally succeeded in overwhelming appreciation of what’s genuinely important, worthwhile, and, yes — Michael’s tendentious insinuations to the contrary notwithstanding — “pleasure-centric” in literature.

A small encouragement, to be sure. But an encouragement nevertheless.

Posted in Aesthetic Commentary, Books, Cultural Commentary, Literature | Comments Off on Let’s Hear It For Trash!

Hierarchal Sobriety

Posted by acdtest on November 18, 2003

Hierarchal Sobriety

K. I confess it. My repeated references on this weblog to pop trash are but a rhetorical gesture; a raw, slap-in-the-face device intended to get one’s attention in the spirit of that seemingly deathless exhortation urging one to “Wake up and smell the coffee!” Confronted on a daily basis with the pervasive, ubiquitous, and enthusiastic acceptance of the artifacts of contemporary popular culture as embodying the normative aesthetic of our age, not only by the masses but by the cultural elite as well, one can perhaps be forgiven for resorting to such desperate measures. Desperate measures for desperate times, after all.

While by and large I’m hardly fond of the artifacts of contemporary popular culture — most of them empty of substantive content, and aesthetically vulgar or vapid beyond tolerance — I’m not in the least prevented thereby from recognizing the aesthetic value inherent in the best of them, even though not to my tastes. While I’ve, for instance, a hearty appetite for classic (New Orleans) jazz, I’ve little taste for the contemporary sort. Strange to tell for a trained musician, I don’t really understand it, can’t get my mind around it. But neither my distaste nor my lack of real understanding prevents me from recognizing instantly that the best of contemporary jazz possesses genuine aesthetic and musical value. Ditto, mutatis mutandis, and for another instance, the best of contemporary art (painting).

Truth be told, my real objection is not to the artifacts of contemporary popular culture per se, but to the growing absence of a fundamental aesthetic distinction and hierarchy of aesthetic value between such artifacts and the artifacts of high culture (typically so-called to distinguish it from the popular sort). In my view, and contrary to contemporary thinking, there is such a distinction, a very real one, and no meaningful aesthetic continuum connecting the two can be erected except on the merest technical and taxonomic grounds.

There is no aesthetic continuum connecting a Warhol and a Rembrandt although both are technically and taxonomically works of art (paintings). There is no aesthetic continuum connecting the haunting “Eleanor Rigby” and Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” although both are technically and taxonomically songs. There doesn’t even exist an aesthetic continuum connecting so excellent an example of popular music as Bernstein’s overture to the Broadway musical West Side Story and, say, the overture to Der Freischütz although both are technically and taxonomically introductory music to a largely sung stage work. (I’ve here, on the popular culture side, adduced popular culture “classics” as examples even though strictly speaking none belong to contemporary popular culture.)

In each case, although technically and taxonomically the same, the contemporary popular culture and high culture artifacts inhabit two separate realms, and can no more be compared on the same aesthetic continuum than can the proverbial apples and oranges be compared on the continuum of things-that-one-can-eat-that-grow-on-trees.

So what is it that constitutes the separation between the artifacts of the realms of contemporary popular culture and high culture; a separation so marked as to preclude any meaningful aesthetic continuum connecting them? I suspect the full answer to that question would require a book-length treatise to define and argue convincingly, and I’m neither inclined nor competent to even attempt such a thing. Instead I’ll merely risk the suggestion that what separates the artifacts of the two realms is embodied in the matter of transcendence, an admittedly highfalutin, high culture term, and one referring to what is itself an aesthetically and philosophically slippery concept.

But we won’t let that little consideration stop us from plunging ahead.

The singular hallmark of all artifacts of high culture is their aspiration to transcendence; transcendence of the quotidian world of experience, of the culture which produced them, and even of their very selves as works of Art. And that singular hallmark is what’s singularly lacking in all the artifacts of contemporary popular culture, their singular hallmark being an aspiration to the here-and-now popularly entertaining.

