Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Celanese Ads from the Financial Analysts Journal, 1963-64'

Cold War Delusions

A few advertisements from the Financial Analysts Journal that I ran into while working at JSTOR -- I've been interested in studying the correlations between the Cold War and 20th Century art forms as of the late, and I found these ads to be pretty interesting since it provides some context behind how abstract art had functioned as a political and economic device back then.

These are from 1963 and 1964 -- around the time when modernism was at its peak (at least in terms of its influence) and when the Cold War and the Space Race was in full swing. The ads speak of freedom of expression, technological and creative innovation, imagination and exploration, management of "chance" and "risk", and the juxtaposition of things otherwise previously unrelated -- all of which has been advocated by artists of that time period in one way or another. From the very beginning of its conception, the avant-garde and corporate culture has shared a very close relationship with one another, acting as advocates of free expression and free enterprise against the strictly enforced socialist realism and planned economies of the Soviet Union.

As multinational corporations became larger and more influential around the world, their rhetoric shifted toward ideas of multicultural unity and localization, through the belief that a standardized product could also be made to serve the needs of the local populace. These are highlighted in some of the later ads, which can be seen as precursors to globalization and postmodernism.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Modernism, Postmodernism

In line with Theodore Adorno's ideas about the functions of art and art-objects, Modern artists often believed that there was a necessity for art to serve a "critical purpose" toward society and its social norms. This would mainly be achieved by exposing the contradictions that exist within capitalist systems, bringing its conflicts and weaknesses to light. Where Romanticism argued for the development of the modern industrial economy, Modernism was very critical of society's move in that direction, especially after having experienced the Great Depression and two World Wars. As a result, the music of that era gradually became more dissonant, tense, noisy, unpredictable, and logically inconsistent -- representing the violence and turmoil that resulted from systems of competing self-interests. This form of critical ideology became a way for artists to comment on post-WWII conditions as well as labor and social disputes that were happening during that era.

Adorno's championing of Schoenberg and the 12-tone method (where each pitch-class is given equal weight) is strongly influenced by the philosopher's Marxist leanings, as well as his distaste for authoritarianism after having escaped Nazi Germany. (Both figures also have roots in Jewish culture, which further strengthened their relationship with one another.) In this respect, the output of the 2nd Viennese School can be seen as a form of Marxist social criticism through the language of music. Alban Berg (whom Adorno studied music with) makes his committment to the proletariat working classes fairly clear in his opera, Wozzeck, where the subject matter is primarily about the hardships that the poor have to suffer through in order to survive within Western society.

Although very critical of bourgeoisie culture, Adorno was also critical of Hollywood, which to him, represented all of the evils that capitalism had to offer. By commodifying the musical experience into a record, the industry created a detachment between the musician and the music, alienating the worker from the fruits of their labor. Recordings were also subject to political and cultural appropriation, which were largely controlled by bourgeois society. Adorno was also very disturbed by the repetitious, beat-oriented musics of popular musics, which caused people to collectively dance together -- it may have reminded him too much of Nazis marching down the streets in Germany before he had escaped to the United States.

However, being that the consumers of pop music primarily consisted of the middle and lower classes (while patrons of classical musics were largely those of the upper crusts of society), the philosopher's disdain for Hollywood created a contradiction in his ideology that was largely left unresolved. When Adorno's theories of criticism became applied to itself, his ideas and ideologies increasingly became recursive and self-contradictory -- some would say, even self-destructive. As people's awareness of these contradictions began to grow, the use of irony and the absurd gradually became more popular, paving the way for Postmodernism.

The most visible examples of Postmodernism can be seen in TV shows such as The Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy, and the Daily Show. These shows contain similar Modernist traits of presenting the audience with a series of contradictions and conflicting ideas, but unlike its predecessor, diffuses its tension through the use of humor and sarcasm. It feeds and revels in the absurdities of life and society, which it accepts as part of the human condition. Some would argue that Postmodernism is simply Modernism with a better sense of humor.

In classical music, Postmodernism is probably best represented by the works of John Adams, who frequently employs the use of irony, sarcasm, and polystylistic elements in order to articulate ideas in his works. His orchestral piece, Naive and Sentimental Music, can be seen as a dig at the culture of Modernism: The work starts and continues with a relentless (yet strangely whimsical) ostinato in the harp, which is then juxtaposed with orchestral music that alludes to the atonality of an abstract expressionist style. The music takes several attempts at departing from the ostinato through intense displays of emotion, but at the end of every cadence we find that the pulse is still there, left unaffected and largely indifferent to the expressions of the orchestra. Eventually the two ideas merge together to form a new kind of style -- while still containing traits of its former self, expression finds itself contained within the economy and boundaries of the industrial machine -- powerful, but bounded. Here Adams states that Modernism's declaration of independence from industrialism and commodification was largely a farce, a painted picture that now exists nowhere except in the minds of a few.

