[Updated below] I’ll get back to cats later. First, Samuel Vriezen has responded to my last post on Arthur Danto so thoughtfully that I’m moving the discussion to the blog proper (you may have already read the first exchange):
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Samuel: OTOH, when I read “is that there is really no art more true than any other” I find that just as tiresome as some modernist rant against downtown music or whatever. To me, such a statement belongs to an era that I don’t want to live in: the great age of indifference. We just have to hold some art to be selfevidently true, because we have to believe in something. At least I’m not writing the music I am writing because I think any other old style would suit me just the same! Most of those styles out there actually bore me to death, and that’s exactly why I write what I write! So I think some works are worth my attention more than others. I wouldn’t be against calling the worthier ones more true. Some idea are great, others are stupid and boring, and that’s what truth is about.
Danto is correct, though, that such preferences can’t be philosophically grounded as such. Philosophy is entirely incapable of saying what idea is great and what idea is stupid. No such criteria can be supplied. And if people do go and supply such criteria (stuffy twelvetoners or whoever), you get academicism and boredom. But we CAN say that anything boring can’t be as true as anything exciting in art.
For me, the conclusion must be that if you stick to philosophy to make your judgments, you’re indeed going to forego making the distinction between the exciting and the lukewarm. But in this case, I’d rather chuck out what is called “philosophy” here.
KG replies: Samuel, if the quote were “there is really no art more *good* than any other,” or “no style more *fertile* than any other,” I’d agree completely that both are false. But when I was young, there were styles that I would have considered “not true” that nevertheless produced pieces I came to admire. I never cared for Barber’s sentimental neoromanticism – but I sure like “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” And I always had the same philosophical distaste for neoclassicism that Cowell did, but I eventually had to admit that Stravinsky wrote some damn good pieces in it. In my personal opinion serialism was a lie, but I’ll listen to Maderna’s Grande Aulodia any day. It seems easier to make a superficial case for Zorn-type polystylistic music as being *truer* to the present day than totalism – but although I don’t really know why I find totalism such a powerful response to the present, I am no less passionate about it for all that.
In short, I don’t believe Danto’s claim (taken out of context here, and perhaps I’m doing him a disservice quoting anything when people should really read the book themselves) leads to any era of indifference. Instead, I’d rather invoke what the economist Joseph Schumpeter said: “To realize the *relative* validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what separates the civilised man from the barbarian.” I stand for my own musical idiom passionately and unflinchingly, here I stand I can do no other – but to claim that anyone besides myself, not situated as I am, must adopt it as well would strike me as intellectually fascist.
Samuel: Kyle, I certainly wouldn’t want to argue for a coercive practice. But I do want to argue for truths in art.
If you were quoting Danto out of context, so I was not mentioning the philosophical context from which I’m thinking when I would argue for truth, which is the work of Badiou, who I’ve been reading recently. And based on what I learn from his writings, I would say that artistic truths exist; they are not such that everybody has to work that particular way, but they *are* such that everybody should recognize their value.
For example, the idea “Music can be written using non-hierarchical pitch
structures” is true. It wasn’t always so clear that this was true, but the works of Schoenberg and many others were investigations into how this particular truth can be thought, and they have shown that the claim above is in fact a truth. And in the sense that this thinkig of this idea in terms of works was very important – once the idea presents itself, you can’t afford to just ignore it – Boulez was, in his particular moment, quite right to polemicize violently against musicians who didn’t recognize
the necessity of serial music.
So works of music can be investigations of how you can realize certain abstract ideas of what music can be, and that is exactly how in Badiou’s theory artistic truth can be thought. Then, works that are part of such an investigation will be more true than works that are not part of any such “truth procedure”.
Note that I formulated this truth of atonal music as “Music *can* be written using non-hierarchical pitch structures”, and not as “Music *must* be written using non-hierarchical pitch structures”. The former is quite clearly a truth, the latter is a travesty of truth, the kind of totalitarianism that any truth can engender, but which is to be avoided – in his Ethics, Badiou calls this a “disaster”.
