Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Artists are rarely expected to explain their own art

Monday, January 21, 2008 WHY WRITE? Kris Tiner
Why write? Why risk being thought of as a "self-conscious" musician? I often struggle for an answer to that question. It haunts me every time I get to work on this blog. Because it seems that the commonly accepted view (for the past couple centuries at least) is that artists make art while the critics and historians interpret it, the theorists analyze it, and so on. In fact, our educational systems are designed specifically to orient art and music students toward becoming either practitioners, creators, theorists, historians, or educators. In such a segregated system artists are rarely expected to explain their own art, and to do so excessively is a violation of the cultural role of the critic, the academic. We talk about the belief that "art should speak for itself" and so on, but simultaneously we allow the critic to interpret what the art is saying. If art truly speaks for itself, why is it that only a select few in our culture are given the opportunity to fully understand it (and put it into plain words for the rest of us numbskulls)?
I DON'T DOUBT THE ROLE OF THE CRITIC, I don't challenge the importance of interpretation. Interpretation is the right of any critic or writer, any audience member to compare the experience of art against their own personal experience. This is what is granted by the artist in the sharing of art. I don't question that. But I do question the submissiveness of an artist in this relationship when that artist doesn't draw a line between interpretation of their work and representation of their work. An artist who does not place importance on the representation of their work becomes simply a practitioner, a tradesman. It should be the responsibility of the creative artist to use every technique, every technology, every means at their fingertips to communicate the purpose of their art, including the medium of the art itself.
So the chief goal for the artist who writes is not to self-interpret, but to self-represent. Words aren't the only way to do this, of course. Certain musicians have used writing to great advantage (think of Braxton, Ives, Cage, Stockhausen). Others have self-represented by other means. Miles Davis may have famously refused to say much about his music, but in 1973 those platform shoes and silk scarves spoke volumes about what he was trying to represent. The integrally-minded artist will naturally use whatever means they have at their disposal in order to articulate the position of their art. The notion of creativity in this sense goes beyond the art medium itself, as I've said before, it involves the measured articulation of one's personal worldview and not simply the outlining of a particular approach to one's craft.
The goal of the critic should be just the opposite - to interpret on a very well-informed level, but not to represent. The responsible critic leaves that much to the artist - he/she understands that their own view of a work may indeed differ from the artist's view. To err as a critic is to slide unknowingly from interpretation into representation, to claim the truth in other words. Alternately, the responsible artist understands that to release an art work is to open the possibility of a multitude of interpretations, all of which must be acceptable insofar as none of them may claim exclusivity - no one interpretation is ultimately the truth. Each individual interpretation represents an autonomous point of view, unique and separate from the point of view of the artist.
An interpretation may come close to the artist’s intention or it may introduce completely new information. A particularly strong interpretation may even end up coming back around to impact the work of the artist - think of Gunther Schuller's essay praising the motivic logic in Sonny Rollins' famous "Blue 7" solo. Schuller's analysis actually influenced the direction of Sonny's thinking and practicing for a time!
