April 2, 2011
Art Death/Heart DeathBy Matt Patterson
The Analogue Counter-Revolution, Part 6
Part 1: Step Away from the Computer
Part 2: iPad, Therefore I Am
Part 3: Life between the Cracks
Part 4: The Tyranny of Google
Part 5: Digital Dark Age Ahead?
Bach is singing.
Well, from his grave at least. A local Bach Society presented its annual concert recently, a fine affair featuring selections from several composers, including Bach and Beethoven. The setting at the small chapel was perfect, and the musicians were first rate.
Yet, the concert was only an hour long. Since half a dozen selections were featured, most ran only a few minutes, making them selections of selections, or "snippets." That is a shame, for all of the pieces were meant by their composers to be heard in their entirety. It's like going to an art show and only viewing a small corner of a Rembrandt or Picasso.
There is a great deal of talk these days about the death of the music industry, at least as we know it. The plight is well known -- new technologies, specifically, the digital format and the Internet which facilitates its dissemination, are undermining the music industry's ability to charge for their product. People just aren't buying records anymore.
Well, that is not entirely true. Old People (and by that we mean anyone over thirty) still buy records. But this is seen increasingly as a habit of age; over thirties have always bought records (on vinyl or CD), and it is, for them, more than just an economic phenomenon; it is a process, the very manner in which they have always enjoyed music.
These people enjoy looking forward to a new record from a favorite artist. They enjoy going to the record store, buying it, taking it home, unwrapping it, trying to get that infernal tape off. They enjoy putting it in the stereo, and scanning the tracks 'til one catches their ear, and then listening to that track, perhaps a few times, before sampling others. They enjoy, especially enjoy, when an album they did not care for at first begins to grow on them.
Most of these fogies would even admit that they enjoy the enormous amount of space their records take up in their homes and cars. The records are there; they are physical things. They get scratched and lost. They get borrowed and returned (or not). On occasion, they need to be taken down, dusted, and re-aquaintanced.
Most of all, these people enjoy having favorites. Favorite bands, favorite albums, favorite songs. They enjoy following a musical artist, and being either proud of, or disappointed in, their latest work, and they enjoy going to see them play live, regardless.
Young people today have few of these experiences, and none of these loyalties. They have been raised not on the turntable, or the CD player, but the laptop and the iPod. Music for them is an ephemeral thing; it flies through the air, ones and zeros waiting to materialize on a hard drive, and then deleted when no longer amusing. They have little or no allegiances to artists, or the album as an artistic statement. Their music is tunes; they are single songs, recommend by friends or seen on television, downloaded, burned, swapped, and then discarded and quickly forgotten. They cannot spare the forty minutes or so it takes to listen to an album; they want individual brush strokes, not canvasses.
Music is fundamentally different for these people; it is transitory and fleeting. Needless to say, it can be difficult to get people to pay for the transitory and fleeting. In truth, record companies have not lost the youth of today; they never had them. John Seabrook speculated about the possible long-term consequences of these trends for musicians themselves in The New Yorker, concluding, "With no means of support, many artists would be forced to stop working, and a cultural dark age would ensue."
Trade offs. Evolution is filled with them.
The peacock evolved elaborate tail plumage to attract the attention of females. It also makes them more vulnerable to predators. Whales evolved fins for flying through the water, but, without gills, are in constant danger of drowning. Nature abounds with such trade offs. They are a necessary part of all evolution, and not just the biological kind; Darwin's Child is master of all things, and human societies, like human bodies, evolve and change, and trade one thing for another.
Agriculture, for example, was invented independently in Asia Minor, Central America, China, and Egypt between eleven and seven thousand years ago. This "Neolithic Revolution" was a significant evolutionary leap. When food supplies were not subject to the whims of the herd, they could be planned and stored, and life got a whole lot easier for our ancestors. It allowed for the invention of the city, and keeping track of massive amounts of grain and livestock led directly to the invention of writing (the earliest cuneiform are crude systems of inventory).
But there were trade offs. For one, the centralization of population into cities meant that cataclysms, floods or earthquakes, could occasionally wipe out people in large numbers. (Such an event may have led to the sudden demise of the Harappan and Mayan civilizations). For another, the centralization of food storage led to the problem of pests (and the diseases they carry) coming and staying into close contact with people, resulting in the periodic plagues which have, well, plagued Mankind ever since.
Trade offs. Mother Nature abhors a vacuum, and she abhors waste even more.
To say that the Twentieth Century was a bad time for art would be an understatement. If there is one extraordinary fact about the last one hundred years or so, besides its unparalleled bloodletting, it is that it has produced no universally recognized works of artistic greatness.
Not that there weren't good artists in the Twentieth. There were, though less than is commonly believed. But we are not talking about good things here. We are talking about greatness. And in this, the past one hundred years is found most wanting. The last works of greatness, in any field of art, were done by artists who were products of the 19th century; Frank Lloyd Wright, Picasso, Joyce, etc. By mid-century, most had finished their creative careers.
And indeed, we find that not only has the Twentieth Century killed the great artists, it has killed whole realms of art themselves. Consider poetry. It has, by universal recognition, far more practitioners than enjoyers, or, as P.J. O'Rourke says, "an authorship of many and an audience of none." If that is not the sign of a dead art, I don't know what is. Whatever it was that had enabled us to compose and appreciate verse resides no longer, it seems, in the human heart.
Drama, likewise. Oh, there are Broadway shows, but these are diversions only. Drama was once thought among the highest of high art, a supremely protean form in which the greatest minds explored the depths of the human soul. No more. Drama has been replaced, as it were, by motion pictures and television.
