January 28, 2007

Is Music Art? (Part Two)

“Do we have anything in music for example that really wipes everything out? That
just cleans everything away, from some aspect of illusion and reality? Do we
have anything like – Proust? Do we have anything comparable to Finnegans
? I wonder.”
(Morton Feldman, "Toronto Lecture, April 1982," Morton Feldman Says :
Selected Interviews and Lectures 1964-1987
, London: Hyphen, 2006,

Feldman’s question begs the answer, “of course music is an art form and here are some examples of some far-out, ‘important’ stuff that proves it.” But, this question of music as an art form points to some of the difficulties that so-called “serious” or “classical” music confronts in the marketplace of ideas. Feldman suggests that it’s all just show-biz.

First of all, let’s be honest and admit that most people simply do not care about music very much to begin with. Pop music is consumed as sonic wall-paper and/or as a social-identity tool. In any event, music is merely a consumer product, only incidentally (or accidentally) a work of art. The same is true on a more (ahem) refined level for the “classical” music consumer for whom a more “adult,” upscale, and high-class social-identity tool is desired. The music itself is show-biz all the way, with only rare outbursts of discomfiting “art” that only serves to irritate those patrons who desire only predictable familiarity and certified “masterpieces.”

Aside from the vanishingly small subcultures of scholars and musicians, for most people, music is decidedly not an art form. Or maybe it is - who cares? They simply do not want to listen to it. What’s worse is that for musicians themselves music is not an art form – at least not as defined by John Cage (or any of those other modernist, difficult, composers).

Why should this be so? Most people, even if they don’t like (or “understand”) abstract painting, will at least grudgingly admit that it is, in fact, “art.” Even if most people won’t ever actually read Finnegans Wake, they would accept its designation as a work of art. Not so much with music. “Art Music” as presented by your local symphony orchestra is a miniscule repertoire of 19th Century war-horses trotted out again and again for the benefit of the local gentry who would emphatically insist that John Cage is not music and it most assuredly is not art. (More than likely, most members of the orchestra would heartily agree!)

The problem is complex and the first essential difficulty is that music exists only in time - sometimes vast expanses of time. A person can look at a painting for a fraction of a second and assess it as a whole. Then, maybe choose to look some more or maybe look at something else. Music, on the other hand insists that you submit to its demand for your time. It also demands concentration to appreciate how the sounds relate to each other over that span of time. And, unlike a work of literature, you cannot pick it up and put down at convenient intervals without destroying its essence as a time-based medium. So, this is difficult for people.

Furthermore, music is difficult to talk about. Literature, obviously, is itself words and there is an enormous vocabulary of words with which to talk about visual phenomena. It is easy to talk about what we see. But music is, at its very essence, utterly abstract and what descriptive vocabulary we do have for sound is limited and woefully inexact. Of course, one may learn how to read and write musical notation, maybe even learn how to play musical instruments, but all of that is of little use when trying to articulate what makes some groupings of sounds music.

Music is obviously hard-wired into the human brain. Everyone sings in the shower although not everyone writes (or even reads) or paints or draws. This “natural” tendency towards music is of course one of the things that makes music so unique in the arts. But this “fact of nature” also tends to make everyone an “expert” and allows a very subjective and personal taste to define what is good and bad, art and not-art. Therefore, most people are simply never going to be convinced to listen to John Cage or Arnold Schoenberg (or Morton Feldman) and call it “art.” They can’t stand to listen to it for a single second. No one sings “Pierrot Lunaire” in the shower.

Of course, it really is all Arnold Schoenberg’s fault. So-called “classical” music was at the height of its post-Romantic popularity when he kicked over the table with his “free atonality” and 12-tone rows. His “emancipation of the dissonance” effectively ended the meaningful relationship of “Art Music” to the culture at large and the “standard repertoire” would therefore end with Richard Wagner (with a little Debussy or maybe sometimes Bartok thrown in for spice). So, it was definitely all over long ago by the time Cage (incidentally a student of Schoenberg) wrote music out of silence.

As my friend, the composer/professor Stan Link likes to say, “music went one way and the audience went another.”

Welcome to the Post-Modern.


Sam said...

On the other hand, and this opens up a whole other can o' worms, I think you'd have been hard-pressed in 1967 to find someone to admit they didn't think "Sgt. Pepper" was a work of art. Even in 2007, I think a lot of people would say that that album is art.

On the other hand, again, while most people might say Finnegans Wake is a work of art, far less people would say it's a novel. Works of art are where you find them. Does literature have anything else comparable to Finnegans Wake? Nope.

Anyway, not sure what I'm saying here (obvious, isn't it?)--but I suspect far more people think music is an art form than you think--it just may be they don't "use" it that way.

Charlie Reidy said...

Arnold Schoenberg? How can he be the blame? His music is hardly ever heard in this country---even in New York, nor is that of his pupils. He's a convenient scapegoat for the fact that classical music in general is dying as a lively, contemporary art in America. If Schoenberg had never lived, and assuming that nobody else would have written atonal music and influenced others to do the same, you would still have Stravinsky, Bartok, Copland, Shostakovich, Ravel and the others whose music appears in concerts all the time. But since interest in classical music is waning then are we to assume they are the blame or the present-day composers who are performed and who write in a tonal style? Of course not---their styles are very accessible but classical audiences are still dwindling.

I know a lot of very intelligent people who in another era or another part of the world would be the main audience for classical music events, but they don't go to concerts and wouldn't even be able to tell you who Arnold Schoenberg is.

Interest in attending classical music events is waning because kids aren't being exposed to it in the home or in the schools, and that is a crime that a great man and musician like Schoenberg cannot be blamed for.

But the good news is that classical music recordings are selling better than ever. People are able to mix and match their tastes in any way they want. Music is art in America. It just isn't necessarily accessed the same way that painting and sculpture are.