As an independent projection of thought, any interpretation is inherently valid. But in order to achieve a measure of relevance to the original creative situation, an interpreter must acknowledge that the artist’s own self-representation is integral to the art work itself. The artist’s own voice must be considered, bundled with the art work. To take the art work at face value and then inject one’s own meaning is the ultimate critical faux pas.
An art work consists of encoded information, it is an object with an independent subject on either end. But the transmission is oriented in a certain direction. Feedback is indeed critical in this relationship (especially in performance contexts) but the transmission originates with the artist. The integral artist is concerned with the overall fidelity of that transmission; not just in sound or line or color, but also the information component. For example, a historian dealing with Beethoven’s or Charles Ives’ or Anthony Braxton’s music has got to deal with the volume of the composer's own written record in conjunction with that music. Not that the written record is ever intellectually infallible, but because it is part of the artist’s attempt at self-representation, it must be taken into consideration.
THE IDEA OF A RECKLESS MODERN ARTIST who "just does," who throws off a brush stroke or an improvised phrase purely as a dimension of feeling, about which no words are necessary... this is a romantic idea, a myth. It is a falsehood that has played right into some of the most malicious intentions of a modern culture industry that aims to trivialize the creative output of our great artists as it simultaneously extracts the possibility of creative inspiration from the general public. Why? So it can sell it back to them, of course. Why else would a society cut funding for music education across the board and then market the hell out of cultural travesties like American Idol and Guitar Hero?
There is a scene in the movie Cradle Will Rock (and I haven't seen it in quite a while so I am going to seriously paraphrase) where, after demolishing Diego Rivera's dangerously socio-politically themed mural (complete with a very heroic depiction of Lenin) that had been commissioned in 1933 for the lobby of Rockefeller Center, Nelson Rockefeller goes on about his intention to only support art that is abstract, incomprehensible, vague, meaningless - to convince the public that art shouldn't be understood, to dismantle art as a tool of social commentary, make it all about the indefinable, the esoteric, the modern. Rockefeller (the ficticious Rockefeller brilliantly played by John Cusack in this case, although the narrative itself is believable enough) was protecting himself by tearing down this activist art that challenged his capitalist position and moving to support art that would be all but powerless to spread any kind of message other than the reinforcing of that old, elitist position that high art was the domain of the privileged few, the elite intellectuals, well beyond the comprehension of average folk. TV and popcorn for them, high culture and caviar for us.
BUT THE MODERN ARTIST REFUSED to play that game. I have written previously about my fondness for Robert Motherwell, American painter and writer, considered the mouthpiece of the abstract expressionists. His position was relatively unique in that he was both one of the premier creatives in a scene that included giants like Jackson Pollock, Willem DeKooning, Mark Rothko and others, as well as holding several professorial and editorial positions that required constant engagement with the explanation of his own work and the work of his contemporaries. Motherwell's writings are priceless to me; in my opinion he represents one of the extreme high points of American creativity in the Twentieth Century. But his success as a cultural operative was certainly not the norm among his contemporaries, many of whom met far more tragic ends. Take Rothko, for example. Such a great humanist, such a fantastic believer in emotion, experience, transcendence, he wanted people to be emotional when they viewed his paintings:

