Sunday, June 04, 2006
Why are the greatest composers all German?
[Note: I wrote this a while ago, and toyed with the notion of posting it when I was first invited by John H. to become a guest author. I didn’t because the last Moretti book post rendered it, I thought, redundant. But looking at it again I’m thinking perhaps I was too hasty. It talks about similar phenomena to the ones Moretti analyses in terms of the novel (although I range windily over the whole of human culture), but it also suggests a particular answer to the question posed in the title that I’m not sure is much in keeping with Moretti’s approach. But just because it’s not as well-thought-through or as, er, good as Moretti’s work doesn’t mean that it mightn’t bear a day or two in the light of the Valve.]
I’m talking about classical music of course, and I can start with polemical oversimplification, as follows: almost all the greatest composers were from a small area in northern Europe, and all were working within a relatively short period of time. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Richard Strauss, Wagner … all of them were German. Some notable other figures (Smetana, Holst, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Grieg) came from territories proximate geographically and culturally to Germany. All these figures composed during a narrow historical timeframe from the end of the eighteenth-century to the end of the nineteenth. So this is my question, boiled down to its essentials: why is it that all the great classical composers are German, working within a tightly-defined period of a handful of decades of one another?
Thousands of years of human musical creativity has resulted in an enormous body of work, from every culture. Why should this corpus be so dominated by a small group of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century Germans?
There are a number of possible answers to this question. One, which I think needs dismissing right away, is the ‘genius’ argument: to say that Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were, simply, geniuses, and that therefore their inspired creativity can’t usefully be interrogated (the line peddled in Forman’s meretricious Amadeus movie): this gets us nowhere. Related to this is the argument that ‘there is just something musical about Germans’. During the nineteenth-century, whilst Germany was producing Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and all the rest, England was producing … well, nobody at all. Why so many great composers from one nation, and none at all from another nation, particularly when we consider that England is proximate to Germany, both geographically and culturally? In 1856 Ralph Waldo Emerson declared flatly ‘England has no music’, and later in the century Nietzsche wondered whether the English had a defect in their national soul, a lack of rhythm or sense of musical movement, to explain the barrenness of their musical culture. Is this the answer? Of course not. Such arguments are easily refutable: essentialism of this sort is merely another name for racism.
I’m not actually that interested in the supposed German dominance of the classical music canon; I’m interested in art more generally conceived. I would argue that similar phenomena are evident in all forms of art. Human artistic achievement repeats this pattern: a long period of low-level achievement, then a short period of inspired production of marvellous art by a small group of exceptional creators; then another long period of low-level production overshadowed by the canon of works by this earlier group. Let me call this phenomenon golden-age clumping; an uneuphonious phrase by which I mean that separate discourses of artistic productivity are almost always dominated by a “golden age”, a small cadre of artists working in close proximity to one another.
For example: classical literature from the 5th century BC to the 2nd century AD (that’s 700 years, give or take) was dominated by the brilliant achievement of just such a small group, all from the same city (Athens), all working within a hundred years of one another (in the 5th century BC), many of them friends: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Socrates, Plato, Herodotus, Thucydides, names that are still resonant today. These poets, dramatists, philosophers and historians, overshadowed Western culture for two millennia. It is not that nobody else was writing between the 5th century and the Renaissance. On the contrary, each generation produced myriad scribblers and thinkers, aspirants to the golden-age mantle. They just weren’t as good as the golden names of Periclean Athens.
Here’s another example: in two hundred years England gave the world Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Browning: no poetry written before or since, I patriotically (or chauvinistically) assert, comes close to the cultural dominance of the poetry written by that group. Great poets have come and gone all over the world, of course; but this list represents some of the most influential and dominant grouping in the history of world poetry.
Painting has been a feature of every single world culture for thousands of years, and yet our notions of ‘great painting’ are still rooted in two clumps: a handful of Italian Renaissance painters on the one hand; and a handful of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century French painters (or painters who lived and worked in France) on the other. Why should this be? Moreover the enduring success of the second group is grounded in the fact that they invented a new way of doing painting, and so created a body of work distinct from the Renaissance masters. What does this tell us?
