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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.

June 27, 2009 11:42 PM | | Comments (3) |

By Alexandra Gardner

Okay, I admit it--this book made my head spin. In order to reframe some ideas that I absolutely do find applicable to music, I kept imagining silly scenarios that would illustrate the different ways in which beauty can be dangerous.


Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!

Attention spectators!

Welcome to a rivalry that is centuries old. These two opponents have been challenging one another for as long as anyone can remember, and every match is different. One never knows how things will play out between these two!

In one corner we haaaave....BEAUTY!!
(crowd goes wild, clapping, stomping, yelling)

And in the opposing corner please welcome....CONTENT!!!
(smattered clapping, low murmuring...a little hoot from the nosebleed seats)

We're VERY glad we could engage them both today! When Beauty shows up alone, the situation quickly becomes gooey and sappy and self-indulgent. Content alone is just as bad, especially when it brings along a translator to help out, such as the dreaded program note (*gasp*) which can be long-winded and monotonous.

So let's go, people! Get ready to rumble!! (Referee blows whistle)

Scenario 1:
Beauty and Content dance in a circle around the ring. After a few spins, Beauty, who is looking quite dashing, lunges towards well-dressed hipsterish Content, grabs it and lifts it up overhead. The two remain in this pose triumphantly as the crowd cheers enthusiastically for both. Win-win!!

This is Beauty for the Forces of Good--in my world, anyway--drawing the spectator into Content that it might not normally look at/listen to or have any knowledge about. It is the sort of beauty that Hickey describes as "vaguely surprising", and that can serve as an agent of change. Too much independent thinking can be dangerous from the point of view of the Institution (whatever that may be). A personal example of this harmonious integration of beauty and content is Steve Reich's early tape piece, Come Out, which pretty much altered the course of my life when I was a college student. I was flabbergasted at the way he took a recording of someone describing a very bad situation and transformed it into something totally beautiful, without altering the politically charged nature of the content.

Let's play this out another way:

Scenario 2:
This Beauty is Very Expansive, Frilly and Strangely Alluring--so much so that the audience can't help but stare. Beauty immediately slams poor little bookish Content onto the floor, then dives on top of Content, pinning it and completely obscuring it from view. Audience is stunned into silence. (Cue crickets chirping)

Sometimes Beauty can be so overwhelming that it lulls people into complacency, masking Content. For instance, the Sting Song "Every Breath You Take," has been played at weddings everywhere, having been totally misconstrued as an earnest romantic love song, rather than the ranting of an obsessed stalker that it is....much to the dismay of the artist. This situation presents a danger to the artist and to the audience by twisting the message into something it's not.

There is another danger here--this scenario may also make certain artists and audiences skeptical of beauty, and dismiss a work of art without giving it a opportunity to communicate something. In the same way that extremely beautiful women are presumed to be not so bright, if a work of art is TOO beautiful, it is often thought to be devoid of content. It has no teeth.

Plenty of composers struggle with beauty vs. content. Just the other day in a rehearsal I heard a composer tell the performers, "When I was working on this section, the music just became more and more beautiful, and I didn't know how to handle it....I kept wondering, what will people think??".

June 27, 2009 3:41 PM | | Comments (2) |
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.
June 26, 2009 7:35 PM | | Comments (1) |
stairs.jpgI just reread all the posts we've contributed to book club this week and, like Matthew, am feeling well satisfied that the time we've invested in wrestling with Hickey's text and trying it on in a music context was an investment well made. Vamping in front of a mirror is almost always guaranteed fun, whether you intend to buy the dress or not.

One issue that hasn't come up here yet is the idea that some of what Hickey finds missing in today's art is not missing from the art itself but from the conversation about the art and our experience with it, things that "remain verbally invisible and therefore accidental to any determination we might make in 'serious' discourse about the virtues of the work."

Still, if we don't talk about it, isn't it in danger of being misplaced and forgotten? This sentiment connected up in a way with an essay my colleague Trevor Hunter had sent me early last week, a meditation by Jon Baskin on the work and underlying philosophy of David Foster Wallace. Baskin suggests that Wallace worried that his contemporaries were failing to do what he felt their readers needed them to do, "to offer counsel on questions of judgment, emotion, and truth" and instead indulging in "hip nihilism, 'value-neutral' morality and an essentially ironic response to life's challenges."