Please note, I did not say all the artifacts of high culture lack entertainment value, nor that all such are transcendent. Clearly, only the greatest are. Rather, I said that, in themselves (as distinct from the intentions of their creators), their distinguishing characteristic is that they have the quality of aspiring to transcendence. That quality is unmistakable, and can be sensed almost palpably even in, say, the simplest cassation of Mozart’s even though Mozart himself intended such merely as an entertainment. Or, say, the sketchiest sketch of Michelangelo’s even though the artist himself may have just been idly doodling. There can be no meaningful aesthetic comparison of works that occupy such a realm with works that occupy a realm where their just as unmistakable and almost palpably sensed quality is their aspiration to the here-and-now popularly entertaining. The former seem to be saying, “I am what I will be. Take me or leave me”; the latter, “I’ll be whatever you want me to be. Love me.”

Well, there’s surely nothing wrong about a work whose principal signal is that it merely wants to be popularly entertaining, and I don’t mean to suggest there is. What I’m suggesting is that, as there can be no meaningful aesthetic continuum connecting such works with works whose principal signal is their aspiration to transcendence, we drop the currently fashionable postmodern fiction that the works of both classes are fundamentally equals in the hierarchy of aesthetic value, and differ only in their details. Seems to me no more revolutionary or reactionary a suggestion than suggesting, say, that we drop the currently fashionable and comforting if manifestly false multicultural notion that all cultures differ only in their details, but are otherwise of fundamentally equal value.

In short, all I’m suggesting is a return to hierarchal sobriety.

And now that I’ve outted myself on this matter of contemporary popular culture, it seems I’ve also cleverly managed to dispossess myself of a useful rhetorical locution.

How very careless of me.

Posted in Aesthetic Commentary, Cultural Commentary | Comments Off on Hierarchal Sobriety

Boffo Début

Posted by acdtest on October 24, 2003

Boffo Début

ast night’s concert marked the official opening of Los Angeles’s major new classical music concert venue, Disney Hall, designed by the incomparable architect of our era, Frank Gehry. And the reviews are ecstatic.

Said one writer:

[If the expectations are] that a spectacular venue with vivid acoustics can make the experience of music so immediate that sound seems to enter a listener’s body not through just the ears but through the eyes, through every pore in the skin, then…Disney Hall is everything and more than we might have hoped for. In this enchanted space, music can take on meaningful new excitement even in an age when many art forms are satisfied with oversaturated stimulation.

Said another:

[T]he hall is the most significant work ever created by a Los Angeles architect in his native city. The hall’s flamboyant undulating exterior – whose stainless steel forms unfold along downtown’s Grand Avenue with exquisite lightness – is a sublime expression of contemporary cultural values. Its intimate, womb-like interior should instantly be included among the great public rooms in America. […] Disney Hall’s power…stems from its ability to gather the energy of [the] swarming [downtown Los Angles] landscape and imbue it with new meaning. In this way, it should be ranked among America’s most significant architectural achievements.

Words like those (and there are more — much more –such words here, here, and here) will, I suspect, resonate most particularly with the bungling crew who constitute the board of NYC’s Lincoln Center who have for the past few years busied themselves with the what-to-do-with-it Lincoln Center question. If it hasn’t been clear up to now that what to do with it is trash it in toto, and try again, this time with more foresight, understanding, and aesthetic intelligence, then Disney Hall will make it blindingly clear to even the most densely opaque of the board’s — and the city’s — bourgeois movers and shakers.

Los Angles (LOS ANGELES!) the possessor of the greatest classical music concert venue in the entire country, perhaps even the world(!)?

Can you imagine? Can you bloody imagine?

INSTANT UPDATE (24 October at 9:07 AM Eastern): And speaking of the densely opaque, here’s a proles’ view of Disney Hall that’s simply breathtaking in its philistine mindlessness.

Posted in Aesthetic Commentary, Architecture, Cultural Commentary, Music | Comments Off on Boffo Début

Playing Both Sides Of The Street

Posted by acdtest on September 12, 2003

Playing Both Sides Of The Street

rint journalist and weblogger Terry Teachout of About Last Night again weighs in on the Frank Lloyd Wright / Architecture debate, this time in an attempt to play both sides of the street.

Writes Terry,

I mention all this [his prior exclusively utilitarian critical comments on the new New York concert venue, Zankel Hall] because of the recent intramural squabble over the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, which some arts bloggers like and others loathe. Now I’m a dyed-in-the-wool aesthete who would dearly love to live in an exceptionally beautiful house and would willingly put up with a significant amount of nuisance value (i.e., leaky roofs) in order to do so…but not an unlimited amount. To put it as drastically as possible, I wouldn’t want to live in Fallingwater if it didn’t have indoor plumbing-and I might well think twice about it if there wasn’t a good place to hang my John Marin etching, either.