And what about fiction? Two hundred thousand new novels are printed every year. Many of them are good. Yet I’ll hazard a prediction that no novelists working in any language today will have the enduring cultural weight and influence enjoyed by a group of a dozen-or-so French, British and Russian novelists from the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century’, amongst them Jane Austen, Scott, George Eliot, the Brontes, Dickens, Flaubert, Hugo, Tolstoi, Dostoevski, Henry James, Balzac, Zola, Conrad, Proust, James Joyce.
To revisit the question of music. One way of rebuking ‘essentialist’ analyses of music would be to ask this question: if the lack of English 19th-century composers is to be explained by a simple lack of musical talent in the English ‘soul’, then why is it that the situation that obtained in classical music at the turn of the nineteenth-century was completely reversed towards the end of the twentieth? At the beginning of the nineteenth-century the Germans produced the world-shaping musicians and composers and the English had not. But during a brief period from the 1960s to the 1980s it was English music that shaped a new popular genre: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Pink Floyd, the punk groups, The Jam, the Smiths. No German groups from this period are remembered today. This is because there just aren’t German groups of equivalent stature from this period (the only exception I can think of is Kraftwerk). It’s not that Germany lacked a culture of popular music (all that Krautrock, Faust, Can, Neu! and so on, much of it really good. But none of it achieved the cultural saturation or musical dominance of the Beatles or the Stones, of punk or the Smiths. Isn’t that a strange reflection on the land that produced Bach, Mozart and Beethoven?
Of course, it’s not that the above list of English popsters expresses a narrowly national dominance; that belongs, more fully, to North American musicians (Elvis; Dylan; Beach Boys; Motown; Stevie Wonder; Jimi Hendrix). But I’d still insist that a relatively short period, and two adjacent cultures, account for pretty much the whole of the popular music that matters. Alas, this golden age of music is probably over now: popular music as a genre continues to throw up a bewildering array of bands, but most of these are simply rehearsing the successes of this small group of antecedent geniuses. My prediction: people interested in Pop for the next few centuries will still tend to fall back on the giants of the 1960s and 1970s US-UK scene.
In other words the case I’m putting forward the following thumbnail sketch of human cultural achievement: the various branches of art enjoy long periods of mediocre achievement, punctuated by blazing, tightly-defined (geographically and chronologically) ‘golden ages’, which then go on to dominate the canon or received climate of the art for many subsequent generations.
Why should this be? If artistic ability is distributed evenly amongst the population, as seems likely (so that, let us say, one in two hundred thousands humans has exceptional ability regardless of accident of place or time of birth), we would expect artistic achievement to be spread evenly, throughout time and throughout countries. But this is not what we find. Why not?
We might be tempted to address this question from aesthetic, cultural or ideological grounds, but I want to suggest thinking it through Darwin. Let’s think of ‘texts’ (books, poems, works of music, paintings or whatever) less as human artefacts, and more as agents in a cultural environment governed by Darwinian laws.
The Darwinian dynamic is observed in any complex interacting system where there is (a) a mechanism for change or mutation by which new forms of organization may differ from older ones, and (b) an environment that rewards some mutations rather than others. The classic Darwinian paradigm is material and botano-biological, where the mechanism for change is random variation in heredity, and the environment the diverse and often crowded (and therefore competitive) landscapes of our planet. But there are other arena in which Darwinian thinking can be applied.
Naturally we need to be careful when doing this. Some attempts to apply a Darwinian paradigm to non-biological fields result in pernicious discourses: the ‘Social Darwinism’ of far right political groups, for instance, is noisome, and moreover based on a misunderstanding of Darwin’s ideas. I’ve also little time for the Dawkins school of ‘memes’, ideas, concepts and beliefs that ‘infect’ human minds, such that ‘religion’ is thought of existing in a quasi-living manner like a virus, and subject to Darwinian constraints. I don’t think I’m talking about memes.
