‘There is really no such thing as Art. There are only artists.’- E.H. Gombrich.
The usefulness of names is often paradoxical. In a time where standardisation and globalisation form the architecture of our daily means, names allow us to communicate and live in this framework through multiple languages with ease. Think about discussing the purchase of a cup of coffee without a strong and established sense of what these things are called and without a codified idea of what currency is at that moment in time. Attempt to dissect how one would possibly re-write such colossal literature as Tolstoy’s War and Peace or even Tolkien’s ‘Middle Earth’ without the definitive tool and procedure of naming persons and locations. Ponder on surgeons unable to operate without a defined library of names for each of our organs, their inner workings and definitions upon their functions. Without such things as the art of taxonomy, a branch of science concerned with the clarification of objects, we’d severely harm the form of our pragmatic actions and our thoughts that devise them. Names help people a lot.
In a world littered with logos and trademark designs, symbols rely less on subjective underpinnings of love, hate, faith and tradition and instead convey association with more archaic impulses like hunger, thirst or sex. Alongside the democratisation of luxury, the modern consumer reaches toward the world of ‘products’ and ‘branding’. With the ability to purchase luxury goods from high-class companies at affordable prices, companies such as Gucci, Calvin Klein and (Donald) Trump have had a great impact upon the way we live within the 21st century, forming a standard of living widely regarded as greater than our ancestors before us. Meanwhile, as technology itself is becoming far more accessible in its attainability and use in either; the political spectrum with multiple politicians, political figures and movements using online social network platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to share their beliefs; businesses and freelance entrepreneurs easily able to create an online presence and website through sites; or even those who wish to educate with a multitude of one to one lessons via skype or even the free online lectures notably by Yale University and Berklee that seek to enlighten – information of either fact or opinion surrounds us. We live in very noisy times.
One may feel that within this domain, they are marooned upon an island within the outskirts of the digital sea whilst politicians that used to be photographed with spades alongside communities, now are pictured with smartphones alongside their fans.
And as more and more people rely on circuit boards and the telephone communication systems to live their daily lives, the means for profit are in many ways becoming more flexible. Companies such as Uber rely on systems of technology not thought possible twenty years ago, creating a marketplace that relies on the flexibility of consumers and its workforce. Uber is as journalist Max Chafkin puts it:
‘the first company since Google with a service so popular that its name is in regular use as both a noun and a verb—has spawned an entire category of business known as the one-tap economy.’
Businesses that govern modern economics literally have the capability to inform our language. The words we use to mean what we say, our literal meaning of things. More and more we are running towards rules grounded within objectivism and our beacon is often that of large corporations. Copies of copies are formed. Turkish supermen that are amalgamations of their American counterparts, coffee chains that are hybrids of their Italian origins.
With so many manufactured products to choose from, to define oneself with – it’s hard almost not to feel like a version of Patrick Bateman.
This terrain we’ve created has the potential to become difficult for the artists of our time. To create originality in such a concrete space of both physical and metaphysical proportions can be a daunting venture. However despite this, a beautiful remark from Nick Sousanis’s graphic novel ‘Unfallenting’ offers up a solution to this conundrum that sums up the balance between this issue perfectly.
‘While standardization has its uses, conforming to another’s expectations is detrimental – if the shoe doesn’t fit, it’s hard to move freely.’
When you name something, you immediately give that thing an identity. This usually fixes it like a photograph, but like all photographs, they only document the moment in which they were taken. Instead of giving us a fixed, ‘true’ representation of an object they rather give us a perspective of what something was at the immediate time it was captured.
One thinks of Eugene Atget’s incessant photography of Paris. An act, built out of simple circumstance – from the government of the time’s desire to document the city, as well as his own interest in this pursuit, yet ultimately there is a rich and moody stylistic imagery decorating the factual presence of the shots taken. We could of course also look at Robert J. Flaherty’s documentary ‘Nanook of the North’, a film that has been regarded as ‘Culturally, historically and aesthetically significant’ by the library of congress in capturing the life of a Inuk man and his family yet it is widely known to have staged sequences within. Perhaps we could even turn to Turner’s famous paintings of the Houses of Parliament burning alight. Yes, a document of a rare moment that survives through our historical interest but we don’t keep staring at it just because it’s informative.