Perhaps I overstep, but I think this at least parallels what Hickey is trying to direct our attention to: that we need art, need it to interact and communicate with us, not merely perform a series of clever tricks or abstract theories in front of us. Wallace asks for something similar, and acknowledges how difficult a road it will be:

In contrast to "the old postmodern insurgents [who] risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship... the next real literary 'rebels' might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the 'Oh how banal.'"
I passed the essay to Corey and he suggested that "perhaps the naivete we 'post-whatever' artists associate with old-fashioned ideas like subjective consciousness is exactly what's needed to rediscover 'meaning,' to reaffirm that we are human 'subjects,' not merely automatons or non-entities, which is, as [Baskin] points out, an end to the conversation. Maybe that naivete is required when we address aesthetic beauty as well."

Inspired, as per usual, by my reading of Wallace and my conversation with Corey, I went back and dug into an earlier piece of Wallace's that Baskin had heavily referenced, E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction. I ended up entangled in additional connections (though, admittedly, these perhaps exist only in my own head, so bear with). With a nod toward the need for "the strange" in "the beautiful" we've discussed this week, here's Wallace at some length considering the issue in the context of American fiction and television viewing:

Realistic fiction's big job used to be to afford easements across boarders, to help readers leap over walls of self and locale and show us unseen or -dreamed-of people and cultures and ways to be. Realism made the strange familiar. Today, when we eat Tex-Mex with chopsticks while listening to reggae and watching Soviet-satellite newscast of the Berlin Wall's fall--i.e., when darn near everything presents itself as familiar--it's not a surprise that some of today's most ambitious "realistic" fiction is going about trying to make the familiar strange. In doing so, in demanding fictional access behind lenses and screens and headlines and re-imagining what human life might truly be like over there across the chasms of illusion, mediation, demographics, marketing, image, and appearance, image-fiction is paradoxically trying to restore what's (mis)taken for "real" to three whole dimensions, to reconstruct a univocally round world out of disparate streams of flat sights.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that, almost without exception, image-fiction doesn't satisfy its own agenda. Instead, it most often degenerates into a kind of jeering, surfacy look "behind the scenes" of the very televisual front people already jeer at, and can already get behind the scenes of via Entertainment Tonight and Remote Control.
I carried this passage around with me for a couple of days because it both challenges us to get over ourselves (and our affected pretensions) and to realize that if and when we man up enough to meet our readers, our viewers, our audiences, in this way, creating something that will truly move them is going to be a hell of a lot harder than we ever could have imagined.
June 26, 2009 8:16 AM | | Comments (1) |
By Matthew Guerrieri

This week's discussion of Hickey's book around these parts has been by and large skeptical-critical, which kind of gives the impression that the book was a chore. But (for me, at least) I had a good time disagreeing with it--I read the book a second time and had more fun disagreeing with it. So, just to say thank you for by far the highest-quality procrastination of the week, here's something I liked about the book: Hickey's defense of French Structuralism.

Somehow, the delicate instrumentalities of continental thought had been transmuted by the American professoriat into a highfalutin, pseudo-progressive billy club with which to beat dissenters about the head and shoulders.

... Foucault's ruthless, timely dismantling of the human sciences had simply vanished. It had, in fact, been surgically amputated and a dumbed-down travesty of Frankfurt School sociology sewn onto its place. Barthes's dead author walked the steppes as an avatar of ethnic and sexual identity, replete with neediness and aura. Foucault's Panopticon and Lacan's gaze were untidily bundled into one lumpy paranoid concept.... (p. xix)
Though I would say that the caricature of Continental thought came as much from outside as inside (my alma mater's former president, after all, was known for spitting about the Frankfurt School like John Lithgow in Footloose), the reminder that the original thinkers were more elegant, subtle, and even playful than you might get from their reputation is always welcome. I never dip back into them without feeling refreshed (even Foucault, who can be pretty heavy going in translation). So even though I didn't quite buy Hickey's application of the Bentham-Chardin divide from Foucault's Discipline and Punish (pp. 5-8), it was still my favorite part of the book, and put a lot of the rest of his criticism of institutions in a more complex and useful context. In some ways, disagreeing with someone who's read Barthes et al. can be more invigorating that agreeing with someone who hasn't.
June 25, 2009 5:16 PM | | Comments (1) |