Think instead of texts as animals, he says, living in an environment of readers, viewers and listeners. These texts compete with one another not for food and sexual partners, but for our attention. In this environment, the most successful pieces of music (for example) will win many listeners, and those listeners will ‘keep the music alive’ by playing it, buying copies of it, re-recording and replicating it. It is as simple as that. Mozart’s music has prospered because it is best ‘fitted’ to its particular environment (us, or more specifically our taste in music). Salieri’s music failed because it was less well fitted. It is not that Salieri’s music is in any sense intrinsically ‘worse’ than Mozart’s, any more than a dodo was intrinsically worse than a seagull. It is simply that one was adapted to its environment better than the other.
Texts have several strategies for snagging our attention, or more forcefully for cultivating our love. As with types of organism in the real world, most books will fall by the wayside; but some ‘stronger’ ‘fitter’ books will succeed. They will ‘breed’ in the sense that many copies of them will be made, and they will disseminate themselves all around the world. They succeed in avoiding death, just as does our DNA if we breed successfully. In fact it is rather misleading to think of texts as ‘animals’, because unlike animals their success is measured diretcly in their overcoming of mortality, not in their success in the struggle to breed: successful ‘texts’ live forever, where unsuccessful ones ‘die out’—Homer’s Iliad succeeds and is still alive; Statius’s Thebiad failed and died. In a crucial sense, the Iliad is an immortal animal. Where the botanical and biological worlds are constantly reshaped by the fact that individual organisms die off, opening space for new organisms, the world of texts is dominated by the elite of “immortal” texts, crowding out all newcomers. If you write a new play, it must be better than Shakespeare in some evolutionary sense if it is to live on. That’s a tall order. It is this, I think, that explains the relatively denuded textual ecospheres: there are countless thousands of types of insect, but only two dozen or so types of Classical Composer.
This may read like a metaphorical description of the environment of reading, but I’m tempted to ask for it to be taken literally. The world of textual reception is as real a Darwinian environment as any. And I think it does explain the ‘golden age’ phenomenon.
In the natural world random mutations introduce variations into the gene pool, some beneficial, most neutral or negative. In the world of art we see the same thing. Bach chanced upon techniques of musical composition that made his music ‘stronger’ than other composers’ work in a Darwinian sense: more likely to live in people’s hearts, more likely to make people replicate it and continue it. Mozart and Beethoven copied these techniques and improved upon them (this is the textual equivalent of sexual transmission of favourable genes). Their geographical and temporary proximity is just a way of saying ‘these people were in the ideal position to come across and assimilate the ideas of these other people’. Mozart and Beethoven come from the same nation at approximately the same time for the same reason and to the same effect that two people having sex must necessarily be physically proximate.
Had earlier composers chanced upon the compositional techniques that Bach did, then they would have colonised the environment created by people’s taste in music. It so happened that they did not; Bach did. And why has classical music since the nineteenth-century not lived up to the achievement of those composers? Because there is only a limited pool of favourable new ‘techniques’ that can be applied to the business of musical composition (or, by extension, to the writing of poetry, the painting of pictures, or to any discrete artistic genre). It won’t be long before these favourable techniques are all ‘used up’, and the golden age ends. Later texts will be mere imitations of golden age originals, and these of course are much less ‘strong’ in the Darwinian sense; why listen to an imitator of Mozart when you can listen to Mozart himself?
There are, I should add, many additional unfavourable techniques, strategies which do not endear texts to people; but these are quickly ‘bred out’ by people’s uninterest. In Darwinist terms, texts can be thought of as occupying certain ‘niches’. Most of these are crowded, and competition is fierce: if you compose a classical symphony today, it will have to have more ‘appeal’ than Bach-Mozart-Beethoven-etc if you want it to survive and prosper. Not something easily done. Some niches are relatively uncolonised (aspects of the contemporary avant-garde, for instance); but as in Nature, their relative emptiness is usually a function of the fact that they are much less fertile environments in the first place. When a composer chances upon new favourable techniques, then, it is not surprising that these techniques are rapidly seized upon by proximate composers.