We could even step back and give ourselves a larger view into the context of history further questioning how we define particular moments of the past. One could look to the vast amount of poetry created throughout the two World Wars and what this tell us about the experiences and ultimately the reality of that period of time. In a collection of poems from the Second World War collected by the academic Hugh Haughton, he describes the sheer size of the conflict:
‘The scale, location and technology of the Second World War (also) made it a completely different kind of war. Rather than being fought in a relatively confined theatre, as the First World War was, it was genuinely global…
It is hard to grasp the sheer scale and intensity of the Second World War, or the havoc it wrought across the face of the world.’
His collection, named simply Second World War Poems, holds literature written around the globe during the six year conflict, ranging from men and women of all different ages and walks of life. It offers an insightfully broad outlook of the period. I quote from one poem of many in the collection. The poem below is by Japanese poet Nobuyuki Saga entitled ‘The Myth Of Hiroshima’, translated by Hajime Kajima.
‘What are they looking for,
running to the summit of lost time?
Hundreds of people vaporised instantly,
are walking in mid-air.
‘We didn’t die.’
‘We skipped over death in a flash and became spirits.’
‘Give us a real, human death.’
One man’s shadow among hundreds is branded on stone steps.
‘Why am I imprisoned in stone?’
‘Where did my flesh go, separated from its shadow?’
‘What must I wait for?’
The twentieth century myth is stamped with fire.
Who will free this shadow from this stone?’
Grim imagery combined with a hauntingly dreamlike outlook, though it still informs itself in the same way as our others examples, however scattered they may appear; Reality recorded with the methods of the subjective. Our history devised through the perception of events.
In solidifying something as objective you’re always at the risk of freezing something in the midst of a progressive moment and then copying it from a single perspective rather than capturing exactly, precisely what it is. I’m not saying our methods of documentation fabricate our view of the world around us but we certainly don’t copy our surroundings down, note for note. Let’s even take the topic of journalism or indeed simply the act of documenting one’s surroundings through written language. John Hollingshead in his book ‘Ragged London’, an investigation into the dark entrenches of poverty surrounding London in 1861, offers a painstakingly accurate and laborious recording of his discoveries however he himself even discusses the limitations of his own work.
‘I have had but one story to tell, and I have told it as faithfully as it could be told. The scale upon which my have been unavoidably planned has imposed a treatment rather broad and superficial, and a rather arbitrary arrangement of districts.’
He goes on to offer solutions to the poverty he has analysed yet even upon his own terms, whilst as necessary such a thing is, his writings can only be influenced by his limited and subjective outlook. London, of course, has seen change since his time and though similar themes of poverty may still resonate, to look back at all historical texts based on the unreliability of human experience, however sincere or articulate, is foolhardy within it’s own terms to allow us a outlook toward the ‘truth’.
Of course, some things may stay objectively the same but not everything. Photograph any famous landmark you like (Big Ben, The Eiffel Tower, The Leaning tower of Pisa, The Empire State Building) and you’ll still most probably recognise the subject in any photograph you care to look at, but nonetheless not everything in the world is subject to such stability and immediate recognition.
Children grow into adults; trees wither and die; old buildings are torn down and new ones are built upon the rubble. Things can change, morph and move, creating something uncatchable; we can’t cage it because it’s not a fixed thing even if we perceive it to have formed a sense of consistency. Often ‘the undefinable’ has many parts that are always changing their function as well the addition of new parts being formed and tested along the way, and yet not like pieces of a puzzle that once put together form an ultimate ‘realm of the forms’ Platoic idea, it is instead subject to countless perceptions (all a maze of paths pitting ignorance vs education) that don’t necessarily add up to anything in particular.