Through his provocative title, the composer is obviously attempting to bait his critics through this work. What sort of effects this might have on the musical landscape has yet to be seen, although this piece can often serve as a litmus test for where one might stand in regards to contemporary social and political issues. While some will find the work offensive, others will appreciate it for its realism and honesty about living in contemporary society.

Because our perception and understanding of sounds tend to be very abstract, it is often difficult to detect parody or irony when employed in a musical context. Adams tends to get criticized for being too "commercial" by the avant-garde, too "high-brow" for Hollywood, and too "modern" by the mainstream classical establishment -- these arguments, however, only touch what exists on the surface and tends not to address issues of how the ideas themselves are treated in the music. Alex Ross argues that Adams is one of the most successful composers in synthesizing classical and popular styles together, and after hearing his music it becomes hard not to agree. Perhaps the key to the merging of the "high" and the "low" exists somewhere within the absurd, the contradictory, the counter-intuitive.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Myth of the Genius

Back in the 18th Century, Immanuel Kant posited the notion that a "genius" was someone who produced artworks that transcended the modes and mechanisms that allowed for the creation itself to occur. A genius was one who created art that was governed by the rules of nature, while at the same time transcended the context of its own existence and evoked beauty by superseding the senses of the observer. The genius was to be one whom beauty flowed from them so easily and effortlessly that it looked as if they were nature itself -- a manner in which defied logical explanation or analytical reasoning, even to the artist themselves. While the art-object itself could be appreciated for its beauty after the process was over, the means of arriving at that point would forever remain a mystery, as if the artist was channeling ideas and forces from a higher power, unseen to the naked eye.

This definition tends to differ from the modern usage of the term "genius", where the term is used to describe people of exceptional talent, intellect, or brilliance. Although the latter traits may have contributed to an artist's genius, in its original meaning they were not necessarily prerequisites. As brilliant as Isaac Newton was, for example, Kant would not have considered him a genius because the mathematician was able to sufficiently explain the reasonings and procedures behind the processes that he had developed for himself and others. The art that a genius would create had to evoke something greater than mere explanation, pushing the limits of human understanding toward a higher, transcendental state of existence. (In this sense, J.S. Bach would not have been considered a genius as well, because he was able to explain his ideas about counterpoint and harmony through his pedagogical works such as The Art of Fugue and the Well-Tempered Clavier.)

Though probably unintentional, Kant is often credited for laying the theoretical groundwork for the concept of the "nation" and many ideas that have defined the characteristics of modern Western societies. As Europe's nationalistic sentiments began to grow during the 19th Century, the idea of the "genius" began to gain traction among the political elite as a way to inspire regional provinces to unite towards a higher, common cause. As a result, the musical style that developed during that era became more grandiose, more expansive, and more idealistic, as to enshrine the glories and virtues of the nationalized state. Romanticism promised audiences what its feudal predecessors couldn't -- visions of a utopic world, free from the tyranny of oppression and the worries of civil strife.

World War I and World War II proved to be great disappointments for Europe's nationalization project, as the emergence of mass-killings and rise of despotic dictatorships (Hitler and Stalin in particular) during the 20th Century made Romanticism seem nothing but a naive, adolescent dream. The warning signs embedded the in darker undertones of late-Romanticism largely went unheeded, and by the time WWI broke in Europe, contemporary music had by then moved toward the atonality and dissonances of the Second Viennese School, lead by Arnold Schoenberg.

Horrified by the atrocities committed during the World Wars, modern art attempted to change art's purpose from political appropriation to one that was "critical" of authority and social norms. (The aesthetics of the Frankfurt School, lead by Theodore Adorno's championing of Schoenberg, had one primary goal, "The Holocaust, never again.") Nonetheless, despite experiencing dramatic shifts in ideology since the beginnings of the 20th Century, within the classical medium the genius narrative largely remained in tact. The creation of beauty was still tasked to the composer, and the rules of art were still governed by nature (environment) or natural law (e.g. science), as exemplified in the works of the experimental music tradition and the quasi-scientific approaches of the post-Webern serialists. As Modern music became more complex and more difficult to understand, it began to lose its appeal amongst the general public -- this did not, however, bother many composers who pushed for that type of aesthetic anyway. Art was supposed to be beyond one's ability to explain it, after all.