By Marc Geelhoed

I was struck by the radically American democratic call to arms (I almost wrote cri de coeur) that runs through each of Hickey's five essays. He writes, "Art is either a democratic political instrument, or it is not," on page 15, about the response of Senator Jesse Helms to Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs, and goes on to write later about the value of an essentially intuited notion of "beauty" that should govern our choices about what is valuable in art as well as what the market deems valuable. He starts out by writing about the chilly reception he and his book received the first time they were published (the book, at least; Hickey'd been around for years) in 1993, with lecture halls filled with hissing students and faculty who marched out en masse. Anyone who cares not what the public thinks so long as they're read is an elitist, at best, and that doesn't explain Hickey at all.

Hickey's aim is, as others in the book group have already said, to reinstate the notion of beauty as an artistic criterion on the level of all the others we cherish, and somewhat removing the intellectual appeal of art for something that's more immediately gratifying. It's the immediate gratification that leads us to pay attention in the first place, and which lead to its ultimate staying power. "Beauty is precedent," he writes, with his own italics. "Beautiful works survive sans virtue. Virtuous works sans beauty do not. In a democratic society, we express our discomfort with Beauty's off-site rationale by dispensing with it. But we keep the beauty." So, we excise the reason(s) we think something beautiful, but keep the beautiful object.

I'd argue that the rationale was never even really dispensed with, since it was never arrived at or wrestled with in the first place. I think--and how to prove this I have no idea--that most people when confronted with a painting, a novel, a symphony, or The Sopranos, make a gut judgment about whether it excites them and they find it worth revisiting, or they leave it by the wayside. The why, the how, the mysteries of its creation, these aren't exactly their focus. They want to be entertained, not to be treated as fools, and if the work on display achieves that, hey, great. If it doesn't, sayonara.

Which leads me to wonder about his castigation of institutions and the "bureaucrats" who staff them, and their neutral, "therapeutic," education-oriented attitudes. I say this not just because I am one of those bureaucrats who's all-too-aware of their goals and the compromises that go into achieving them, but that I'm honestly a little puzzled by why the institutions are worth going after with tooth and nail. I mean, someone's got to put this stuff on display, and that takes a great deal of planning and preparation and deal-making and negotiation, and compromise and a fair amount of artistic knowledge and a willingness to play nice and a willingness to give someone the what-for, and those seem like small prices to pay for the chance to go to the Met Museum and look at altarpieces, or go to Orchestra Hall, ahem, and hear the Chicago Symphony. I'll grant in an instant that there are excesses and excessive timidity in certain cases, but those aren't deal breakers.

A lengthy quotation:

"The experience of art within the therapeutic institution, by contrast, is presumed to be an end in itself. Under its auspices, we play a minor role in the master's narrative--the artist's tale--and celebrate his autonomous acts even as we are offhandedly victimized by the work's philosophical power and ruthless authority. [...] Whatever we get, we deserve--and what we get most prominently is ignored, disenfranchised, and instructed. Then we are told that it is 'good' for us."

("Victimized"? Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art sells a t-shirt that says "FEAR NO ART," but I don't think Hickey's assaulting art is what they had in mind.)

Again, this is super democratic and basically a call for self-education, and while I think that autodidacts make fascinating people and would make an outstanding cadre of curators, I'm not yet ready to pronounce them the final arbiters. If nothing else, who's going to do the fund-raising? And is it really so bad to have to look at a painting on a wall in a museum? Is coming across it as you backpack through Florence so superior?

June 24, 2009 10:37 PM | | Comments (2) |
By Matthew Guerrieri

Here's where he really lost me:

In the restructured modernist dynamic, the role of the beholder is to be dominsated and awestruck by the work of art, which undergoes a sex change and is recast as a simulacrum of the male artist's autonomous, impenetrable self.
Under these revised priorities, the validity of receding illusionistic space in painting was immediately called into question. This imaginary space had been traditionally, and quite rightly, perceived as "community property," shared by the work, its creator, and its beholder. The new, modern priorities insisted that no such community existed. The flat picture plane came to represent the property line dividing the mundane world of the beholder from the exalted territory of the artist's incarnate philosophy. (pp. 41-42)
Earlier (p. 36), Hickey really lays down the law: "Today we are content to slither through the flatland of Baudelairian modernity, trapped like cocker spaniels in the eternal, positive presentness of a terrain so visually impoverished that we cannot even lie to any effect in its language of images--nor imagine with any authority--nor even remember."