In a short space of time, anything from a few decades to a century or more (depending on the complexity of the art), all the variations of these favourable new techniques will have been embodied in actual texts. These texts will be ‘strong’ in the Darwinian sense, and will tend to crowd out other less well-fitted or merely derivative texts. There is, as it were, no time to lose: when a new favourable but improvable technique is chanced upon, you’d better hurry to imitate and improve it, if you want your text to become immortal. Otherwise somebody else will, and the niche will fill up, crowding you and your text out.
In other words, Bach-Mozart-Beethoven et al simply happened to be the ones who used up all the new ways of composing. Composers that merely copied these new techniques doomed their texts to being outcompeted by the stronger pre-existing originals. The only alternative for composers was to introduce new techniques so radically different that they changed the ‘environment’ altogether—for instance, writing pop instead of classical, and so appealing to a whole new audience.
An author writing a book is like a turtle giving birth to a baby; the baby will carry certain changes in its genetic code that (hopefully) will fit it to its environment, enabling it to prosper. The book (hopefully) will be different enough to other books to attract readers, whilst still giving readers ‘what they want’. Schools and universities, by compelling students to read books that would otherwise pass into desuetude (for who reads Milton for pleasure nowadays?) are like farms and zoos, preserving animals that would otherwise certainly die out.
I look back on what I’ve written, and I can see problems. It might be objected that the phenomenon of ‘golden age’ clumps isn’t true in the first place; perhaps it’s a sort of cultural optical illusion, or perhaps I’ve just selectively forced the data to suggest groupings that don’t actually exist. But on the offchance that you happen to agree that there are such clumps, I wonder how you’d explain their existence? Just wondering.
Well, we only have a record of about 500-600 years of music, so forget the “thousands of years”. My take is that the German domination began about 1700 and lasted until the death of Beethoven in 1827. Before that time Burgundian, Italian, French and even English composers matched or surpassed the Germans. But few listen to music from before 1700. (So the window is now 300 years).
In Germany music became a central part of the religion and was well funded, and the audience participated. It likewise became central to the educational system as it wasn’t elsewhere, so the general level of musical literacy and competence was very high. Secular princes funded music for prestige and also because they enjoyed it, and the bourgeoisie likewise spent money on music when they became a factor. (Bach through Beethoven mark a social trend from patronage to work for the market.) In short, during all that period Germany dedicated itself diligently to music in a way other countries didn’t.
Why England was so weak I don’t know. Probably just weaknesses where Germany had strengths—Calvinists were anti-musical, though they weren’t a majority.
After Beethoven’s death music went into a slump, and Germany became much less dominant. Composers had a choice between trying to match or surpass Beethoven, which only a few were able to even coming plausibly close to doing, or else find something new. During most of the century the new things seemed lesser—program music, for example, or tone poems, or salon music for piano and piano and voice.
wagner was a s major as Beethoven, and he too had a suffocating effect. There were Wagnerians everywhere, but there was no “beyond” to what he did. He finished the job.
The first musicians to escape (very deliberately) from the German style were Satie and Mussorgsky. Both were self taught and not very prolific. Both broke all the rules, but their music is completely listenable today and I have trouble convincing people, even musicians, that Mussorgsky was NOT a generic XIXc romantic. The lay audience responded well to Mussorgsky’s works, but the professionals, almost without a single exception even among his personal friends, always criticized his “amateurism” and “mistakes” and sometimes condemned his work entirely. Even Shostakovich around 1930 corrected Mussorgsky’s work (on German academic principles) when he orchestrated it. (Only around 1950 did uncorrected versions become the norm).
But my opinion is that, except for aspects of the orchestration, all of Mussorgsky’s mistakes were not only deliberate but also musically valid (as were Satie’s). Not long after Mussorgsky’s death, Debussy, Ravel (both consciously anti-German), and finally Stravinsky had picked up his innovations and developed them further, thus remaking music on non-German principles. (Even Bartok was vocally anti-German, though me was much closer to the German style and temperament than the others).
Schoenberg counterattacked, and his people came to dominate the universities, but no one listens to that shit.
