The Coarsening of Culture

The metalcore band Goodbye to Gravity was performing at a nightclub in Bucharest, Romania in October 2015 when a fire broke out ignited by pyrotechnics that left dozens dead and many more injured. In 2003, pyrotechnics ignited a fire that killed 100 people and injured 230 at a nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island where the hard rock band Great White had been playing. Similar incidents have occurred in Latin America and Russia; more are only waiting to happen.

What’s going on here? No one would even think of setting off pyrotechnics at jazz, folk, blues, or classical concerts (Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture excepted), so why is it done at hard rock and metalcore concerts? The answer has important consequences.

I’ll start off with a personal experience and go from there.

Having noticed that the light at the intersection ahead had just turned red, I slowed down and pulled up to the crosswalk line. I’d been at that intersection many times before and knew I had about a two-minute wait. Luckily, Mozart was on the radio. There’s a good reason Einstein loved Mozart; many classical musicians would name him their favorite composer. The music is charming, perfectly balanced, and full of light. Check out the Divertimento K. 138, written when Mozart was 16.

Mellifluous sounds were drowned out shortly as a Jeep pulled up next to me driven by a fellow in his twenties. Blasting out of his radio was some sort of heavy-metal noise, screeching electric guitars accompanied by a steady, booming beat. Vvoom-vvoom-vvoom reverberated throughout my car, making my temples throb. My heart began to race and it felt like I was being punched in the stomach. I rolled up my window and turned the A/C fan way up. After what seemed an eternity the light changed. I let the Jeep speed past me to get away from this torture and also to make sure I wasn’t anywhere near in case the driver’s inattention caused an accident. In Denver, he would have been high.

Music to me is an aesthetic experience. I have had musical training, played an instrument at one time, and can hear musical structure along with shifts in tonality. Metal, rap, punk, hard rock, hip hop, etc., are all obnoxious, mindless, pointless, vulgar noise to me. How listening to this so-called music is in any way an aesthetic experience escapes me; ditto how listeners can be engaged at an intellectually or emotionally satisfying level. This stuff is too loud, too simple-minded, and too repetitive to do that. I don’t see how such a violent assault on the senses can even count as music.

Well, maybe it’s just me. Cultural relativists never tire of reminding us that matters of taste are subjective; it’s all in the eye of the beholder; different strokes for different folks; there aren’t any absolutes (here or anywhere else); it all depends on “context”; and so on. Truth be told, major philosophers such as Hume and Kant more or less said the same thing about art in general. Would they have shrugged their shoulders at heavy metal and stuck to their relativistic guns? How would they have drawn a line between good and bad music and between music and just plain noise? Hard to say.

So, what’s the argument that the fellow in the Jeep wasn’t having an aesthetic experience? After all, he was enjoying heavy metal precisely because it was loud and repetitive, which seem to be aesthetic properties -- such properties needn’t be positive or admirable to count as aesthetic. He rocked to the beat and rhythmically slapped the steering wheel, evidently oblivious to his surroundings. That should count as an aesthetic experience as much as sitting quietly and listening to Mozart, right?

It all depends on what we mean by “aesthetic experience.” I’ll cut to the chase and say that an aesthetic experience of X involves paying attention to the aesthetic properties of X for their own sake -- where X can be anything whatsoever: works of art (the Mona Lisa); ordinary objects (a Chippendale chair); events (Fourth of July fireworks); or natural phenomena (the Northern Lights).

So, what’s the difference between focusing on aesthetic properties for their own sake (having an aesthetic experience) and doing it for some other reason or focusing on properties that are not aesthetic (not having an aesthetic experience)? Let’s look at some examples, one from music and one from art, both based on personal experience.

I once played the opening of Poulenc’s Gloria to a friend who is Catholic (as was Poulenc). I identified the music before playing it but did not offer any hints as to what he should listen for. My friend listened and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “So?” He couldn’t tell me what was going on so I played it again; still no reaction.