As someone with an Ellsworth Kelly print hanging above his piano, I can only say, this is not the way I perceive beauty. I think the problem is this: Hickey is very concerned about modernism's elimination of the illusion of three dimensions in Renaissance painting. But he doesn't seem to be considering that the plane of a painting is a convenient fiction as well--all paintings are three-dimensional objects, we experience them in three dimensions, because we experience the world in three dimensions. And the "flat picture plane" is just as much an illusion as Renaissance perspective.

A big difference between the two is how that illusion changes as the work is regarded from different angles in the real, three-dimensional world. For traditional, representative perspective, any viewing angle but straight on collapses the illusion. But for abstracts, the different angles produce different images, different proportions--the "flat plane" illusion not only holds, it enables--the illusion of a flat picture plane makes possible manifold relationships between the work and the viewer.

My initial reaction was that this difference--between seeing abstraction as a boundary and seeing it as a source of possibility--might be roughly analogous to reacting to analysis of a piece of music and reacting to a live performance. But the more I re-read the book, I find it hard to see how any of its arguments about beauty and the relationship between art and audience can carry over into any music that doesn't come pre-packaged with a programmatic frame of reference. This might be because the book doesn't ever explain what Hickey likes about abstraction--he gives Frank Stella a hard time but elsewhere gives an approving shout-out to Morris Louis, which is a little cognitively dissonant to me. (I'd be really interested to know what he thinks about painters like Seurat or Matisse.) But going on what's there, beauty seems to be defined at the intersection of a work's visual pleasure and its representative content--which I can see for representative, figurative art, but falls apart when the content is not immediately recognizable or easily agreed upon.

Page 71: "So we talk, because the experience of American beauty is inextricable from its optimal social consequence: our membership in a happy coalition of citizens who agree on what is beautiful, valuable, and just." I have real problems with that one--not because I don't think it accurately describes a lot of the way people perceive art nowadays, but because Hickey seems to think it a good thing. Notice that this is now shifting the viewer's pleasure from their viewing of the work to the crowd's validation of their opinion. I think this need for validation inevitably warps artistic values to market values--but those market values aren't a reflection of artistic value, but of ease of marketability. On both these counts--a privileging of representative art and a need for like-minded validation--an awful lot of the music I find beautiful--any music, really, that doesn't have an obvious textual or cultural frame--is bound to come up short, because it a) such music tends to require a less passive interpretive engagement on the part of the listener, which means everyone's going to build up their own different, individual interpretive framework, and b) music is hard to talk about. The fact that I still experience such music as beautiful isn't diminished by the possible lack of a "happy coalition." The secret ballot is a hallmark of democracy as well.
June 24, 2009 4:01 PM | | Comments (2) |


By Marc Weidenbaum

I've struggled with Dave Hickey's book. It's good to struggle, and I'm glad for this group, 'cause maybe I could get some help.

It's a book about "beauty," and the appreciation of beauty, and the way that beauty isn't enough the subject of discussion and concern for those who are concerned with discussing art. I find that idea fascinating. Hickey dissects how beauty, the idea of beauty, is often ignored, and when he does so, it's like watching a highly experienced (if at times self-involved and poetically opaque) sushi chef at work--or perhaps a highly experienced coroner, but I've never had that pleasure.

It's a book largely concerned with a specific photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe, with a specific, charged social and political context intrinsic to his work's consumption (at least, to Hickey's point, at this stage, when we're still too close in time to its production to ignore that context). I find that photographer's work, not to mention his courage, inspiring. Hickey views those photos through a literary critical lens that proves illuminating, especially when his focus is Michel Foucault.

But in reading Invisible Dragon, I came to wonder if Hickey's emphasis on the latter overshadowed the former to the point of essentially putting beauty back in a rhetorical dustbin. There's so much about how the marginal is an essential component of beauty, that in the end, I feel like we're back near stage one, where it's mostly context, theory, politics, and the market that are the subject--and that combined, they are the source of validation: a socio-political lattice to support a proposition of beauty.