The myth-inspired stories that surrounded composers of the era (especially among cult figures such as Cage and Stockhausen) serve as reminders that Modernism had shared an intrinsic link from the ideologies of Romanticism, especially in regards to its performance-practice. While the ideals themselves may have changed, classical music was largely unable to abandon the notion that the composer should be treated as the messianic, enlightened figure who's authority and vision was absolute. As a result, the aesthetics of Modern music gradually became more self-contradictory and self-destructive over time, as the authoritative practices of the composer directly contradicted the anti-authoritarian ideals that were embedded in the music itself. Even Adorno, for all of his intellectual prowess, was unable to escape the problems and contradictions of society that he had uncovered through his application of critical theory, and the vast majority of his ideas are, to this day, left largely unresolved. The philosopher often questioned if beauty was really ever possible again, or if there was really any hope for the future of Western civilization.

It's difficult to say if the word "genius" really has any purpose in today's society, as it seems to have lost all of its meaning due to its overuse. Nowadays the term has become synonymous with "a very talented person" or "a very intelligent person", which can be used as a general complement but at that point the word itself holds very little descriptive value. The genius, having lost its political purpose, has now become relegated to the streets and forced to mingle with the commoners in order to make a living.

In the end this may be a good thing, as the term has and always been a social construct -- a descriptor of an idea of what an artist ought to be, rather than who the artist really is. By its very description, society's understanding of the genius will always be illusitory, and is not something anybody can acquire on their own accord. The definition of the term itself changes over time, always being beyond attainability, propelled by tales of mythology. Having known a few people who have driven themselves mad trying to reach such of state of existence, it may be wiser to simply abandon the term all together at this point.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Modernism and the Cold War

I think that in a few years time, it will become impossible to talk about modern music without acknowledging its connections with the Cold War. Recent books such as Who Paid the Piper? and Rationalizing Culture show that there is considerable interest in this subject, and is likely to enter mainstream consciousness once the trend begins to grow. If I ever decide to do a research topic in-depth, it will probably be related to this issue in some way or another -- it's a topic that I think has a lot of potential to expand upon, especially in music.

When I tell artists that the CIA funded modern and abstract art as a way to counteract Soviet propaganda, I usually get funny looks or looks of disbelief. (The reaction I get from talking to political scientists, on the other hand, tend to be "well, of course.") It sounds like something a conspiracy-theory nut would say, and it can be a little hard to stomach the fact that a lot of the artists of the 20th century, many of whom we were taught were revolutionaries and mavericks, would be so easily appropriated towards political means. Still, in a lot of ways the connections are very obvious -- American modern art thrived primarily through government and patronage funding, while the most over-arching political event during that period was in fact the Cold War. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Freedom of Information Act being enacted, there's a lot more information about the matter coming out -- it's likely that the way we perceive modern music will change very quickly in the near future. It's probably for the better, at least in the long run.

Speaking very broadly, the New York "Uptown" school of composition, mainly characterized by a very academic and mathematical style, was a product of the "scientific" educational programs geared toward the Space Race; while the "Downtown" school, most strongly represented by the New York School composers and the experimental music tradition, were supported because of their ideological leanings toward individualism and freedom of expression. The ideologies which were spurned during the 50s and 60s high-modernism is often referred to as the "Anti-Communist Left" or some variation on that idea, and can be clearly heard through the music and its aesthetic arguments of its time. Anti-collectivism was the mantra of its day, in opposition to the Soviet Union's propaganda of censorship and brutality in the name of the proletariat working class.

(Here you can see the CIA totally admitting to it, saying that it was one of the most "daring and effective" programs during the Cold War. There is virtually no controversy on whether or not this had actually happened -- it has been well-documented since the late-60s when the program was exposed in the mainstream press. What's missing are the particulars and details about the whos, hows, and whats, but those things will probably come to light over time.)

The irony of the situation was that in order for the artists to see themselves as mavericks, they had to be purposely kept in the dark about where their means of living were coming from, as government funding would imply a form of social collectivism that transcended the will of the individual. As a result, the CIA, through a program called Congress for Cultural Freedom had decided to fund artists through the guise of anonymous private donations rather than handing them a check directly. In doing so, the government created an atmosphere of contradiction and secrecy within the modern art world that resembled the practices of a nationalized intelligence agency.

This doesn't make the art of that period any less important, although the way we perceived and appreciated it may not have exactly been what we initially thought. George W. Bush's foreign policies were largely based on Cold War tactics (former secretary of state Condi Rice being an expert in Soviet politics, for one) and his departure signifies an end of a type of political approach that was based largely on obscuration and psychological control. It'll be interesting to see how art becomes appropriated during the next decade or so -- especially with the new presidential administration, there will definitely be shifts in government arts spending as time goes on.

