The Expulsion of “Must”

[T]here are still modernist philosophical experiments in art since the end of art, as if modernism had not ended, as indeed it has not in the minds and practices of those who continue to believe in it. But the deep truth of the historical present, it seems to me, lies in the Age of Manifestos being over because the underlying premiss of manifesto-driven art is philosophically indefensible. A manifesto singles out the art it justifies as the true and only art, as if the movement it expresses had made the philosophical discovery of what art essentially is. But the true philosophical discovery, I think, is that there is really no art more true than any other, and that there is no one way art has to be: all art is equally and indifferently art. The mentality that expressed itself in manifestos sought in what is supposed was a philosphical way to distinguish real art from pseudo-art, mush as, in certain philosophical movements, the effort was to find a criterion for distinguishing genuine questions from pseudo-questions… [I]n the period of competing manifestos, declaring that something was not – was not really – art was a standard critical posture. It was matched in the philosophy of my early education by the declaration that something was not – not really – philosophy. The best such critics would allow would be that Nietzsche – or Plato, or Hegel – might have been poets. The best their counterparts in art might allow is that something which was not really art was illustration, or decoration, or some lesser thing. “Illustrational” and “decorative” were amongst the critical epithets of the Age of Manifestos.

– Arthur Danto, After the End of Art, pp. 34-35

I quote from this book not because the ideas are new to me. On the contrary, I wrote in the Village Voice in 1990 that “no one spouts manifestos anymore because their inherent conservatism has become almost transparent,” and in 1992 that “‘must’ follows ‘music’ only in the dictionary.” “Let us have bad composers and good within each idiom,” I continued in that latter instance, “but no more excommunications.” No, besides the fact that he states the case so eloquently, I quote Danto because

1. The last time I read ideas such as these was in the 1980s, when they were still controversial, on the defensive, and bore the burden of proof. It is interesting to read Danto’s 1997 statement from a calmer and more cognizant perspective, with more of the details filled in and the overall trajectory clearer; and,

2. Because it interests me that someone coming from visual art can write in such depth about the current situation in that field using terms that are just as applicable to music. What little contact I’ve had with art professors and art classes in recent years had impressed me with the vast differences between current music and current painting. Painting today seems subject to constant scrutiny for political meaning, and to call for such scrutiny, so hedged around with deconstructionism and identity politics as to preclude the innocence of a single brushstroke. By contrast, most music today (though certainly not all) strikes me as floundering for a new syntax, and for ways to assimilate all the new technological advances available. Music seems to me caught in abstraction at the moment no matter how much it yearns to incorporate politics; painting seems trapped in the political sphere, no matter how much it would occasionally just like to be painting. But at least insofar as Danto has summed up the current philosophical dilemma in art, the two, refreshingly, appear to have completed the same revolution in tandem.

And as Danto opens here, modernism has indeed not ended in the minds and practices of those who continue to believe in it, especially within academia. There are still composers who tell students that 20th-century music needs to be heavily chromatic (the fact that this is no longer the 20th century holding no sway with them); that music that is not notated in great detail is “not serious” (music’s answer to “merely decorative”); that improvisation is the best music because it is “risk-taking”; that an age of “anguish” demands a music that expresses anguish; that electronic music in which the composer didn’t sculpt every sound individually with Max/MSP or Supercollider is not real electronic music. These people’s opinions of what music must do are no more than idiosyncracies, to be humored or cast aside as such as the situation requires. And it’s good to see Danto delineate the philosophical context for that point as though it is now no longer daringly heretical, but the merest common sense.


  1. Samuel Vriezen says

    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.

  2. says

    Not that I subscribe to imperatives, but in their favor these “must” obsessions have made for some of the more wackily colorful & interesting individual composers.
    KG replies: Maybe, but I think I rather prefer the ones like Partch and Nancarrow and Young and Feldman who didn’t insist that everyone else should be writing the same kind of music they were.