I fully appreciate that strange can be beautiful, but the ongoing suggestion here seems to be that strange is a necessity for beauty, and that doesn't seem to play out. Forgive me for thinking of this simplistically, but: Would a subject of Robert Mapplethorpe's photos find them and their content strange, or for that matter, more broadly, would an individual for whom that milieu is highly familiar? And if not, would those people then not be capable of finding these photos beautiful? And in a world that is increasingly accepting of the community that Mapplethorpe documented/celebrated/witnessed, is it therefore a matter that his work is less beautiful? Is Hickey saying that only the strange can be beautiful, that that which we think is beautiful but is not strange cannot be beautiful?

I know strange, like funny, means different things to different people. So perhaps all Hickey's asking us to do is find the strange in whatever we find beautiful, and to find the beauty in things we find strange. But if so, that's never as clear to me as the more paradoxical thing above that I was wrestling with.

That's just part of my struggle, but it's a start.

June 24, 2009 10:36 AM | | Comments (4) |


Mind the Gap is getting some new guest visitors from Google, people searching for answers to big questions such as, "What is beauty?" After 2 a.m., who knows what windows open up that compel us to ask a machine such a question.

Anyway, these late night visitors were of some comfort to me because Hickey's text has left me digging around deep in the mush of my own definitions of things. Much of my musing is focused on the ways in which institutions deflate the risk out of experiencing art, and the impact that has on culture. My friend Rebecca likes to joke about all the bizarre (which is often also code for "cheap") places we go in search of musical experiences: old warehouses, dirty basements, venues that require ferry boat rides. If I think about it, in this unsanctioned wildness, we do confront the art more empowered than when sitting meekly at Carnegie Hall (others may not sit meekly there, but I certainly haven't overcome that, even after all these years). And for this or some other reason I have not identified, the art itself means more to me, resonates longer, when it is good, even if more often than not it is forgettably bad. I'm not sure how to describe it exactly, but I think it is only under these circumstances that I could truly be gobsmacked by music.

As I mosey down that path further, I come to another passage of Hickey's discussion that hits a nerve (especially in this economy):

If we entertain, even for a moment, the slightest presumption that an institution, suddenly and demonstrably bereft of its social and philosophical underpinnings, is liable to imminent collapse, we have committed what George Bernard Shaw considered the most suicidal error that a citizen can. As Shaw pointed out, institutions die from loss of funding, not lack of meaning. We die from lack of meaning and of joy.

Later he highlights the disconnect between our appointed guardians (bureaucrats, academics, etc.), who "labor to protect us from error and danger, so we must forgive their distress at the tumult in the street" and our own goals, which are slightly at odds. "Guardians are concerned with securing our Safety. We are pursuing our Happiness." A cruel sleight of hand, and all too true, no?


Admittedly, suddenly everything I'm reading seems connected to this discussion, so forgive me if I stretch too far here. While the institutions may be looking after us with the good intentions of a Mother Superior, the steely hand of the commercial marketplace offers dangerous harbor of another stripe. Hickey notes that beautiful art sells, and that's why people are suspicious of it.

If it sells itself, it is an idolatrous commodity; if it sells something else, it is a seductive advertisement. Art is not idolatry, they argue, nor is it advertising. Idolatry and advertising, however, are indeed art, and the greatest works of art are always and inevitably a bit of both.

No matter where you fall in this debate, by anyone's accounting, this Target/Black Eyed Peas promotion kind of follows the argument to its horrifying conclusion to a factor of 10--comepletely unbeautiful music shilling for a discount store. So while at first I thought the fear of commerce was irrational--isn't everyone selling something?--later I acknowledged that there were degrees on that scale. But I have long believed that some of our ages most brilliant artistic minds are working in advertising, not in Chelsea. So what about the recent Prius ad package, say? How much art is in there? Does that make it any "better"? Does that lend it any value outside how many cars it sells?

