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:

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