"The fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions... the people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them. And if you say you are moved only by their color relationships then you miss the point."

There is definitely an anti-academic posture in the work of these modernists. But to take anti-academicism for anti-intellectualism, there lies the great misunderstanding.
  • Was Rothko not being intellectual about his very measured and careful approach to composition, however radical the idea of composing with just two or three fields of color was at the time?
  • Was Pollock being anti-intellectual as he devoted years and years to the invention of a completely new way to make a painting?

In 1943 Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb wrote a well-known manifesto on their art which included this statement:

"It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academicism. There is no such thing as good painting about nothing."

Rothko’s art wasn’t about "not thinking" - it was about not relying wholly on thought to make art. It was about integrating thought and action, action and emotion, emotion and thought and so on. Rothko and Gottlieb and Motherwell etc. weren't interested in excluding any part of themselves. They were trying simply to be honest. They were dismayed by the prominence of “academic” painters who, in their empty display of technique, had cut themselves off from their very souls. But the solution to that dilemma was not to retreat into primitivist, hyperemotional mumbo-jumbo. The abstract expressionists were thoughtful, they were careful and studied about their inventions. They were anything but anti-intellectual or non-meaningful.
Every word Rothko ever spoke or wrote betrays both the dry academic interpretation of his work in terms of color relationship, composition, brushwork, etc. as well as the more generic notion of his work as spontaneous, anti-intelligent, not thoughtful, hyperemotional. Indeed these two interpretations are at opposite poles, and Rothko always managed to position himself between them, integrating thought and emotion, mysticism and reason. Much as the action in his paintings happens in the space where two fields of color collide, Rothko's reluctant activism as a spokesman for modern art often found him positioned directly between two opposing interpretations of his work. The tragedy was that he could not maintain this position. Things changed, a new group of bratty young pop artists took over and the art world became less and less interested in content or ideas, more and more focused on commodity and bourgeois fashionability. Rothko secluded himself, went into a period of self-imposed silence, eventually died by his own hand.
I FIND A GREAT DEAL OF SYMMETRY between what happened to abstract expressionism and what happened to jazz music after WWII. The modernism (and the tragedy) of Rothko and Pollock shares more than a few similarities with that of Bird and Monk. On the one hand that archaic notion (going back at least to the 1920s but certainly originating in some enigmatic minstrel past) of the black musician as unthinking, instinctual, sweat coming off the brow as he's up there "getting down," that idea, which was tantamount to the popular audience's understanding of jazz in the early days, jives surprisingly well with the Bebopper's assertion of himself as modern artist, taking himself quite seriously as he "Oop-bop Sh'Bam's" some kind of cryptic, improvised message before a bewildered but flippantly amused audience of off-Broadway patrons who figure they are supposed to be confused because it's artistic (!). In both contexts it is either a willful misreading or a lazy interpretation that assumes representation as it doesn’t account for what the artist is actually trying to say. The misreading takes the art at face value and doesn’t presuppose an information component to the work, and that is where it fails.
On the other hand there is the paternalistic attitude that supposes jazz only gains legitimacy in the context of the institution, that the academic treatment of a systematic, pedagogical "jazz theory" somehow makes the music acceptable, that black musicians can't really think for themselves, so let’s do the thinking for them, let’s write the books, let’s design the teaching methods, let’s sell the jazz degrees. I am speaking in terms of grossly miscalculated interpretations, of course, but in 100+ years of jazz history there has been no shortage of them. From Paul Whiteman to Jazz at Lincoln Center, how far have we really come? On one level institutionalization is helpful; it disseminates previously localized forms of culture to a wider audience and preserves certain aspects of our cultural heritage. But in doing so it often slides into misrepresentation, rewriting history in textbook form. This is where the well-informed critic or historian usually steps in to correct the balance of information, and thank goodness for them. But at some point we have to let the artists speak for themselves.
Historically we are at a point where information is so rapidly and easily exchanged that artists can no longer afford not to speak for themselves, and students, educators, and critics of the music can't afford not to listen. The field is so exceedingly diverse and the technology is so exceedingly simple to make the kind of idea-sharing and community building that's only been dreamed of in the past a definite and immediate reality. Imagine if Rothko or Charlie Parker had a blog, if Anthony Braxton had posted his Tri-Axium writings on a website instead of printing them in a prohibitively limited (and costly) edition, if Charles Ives hadn't had to wait patiently for the publication of his music - what if he could have recorded it himself and distributed it freely over the internet?
There are so many ideas whose importance has been overshadowed only by their obscurity. Posted by Kris Tiner at 2:57 PM Labels: , 4 comments:

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

We owe our freedom from the British yoke to a large extent to English language

Expression in English is neither indicative of our colonial hangover nor inferiority complex. It refurbishes our recollection that we had used this language to convince the majority of English speaking people as on why the English must leave our land.
If the British crown had to quit India notwithstanding knowing that thereby the Sun of its Empire would set forever, it was because of three principal factors: (one) methods of non-cooperation and non-violence as used by Gandhiji as weapons of his movement for freedom, (two) more and more of Indian commons and intelligentsia accepting Marxism as their creed and rise of matching communist militancy addressed to supplement Gandhiji’s movement in progressive prospective and (three) use of English language against the English Empire.
But had we not used English language as our medium to make the commons and lords of the English land apprised of our determination for self-rule, despite the active role of the first two factors, British Parliament would not have decided to quit India so soon. Had that not happened, the freedom movement would have been further prolonged. We would not have unfurled our free Flag in 1947. And, what could have happened after Gandhiji, had the British not quit in 1947 cannot be said for certain at this point of time. So, to say the least we owe our freedom from the British yoke to a large extent to English language.
This is why I had decided to admit my son to an English medium School. This is why The NEWS Syndicate, in deciding to float Orissa’s first online portal, had decided to make English the medium of expression in
So, English to us is not a foreign language; but is a friend. The British PM’s offer of Knighthood to Tendulkar may be refused by him or rebuked by Indians in the light of perception over imperial / colonial hangover. But, role of English language in India’s life should be kept above all questions.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Most of the qualified professionals tend to remain taciturn about Sri Aurobindo’s creations

