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Blogger Book Club II: Musician in the Middle

By Amanda MacBlane

Hickey’s interpretation of the dominant-submissive dynamic between a
work of art and its beholder, drawing on Gilles Deleuze’s analysis of
Masoch and Sade, claims that:

The traditional, contractual alliance between the image and its
beholder (of which beauty is the signature, and in which there is no
presumption of received virtue) has been supplanted by a hierarchical
one between art, presumed virtuous, and a beholder presumed in need of
it. This is the signature of the therapeutic institution.”

More succinctly, Hickey contends that beauty requires that a beholders relationship to a work be based on free consent, while the experience of art in the institution leaves us victimized–“ignored, disenfranchised, and instructed. Then we are told that it is ‘good’ for us.”

Going back to the very first post, trying to see if Hickey’s argument
holds true in the world of “abstract, instrumental music”, in order to
draw a parallel we would look at the relationship between the work and
the listener. Yet, there is something missing from the equation. Music
offers a way into the work that visual art does not–performing.

As a musician, whether or not the actual piece of music is immediately
gratifying, playing it is often a pleasure. Performers, by their very
nature, are both submissive to the work and enfranchised to develop
their own interpretation. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that
pieces I’ve played often stick with me longer than pieces I’ve just
heard. The simple experience of playing music, makes you listen to it
differently than a non-musician would. I would never say that my
opinion is therefore more valid than a non-musician’s, just that what
I want from the music–what will bring that pleasure and
transformation–might be different.

Furthermore, music (instrumental or not) is capable of eliciting
emotions without requiring that we rationalize them or assign them a
verbal meaning. Like Elvis Costello said, “Writing about music is like
dancing about architecture.” Just because there isn’t a blatant
message that can be summed up in words doesn’t necessarily mean that
nothing is being communicate and a musician is more likely to be in
tune with this as they spend hours living with a piece to determine
how to interpret it.

So having lived in this musician’s dynamic for so long, as I imagine
most of the other book club participants have, I do not necessarily
expect or desire an immediate grasp of the
art/music/film/dance/theater etc. that is set before me. Part of the
pleasure I get is from the puzzle–figuring it out, adding my own
interpretation, trying to link it to the world around me. While
institutions might try to control what I see, it is a personal
decision to submit to their teachings.

Of course this doesn’t solve the mystery of why some things beckon to
me, while I simply say “sayonara” (thanks Marc G.!) to others. I guess
that is up to me. In the end, it’s hard to shake off the values that
have been beaten into us including that “beauty is in the eye of the
beholder” and, in my life, I am that beholder.


  1. Are the performers just another representation of the “therapeutic institution?” Surely some are and some aren’t. 😉
    Sometimes I say that I (mostly) perform my own music to maintain its integrity. Sometimes I say that I perform my own music for practical reasons (It’s easier than finding and relying on other performers), but more likely I am just a control-freak.

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