Music is one of these things. For the most part it’s because the pleasure and pain of sound is subjective. I suppose what I’m offering is something similar to that of Owen Jones’s definition of the Establishment.
‘Stare at a blank sheet of paper smeared with ink, and you might be able to detect the outlines of an image. But somebody else looking at the same piece of paper may see something very different. What we see reveals more about ourselves than it does about the smear of ink. This exercise, of course, is known as the ‘Rorschach test’ – and the same principle applies when it comes to looking at the Establishment.’
In seeking to define something subjective we always find ourselves within it. Music is an abyss and when we look into it, it reflects back like a mirror to who we are at that moment in time. We all have our ignorances and our tastes. We all have our needs and functions for sound. With a wider view, we can easily see that a lot of these needs and functions are relatively the same.
Spoken word, alarms, doorbells, car horns, ringtones, theme tunes, the hum of machinery, background noise, a plane taking off, the boom of fireworks, the cry of a baby, the bark of a dog – we share similar experiences down to the urban environments we inhabit yet there is a still a collision in taste which divides the art of Music into styles/genres, all equally celebrated and berated with respect to social practice. With a tendency to align one’s self with a variety of criteria such as talent, tradition, complexity or even humour (take your pick and add your own if you like), we choose our noise(s) we listen to based on a spectrum of possibilities that are not necessarily always aligned with sound itself.
There is a reason why the band Kiss wear makeup and there is a reason why there was a riot at the premiere of ‘The Rite of Spring’. I doubt it the sole reason is equal temperament’s interpretation of the alignment of rhythm and harmony.
In the lecture series ‘The Unanswered Question’ Leonard Bernstein famously took his audience along a ride of analysis, predominantly focusing on the history of Western art music, to find out what this mysterious object is. He failed to answer it because the question itself is flawed.
Perhaps ‘The Unanswerable Question’ would suffice?
Since the age of enlightenment we’ve continually tried to define the world around us but we can clearly see that many things simply are not one constant. We still focus on asking questions which intend to force out one solid answer yet contradictions lurk in every corner and instead of trying to straighten them out like tangled leads perhaps it’s best to realise they’re not supposed to plug into anything at all; they just might happen to. Coincidence has no intentions.
We only know what Music is by what we and our ancestors have known it to be. In a way, it’s like an adaptation of a Shakespearian play. We take the script at hand as gospel as we assume it to be correct and follow the instructions as best as we can. The product is most possibly pleasurable (but not necessarily to everyone) and from that origin we birth that thorny debate of what is good and bad. It would be unwise to forget that we have always relied on the fickleness of memory to perform arrangements of sound and even in terms of documented music in the form of musical scores, we can never be sure that we have either the access to all before us or the ability to perform it as priorly intended.
By simply adhering to define a theory of something by what we’ve found from the past can be detrimental. Felix Martin, macroeconomist and fund manager, in his book ‘Money – the unauthorised biography’ explains the misinterpretation of the literal definition of money through the large quantities of coinage discovered that has survived from past centuries. By deconstructing common myths found in economics, he describes Money as a ‘Social Technology’ rather than a bartering system based on physical materials ‘ie coins or notes’. Physical things themselves are not money, rather the social contract itself enables.
‘Coins are made of durable metals – and very often of imperishable metals, such as gold or silver, which do not rust or corrode. As a result, they tend to survive the ravages of time better than most other things. What is more, coins are valuable. As a result, there has always been a tendency for them to be squirrelled away in buried or hidden hoards – the better to be discovered decades, centuries, or even millennia later by the enterprising historian or numismatist. The problem is that in no field so much as the history of money is an approach fixated upon what physically survives likely to lead us into error.’
Speaking of how likely we are to misinterpret the meaning of Money by what we’ve discovered to be Money in the past is an important thing to acknowledge. The definitions devised from the history of Money are as much as flawed as how we define Music from what we know of its history. By only defining Music by scores, manuscripts and texts articulating techniques of creation, we create a flawed outlook of what Music is.
We fail to acknowledge our own ignorance when thinking in this context, therefore constantly seeking to fixate the present in a hazy view of the past.