Image, Symbol and Myth in Sri Aurobindo’s Poetry--G. S. Pakle
by RY Deshpande on January 18, 2008 03:36PM (PST) Science, Culture and Integral Yoga
Most of the qualified professionals tend to remain taciturn about Sri Aurobindo’s creations, partly awed by his personality, partly because of their inability to research patiently and perceptively some 3000 pages of his poetic work consisting of two epics, narratives, short poems, long poems, sonnets, experiments in different metres, poetic dramas, translations, and an equally vast body of his criticism in the form of essays and letters.
Sri Aurobindo has yet to be studied. In that respect the present work of Dr Pakle can be considered to be a pretty good attempt, though somewhat general in character. Coming as it does from an academician, it has the merit of well-organised presentation rapidly covering a couple of aspects, essentially the aspects of simulacrum. Simulacrum in the broadest sense can be defined as
“something that has a vague, tentative, or shadowy resemblance to something else.”
It could include a host of features such as image, myth, symbol, simile, metaphor, and these become powerful aids in describing what otherwise escapes all representation. And yet they need not be just algebraic substitutes or notations, even as they do carry a breathing vibrancy which gives to them their true meaning and significance. Dr Pakle’s work is concerned with these features that give to poetry a poetic character… more » Leave Comment Permanent Link

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Is Marx a gloss of Hegel? Is Lacan just rehashing Freud?

13. January 14th,2008 1:11 am
Simply put, Fish argues that the entire scholarly output of the humanities is, for lack of a better word, marginalia. In his analysis, professors of Shakespeare don’t “produce” — they replicate, comment on, and endlessly rehash the same tired arguments about the same tired plays. Or worse, their enthusiasm leads them to distort a play’s original meaning and reduce it to a shape unrecognizable to the Bard himself.
It’s difficult to know what to make of this argument. How do we know what is marginalia and what is actually unique? Is Marx a gloss of Hegel? Is Lacan just rehashing Freud? To what extent were these men producing something new and to what extent were they merely commenting on something old?
Fish is, it seems to me, a humanities fundamentalist. He sees the endless commentary and study and elaboration by scholars of certain “truly unique works” socially useless. He operates in the same spirit as those who saw in the theologians of the Catholic Church an impediment to reading the clear, unambiguous message of the Bible. For the Bible alone, according to such men, is a unique and socially useful creation. All else (Jerome, Augustine, Aquinas, Moore) are mere distractions from the unambiguous meaning of the original text.
In any field, scholarly advancement is a painfully slow process. The line of minor historians who connect Thucydides to Gibbon is filled with people who study “medieval astrology, Renaisssance [sic] iconography, 18th century political satire, and romantic theories of the imagination”. No doubt Fish would have found their scholarly output incredibly boring, but you can’t get from “The Peloponnesian War” to “Decline and Fall…” without them.
If Fish had his way, how would the disciplines progress? Merely on the shoulders of indisputably great men like Shakespeare who, says Fish, need no defending? Ought we just to close our eyes, keep our fingers crossed, and pray that every generation or two produces a man or woman of such outstanding genius that a truly important work can be summoned forth from the scholarly vacuum? Or, on the other hand, ought we to cultivate an environment in which thousands of people can discuss, debate, and research a succession of points that, while seemingly minor in social import, can on occasion burst forth and alter the course of history?
— Posted by Jeffrey Sachs