I pointed out that the music had structure and said what it was: He had heard the same motif, with slight variation, three times. When I played it again, he was able to recognize that the same motif, with slight variations, had in fact occurred three times. I had to play it several more times before he could notice the subtle differences among the three variations; but eventually he did.

The structure of a piece of music along with harmonic and melodic details are aesthetic properties. When you focus on such properties for their own sake, you are having an aesthetic experience. On the other hand, if you are focusing on such properties because, for example, you need practice recognizing musical form for a test or trying to win a bet or some such, you are not having an aesthetic experience. 

You are also not having an aesthetic experience of music if you wonder about such things as: When the music was written and by whom; what instruments are playing; who the performers and the conductor are; when the recording was made and where; which label issued the recording; is it available at Amazon; and so on.

In the Gloria Poulenc used music to express his Christian faith – as did Bach. Thus, you are seeking a religious rather than an aesthetic experience if you focus on the motif that Poulenc repeated three times with slight variation as a musical representation of the Trinity concept. This is a non-aesthetic property of the music because you need to know facts external to the music itself to “get it.” When such knowledge is a requirement, you are no longer listening to Poulenc or Bach as “pure music.”

Here’s an example from my own work. When I show my business card, the usual reaction is “nice sculptures, Arnold,” plural. Then people ask me such questions as: what kind is the stone; how tall is the piece; how heavy is it; how is the stone mounted on the base; what is the base made of; how long it took to make; and who took the photos. Because they get hung up on non-aesthetic facts, few people notice a key aesthetic property: the four photos are of the same sculpture. Another key aesthetic property they miss is that the sculpture is not the same all the way around. The two middle views are front and back but are not what we would expect to see in a female sculpture. Radically different aesthetic relationships are exemplified.

Back to the fellow in the Jeep: Can we describe him as having an aesthetic experience? Well, it is true that he was focusing on the beat and volume of the music, which are aesthetic properties – albeit minimal ones compared to structure, harmony, and melodic detail. He was not having an aesthetic experience, however, because he was not focusing on aesthetic properties for their own sake. Rather, the volume was turned way up because he wanted to experience sensations such as: his car shaking; his temples throbbing; his heart racing; his eardrums being pummeled; and his senses being drowned out. In short: He wanted a high, which in Denver he could have gotten legally by smoking pot.

Add pyrotechnics to the racket blasting out of the Jeep and you get the Bucharest and West Warwick concerts. The bands assaulted the spectators’ ears, while the mini-bombs did the same to their eyes. Aesthetic experience is pretty much inconceivable under such circumstances. If a fire had not broken out everyone would have gone home in a state of exhaustion, having achieved the high they went to the concert for. It’s quite possible that so many folks were hurt in the fire because reaction times were slowed by the deluge of light and sound that overwhelmed them.  

Now, what’s so important about focusing on aesthetic properties for their own sake, apart from what doing so might be good for? You don’t need to be a cognitive psychologist to realize that such focusing involves abstraction, i.e., attention to a property itself and its properties. This is what goes on in mathematics and science all the time. Those are worlds of abstraction, impossible to grasp unless one has the ability to focus on the matter at hand as such, aside from applications or (ugh) “relevance.”

You also don’t need to be a cognitive psychologist to realize that there is a natural bridge between music, mathematics and science. The music, however, should be Mozart, as Einstein would have been quick to point out. Metal, rap, punk, hard rock, hip hop and the like are destructive, addictive influences. They’ll mess up your head as surely as drugs.

Hat tip: Patricia McCarthy

A working sculptor, Arnold Cusmariu explains the philosophical foundations of his artwork in “The Structure of an Aesthetic Revolution,” Journal of Visual Arts Practice (2009), “Baudelaire’s Critique of Sculpture,” Journal of Aesthetic Education (2015), and “Toward an Epistemology of Art,” (2016). He applies philosophical analysis to film in “The Perils of Aphrodite,” Film International (2015). Dr. Cusmariu can be reached at aclogic1@yahoo.com.