To buttress that position, Terry quotes the famous art critic Clement Greenberg:

There are, of course, more important things than art: life itself, what actually happens to you. This may sound silly, but I have to say it, given what I’ve heard art-silly people say all my life: I say that if you have to choose between life and happiness or art, remember always to choose life and happiness. Art solves nothing, either for the artist himself or for those who receive his art.

concerning which quote Terry opines,

I think these words ought to be done in cross-stitch and hung in the homes of artists and art-lovers everywhere, if not necessarily in the living room. Art is not the most important thing in the world. Earthly beauty is not an absolute value.

Now, I’m not at all (and by design) familiar with Greenberg’s writings except by reputation (and first-rate it is, too), but that above quote of his has got to be among the most mindless — or at very least, disingenuous — things he ever wrote. For someone who loves art, what could life be absent art except deathly arid, and very, very unhappy. It’s not a matter of art “solv[ing]” anything. It’s a matter, for such a person, of art being the very thing that makes life worth living, to express it in a decidedly banal and inartistic way. Such a person has no choice in the matter as I’m certain Greenberg knew, and as I’ve no doubt whatsoever was the case of Greenberg himself.

Greenberg’s exhortation contains its very own refutation, and I suggest Terry rethink his own exhortation regarding it.

Posted in Aesthetic Commentary, Architecture | Comments Off on Playing Both Sides Of The Street

On Interpretation

Posted by acdtest on August 20, 2003

On Interpretation

e true to the artist’s intentions! is the cry so often heard in the matter of interpreting a work of art in performance. It seems a perfectly reasonable, logical, and honest credo; even a goes-without-saying credo of unquestionable veracity. On closer examination, however, it reduces to little more than lofty-sounding, sententious gibberish. Who can say with any degree of certainty what were the artist’s intentions? One might imagine the artist himself could, for one, speak with unimpeachable authority on the question. But when the artwork under consideration is a product of authentic genius, and therefore a genuine work of art, such is not the case. Artists of authentic genius are forever finding their conscious intentions regularly subverted by their unconscious intuitions during the process of creation, and when that process is completed and the artwork finished, find themselves forced to declare along with the great composer-dramatist Richard Wagner,

How little can an artist expect to find his intuitive perceptions [as manifested in the finished artwork] perfectly reproduced in others when he himself, in the presence of his [finished] work of art if it is a genuine one, stands faced by a riddle, concerning which he might fall into the same illusions as anyone else?

So, the artist’s intentions, then, are not the measure. Rather, it’s the finished artwork itself that holds all the keys to interpretation, and is ultimately the sole authority from which interpretations are to be derived, and against which they are to be measured, the artist’s intentions when creating the work, or his after-the-fact thoughts on that work, decisive as such may be expected and appear to be, having little more authority than the opinion of other knowledgeable persons.

As the hallmark of every genuine work of art is its capacity to be read and experienced in a multitude of ways, this seems a perfect prescription for no-holds-barred interpretive anarchy, and so it has been warmly embraced by an ever larger number of self-involved, self-serving interpretive “artists” as witness the growing proliferation of postmodern atrocities in the theatrical and operatic realms; productions which have given us, for particularly egregious, fairly recent example, a Macbeth who’s a 1960s Louisiana politician (Joe Banno’s 2001 production of Macbeth), and a Parsifal who’s a samurai warrior, Star Wars style, accompanied by Knights of the Grail traipsing about as WWI soldiers (Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s 2000 production of Wagner’s Parsifal).

Such productions are, of course, clear outrages (criminal immediately suggests itself as an appropriate intensifier), and perfectly idiot in both conception and realization. For while all such profess to be true to the ideas of whatever work happens to be in question, they’re in truth anything but, prodigiously clever justifications and rationalizations for the outrage notwithstanding. What each in fact does is take a concrete view of an idea embodied in the work in question, dress it without textual or musical warrant, as the case may be, in modern-world-relevant garb, and present it as a “fresh” realization of the “deeper” meaning of the whole, thereby thoroughly emasculating the work as a work of art by wantonly robbing it of its hallmark capacity to provoke in a receiver a wealth of multifarious resonances and meanings.