So anyway, I question part of your premise. German domination lasted a century and a quarter, with a fifty year period of decadent hegemony. On the other hand, I have accepted the “exhaustion” thesis.
Is the Darwinian explanation really that helpful here? I think that the major flaw is the following assumption:
These texts compete with one another not for food and sexual partners, but for our attention.
Classical pieces don’t really work like this; not only is the consumption of classical music really mediated—in the 19th century, one’s choices were limited by what concert halls would play, by what publishers would publish, by what the academies said was good, and so on—but also, the idea of a piece’s “greatness” is problematic in a way that one’s “enjoyment” is not. If (say) a Mahler symphony is “great” in a way that Bizet’s Carmen is not, the reason is not that listeners have kept one alive and not the other.
The explanation I’ve heard of why music from German-speaking (Deutschophone?) countries is now our Great music is that music history and the canon were written by German authors. You picked England as a complementary example to Germany and Austria, but a more interesting case would be France—which did have a strong and continuous musical tradition at the same time as Germany, albeit with different values. But German writers decided that the German-derived values about harmony and structure were the yardstick by which to measure serious music, and compiled their canons accordingly. And when the English and American music academies established themselves along German lines, then the ideas appear to become universal. “Cultural optical illusion,” maybe.
So...maybe artificial, rather than natural selection? Classical music as pigeon fancying?
This is interesting, though I think, ultimately, rather incomplete. Also, after you say “I don’t think I’m talking about memes,” you write several paragraphs that could have been taken out of a book on memes.
Still, I think you’re right. Darwinian, or better put, evolutionary processes analogous to those in biology are at play in cultural evolution. But they’re not all that’s at play. It’s not simply that certain writers/composers/painters manage to capture some Platonic (or quasi-Platonic) form that exists somewhere in the structure of our brains (or in the state-space of creations allowed by that structure). Sure, the fit of culture to the brain is one important dimension, but it’s far from the only one.
And really, the interaction is far from unidirectional, or eternal. To illustrate part of what I mean, imagine if there were a variant of the Bach-Mozart-Beethoven musical genus that, until the year 2006, had not been produced. In 2006, a young composer writes it. Will it last like the pieces of that genus from the 18th and 19th centuries? I’d bet that it wouldn’t, not because it is not as good as those works (even within the framework of that genus), but because culture has moved on. As it’s moved on, the state space of possible “eternal art” has been changed, in large part by the works of arts and the rest of culture being produced. Mozart is still very adaptive, but only as Mozart. Someone today writing Mozart-quality music of the 18th century German genus might get rave reviews and be played all over the classical music scene, but would essentially die out in a few years. It would have nothing like the impact that Handel, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and the like had, because the time for that genus to take its hold is over.
Perhaps, then, one of the reasons that regional and temporal constraints are at play, in addition to the nature of cultural transmission that you discuss in your sexual reproduction analogy, is that as works are being produced, what is “adaptive” is changing. Works of a paticular artistic genus (or family, or whatever level of abstraction would be the right one) aren’t simply limited by the space of possible adaptive options within that genus, but also by the fact that they’re opening new spaces, and human culture is moving into those spaces.
Adding this doens’t give the complete picture, either, but I think it’s an equally important part.
A lot of broad interest in this post. Just a couple quick thoughts. There certainly are “such clumps,” in part as you describe them, and much though not all explanation for them can be found in the social conditions that provide fertile or barren ground for various types of art.
Oftentimes various social forces—say corporate or financial or religious, etc—drive out or engender certain types of art and not others so that it can be partly misleading to say:
“There are, I should add, many additional unfavourable techniques, strategies [and, we might add, topics and content and purposes] which do not endear texts to people; but these are quickly ‘bred out’ by people’s uninterest.”
So-called or would-be popular goods, including varieties of art, are often forced upon people or withheld from them due to the interests of powerful social actors (e.g., corporations, universities, churches, governments, etc) in ways that have nothing to do with “people’s interests”. This is surely true within eras and realms, as well as across them. Many have discussed this, Upton Sinclair notably in his book Money Writes (1927) and Mammonart (1925) and V.F. Calverton in The Newer Spirit: A Sociological Criticism of Literature (1925), and elsewhere.