Even in the face of this danger of disaster, it’s important to recognize that you sometimes come accross a truth and that whenever you do, you can’t just pretend it’s not there. And in that sense, yes, some works are more involved with truth than others. Schoenberg’s 2nd quartet opens up possibilities for musical thinking, and I couldn’t say the same for anything by, say, Christopher Rouse that I’ve heard. In that sense Schoenberg’s work is part of the unfolding of a truth and Rouse’s isn’t. And Badiou allows me to think this idea and Danto doesn’t.
My use of “truth” is perhaps a bit like your word “fertile”, only I think it’s worth considering that you can think that “fertility” on an abstract plane that deserves to be called “truth”, because it’s not just personal (“Music can be written using non-hierarchical pitch structures” is not merely true because I happen to feel that way, but because such music has in fact been composed.)
Now Feldman I find presents an interesting case compared to Boulez. Feldman
often polemicized heavily against Boulez and indeed, against Boulez’
coerciveness. And I would generally side with Feldman: I think the Cage circle drew the more fundamental conclusions from the truth of non-hierarchical organisation, and they seemed to do so in the absence of coercive artistic politics. However, I have been wondering about that latter bit. Feldman doesn’t really proscribe in any of his writings that I’ve read what music you should write, but he’s definitely presenting certain artistic attitudes as desirable and is very aggressive towards other attitudes, most clearly he’s against Boulez. Was his work really free from coerciveness?
(Also, I’ve often found his music to have a very subtle aggression in it. Not in the pretty surface of course, but in the demands that it makes on you. Like, you’ve got to play a sound on the piano, but that sound really shouldn’t have any attack in it. That’s not really possible, only approachable – an attitude that can lead to magical experience, but that also does violence to what it means to play the piano.)
KG replies: You haven’t said a thing I disagree with, and it’s all amazingly well put, as usual. As Harry Partch said in an old out-of-print Columbia record, “This thing began with Truth, and Truth does exist.” We just intonationists can hardly help being big believers that some rock-solid Truth does exist.
I guess, though, that I can’t imagine a style which would contain no truth at all, which is why I gravitate to the more incremental word “fertile,” rather than the black-or-white notions of truth and falsehood. For instance, if the truth of 12-tone music is that, “the derivation of all elements from the same 12-tone row guarantees some level of perceptual unity from the listener’s point of view,” then that’s just false. As far as I’m concerned, it’s totally discredited. OTOH (I’ve never used that abbreviation, but you’re right, it did save me a lot of unnecessary typing), I find in serialism a truth that might be stated as: “applying permutational systems to several different aspects of music at once (pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and so on) facilitates the creation of exciting new counterintuitive textures that would have been difficult to arrive at by more intuitive means” – and I think that’s absolutely true. It’s not one of the great, universally applicable musical truths, like “3/2 is more consonant [easier to tune] than 49/33,” or, “the reappearance of an A section after a contrasting B will create an impression of unity,” but it’s true. I would never write a 12-tone piece because the relatively petty truths inherent to the 12-tone idiom don’t move me, don’t seem *sufficiently* true or universal, aren’t truths I would feel more valuable for having expressed – even though I’m well aware that a few 12-tone pieces have been written that transcended the idea of the style itself, and achieved real, touching beauty. I suppose to this extent I would grant you that Danto’s phrase “there is really no art more true than any other” is rather overstated, at least taken out of context. Would that square us away? Although I think, *in* context, he simply means in the sense that something’s either art or it’s not. I think he’s just saying, purely logically as befits a philosopher, that there is no universal criterion by which putative art can be banished from the realm of “real” art.
What interests me is that we’re both instinctively locating Truth not just in individual works, but in styles, idioms. I think most musicians would rail against us for this (in a nasal, Pollyanna-ish tone: “there are no movements, there are only individual pieces”), and I think they’re wrong. Because if a style is anything, it’s a complex of assertions taken as premises for different pieces of music. Minimalism explored the truth that, say, “greatly slowing down the rate of musical change can focus the ear and mind on fascinating and previously ignored musical ephemera.” That truth was not just the truth of *Drumming* or *In C*, but of every piece that tested that hypothesis, that was built on that assertion. Mediocre pieces can be written in extremely fertile styles based on profound truths, and great pieces can be written in styles that more habitually led composers into train wrecks; and some pieces, as you imply, don’t partake of any stylistic exploration at all. There’s the *truth* of a work or style, which I’m happy to recognize, and the *skill* with which the composer expresses it, which seem to me independent.