In the abstract realm of so-called “absolute” music things are not much better as one might expect them to be as there exist no overt ideas to muck about with, and a printed score to tell us authoritatively every step of the way just how things must go. But even given scores of the late-19th century and after with their well-developed and well-understood system of notation (scores before that time assumed a fairly large measure of common knowledge performance practice on the part of performers, assumptions largely misplaced for modern-day performers of those same works), only the note pitches and time values are always treated as invariant. Within the bounds of reason and good taste, everything else is up for interpretive grabs, not only in the matter of divergence from the printed notation, most of which is of a relative nature, but because not everything in the music intended (i.e., the sounded work) is capable of being notated.

So what to do? The problem is a real one, and not to be glossed. A guiding rule is required, and — mirabile dictu! — one is at hand, and that rule in all cases is the negative one of the physician’s oath: Primum non nocere — First, do no harm. Macbeth cannot be a 1960s Louisiana politician as it makes absolute nonsense of the language and much of the text; Parsifal cannot be a Star Wars-style (or any style) samurai warrior and the Knights of the Grail WWI soldiers as that makes absolute nonsense of both text and music; and the tempo and rhythm of the second movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, even though a march and notated with the standard march time signature of 2/4, cannot be taken at the tempo and with the lively rhythm of a Sousa march as that makes absolute nonsense of the music’s clear funeral-march character.

As a guiding rule, Primum non nocere may not be much to go on, but it’s a rule more than sufficient to save one harmless from perpetrating clear outrages, and a rule most urgently needing ruthless and rigorous application in the postmodern interpretive world we at present inhabit.

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A Question Of Art

Posted by acdtest on December 15, 2002

A Question Of Art

n a recent discussion concerning the color landscape photographs of Galen and Barbara Rowell, and to the displeasure of all present, I declared the photographs to be “trash art.” I of course realized I was using the term due solely the context of the particular discussion in which I was engaged as ordinarily I would have referred to the rather spectacular landscape images of both these photographers (both of whom died in an airplane crash this past August) as kitsch. Pretty and superficially appealing kitsch to be sure, but kitsch nevertheless; the sort of stuff one might find as original illustrations for pricey wall calendars sold at certain mainstream retail outlets. In other words, not art at all, trash or otherwise, except by using the term carelessly and informally.

But what made me so certain — instantly certain — these images didn’t qualify as genuine art? What criterion or criteria was I using to instantly and subliminally make that judgment? And were real criteria involved at all, or was it simply a matter of my gut-level prejudices at work?

These were questions that occurred to me later that evening, and as it turns out, I’m pleased to relate, real criteria were indeed involved, although it’s easier to know them than it is to tell them.

But let me risk the attempt.

First, and easiest to tell and understand, is that, unless something abstract is intended, by the very fact of the photographs being color photographs of nature subjects, they’re incapable of nuanced manipulation, and the color image rendered is just about guaranteed to be hyper-real in both saturation and hue, and therefore just about guaranteed irredeemably vulgar. Color photographs of nature subjects almost always are (I say almost to allow for the unlikely possibility that somewhere, by someone, there exists a color photograph of a nature subject that’s not irredeemably vulgar).

Further, the color rendered in the image under any given natural lighting conditions is determined entirely by the manufacturer’s “build” of the emulsion and its subsequent absolutely rigid processing, and the results are therefore exactly the same for all users, only extremely limited post-processing alteration of the color image being permitted with negative stock, and none at all with positive. (One can, of course, go to a third-generation print from an internegative made from the positive, in which case the extremely limited post-processing alterations possible using original negative stock would obtain, but with all the deterioration of image quality that third-generation implies).

Also, and perhaps more importantly, brightness ranges in nature are the most extreme of any location, and color stock, both negative and positive, but especially positive, can handle only a very limited portion of that range (as compared with black-and-white stock), brightnesses at the top of the actual scale going very quickly and abruptly to detail-less and texture-less off-color whites in the image, and at the bottom, to detail-less and texture-less blacks.

And so the image color and capturable brightness range are, ultimately, rigidly determined by the manufacturer of the film (and of the paper as well in the case of color prints), the putative artist being entirely at the mercy of the emulsions he uses, and therefore having to accept whatever color image those emulsions and their rigid processing produce, unless he chooses to go a manifestly abstract route, in which case the nature photograph becomes not a nature photograph at all, but something quite different.

