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Blogger Book Club II: Beautiful Meaninglessness

By Devin Hurd

This is not rocket science. Ignorance is as good a reason to speculate as impudence or curiosity. Thousands of brilliant readings have arisen out of ignorance–some of them mine, none of them Freud’s.

Did I read this right? Is Dave Hickey praising his own ignorance at the expense of Sigmund Freud? This is a strange turn in a book of essays that has more than its share of strange turns and flare-ups of intellectual anger.

On the other hand:

The subject here is “beauty”–not what it is but what it does–its rhetorical function in our discourse with images. Secondarily, the subject is how in the final two-thirds of the twentieth century we have done without it by reassigning its traditional function to a loose confederation of museums, universities, bureaus, foundations, publications, and endowments. I characterize this cloud of bureaucracies generally as the “therapeutic institution,” although other names might do. One might call it an “academy,” I suppose, except for the fact that it upholds no standards and proposes no secular agenda beyond its own soothing assurance that the “experience of art,” under its politically correct auspices, will be redemptive–an assurance founded upon an even deeper faith in “art-watching” as a form of grace that, by its very nature, is good for both our spiritual health and our personal growth–regardless and in spite of the crazy shit that individual works might egregiously recommend.

This opening paragraph of “After the Great Tsunami: On Beauty and the Therapeutic Institution” best captures the overall thrust of this book. The casual–and well placed–profanity providing the lens through which Hickey views all institutions. A commentary upon the impulse to supplant beauty and transcendence with “meaning” as an effort to contain the difficult avenues opened up by unfettered curiosity.

Transplanted into the realm of instrumental music–with its own beauties and abstractions–I am reminded of my own graduate school experience within an institution of “higher learning.” In particular, the writings of Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff as an effort to apply linguistic theory to tonal language representing a direct effort to ascribe “meaning” to an inherently abstract medium. A Generative Theory of Tonal Music was particularly popular with the music cognition crowd and an unsubtle effort to marginalize non-tonal music as “opaque” and inherently “without meaning.” At the time I was operating under the influence of John Cage and puzzled at why “meaning” was the endgame of creating or perceiving music in the first place. After a lifetime of imposed “meanings” from the forces of both organized religion and academia, the notion of “meaninglessness” was the attractive retreat and reflexive reaction that drew me toward the study and creation of music in the first place. In retrospect, I question the fake divide between tonal and non-tonal languages or even the concept that “language” is the right metaphor to begin with. “Language” and “meaning” became tools for reducing the experiential reality of music and doing away with beauty in the very manner described by Hickey in all five of his essays on the topic.

The observation that institutions are at best dysfunctional is easily arrived at. And a fortunate reality in that beauty might not survive otherwise. Beauty is to the institutions of academia, museums and endowments as spirituality is to organized religion. It is best experienced when these establishments get out of the way.

The essays that make up The Invisible Dragon are both noble and frustrating. They are flawed and engaging at the same time. The thick, academic language coming off with a self-loathing as Hickey rails against the failings of institutions with a writing style propped up by many of those same organizations. The introduction to this new edition reveals the persecution complex that fuels the emotional fire found in these texts. The ideas that eventually seep through (at least to this reader) bubble to the surface as a challenge to renew one’s personal sensibilities and honest assessment of artistic experience. As well as a reminder to regard institutional assessments and group think with proper suspicion. In the end, one’s personal curiosities should and do trump barriers placed by external interpretation.


  1. I wonder if Hickey discovered his disdain for the “therapeutic institution” in the process of writing these essays–he says in the intro that he was surprised at the reaction from Universities, etc.–or if his disdain was established before he started writing them.
    Although I have serious issues with that word, “spirituality,” I think your metaphor of beauty/institution and spirituality/religion is brilliant.

  2. I also thought the comparison was very apt. Though I have not read the book, and doubt my education in music is far enough progressed that I would get much out of it, your review made me think (and incidentally, the construction of the last paragraph was also thought provoking). Thanks.

  3. Beauty as a subject never gets it due. Good job arguing for both beauty and meaninglessness as higher realms.

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