That’s why I’d be uncomfortable claiming that a piece by Christopher Rouse (whose music I don’t like either) doesn’t embody the unfolding of *some* truth. If nothing else, maybe it expresses the truth: “if I can cobble together a raucous frisson of gestures that orchestral musicians have played a thousand times before, so they can make a big noise without much rehearsal, I’ll get this played by a hundred orchestras and make a lot of money.” It’s a truth. Boy, is it a truth. I’m being a little sarcastic, but I wouldn’t want to have to make an argument that some pieces enfold a truth and some don’t, and Schoenberg’s Second Quartet is on one side of that line and Rouse’s *Der gerettete Alberic* is on the other, and here’s the line.
As for Feldman, I think we need to make a distinction between coercion and persuasion (and perhaps another distinction between what composers say and what their music actually does?). Certainly Feldman wanted music to swing toward his direction, but I’d have trouble isolating what element in his music he felt everyone else should adopt: mystery? intuition? color? He was certainly an advocate for nonrationalism in music, but he could hardly have argued that all you have to do is be nonrational and you’re “on the right side,” the way Boulez in 1948 might have considered any 12-tone composer on the “right side.” We all regret the institutional power that certain composers have over who gets played and who wins prizes and what kind of music grad students are told is proper, but – as a critic-composer, after all – I would be very loathe to ever set allowable limits on anyone’s *persuasiveness*.
Do please continue.
Samuel: Kyle, I thought you might find something in this from the JI-pespective! The idea of JI, which you could put as “harmony can be thought in terms of
ratios”, is very much the kind of universal artistic truth that Badiou’s
thinking would be able to recognize, and the movement includes the kind of
artistic activism that he would associate with a subjective truth
Of course, JI doesn’t work together very well with the truth that is
unfolded in the Schoenberg tradition, which brings up something that is I
think a bit undertheorized in Badiou, which is the possibility that two
truths can be at the same time universal and still incompatible. But then,
his theory is more about consequences of the recognition of truths for the
world you live in than about which pronouncement is true and which isn’t –
philosophy, according to him, doesn’t give a foundation for truth; truth
happens independently from philosophy in ‘truth domains’, and he identifies
only four of those: science, art, love and (emancipatory) politics.
His truths do have to be in some sense universal, which means that they
can’t be formulated in terms of the specifics of some situation or other.
Which is exactly why your paraphase of the “truth” you could find in Rouse
isn’t a truth in the Badiou sense: it is completely and essentially
grounded in the situation as it is, which is our particular orchestral
culture. This is not true for JI, and not even for some much more seemingly
contrived idea such as atonality, or serialism the way you formulate it
very well above.
Indeed, insofar as Danto is saying, as you put it, “there is no universal
criterion by which putative art can be banished from the realm of “real”
art”, he’s completely correct, and it may be very important to sometimes
point that out. But if you read Badiou, that’s not all there is to be done.
In Logiques des Mondes, he identifies as the grand idea of our times (and
Danto seems to be part of that) under the name of “democratic materialism”,
which in Badiou’s words holds that “There exist only bodies and languages”.
So we have all this stuff around us, and lots of languages to talk about
this stuff, and they’re pretty much equal. His own philosophy he names
“materialist dialectics” – with a nod to Marx’ dialectical materialism,
albeit importantly inverted – and he summarizes its basic tenets as
“Indeed, there exist only bodies and languages, except that there are
truths”. Truths don’t exist the way bodies and languages do, but they are
there, giving direction to the things that we do and create. For example, I
think you could say that JI doesn’t quite ‘exist’ as such. There is
no work that IS Just Intonation, there isn’t even a language that IS just
intonation. JI at heart is an idea that requires that you develop works and
theories (of pitch grids or whatever).
[Comment continued in “comments,” with specific reply to comments of others.]
KG replies: If, as you say in your reply below to John Shaw, the opposite of truth in this case isn’t falsehood but kitsch, that does make an interesting difference. I see I’m going to have to start reading Badiou (or give you a bad IOU to that effect) if I’m going to keep hanging out with you and Arthur Sabatini. And yes, as we microtonalists like to say, even if mankind is destroyed, and some kind of organized sound begins all over again on some other planet among beings who can hear, a 3-to-2 frequency ratio will still be an intelligible interval. *That’s* a universal truth.