This isn’t necessarily true:
“There is, as it were, no time to lose: when a new favourable but improvable technique [or, we might add, situation] is chanced upon, you’d better hurry to imitate and improve it, if you want your text to become immortal. Otherwise somebody else will, and the niche will fill up, crowding you and your text out.”
For example, some of the plays of the ancient Greeks can be and are wonderfully performed today, but does this mean that no plays from this era, even those quite similar in technique and even general content, would not be performed (wonderfully) two and a half millenia from now as well? For example, consider the recurrence and canonization of more-or-less utopian tales and social satires over the millenia. And take sweeping (relatively) long tales of fantasy like Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Golden Ass, The Divine Comedy, Utopia, Gulliver’s Travels, etc—if we consider these as the loose class, fantasy, or the loose class, epic, or the loose class, long fiction, we would have to say that the golden age for (recorded) fantasy/epics/long fiction has existed for over 4,000 years and is ongoing and will in all likelihood continue for as long as there are humans.
Sure, specific eras and realms may produce specific types of great long fictions that may or may not recur. And again this is due in large part to various social conditions of natural or imposed fertility or barrenness that authors would do well to be aware of in detail so that they might best judge what they can and ought to take advantage of and what they can and ought to challenge or resist…
Dude! Wasn’t Mozart like, totally Australian?
I agree that there is clumping, but disagree as to the reason.
I think the evolutionary approach causes problems:
The thing is, the author is vital to a text’s reception. To use your popular music analogy, there is a reason that “Crossroads” was gobbled up by audiences when it was “authored” by Cream, and ignored by audiences when the “author” was Robert Johnson, and the reason wasn’t that it was innovated upon. The reason is the same as the one that made thousands of little bobbysoxers, who wouldn’t listen to Howlin’ Wolf if you made them, hummed themselves to sleep at night with the harmonica line to “Eight Days a Week.”
Features of the author, from traditional critical bugaboos like race, gender (would George Eliot’s fiction been so successful if they were “authored” by a “Mary Ann”?), ethnicity, to less traditional ones, like prior fame (Hamlet would have only served to boot Shakespeare off the stage if it was his first outing) have too profound effects on the ultimate strength of the text for evolutionary theory to apply.
Evolution doesn’t care who your daddy was; readers, and listeners, do.
A further comment on my statement that...this isn’t necessarily true:
“There is, as it were, no time to lose: when a new favourable but improvable technique [or, we might add, situation] is chanced upon, you’d better hurry to imitate and improve it, if you want your text to become immortal. Otherwise somebody else will, and the niche will fill up, crowding you and your text out.”
Of course, I considered matters as they extend beyond a person’s lifetime, but the same holds within a person’s lifetime. Plenty of novels more or less of the type of future great works were being written many years before the creation of some of the great achievements—the great Middlemarch for one example, preceded for many years, decades, by much in its vein, including Eliot’s own work.
Sure, in some ways at least, some of the great achievements do break type of much or anything that has come before. But as shown by the history of the novel, let alone the history of sweeping long (call it “epic") fiction, it need not be the case.
You say, Tony: “For example, some of the plays of the ancient Greeks can be and are wonderfully performed today, but does this mean that no plays from this era, even those quite similar in technique and even general content, would not be performed (wonderfully) two and a half millenia from now as well?”
See this is, it seems to me, an interesting case-in-point. The high status of these plays meant that they were very often imitated. Take two such imitations (both by significant and talented writers): Matthew Arnold’s quasi-Sophoclean Merope and Shelley’s Prometheus Bound. The first of these is an English-language experiment in writing an Attic tragedy that sticks closely to the original form of that sort of play. It reads very much as if an Attic tragedian had come to life in the mid nineteenth-century with the ability to write in English. The second takes the general idiom of Aeschylean drama to write an extraordinary, marvellous and thoroughly un-Greek rhapsodic meditation on subjectivity, suffering, mass political action and utopia.