  3. says

    Well, one political role that music can play is to mourn, as the “After” movement of “Sunken City” does, beautifully. And another it can play is to celebrate, as the “Before” movement does resonantly and interestingly. I want to listen to it again, and was struggling to put off commenting until I could listen again, but this post compels me.
    I vaguely wonder whether Susan McClary’s insights might point us toward a more sophisticated understanding of the political implications of different sonic practices. I do feel that music always implies a way of physical/social being-in-the-world; that rhythm always implies a gait and a carriage, a style of bearing. But I don’t know whether the way one moves through space implies a politics or not.
    I also wonder whether the anti-Manifestoist age signals a resignation in the face of the consumerist onslaught. “Anything goes” suits our capitalist epoch. I’m an anti-Manifestoist myself, have even written a brief meandering tract called “Anti-Manifestoism.” I wonder whether a post-dogmatic manifestoism might not be welcome; and then I think, well, maybe you’re doing that already, Kyle, in your advocacy for and description of Downtown practices and the worldview(s) that give rise to them.

  4. says

    I had been arguing that the problem with music these days is that there are too few manifestos. So I went to write one and came up empty. “My music is great and your music sucks” seems inadequate as an argument. In addition, I had a certain unwillingness to name names. There’s music out in the world that I don’t like, but, alas, if I’m talking about a composer, they’re probably more well known than I am and therefore it’s possibly politically unwise to say that they suck. I just can’t work up the emotional energy to condemn /everything/ not written by me.

    I could go on about how users of MAX/MSP suck, but my heart’s not in it. (Besides, they’re the victims . . .)

    As to political music, this is something I struggle with. McCleary does seem to be on to something and I do like the idea of communicating a political organzing model through piece construction. Like Anthony Braxton’s pieces are models for political organizing. Everybody is working together towards a common goal, but leadership is decentralized and there are a bunch of affinity groups within the ensemble. I love his music and I love playing it, but I don’t know if I want to write that way. I wonder if there’s a more subtle way to get similar ideas across. McCleary seems to indicate that it will get across. People do have associations of otherness, for example, with minor key sax riffs. On the other hand, my goal is more subversion of such ideas, rather than reinforcing them. And that I don’t know how to do, but I’m going to resolve to give it more thought in 2008.

  5. says

    Kyle writes that, “music seems to me caught in abstraction at the moment no matter how much it yearns to incorporate politics”. But for me, almost always, the yearning “music” has – or seems to have – to be incorporated, politically or otherwise, binds neatly with the realization that there’s a lack of aspiring category composers like yours truly. But, for example, Tom Johnson writes to me that, “it’s a nice way to live, even though the rewards are unpredictable.”

  6. mclaren says

    From this distance in time we can discern that the Age of Manifestos was largely a reaction to faster denser communications tech and explosive population growth.

    As Leonard Meyer remarked in one of his books (I think Emotion and Meaning in Music) the total number of highly trained skilled classical composers at work in Vienna circa 1840 is about the same as the total number of composition students graduated with advanced degrees today in America in one year. Add all the new ways to record and preserve and listen to music, and you’ve got a serious problem for the average composer — namely, how to get noticed.

    Manifestos offered one solution. Claim you’re the One True Church of New Music and all others are heresies…that’s the Seventh Day Aventist approach to serious contemporary music. Another solution involved starting a cult. These cults often wound up with considerable government funding: the Darmstadt cult that centered around electroacoustic tape music and expensive tape recording machinery, the IRCAM cult that focused on computers and expensive DEC minicomputers and the absurdly expensive 4X machine (which, legend has it, the French navy funded for sonar experiments), the CCRMA cult that centered around the 3-million-dollar Samson box, and so on. On the low-budget end you had Harry Partch’s cult in the other half of the surf board manufacturing shop in Encinitas.

    Yet another solution involved the composer creating hi/r own esnemble: Steve Reich, Philip Glass, BOAC, Gamelan Son of Lion, etc.

    And yet another soution boils down to starting a magazine or a publication series. New Music Editions, funded by Charles Ives and edited by Henry Cowell, Interval magazine edited by Jonathan Glasier, 1/1: The Journal of the Just Intonation Network edited by David Doty, Computer Music Journal under a variety of editors, most recently, Dave Keislar, Pitch magazine edited by Johnny Reinhard, Perspectives of New Music, and so on.

