End of the Road

….In February 1913, Malevich assured Matiushin that “the only meaningful direction for painting was Cubo-Futurism.” In 1922 the Dadaists celebrated the end of all art except the Maschine-kunst of Tatlin, and that same year the artists of Moscow declared that easel painting as such, abstract or figurative, belonged to an historically superceded society. “True art like true life takes a single road,” Piet Mondrian wrote in 1937. Mondrian saw himself as on that road in life as in art, in life because in art. And he believed that other artists were leading false lives if the art they made was on a false path. Clement Greenberg, in an essay he characterized as “an historical apology for abstract art” – “Toward a Newer Laocoön” – insisted that “the imperative [to make abstract art] comes from history” and that the artist is held “in a vise from which at the present moment he can escape only by surrendering his ambition and returning to a stale past.” In 1940, when this was published, the only “true road” for art was abstraction. This was true even for modernists who, though modernist, were not fully abstractionists: “So inexorable was the logic of the development that in the end their work constituted but another step towards abstract art….”

To claim that art has come to an end means that criticism of this sort is no longer licit. No art is any longer historically mandated as against any other art. Nothing is more true as art than anything else, nothing especially more historically false than anything else. So at the very least the belief that art has come to an end entails the kind of critic one cannot be, if one is going to be a critic at all: there can now be no historically mandated form of art, everything else falling outside the pale….

– Arthur C. Danto, After the End of Art, pp. 27-28

And again:

Contemporary art… has no brief against the art of the past, no sense that the past is something from which liberation must be won, no sense even that it is at all different as art from modern art generally. It is part of what defines contemporary art that the art of the past is available for such use as artists care to give it. What is not available to them is the spirit in which the art was made. [Emphasis added in both cases.]

– ibid., p. 5

Arthur Danto is an excellent philosopher of art whose work has sometimes inspired me creatively. What he means by “the end of art,” I should clarify, which event he dates roughly to the 1970s, is not the cessation of meaningful artistic creation, but the end of a monolithic cultural conception of art that grew in the early 15th century. And I take pleasure in reiterating his most concise conclusion: No art is any longer historically mandated as against any other art. “There can now be no historically mandated form of art.” Not everyone knows it yet – but we have indeed turned a corner.


  1. says

    I love and applaud all of this, of course, except one line: “What is not available to them is the spirit in which the art was made.” Why would anyone impose such a limitation on the imagination? What is so sacred about “spirit” that should put it outside the realm of artistic communication?
    KG replies: Hi Lawrence, I was hoping someone would ask. Because I think that when Beethoven wrote his sonatas, he was aware that he was creating a new sensibility by so vastly upping the level of dramatic contrast, rendering the articulation of sonata form more theatrical, blending genres in his late works, and so on. And I think for someone to come along 200 years later, say, and to write in Beethoven’s style, using his rhetoric, – to sit there in his studio and imagine that he is taking the same risks, or playing with the same powerful effect on the audience, or that he is doing something as courageous as Beethoven did, would probably be demented, if not simply dishonest. To consider the creation of art as ever taking place in a vacuum is rather anathema to me. Context matters. If I say something that I’m aware has been said by others, I’ll say it in a very different spirit than if I really believe I’m advancing an idea no one had ever thought of.
    It all sounds overly hypothetical, but we do run into such issues with Rochberg’s appropriations of Mahler and Beethoven in the Concord Quartets, Zorn’s importation of Stockhausen and Kagel techniques into improvisation (where his audience wasn’t aware of the indebtedness), Lowell Lieberman’s classical symphonies, and so on. I myself channeled Brahms in the middle movement of my Transcendental Sonnets, because I wanted to have one movement, or rather one extended passage, in a style from the period in which the poet Jones Very lived, and I sat there with a score of the German Requiem and tried to imitate Brahms’s textures. But I did not feel, as Brahms presumably did, that I was extending, while remaining within, the great German tradition of Mozart etc. I felt I was doing something my audience would recognize as “Brahmsian,” and the music quite cleverly (or so I thought) emerges from it into an almost Feldmanesque stasis. I love how that almost-quotation sits in the overall arch of the work, which does have something to say about history, but if I wrote an entire piece in the unalloyed style of Brahms, I would be ashamed to pretend that it was more than an exercise, or at best a minor piece of gebrauchsmusik.
    As usual, you take a stand for complete freedom, and I admire that about you, but I don’t think that freedom extends to being free to pretend that one originated ideas that one really took from someone else. In such a case, the spirit of, “No one has ever tried what I’m doing here,” becomes inaccessible, or should.
    Of course, I suppose that for some composers, the very use of tonality is what’s unoriginal, and should not be considered in the spirit of something new. But that’s just an intellectually hamfisted way of dividing up the musical world, because in that sense we only have tonality, atonality, and noise, and very quickly every possible expression is exhausted.

