[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.