    In retrospect some of these marketing gimmicks worked a lot better than others. The manifestos fell flat. You can only listen to so many gurus telling you This Is the One True Path For Music before you get skeptical. The cults enjoyed a brief heyday, but didn’t last. The magazines tended to limp along only until the editor ran out of patience — 10 or 15 years, on average. But starting your own ensemble really seems to work. That seems to get a movement or a composer noticed.

    More recently we’ve seen blogs combined with online streaming internet radio and podcasts. The beat goes on…
    KG replies: Hey, *I* haven’t done any podcasts…

  7. Arthur.Sabatini says

    Personal note: Hello Kyle. This discussion interests me enough to add a few remarks. Hope it is not too much. Have a great holiday. Looking forward to seeing you in January…
    Kyle & Samuel: Thanks for opening up a very interesting area for discussion. I want to hear a lot more, specifically in relation to your ideas of “truth” in art and music – and the work of individual artists. Is “truth” a one time achievement in a specific work? Does it matter if truth is the work of a particular artist, or, like scientific truths, a verifiable category or entity usable by others? Can an artist produce or represent truth in some works and not others? How much is artistic/aesthetic truth interdependent with style, movements and work-in-context (including artist’s lives, culture and history, etc.)? If there is truth in music, is it present in, say, Indian music, although non-Indians do not
    acknowledge it? If, as Kyle writes about just intonationists who “can hardly help being big believers,” there is truth in just intonation, is it there even if it is not recognized by others?
    I raise these questions because I am convinced that talking about art and aesthetics (and truth and knowledge) can only to be approached in terms of history and the materiality of production and reception (Not Hegel nor Kant, but Nietzsche and Danto). This includes the philosophy of art and its practice. And, by philosophy, I mean – in a profound sense – thinking about art from the perspective of artists and well as philosophers, theorists, and critics (the latter generally representing “culture”). To consider truth as a “law” intrinsic to the meaning of the structures of art forms (sonic, coloristic, linguistic) is inseparable from the formal systems of its (historical) presentation and representation and reception. A serial composition written in the 18th century would still be true today, but one does not seem to have produced, even proposed. (Or, to use my favorite example, why did no visual artist simply paint a black square, as Malevich did, on a while canvas until the 1912?) The limitations of aesthetic philosophy is that as philosophy, it discusses art qua art, but artists refuse to play along, breaking and reshaping the rules, content, systems and boundaries as it goes. To Danto’s credit, he is working writer/thinker who is among art and artists constantly and that is one of the factors that provides resonance to his view.
    One last note on the manifesto: as I read Badiou, discussions of art/truth/ethics and other matters are invariably interconnected with History in a deep and, I would say, a European version of linear/developmental Time. I just referred to Badiou in an article about The Slought Foundation in Philadelphia and I began the piece as follows: “In The Century (trans. Alberto Toscano. Polity Press, 2007), Badiou argues that “the essential activity” of the 20th century’s avant-garde was not the production of art, but in the drafting and proclamations of manifestos. Referring primarily to surrealism, although related examples could be drawn in all the artistic movements, Badiou contends that it is “in the nature of declarations to invent a future for the present of art” (139) and “the Manifesto bears witness to a violent tension that seeks to subject to the real all the powers of form and semblance” (137). The past century, he asserts, provided the foundation for “beginning as the intense presence of art, as its pure present, as the immediacy and presentness of its capacity.” (136) Badiou valorizes the act above all and recognizes the surpassing and unsayable creativity that art represents, even as language only approximates its complexities and significance.”
    Schoenberg or Cage’s writing, in other words, lays the groundwork for their music and what follows. Going along with what Kyle said about Feldman, I would add that the music and theory are intertwined (a point Adorno made about Schoenberg, if I am not mistaken).

  8. says

    The “band” solution is great; and, consider how differently minimalism might have developed if Terry Riley’s band member Steve Reich hadn’t suggested a “pulse” for “In C”!