Clapping in Between Movements

Alex Ross has an interesting post written about this subject here. There's kind of a funny quote:

It’s not surprising that conductors were intent on stamping out spontaneous clapping. To refrain from applause heightens focus on the personality of the conductor. Silence is the measure of the unbreakable spell that Maestro is supposedly casting on us. A big ovation at the end salutes his mastery of the architecture of the work, or whatever. ("Or whatever" is in his own words, not mine.)

It seems like the "no applause during concerts" thing is a modern invention, established by orchestral conductors which eventually spread into mainstream practice. This allowed for composers to experiment with "quieter" gestures that would otherwise get drowned out due to the audience's background noise. It'd be hard to imagine something like Cage's 4'33" being possible without this type of tradition to keep the audience in-line.

Meanwhile, jazz and other types of popular musics took advantage of amplification in order to cut through the audience's chatter. The technology was especially good for vocalists and singers, because they were able to amplify subtle nuances in their voice without having to rely on the bel canto style in order to project. Miles Davis was able to bring out the "quieter" side of the trumpet without necessarily losing any volume.

Should the audience be quieter or should the musicians get louder (or visa versa)? Much like you would find at a bar or cafe nowadays there's plenty of accounts that classical music in the past were often talked over, with audiences giving applause whenever they heard something they liked. Are classical musicians really willing to give up this tradition of demanding the audience of their focused attention? I think some people get in a hizzy about "inappropriate" clapping because in it they can see their medium descending into the anarchy of the popular musics, or whatever.

The one nice thing about CalArts was that there was a lot less of this type of thing going on. Sure, the "rules" are still there to some extent, but when you have people drinking beers during composer's concerts, you can tell that the atmosphere is a lot more relaxed. If you're at a concert, why not enjoy yourself?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Blogging, etc.

Now that I know I'm not going to go to UCSD this fall, I figured that it would be a good time to kick-start some of the projects that's been in the back burner for a while. I can't say that I'm not disappointed by the result, but on the bright side it may also be an opportunity to do the things that I want outside of the schooling system. There's a lot of work in the area of scholarship (mostly interdisciplinary) that I've been wanting to do and it might be beneficial to get it all down in writing before I go back to school. I'm pretty confident that I will get into a doctorate program eventually and I'm lucky enough to have managed to stay artistically active where I live. So at least for now, I'm doing fine.

I've been doing a lot of scholarly work nowadays, despite the fact that I've been out of school for some time now. (I kind of took it as a sign that I should probably try to be a professor some day, hence, grad apps.) Although as of the late I've become skeptical about the future of scholarly journals -- at least in the humanities, scholarly journals are very quickly losing their former prestige as the internet gradually becomes more reliable as a primary source of information. This blog may become an outlet for lots of the ideas that's swimming in my head that would otherwise never get published.

Lately I've been pretty interested in musicology and anthropology, and have come to appreciate it a lot more than I did in the past. Musicology plays an especially important role in music as it attempts to contextualize its artistic practices within history, tying it to the social, economic, political, and ideological practices of its day. There is especially a particular need for contemporary classical music to be analyzed in this way, due to the fact that over-specialization has allowed many establishments to escape this type of oversight and perspective for years on end. As of the late there has been a very strong reliance on the idea of "individual subjectivity" and "open interpretation" as a way to legitimize certain works done in certain styles, although in many cases these arguments act as smoke-screens order to preserve existing institutional structures.

Especially in the "New Music" community where there is a strong desire to create something new and groundbreaking, musicians rarely appreciate musicologists' efforts to contextualize their work within a historical context. In tying the arts with the socio-economic and political trends of its time, the medium starts to lose its romantic luster -- the susceptibility of the arts to politics tend to run contrary to the genius or individualist narrative that places the artist at the very top of the social pyramid, and many artists find this prospect somewhat unnerving. The stark divisions between composition, performance, musicology and ethnomusicology programs that exist in most universities today serve as a reminder as to how divided the musical landscape has currently become, and that there is a considerable amount of animosity between the fields especially as they fight for allocations within their institution's budget. Nonetheless, musicology is a necessary field if only to keep composers and performers grounded within the world that they exist in. These trends are very real things that affect us not only as artists, but as citizens of society as well. Without a serious inquiry into how the mechanics of these things work, it may be very difficult for musicians to find a direction in which to move.

Long story short, this is a blog by an armchair musicologist talking about music. Writing has always helped me clarify my thoughts, which usually lead to improvements in my own compositional output. Maybe something interesting might come out of it.