The interpretation is the key here, our interpretation of what we know something to be or not to be. To assume that what we know to be ‘Music’ is in fact all that ‘Music’ is, can and does limit it’s possibilities. Borrowing and developing ancient forms of documentation, technology and social practice, we can see that we’ve not always made Music for one unifying reason and nor will we continue to.
As much as we try to define what Music is, it is indeed not a concrete thing – nor has it ever been and I believe it has more to do with how we use sound rather than exactly what the sound itself is. New Music has a symbiotic relationship with the birth of new social practices. The Be- Bop era was born out of a countercultural attack against the popular Jazz of the time in an effort to intellectualise and push the genre into new ground; The Punk Era punched its way into existence through a means of extrapolating popular culture and re-immersing into a DIY process beyond simply the creation and restrictions of Music; Hip – Hop was birthed through massive leaps in technology and the appropriation of records replayed and reimagined in a very particular part of the world that allowed the formation of a new social construct that was, through the context of its time, formatted into a marketable means. These social reasons for creating a distinctive sound at any point of time will always inform the choices of notes and sounds that musicians will ultimately choose or want to make. I don’t think it works the other way round.
Sound and culture are locked in a dance, that doesn’t necessarily move backwards or forwards down a pathway, but they certainly aren’t staying still. They unpredictably flow against each other, forming movements that we either focus on or not. It’s also dependent on what we like to attract our attention to. In dissecting the parts of Music that we feel must be separated, we have to look at what measurements we’re working with as well as the point of the endeavour itself.
Projects such as The Art Council’s scheme ‘Metrics’ attempts to investigate this idea by quizzing audiences on a broad schema designed to capture and refine the topic of excellence within the arts.
Below is what they define are their core qualities and how they investigate them with different groups.
‘The core quality metrics
Self, peer and public:
- Concept: it was an interesting idea
- Presentation: it was well produced and presented
- Distinctiveness: it was different from things I’ve experienced before
- Challenge: it was thought-provoking
- Captivation: it was absorbing and held my attention
- Enthusiasm: I would come to something like this again
- Local impact: it is important that it’s happening here
- Relevance: it has something to say about the world in which we live
- Rigour: it was well thought through and put together
Self and peer only:
- Originality: it was ground-breaking
- Risk: the artists/curators really challenged themselves
- Excellence: it is one of the best examples of its type that I have seen’
Of course these surveys which have planned to be researched over a 10 year span can and will show a calculation of the participants feelings towards a subjective schema. However even results that may be taken as objective and noteworthy data can only allow a spectrum of opinions that have been congregated and correlated into a system that gives a 21st century definition of excellence within the arts. The information itself cannot tell you what it is, just a measurement against what people believe it to currently be. It will be perhaps more of a collage than a photograph but the metaphor still applies.
Though, when talking about discerning differences of styles and genres and when reflecting on progression in Music we can’t forget that the feeling of newness sometimes can be born out of an ignorance to what came before us. And upon this thought, this ignorance, it would be foolhardy to ignore the apathy toward Music itself. Some people simply don’t care and why should they? Glorification is in the eye of the beholder(s) and recognising a sense of beauty does not create a concrete equation for understanding, only the illusion of validity.
We can’t forget how ignorant we can be and have been as a species. We believed the Earth was flat, we believed the Earth was the centre of the universe, we murdered countless woman in the pursuit of ‘witches’, we recommended smoking as medicine, we systematically pushed down woman’s sexual desires as the medical condition known as ‘hysteria’, we believed a whole race of peoples where beneath us and thus could be sold into slavery. Alongside these examples, we need only to look at the hugely significant research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky with their distinctions of System 1 (instinct,gut) and 2 (reasoning, intelligence).
‘For some of our most important beliefs we have no evidence at all, except that people we love and trust hold these beliefs. Considering how little we know, the confidence we have in our beliefs is preposterous…’
We can’t forget the limitations that our own minds provide. It’s not beyond reason to see that we’re not above believing that just because something appears to us in a particular form that is in fact exactly what it is. Music can and does fit into this thinking therefore limiting its possibilities. This isn’t always a bad thing but it doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to stretch out of our comfort zone.