Less easy to understand for many is the fact that a color photograph, unless manifestly intended as an abstraction, pretends to reality; that is, it pretends to render with fidelity things in the natural world as seen normally by the eyes of Homo sapiens, and it’s due that very fact that the messing about with the color image is so severely limited. Go beyond that narrow limit and the color rendering is perceived instantly as in some way “wrong” or, worse, inept.

This problem, as well as the others noted above, is not a problem when working with black-and-white materials, negative and print, as a black-and-white print is instantly perceived as an abstraction from the get-go, and therefore the range and degree of manipulation of the image for expressive purpose — both in- and out-of-camera, and at just about every stage of production — is, at bottom, and within widely separated boundaries, limited only by the expressive gift and technical skill of the photographer.

The upshot of all this is that any color photograph of a nature subject, except in the rarest of instances (I’m again covering my ass here; I’ve never actually encountered such an instance), is just about guaranteed to have about it a sense of sameness with other such color photographs, and have about it as well a sense of the mechanically constrained, both of which are art-destroying at the most fundamental level.

And such is the case with all the Rowell photographs I’ve ever seen, on their Website and at first hand.

But there’s even more to it than that in the case of these photographs. Like all non-art, the Rowell images have no secrets, or having them, give them up all at once on very first apprehension. That’s a virtual hallmark of all non-art. No genuine work of art does that — ever. Genuine art, whatever its medium, always possesses secrets, and gives them up slowly, one by one, only to the most searching and probing eye or ear, the greatest works seemingly having an almost bottomless store which are never divulged entirely no matter how long and deep the searching and probing.

Which brings me to my initial rule-of-thumb criterion for judging whether a work is genuine art or not whatever its medium: The Jabberwocky Test. If a work fails that test on first and repeated apprehensions it’s unquestionably and irredeemably non-art, and to the extent it meets the test is it art of greater or lesser degree.

“Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t exactly know what they are!” exclaimed Alice after reading Jabberwocky for the first time. The capacity of a work to provoke that feeling in an informed and experienced receiver is almost a very definition of genuine art, and regardless of its medium, any work absent that quality is most assuredly non-art.

The Jabberwocky Test in no way depends on the tester finding the work under test to be personally appealing. What it does depend on is the depth of the tester’s knowledge of the domain to which the work belongs, and his ability to put aside his personal likes and dislikes, and make his judgment based on the qualities of the work itself.

For instance, I’ve a marked antipathy toward 19th- and 20th-century French music, but that doesn’t in the least prevent me from at once recognizing that the works of, say, Debussy (whose works I particularly loathe) most decidedly pass Jabberwocky muster. My knowledge of music permits me to make that determination with some measure of confidence. Similarly, but on the flip side, I positively adore the Sherlock Holmes stories of Conan Doyle, but my personal love of that classic and enduring canon does not in any way prevent me seeing clearly that as literature it most decidedly fails Jabberwocky as enduring as that canon has been for the past 100 years or so (its endurance beyond its time of novelty due a certain nostalgia peculiar to the last half of the last century in particular which is fast losing its power). Again, my knowledge of literature permits me that judgment with some measure of confidence.

So, neither a matter of being personally captivated by a work, nor of “I know art when I see it,” but rather a matter of sufficient knowledge brought to bear in cool detachment from one’s own personal quirks, prejudices, likes, and dislikes.

Not as difficult as it sounds, strange to tell.

As a first determiner of art and non-art, I’ve found The Jabberwocky Test virtually infallible, and the Rowells’ spectacular landscape photographs fail the test most resoundingly. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum said the ancient sage. But in matters as important as art, truth trumps…everything.

Posted in Aesthetic Commentary, Photography | Comments Off on A Question Of Art

Concerning Meaning In Great Art

Posted by acdtest on August 19, 2002

Concerning Meaning In Great Art

he following extended quote has been excerpted from a discussion on a Wagner list on Usenet. The author is Derrick Everett.

A large part of what I read, here and elsewhere, about Wagner and his works concerns the meaning of the Wagner dramas, i.e. the meaning of each of the musico-dramatic art-works that Wagner created. The question that I should like to consider today is this: what do we mean by “the meaning of the drama”?

