Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (Touchstone, 1945/2007)
I had been looking for a single-volume reference guide to philosophy and Lord Russell’s classic text nicely serves that purpose. Based upon a series of lectures at the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania, Lord Russell presents an imminently readable (and sometimes dryly humorous) history from the ancient Greeks to quantum theory and he clearly elucidates even the most esoteric concepts. Please don’t test me on any of this material, but I conclude that (1) no one has figured it all out and (2) the most recent advances in philosophy and science have begun to resurrect long-dismissed elements of ancient animism. What goes around comes around.
Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Cultural Life (HarperCollins 2000)
Apparently, Jacques Barzun has read most every book ever written and has something witty and erudite to say about each one, making this somewhat unwieldy tome a remarkably enjoyable read. Beginning with Martin Luther and the Protestant Revolution which sought to overthrow centuries of Roman Catholic hegemony, Barzun organizes this sweeping history around a number of themes which, for him, define the “Modern Era”: abstraction, analysis, emancipation, primitivism, reductivism, secularism, self-consciousness, scientism, and specialism. Barzun seems to argue that the high point of western culture coincided with the court of Louis XIV, where the administration of the state and the arts were most closely allied. And that it was all downhill from there to our contemporary “demotic” times where individualism eviscerates any remnants of widespread cultural values. It is difficult to refute his thesis, yet while empires come and go, cultural production continues and these products reflect the realities in which it finds itself. A telling blind spot is Barzun’s dismissal of “jazz” and other African-American cultural contributions in a mere handful of paragraphs. Nevertheless, this is a useful overview of western history through the lens of its arts and letters.
Peter Gay, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy: From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond (Norton 2008)
Tracing a broad outline of the history of the modernist movement from its roots in late-romanticism to its eclipse by the rise of “pop art” in the 1960s, each chapter examines a facet of artistic production from painting and sculpture, prose and poetry, music and dance, architecture and design, and drama and movies. Gay posits that the Modernist impulse was fundamentally a rebellion against established societal and cultural norms: an act of heresy that imbued the work with a power that is now lost in a contemporary world that is fractured and lacking any norms against which to rebel (hence, the term “post-modernism” to describe our present situation). This neo-Freudian approach prevents the book from being merely an encyclopaedic recitation of names and works; rather, Gay uses representative examples to bolster his argument and thereby constructs a useful framework in which to view the Modernist movement across artistic disciplines. But, as with Barzun, jazz and other African-American contributions are largely absent in Gay’s account and therefore fails to address one of the greatest modernist heresies of all: “free jazz.”
George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (Chicago 2008)
The Eurocentricism of Barzun and Gay is ably countered by George Lewis’s magisterial history of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music. As a virtuoso musician and fellow member of the AACM, Lewis not only provides a detailed, insider’s account of the collective’s ups and downs and inner politics, but also devotes serious scholarship to effectively assert the AACM’s cultural importance. Lewis demonstrates that the modernist project was taken up by African American “avant-garde” jazz musicians where post-serialist techniques and post-Cage experimentalism were enthusiastically adopted by AACM musicians such as Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell and the Art Ensemble of Chicago who produced a vast and hugely influential body of work that is to this day sadly neglected by the fine arts establishment despite its obvious aesthetic merits. Hopefully, A Power Stronger Than Itself will serve as some corrective to this racist blind spot.