  2. mclaren says

    The recognition of this fact started to spread around 25 years ago:

    “What has been permanently lost, I think, is the sense of the absolute that the modernist movement once gave its loyal followers. And to that we can say: good riddance! We are none of us now–either artists or critics or the public–quite as susceptible as we once were to the idea that at a given moment in time, history ordains that one and only one style, one vision, one way of making art or one way of thinking about it, must triumph and all other be consigned to oblivion. If we are not actually wiser now, we are at least a little less foolish than we were.” [Kramer, Hilton, “When Modernism Became Orthodoxy,” The New York Times, 28 March 1982, section 2, page 2.]

    The irony remains that some members of the JI community have tried to carry on the torch of Hegelian historicism even in the face of this increasingly widespread recognition that it just won’t fly.

    Some JI exponents have tried to claim that specific musical intervals form the necessary basis of music. If true, this provides an historical arrow: certain members of the overtone series would therefore be msuically privileged, and, to the extent that any musical system departs from those allegedly privileged overtones, that musical system would run afoul of physical acoustics. Since physical acoustics is a mathematical science, this would provide us with an infalliable gauge for musical excellence since some musical intervals would then be dictated by nature and others would be less privileged.

    This inescapable logic leads to a dire Hegelian historicism progression. If some musical intervals can be demonstrated to be acoustically privileged, we can dump subjective aesthetics and substitute mathematical acoustics. Once we jettison subjective humane measures of music in favor of a mathematical system, all subjective issues become moot and music becomes something whose aesthetic excellence we can judge objectively by means of mathematics. This would bring history to a screeching halt, as well as incidentally converting music from an art into a branch of science (mathematical acoustics, to be exact).

    Fortunately this approach has gone nowhere since (as every competent musicologist or ethnomusicologist will eadily point out):

    “For both [Heinrich Schenker and Arnold Schoenberg] it appears that tonality rests ultimately upon an appeal to the harmonic series; and if we ask, ‘Why do we feel loyalty to a tonic?’ the ultimate answer would presumably be that it is the fundamental of the harmonic series, the ‘chord of nature.’
    “This answer is unsatisfying from a world music standpoint. There are cultures whose music appears to have little relationship to the harmonic series. Worldwide there is a multiplicity of scales and harmonies hardly expressible in the small number ratios that might relate them to the harmonic series, even roughly equidistant scalar schemes, and harmonies that owe no allegiance to the triad, that entity so prominent in the thinking of Schenker and Schoenberg.”
    [Erickson, Robert, “New Music and Psychology,” in The Pscyhology of Music, ed. Diana Deutsch: Academic Press Inc., New York: 1982, pg. 522.]

    Whether we’re talking about the gamelan music of Bali or the characteristic neutral thirds of Chinese music or the 1150 cent octave strongly preferred by the Banda Linda people of central Africa over the allegedly “perfect” “natural” 2/1 1200-cent octave, evidence converges from every subdiscipline of music to show that “Theorists, basing their reasoning on acoustical phenomena, have repeatedly come to conclusions wholly at variance with those of practical musicians.” [Hindemith, Paul, The Craft of Musical Composition, translated by Arthur Mendel, 2 Vols., New York, 1942: Vol., 1, pg. 22]

    The eternal lure of Hegelian historicism has been succinctly explained by Bernard Van Dieren:

    “Minor composers who dare not trust intuition naturally welcome Laws of Harmony and Form, because these assess the artist’s civic virtues for all to see.” [van Dieren, Bernard, Down Among the Dead Men, Books for Libraries Press, Inc.: New York, 2nd. ed. 1967, pg. 253]

  3. says

    “. . . if I wrote an entire piece in the unalloyed style of Brahms, I would be ashamed to pretend that it was more than an exercise, or at best a minor piece of gebrauchsmusik.”
    What’s interesting to me about this statement is that you implicitly priviledge originality of technique over originality of content. This implies that a composer’s obligation is to find new ways of doing things rather than new things to do with existing methods, but why should we get to impose that obligation?
    At the same time, you seem to be saying that the composer’s intent and attitude is important. I agree that holding the kinds of false beliefs about originality that your hypothetical Beethoven emulator holds would be problematic, and I agree that since your conception of yourself as a composer is that of a stylistic and technical innovator you shouldn’t bother writing a whole piece in a Brahmsian style — it would be dishonest of you. But what about a composer whose intention and self conception is based on the continuation of a particular style–a composer who doesn’t care about technical or stylistic innovation but simply wants to write the best music he or she can in his or her favorite style? Shouldn’t that be a valid endeavor? The quality of the music is independant of the context in which it was created. If it turned out that through some sort of bizare hoax the Appassionata was actually written in 1980, would it be any less great?
    KG replies: Well, very good argument, Galen, and since I’m not a hard-and-fast-distinction kind of guy, I’ll both accept it and not accept it. I would make a distinction between a naive composer who developed his technique living alone in a log cabin who stumbled into the style of Brahms, and a music professor who devoted his life to the music of Brahms and wrote in his style because he loved it. In the first case the coincidence would be interesting, and it would be virtually inevitable that the person would possess his own stylistic quirks that Brahms did not possess. In the second case, the enterprise seems pointless and masturbatory – UNLESS, through some incredible talent, the professor managed to write Brahms-style works that were even more powerful than Brahms’s own.
    In the hypothetical case of the Appassionata having turned out to be written in 1980, the piece’s alleged greatness would be entirely changed in character because we would look at it and hear it so differently. (Imagine how much more flummoxed we’d be if it were proven that the piece was written in 1680!) There is an aspect of art works via which, either through naivete or as a mental exercise, we consider the work as a self-sufficient object. But normally, our deepest relation with art works takes in context and history as part of the work’s meaning. Bleak House means much more to me because I know something about class issues in 19th-century England than if it were a society completely unknown to me; and also because I know dozens of other novels of that era. The Appassionata has multiple levels of meaning for me because I know something about the rise of individualism, and the struggle against aristocracy, at the moment it was written. Had it been written at a different moment, I might enjoy putting it on the CD player just as much, but it would not have the same aura of associations. Rochberg’s Concord Quartets seem brave to me because I know the professional suicide he dared court in writing them; written 20 years later (or 50 years earlier), they would not have been the same gesture.
    In short, I suppose it’s not so much the necssity of finding new ways to do something, but of convincing the listener of the urgency of doing what you did. Many decades ago people had the insight that an artist who feels his work deeply will inevitably be original; and in the 20th century we turned that on its head and said instead, “The artist who does things in an original way must really be deep.” That solecism is in the process of being corrected. Still, I find formalism a, not necessarily wrong, but incomplete and impoverished attitude toward art. And as a long-time writer of program notes, I think that “What did the composer know and when did he know it?” are questions that are fair game for being attached to the work itself. Otherwise we theoretically end up in the position of Martians looking at Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon and, aside from whatever visceral attraction its colors and proportions have for them, not being able to tell whether it is a vaulable object or not.