The metalcore band Goodbye to Gravity was performing at a nightclub in Bucharest, Romania in October 2015 when a fire broke out ignited by pyrotechnics that left dozens dead and many more injured. In 2003, pyrotechnics ignited a fire that killed 100 people and injured 230 at a nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island where the hard rock band Great White had been playing. Similar incidents have occurred in Latin America and Russia; more are only waiting to happen.

What’s going on here? No one would even think of setting off pyrotechnics at jazz, folk, blues, or classical concerts (Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture excepted), so why is it done at hard rock and metalcore concerts? The answer has important consequences.

I’ll start off with a personal experience and go from there.

Having noticed that the light at the intersection ahead had just turned red, I slowed down and pulled up to the crosswalk line. I’d been at that intersection many times before and knew I had about a two-minute wait. Luckily, Mozart was on the radio. There’s a good reason Einstein loved Mozart; many classical musicians would name him their favorite composer. The music is charming, perfectly balanced, and full of light. Check out the Divertimento K. 138, written when Mozart was 16.

Mellifluous sounds were drowned out shortly as a Jeep pulled up next to me driven by a fellow in his twenties. Blasting out of his radio was some sort of heavy-metal noise, screeching electric guitars accompanied by a steady, booming beat. Vvoom-vvoom-vvoom reverberated throughout my car, making my temples throb. My heart began to race and it felt like I was being punched in the stomach. I rolled up my window and turned the A/C fan way up. After what seemed an eternity the light changed. I let the Jeep speed past me to get away from this torture and also to make sure I wasn’t anywhere near in case the driver’s inattention caused an accident. In Denver, he would have been high.

Music to me is an aesthetic experience. I have had musical training, played an instrument at one time, and can hear musical structure along with shifts in tonality. Metal, rap, punk, hard rock, hip hop, etc., are all obnoxious, mindless, pointless, vulgar noise to me. How listening to this so-called music is in any way an aesthetic experience escapes me; ditto how listeners can be engaged at an intellectually or emotionally satisfying level. This stuff is too loud, too simple-minded, and too repetitive to do that. I don’t see how such a violent assault on the senses can even count as music.

Well, maybe it’s just me. Cultural relativists never tire of reminding us that matters of taste are subjective; it’s all in the eye of the beholder; different strokes for different folks; there aren’t any absolutes (here or anywhere else); it all depends on “context”; and so on. Truth be told, major philosophers such as Hume and Kant more or less said the same thing about art in general. Would they have shrugged their shoulders at heavy metal and stuck to their relativistic guns? How would they have drawn a line between good and bad music and between music and just plain noise? Hard to say.

So, what’s the argument that the fellow in the Jeep wasn’t having an aesthetic experience? After all, he was enjoying heavy metal precisely because it was loud and repetitive, which seem to be aesthetic properties -- such properties needn’t be positive or admirable to count as aesthetic. He rocked to the beat and rhythmically slapped the steering wheel, evidently oblivious to his surroundings. That should count as an aesthetic experience as much as sitting quietly and listening to Mozart, right?

It all depends on what we mean by “aesthetic experience.” I’ll cut to the chase and say that an aesthetic experience of X involves paying attention to the aesthetic properties of X for their own sake -- where X can be anything whatsoever: works of art (the Mona Lisa); ordinary objects (a Chippendale chair); events (Fourth of July fireworks); or natural phenomena (the Northern Lights).

So, what’s the difference between focusing on aesthetic properties for their own sake (having an aesthetic experience) and doing it for some other reason or focusing on properties that are not aesthetic (not having an aesthetic experience)? Let’s look at some examples, one from music and one from art, both based on personal experience.

I once played the opening of Poulenc’s Gloria to a friend who is Catholic (as was Poulenc). I identified the music before playing it but did not offer any hints as to what he should listen for. My friend listened and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “So?” He couldn’t tell me what was going on so I played it again; still no reaction.