June 23, 2009 7:29 PM | | Comments (2) |

By Corey Dargel

The author, Dave Hickey, writes in response to the question of how to transplant his argument from visual art to music:

The argument I'm making is essentially formal and abstract. It does presuppose culturally acquired musical assumptions, of course. I am proposing that works of art that are sufficiently patterned and sufficiently surprising are receptive to radical interpretation regardless of their narrative content.

In culture, formal devices can take on ambient and often fleeting meanings that speak to extra-formal issues. Some pop examples: As Wilson Pickett said, "The back beat IS the midnight hour." James Brown jumping the downbeat became an icon of black aspiration. Reggae dropping the downbeat creates what a friend of mine called the "mary jane swoon." Octave jumps and octave drops in melodic structures are associated with attenuated and rising aspiration because melodies usually retreat after octave jumps and rise after an octave drops ("Over the Rainbow;" "Shining Hour"). Keith Richard's I-V rock and roll chords and open fifth country harmonies both speak of cultural instability because [the major/minor third is missing]. The cultural aggression of the Rolling Stones derives absolutely from Keith playing on top of the beat with Jagger and Watts behind it. The first rule of disco--cover every note length with a pattern--actually teaches you how to dance.

These, I realize, are very tiny, simple devices but they have large consequences. They demonstrate the way formal manipulations acquire cultural meanings.

Contemporary composers of my acquaintance, of course, sneer at pattern and pulse. They should listen to "Heart of Glass."

I am taken by the phrase "sufficiently patterned and sufficiently surprising" which is a variation on what Hickey writes on pages 9-10 of The Invisible Dragon:

Without the urgent intention of reconstructing the beholder's view of things, the image has no reason to exist, much less to be beautiful. The comfort of the familiar always bears with it the frisson of the exotic, and the effect of this conflation, ideally, is persuasive excitement--visual pleasure. As Baudelaire says, "the beautiful is always strange," by which he means, of course, that it is always strangely familiar and vaguely surprising.

It seems to me that the composers who sneer at pattern and pulse no longer have a monopoly on any but the most conservative musical institutions (and they certainly never had any clout in the marketplace). The most obvious examples--in contemporary classical music--of "sufficiently patterned and sufficiently surprising" can be found in late minimalism and post-minimalism. Not surprisingly, then, these genres of contemporary classical music have had the most appeal outside of academic and institutional circles.

June 23, 2009 6:35 AM | | Comments (5) |

Blogger Book Club III

July 27-31: The MTG Blogger think tank reads The Whuffie Factor: Using the Power of Social Networks to Build Your Business by Tara Hunt and considers how the performing arts are embracing technology and social networking for better and worse

- Blogger Book Club III: The Take Away
- Blogger Book Club III: Everyone in the Pool, it's an e-Swim!
- Blogger Book Club III: Holding Back the Flood
- Blogger Book Club III: Classical Music vs New Technology
- Blogger Book Club III: Little Boxes

more entries

Blogger Book Club II

June 22-26, 2009: The bloggers start in on this summer's non-required reading list and discuss The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty, Revised and Expanded by Dave Hickey

- Blogger Book Club II: Beautiful Meaninglessness
- Blogger Book Club II: Wrestling With Beauty
- Blogger Book Club II: Musician in the Middle
- Blogger Book Club II: Painfully Normal and Incredibly Sincere
- Blogger Book Club II: Something I Liked

more entries

Blogger Book Club

March 16-20: Bloggers discuss Lawrence Lessig's Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy Participants: Marc Geelhoed Steve Smith Alex Shapiro Matthew Guerrieri Marc Weidenbaum Corey Dargel Brian Sacawa Lisa Hirsch

- Blogger Book Club: We Love Amateurs
- Blogger Book Club: Bangers and Mash-ups
- Blogger Book Club: Taking What They're Giving, 'Cause I'm Working For a Living
- Blogger Book Club: The Art of Imitation
- Blogger Book Club: Dust In the Wind

more entries

Me Elsewhere


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About Last Night
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Artful Manager
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
blog riley
rock culture approximately
critical difference
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dog Days
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Seeing Things
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...

Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...

Out There
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Serious Popcorn
Martha Bayles on Film...

classical music
Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
On the Record
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds

Jerome Weeks on Books
Quick Study
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera

Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world

Aesthetic Grounds
Public Art, Public Space
Another Bouncing Ball
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Modern Art Notes
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog
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