Some may argue that through points of view based in nature we can discover exactly what Music is. Unfortunately this is often debatable and many struggle to remember they’re using a very specific and sophisticated language that has been dissected, embellished and changed through years of development to discuss a knowledge of sound derived from a perception built in the 21st century.
Nature is itself an extremely vague, clay – like topic and I would not wish to build an argument in such foggy terrain. If you analyse arguments based within nature in the past, you can easily finding worrying conclusions formed under such a broad topic. Just look at the Nazi party’s use of the topic of nature in the sense of Germany’s own mythic, historical folklore to establish a misplaced pride in genealogy and ultimately further racist agendas. Or the abolishment of the Creoles of colour who lost their position in a matter of a day due to the American government’s belief of the natural order of their race.
We can even look to neuroscientist Stanislas Dehane’s remark that ‘..innumeracy maybe our normal human condition’ when discussing the considerable effort to understand multiplication with greater numbers and when this idea is placed alongside philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s belief that, when theorising upon man’s assumption of eternal truths established through language, logic and mathematics, states ‘Logic, too, rests on assumptions that do not correspond to anything in the real world, eg. on the assumption of the equality of things…So it is with mathematics, which would certainly not have originated if it had known from the beginning that there is no straight line in nature’ we can see that the subject of nature is equivocal and easily twisted to one’s own ends.
One may also look to Dan Gardner’s thoughts in his book ‘Risk’ too. Within the Chapter ‘The Chemistry of Fear’ where he discusses the modern world’s revulsion toward ‘chemicals’ formed out of common misunderstanding.
‘The synthetic chemicals in our bodies that disturb people are typically found only in these almost indescribably minute quantities. They are traces, mere whispers, like the radioactive uranium we consume all our lives in blissful ignorance of its benign presence. It’s true that many of these chemicals can cause cancer and other horrible effects but the science on which these conclusion are based on almost never involves these sorts of traces.’
These examples may seem scattered, unrelated but what they show is that the way we live, work and perceive the world is not in any concrete way ‘natural’ – it’s far more complicated than that. With a subject so utterly misunderstood, I have no wish to explore it’s subjectivism to find definitions in Music.
I shall not attempt answer the whys (?) of Music either. It really is not my concern nor in my interest. I doubt even if this sort of ‘knowing’ was possible that it would be much use. Despite the amount of neurological research that seems to try uncover this, the ideas seem, to me at least, limited by the small pool of music and musical activity they draw form. The same could possibly be said for recent research into letter – colour synaesthesia learned through training. It seems only to provide the information that we can force correlation between subjective senses of colour against symbols that happen to represent language. There is no inherent meaning discovered, just simply a learnt one with no means apart from the ones, we ourselves, devise. Even when looking at the history of an art form like typography we can find cultural laws and styles learnt and distorted. David Jury in his book ‘About Face’ cites the example of the Blackletter type face (also known as Gothic, Textura, Farktur and Old English). With it’s origins first cited in Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible, its use evolved beyond religious contexts. Jury writes about it’s modern day uses:
‘..blackletter typefaces tend to be used as newspaper mastheads, legal documents and organically produced foods. However, because of its German origins and Hitler’s insistence on its use during the Thirties and Forties as the ‘true German’ typeface, it can be designed to take on other, more disturbing connotations.’
As we can see, through time, meanings are swayed and through our awareness whether educated about the source of origin and its transformations or not, we still find a variety of cataloged meanings across the world which in of themselves have no worth; no context; no interpretation; no definition.
So when creating in our time, seeking to market a define product, we must remember it’s only a version, a facet of whatever type of art we’re selling. We’ve never been so aware of our past and with this new awareness perhaps instead of forcing a clear definition of something down our throats to find out what something is, it may be better to use the huge view of history we have to instead show us all the incalculable things something can be.