I pointed out that the music had structure and said what it was: He had heard the same motif, with slight variation, three times. When I played it again, he was able to recognize that the same motif, with slight variations, had in fact occurred three times. I had to play it several more times before he could notice the subtle differences among the three variations; but eventually he did.

The structure of a piece of music along with harmonic and melodic details are aesthetic properties. When you focus on such properties for their own sake, you are having an aesthetic experience. On the other hand, if you are focusing on such properties because, for example, you need practice recognizing musical form for a test or trying to win a bet or some such, you are not having an aesthetic experience. 

You are also not having an aesthetic experience of music if you wonder about such things as: When the music was written and by whom; what instruments are playing; who the performers and the conductor are; when the recording was made and where; which label issued the recording; is it available at Amazon; and so on.

In the Gloria Poulenc used music to express his Christian faith – as did Bach. Thus, you are seeking a religious rather than an aesthetic experience if you focus on the motif that Poulenc repeated three times with slight variation as a musical representation of the Trinity concept. This is a non-aesthetic property of the music because you need to know facts external to the music itself to “get it.” When such knowledge is a requirement, you are no longer listening to Poulenc or Bach as “pure music.”

Here’s an example from my own work. When I show my business card, the usual reaction is “nice sculptures, Arnold,” plural. Then people ask me such questions as: what kind is the stone; how tall is the piece; how heavy is it; how is the stone mounted on the base; what is the base made of; how long it took to make; and who took the photos. Because they get hung up on non-aesthetic facts, few people notice a key aesthetic property: the four photos are of the same sculpture. Another key aesthetic property they miss is that the sculpture is not the same all the way around. The two middle views are front and back but are not what we would expect to see in a female sculpture. Radically different aesthetic relationships are exemplified.

Back to the fellow in the Jeep: Can we describe him as having an aesthetic experience? Well, it is true that he was focusing on the beat and volume of the music, which are aesthetic properties – albeit minimal ones compared to structure, harmony, and melodic detail. He was not having an aesthetic experience, however, because he was not focusing on aesthetic properties for their own sake. Rather, the volume was turned way up because he wanted to experience sensations such as: his car shaking; his temples throbbing; his heart racing; his eardrums being pummeled; and his senses being drowned out. In short: He wanted a high, which in Denver he could have gotten legally by smoking pot.

Add pyrotechnics to the racket blasting out of the Jeep and you get the Bucharest and West Warwick concerts. The bands assaulted the spectators’ ears, while the mini-bombs did the same to their eyes. Aesthetic experience is pretty much inconceivable under such circumstances. If a fire had not broken out everyone would have gone home in a state of exhaustion, having achieved the high they went to the concert for. It’s quite possible that so many folks were hurt in the fire because reaction times were slowed by the deluge of light and sound that overwhelmed them.  

Now, what’s so important about focusing on aesthetic properties for their own sake, apart from what doing so might be good for? You don’t need to be a cognitive psychologist to realize that such focusing involves abstraction, i.e., attention to a property itself and its properties. This is what goes on in mathematics and science all the time. Those are worlds of abstraction, impossible to grasp unless one has the ability to focus on the matter at hand as such, aside from applications or (ugh) “relevance.”

You also don’t need to be a cognitive psychologist to realize that there is a natural bridge between music, mathematics and science. The music, however, should be Mozart, as Einstein would have been quick to point out. Metal, rap, punk, hard rock, hip hop and the like are destructive, addictive influences. They’ll mess up your head as surely as drugs.

Hat tip: Patricia McCarthy

A working sculptor, Arnold Cusmariu explains the philosophical foundations of his artwork in “The Structure of an Aesthetic Revolution,” Journal of Visual Arts Practice (2009), “Baudelaire’s Critique of Sculpture,” Journal of Aesthetic Education (2015), and “Toward an Epistemology of Art,” (2016). He applies philosophical analysis to film in “The Perils of Aphrodite,” Film International (2015). Dr. Cusmariu can be reached at aclogic1@yahoo.com.