I am proposing a simple framework for discussing the meaning of the dramas. […] At present it consists of four categories of meaning, which can be placed in chronological order and described as follows:

A. Wagner’s initial conception, his original poetic intent
B. The semantic content of the final poem *
C. Wagner’s reflections after completion of the poem
D. Public reception of the performed drama

(* By the final poem I mean one that was complete as a poem, ignoring any changes of word order, replacement of words or deletion of lines during composition of the score. In practise this means either the poem that was first published, if not earlier then later, in “Gesammelte Schriften undDichtungen”.)

I find that the greater part of what has been written about the Wagner dramas during the last half-century is entirely concerned with their C-meanings, rather than with the A or B meanings that are in my view far more important.

[…]

…in general my thinking about the meaning of the dramas has been, and continues to be, a quest for the A- and B-meanings. In this process I believe that it is important to guard against being misled by the C-meanings, as most authors writing about Wagner’s dramas in recent decades have been. With few exceptions I believe that any interpretation of any of the dramas based on C-meanings is guaranteed to be “wrong” in the sense that it misses the A- and B-meanings.

It remains to consider the D-meanings; the subjective meanings formed by individual members of the audience. There are an infinite number of such meanings. Each audience member has the right to their own interpretation — to find the meanings in a work such as “Tannhäuser” or “Parsifal” that are relevant to their own lives. […] We should not delude ourselves, however, into believing that these personal meanings are intrinsic to the art-work; if our meaning and Wagner’s meaning coincide (except where the “author’s message” is clearly stated in the text or music) then it is more likely to be the result of coincidence than insight. In the final analysis, the paradox of Wagner is that a man who so desperately wanted his work to be understood has failed to communicate what he really meant.

My response was as follows.

My answer to that thoughtful commentary is that I partially agree. The authority for the “C-meanings” are indeed the ones relied on by most writers, and those meanings are the least reliable of all. Worse, they’re often purposeful or calculated distortions concocted by Wagner to comport with whatever new thing, or rethink of an old thing, happened to be occupying his always theory-constructing brain at the moment. Even at best (i.e., those rare occasions when he was being innocent and honest about things) his after-the-fact reading of meaning is no more or no less authoritative than is any other intellectually and dramatically competent reading. Once a work of genius leaves its creator’s hands it assumes a life of its own, and is as much a mystery to its creator as it is to any informed receiver.

Where I disagree is with the assertion that the “A-” and “B-meanings” are more important. I would argue that both A- and B-meanings are of no importance whatsoever — in fact are as misleading as “C-meanings” (but for different reasons) — except as matters of strictly historical and biographical interest. As regards the A-meaning, Wagner’s “original poetic intent” is of importance to Wagner alone as no other can even begin to understand how his mind “processed” that material during the period of the creative act. One may get intimations and hints of that processing, but such are a product of the mind of the one to whom the intimations and hints make themselves known, and have little or nothing to do with what actually went on in Wagner’s mind, which, it ought to be manifest, was sui generis.

As to the B-meaning, much (but not nearly as much) the same applies. Wagner’s texts are one thing. Wagner’s music married organically to those texts make them something else again, and something quite different and often unexpected. Were Wagner a music-dramatist of ordinary gift — or even of ordinary genius, if I may risk such an oxymoron — that would not be so. When Verdi, for instance, puts music to his libretti, the meanings residing in the texts stay precisely the same as before the music was added. The same could be said for every other composer of opera, excepting, of course, the Divine Wolfgang who’s music, like Wagner’s, transforms textual meaning, although not nearly to the same degree as in the case of Wagner.

It’s the hallmark of all genuinely great art that there’s no such thing as a meaning, as was noted. It’s always meanings, and those always self-generating, and not knowable in their totality even to the creator of the work. And so it turns out that the step-child, so to speak, “D-meaning” is, in the last analysis, the only reliable one, and different for each, or groups of each, also as was noted. Such may be intellectually uncomfortable, especially for scholars, but then, that’s what genuinely great art is all about, isn’t it. It subverts the intellect in order to adduce its greater if at times enigmatic truth, and thereby enriches all who are open, and respond, to the manifold and often contradictory and ambiguous things it has to tell us.

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