Music is a long way towards death, though it is not at first obvious, because we are surrounded by so much of it. Modern music, however, is a pale, pale shadow of what it once was. Once, music was considered the very voice of God, and the great composers spent their lives to master the language. Audiences would be transformed, moved, and ennobled by the mere contemplation of a piece of music. This music, commonly called classical, now is no longer is written, save to accompany motion pictures. We have songs only, and these mere diversions; three or four minutes forged by committees, carefully calibrated so as not to offend, or as to offend the right people, whichever the powers that be deem more profitable.
Literature, like music, is along the way but not quite dead. There are, at least, some very good books being written, though, sadly, literary efforts are only slightly behind poetry in that far more people want to write a good book than want to read one.
Painting and sculpture? Been to a modern art museum lately?
So what happened to the music business? Is technology really to blame for its present, sorry state? Partly. The whole answer lies in two trends, which occurred concurrently over the last decades. The first trend is technological. As we have seen, the proliferation of new and ephemeral forms of media has been harmful, but also, the advance of home recording technology has had a tremendous and detrimental effect. Any one may now, with relatively inexpensive software, record music with little or no musical training. Voice off key? Computer can change that. Want your little keyboard to sound like wailing electric guitars? No problem.
This may seem like a wonderful thing, this democratization of music; in fact, the effect has been uniformly destructive. When technology assures that no skill is required to do something, then it destroys it, for skill is the very least that is required to make art of any merit. Training, be it musical, acting, or whatever, teaches the artist to focus his inner voice, to recognize what is worth exploring and what is not, and to manipulate it to produce maximum effect. People making art without training, out of a box, as it were, are incapable of saying anything meaningful; they are by definition no more "special" than the listeners.
Aside from the technological advances which have been detrimental to music, there has been the radical transformation of the music business itself. Within the last twenty years, music labels have been bought up by larger and larger corporations, which have merged with each other to form mega-corporations.
Now, it is true that companies are in business to make money. It is also true that that is a fine and noble goal. The effect, however, when music (or any art) is made to be a product, is the suffocation of the very thing that sustains the "product." Businessmen don't want to take chances, so they naturally want everything to sound like what they know has made money before. Invention is discouraged. The mold is made for you, you see, and you just need to be melted down and poured into it.
These trends together, the technological and the sociopolitical, have together conspired to kill music. By making sure that anyone can make it, they have assured that most music will be utterly worthless; by making music sound cheap and disposable, they have made sure that no one will want to buy it.
To put it another way: Young people do not want purposeful, meaningful music, because they have never heard such a thing, and even if they did they lack the capacity to understand, appreciate, and recreate it.
Harold Bloom, that champion of classical literature and Shakespeare-worshiper extraordinare, comments on the lack of interest in the classics today. "The art and passion of reading well and deeply...depended upon people who were fanatical readers when they were small children." You see, the classics are difficult. They present "linguistic and cognitive" challenges for even an able mind. To be in a position to appreciate them takes a lifetime of reading at ever more challenging levels. Television, computers, and video games have destroyed this; it no longer exists in any quantitative capacity.
The same thing has happened to music. People are simply not able to learn the skills necessary to make and appreciate great music. This is perhaps especially sad; Aristotle considered music the highest form of art. Oscar Wilde agreed with him; Nietzsche said that life without music would be an error.
Our circumstances are changing. There are no longer the environmental pressures in place to produce great music, or any other form of art (save, perhaps, motion pictures). We are changing. Our minds are changing. Our souls are changing.
We have gained, this past century, freedom and economic prosperity such has never been seen on this planet. We are living, in the West, at least, longer and healthier lives. A modicum of material comfort is available to all, something unthinkable even one hundred years ago. We owe this state of affairs to a single, and singular, event; on July 4, 1776, a group of philosopher/warriors fulfilled the dream of the Enlightenment. This was an act of creation so seminal, so breathtaking in its scope and originality, that it is in itself a work of art, perhaps the last great one.
But what have we lost?
The men of the 17th and 18th Centuries who gave us what we call the Enlightenment, men like Locke, Hume, Voltaire, and Burke, had good intentions; they wanted to see Mankind unfettered by the religious and economic shackles that had since antiquity held fast. They believed in the limitless capacity of the human soul, if only unbound.
Today, we live in the living, breathing embodiment of Enlightenment ideals, as it exists in the United States Constitution. Without wavering in our fealty to that blessed document, which has guaranteed the freedom of our ancestors and our unborn children, we may rightly ask: Has this prosperity and comfort been purchased at too high a price? Have we, in fact, bargained for our freedom with our very souls?
A muscle that meets no resistance will atrophy; so too, a soul. Freeing us from our chains has robbed us of a struggle that produced the Great Pyramids, the Sistine Chapel, and the Brandenburg Concertos.
Even if this is the case, what is to be done? Are we to ban art; make it illegal so as to give the artist something to strive for, rail against, conquer? Oh, that is a splendid idea! That would ensure that only the boldest, most gifted creatures would rise. To be willing to die for one's art; that is the least we should expect from our artists.
It is, alas, perhaps too late; Darwin's Child seldom goes backwards. Even when that happens, the markings of the forward march remain. For example, some scientists think that at some point in our not-too-distant past, homo sapiens took to the water (perhaps due to some catastrophic famine on land) and became semi-aquatic. As proof, they point to certain features which we possess that other primates do not, such as hairlessness and a vertically aligned pelvis, but which we share with aquatic mammals like whales and dolphins.
However long this "Water Baby" phase lasted, the effects remained, even after we returned to land. Our bodies are still naked, our pelvises still vertical, necessitating our awkward, upright posture.
I was listening to the voice of God through Bach's tongue in that small chapel, when the song was abruptly brought to an end. I wondered whether I would ever hear the whole piece, or if I did, if I could appreciate it the way that it was meant to be appreciated, and could not stifle a small tear.