Monday, January 14, 2008

So that the alternatives become the rule

Kudos to Amol Gupte and Aamir Khan for scripting and producing a first of its kind film in Bollywood. Taare Zameen Par is a remarkable view into the world of a child who faces difficulties in the contemporary education system. The deft handling of the subject demonstrates a new maturity in Indian cinema. The responses that the film is evoking from the viewers perhaps also indicates that there might be a change in the way we understand children and their growing-up needs in the near future.
Growing social dependence on schools as the major providers of education has resulted in schools becoming increasingly closed in the way they deliver and assess educational progress. Driven by an output-obsessed culture, progress of all children in most schools is measured in terms of narrowly defined learning outcomes and examination results. Most educators and parents seem to be unaware that children go through a range of processes as they grow and learn. They also seem to be equally unaware that there is a method in both understanding and facilitating these processes.
Taare Zameen Par is not a film about a dyslexic child alone. It is a film about how schools and parents are unable to understand children and their needs and fail to recognise differences among children. Education is about knowing children, about designing and facilitating learning experiences that children would enjoy and through which they would construct meaning about this world. In short, it is about curriculum development and its transaction. In the dominant behaviourist mode of education, with its prescribed syllabi, emphasis on conformity and marking system, where is the scope for curriculum development? The matrix provided to teachers is about policing, teaching and testing. It is not about creative ways of helping children make connections with language, numbers, people, events and themselves.
With increasing awareness and early identification, a relatively large number of children are being diagnosed with a range of learning difficulties. However, our educational institutions also need to be examined for their role in abetting the rise of such difficulties. The practice of testing and repudiating has become so deeply entrenched in our attitudes and expectations that we have become increasingly intolerant of differences in the way children learn. The result is the creation of disturbing gaps within classrooms. Those who think or seek to express themselves differently are marginalised early. Further, because our understanding of learning differences is so blinkered, we invariably club a wide range of children who are different as special - little realising that the word special means to recognise strengths and not to simply label as inadequate.
Taare Zameen Par highlights the plight of a child who can learn but learns differently, who wants to learn but is not being understood. The story passionately tells us to question our roles as educators, planners, teacher trainers, curriculum developers and parents. Research could perhaps reveal the connection with the loss of self-worth of many children because of our educational institutions and their inclination to vent their inner unhappiness with themselves and the world through hatred and crime. Of the criminals arrested in urban India in 2005 and 2006, about half were between 18 and 30 years of age. Many amongst these are young people who may have dropped out of school in the middle or senior classes.
A wide range of market-driven, media and social influences make parenting today a challenging experience for many. The frustrations of young people growing up in a family with less than adequate means together with the fear of competition and the obsession for success often manifest themselves in ways that one cannot foresee. As adults, we have failed our children. We will need several thousand films, books, exhibitions and plays to sensitise people about children’s lives. Simultaneously, we will need serious soul-searching on the part of school heads, teachers and parents to work towards viable alternatives in the way we teach and assess so that the alternatives become the rule. (The writer works as director of education, Shikshantar, Gurgaon.)

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Divine Performing Arts shows are a breath of fresh air

What sets these artists apart—be they dancers, designers, choreographers—is the profound affinity they share for China's traditional culture. These are people who have gone to great lengths to not just study, but also immerse themselves in China's ancient traditions. Many of the artists make an active practice of things like meditation, or practicing "mindful speech" and rightfulness—traits cultivated by China's sages of the past. These are far more than just world-class artists.
China's Great Cultural Revival By John Augustyn
Special to the Epoch Times
In China under communist rule, traditional culture has been assaulted and denounced for decades. The decade spanning 1966–76 witnessed Mao Zedong's "Cultural Revolution" unleash Red Guard soldiers on every possible vestige of China's traditional past—from Confucius' temple to Buddha statues, calligraphers, and libraries. The motto of the day was "Smash the old world!"
China's rich cultural traditions were seen as an obstacle to the ruling Communist Party's legitimacy: whereas traditional culture esteemed traits like kindness, harmony, and piety, Marxism-Leninism celebrated violence, atheism, "class struggle."
Thus it was the arts, and their performers, had their roots severed to such a severe extent.
But if this weren't enough, insult has been added to injury under communist rule: traditional culture was recycled, with macabre twists. Traditional operas, plays, and stories were recreated to serve Mao Zedong's political ends; what remnants of Chinese culture survived were masticated and re-engineered by the Party. Even today on Chinese state-run television you might see the bizarre spectacle of soldiers dancing—in full military regalia—a hybrid dance part Qing Dynasty ballet, part Maoist propaganda.
That is why the Divine Performing Arts shows like are more than just a breath of fresh air; it's a fresh start for China. In the Divine Performing Arts' shows, gone are the red flags of Chinese communism. Gone are the pirouetting People's Liberation Army soldiers. Gone are all those lyrics crafted to stir patriotism.
Instead, Divine Performing Arts seeks to serve up China's best traditional arts in all their glory, vigor, and spiritual robustness.
You could say, too, that the show's artists and creators know what it is not as well. Many of them, such as the company's orchestra conductor Mr. Rutang Chen, went through the pain and humiliation of the Cultural Revolution.