  4. says

    Always happy to provide fodder for your parries, Kyle. And happier still that you understand exactly where I’m coming from. I agree with all of your points, but I still think your points are a very specific fleshing out of Danto’s bare-bones statement. It may seem like a fine distinction, but I think it’s important to distinguish between the impossible (You can’t blow a basketball out of your left nostril) and the improbable (this spirit is not available to you), because so much great art arises from improbabilities. And your argument about how Beethoven felt when stretching artistic boundaries seems a bit beside the point to me. What if one were to imitate Ferdinand Ries or Ignaz Moscheles: is it just as impossible to share in their spirit of dutifully filling in the formulas they learned from their teachers as it is to share in the spirit of the great geniuses perched atop their pedestals? If the distinction is merely contextual, then the answer is yes, but of what use is that answer? There is just as important a distinction to be made between Ludwig and Ignaz as there is between Ludwig and Kyle. And, by the way, I know you understand that I’m not arguing for something I’m doing myself, just for the possibility that someone else might find in it a fruitful vein, no matter how difficult it was for predecessors to achieve or imagine.
    KG replies: All valid points, but I see a difficulty with even entering into the same spirit as Ries and Moscheles. We presume that they did not, as Beethoven did, see it as their role to break outside the confines or the paradigm in which they were working. But they were craftsmen, and they wrote for gigs: they weren’t *merely* doing what they’d been taught to do (if that), they were asked to supply a certain kind of piece for a certain social occasion, and their relation to that task was not ironic or problematic. It is conceivable that composers will one day find themselves in that situation again, but the current situation is extremely different. Fulfilling a commission in the lingua franca of one’s day when there IS no lingua franca seems to me a little like blowing a basketball out of one’s left nostril. Which I can do, by the way.
    And, lest Professor Danto take blame for my sins, let me add that I deliberately expanded the scope of what I think he meant by “the spirit in which the art was made.” I think he specifically, in context, meant the spirit of thinking that one’s style was “on the right road,” the only historically authentic style for its time – and that’s the spirit one is no longer alowed to harbor. More of a prescriptive than an epistemological statement.

  5. says

    Just yesterday I was reading Wilfrid Mellers on Cage, and was struck by Mellers’s sympathy with Cage’s assertion that his music was historically necessary. It made me wonder what it would feel like to be making music that one felt was historically necessary. Danto’s formula, “No art is any longer historically mandated as against any other art,” states the situation nicely, and I’ve agreed with it for a long time. But now I’m beginning to wonder whether our contemporary sense of historical un-mandated-ness isn’t a quirk of our own historical moment. And I wonder what the next moment might mandate.
    I do feel a historical urgency in our contemporary non-musical situation, about which I am pessimistic. A contemporary rock (or post-rock) writer from Australia who goes by the name of Emmy Hennings (a name she borrowed from the Dada-ist poet/performer whose husband Hugo Ball was more famous) recently asked what the music of resistance to John Howard’s (Bushian) policies would sound like. The Australians voted Howard out shortly thereafter, and good for them, but I’m American. I’m skeptical about finding a role of resistance for music to play, but the question grabbed my attention.
    Kyle, your phrase “aura of associations” is a dandy.

  6. says

    Well, one problem with Greenberg’s argument is that ALL visual art, even the most picturesque, is abstract. Each and very representatoional artist abstracts from reality by choosing some objects and not others to represent, and by choosing some ways and not others to represent these objects. Everything about representational art speaks abstraction!
    In case such an argument seems to be true only trivially, have a look at Turner’s fuzzy sea paintings, years before impressionism, or the miniature paintings of walls in Naples of the 18th-century painter Thomas Jones, or the detailed, pen-and-ink paintings of branches of bamboo by the Chinese artist Shih Tao and his fellow Ming-dynasty exiles at the turn of the 18th century. These works are barely representational and stand their own ground beside any modernist works of art.

  7. says

    If you can blow basketballs out your left nostril (and I don’t doubt you can), what the hell are you doing writing music? You are squandering a much more useful and potentially profitable talent! But I don’t see any difference between your argument and the assertion that none of us is anyone else but ourselves – which is certainly true, but it’s also pointless for any of us to try to invent everything we do without reference to anyone else’s work. So how much reference is spiritually natural, and how much is spiritually phony? “It is not available” isn’t a statement that allows for such an expansive gray area. I like living in Danto’s anti-inferno, but I also think that it is possible, in our age, for a composer to believe that there is only one path and still be able to create great music – just as it was possible for a composer who lived in the high Modernist period to believe in the validity of many visions and still create great music.