My point is that Merope, which is (as it happens) by no means a bad piece of writing, is wholly forgotten today. And why should it be remembered? Putting it crudely, why should anybody bother with a C19th-century Sophoclean play when there are lots of actual Sophoclean plays already in the canon? (I know Arnold based Merope on a Euripidean topic, but its execution is thoroughly Sophoclean). Shelley’s drama is still ‘alive’ in some sense not because it takes the form of Aeschylus, but actually very precisely because it doesn’t, it creates something new, something startling and wholly original.
You also say: “take sweeping (relatively) long tales of fantasy like Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Golden Ass, The Divine Comedy, Utopia, Gulliver’s Travels, etc—if we consider these as the loose class, fantasy, or the loose class, epic, or the loose class, long fiction, we would have to say that the golden age for (recorded) fantasy/epics/long fiction has existed for over 4,000 years and is ongoing and will in all likelihood continue for as long as there are humans”
Well, it strikes me that each of the texts you mention makes something new, does something original in the (really very broadly conceived) mode of ‘the fantastic’; that Gulliver’s Travels gives us things that The Odyssey just doesn’t (for instance, satire, humour, an engagement with ‘science’ and ‘humanism’ that isn’t present in the Homeric original). The same could be said of all the works you mention.
A counter-exampling list might be ‘Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Brookes’s Shannara books, Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Books, Tad Williams’ Memory Sorrow Thorn etc etc.’ What are the chances that the last three will still be read in a hundred, or five hundred years time? It’s not that they’re necessarily terrible books, just that there’s no need to read them when we have the Tolkienian original. Or to put it in the terms of the post, Tolkien has already colonised this particular textual-ecological niche,
Thinking on it (from an amateur point of view), the likely reason for Germany’s dominance in Classical composition, especially over England in the given time period, was economic.
Classical music, due in part to its length, the delicacy and expense of the instruments involved, requirement of literacy (reading musical notation) on the part of players, and the fact that it was performed almost exclusively at Court, was primarily an elite exercise. A large, stable elite with relatively stable aesthic tastes (more on that later) was needed as the primary consumer, and underwriter of texts.
Germany had this. By the early eighteenth century, the upheaval caused by the Reformation had largely subsided, and courts that would be Protestant, or would be Catholic, already were. By and large, the land that is now Germany’s elite weath was largely preindustrial, agriculture-based, and in the hand of those at Court, a fact that, even through centralization and nationalization of government, did not change until WWI decimated that system.
This was the perfect support system for Classical music. You could move to Leipzig, hold concertos in a salon, and never be forced to move, or adjust to the tastes of a new master (your audience was of one). Your fame could grow, and your music flower, as you dig in roots.
In England, on the other hand, the middle class was growing. Wealth was moving from the landed elite to bankers and Merchants. Novels were being written, and not for the elite: they weren’t addressed by Pope in any of his essays. Moll Flanders was about a woman of lace, but nobody would mistake her for a queen. In the early eighteenth century, parts of the country still harbored antipathies toward any non-religious art at all, a remnant of the Puritan interregnum. There were also constant Papish/Romish/Catholic Plots that sent this or that Duke or Earl scurrying into exile. There were skirmishes over the royal allowance. At the end of his reign, George III went temporarily insane. Court was an unhealthy place for someone to sit down and write BVWs or Opuses or anything of the like. And Lord knows you can’t write symphonies unless you’re subsidized past all champagne wishes and caviar dreams, or your name is Ludwig.
Ultimately, German Classical music was perfectly situated. It had a parasitical dependency on the rich and powerful for its creation, a dependency, with its requisite proximity, allowed it to gain legitimacy from being heard first by Princes and Emperors. That’s not to say the stuff ain’t damn good, just that it got a lot of help by being born with a silver spoon it its mouth.
Me, when I’m in a contemplative mood, I like to listen to the sweet counterpoint in Contrapunctus IV performed by Gould on organ, followed by the mellow lyricality of Traffic performing the centuries-old English folk song “John Barleycorn.” English music wasn’t unsuccessful at sticking around, it was just bad at doing it the German way.
Interesting post, Adam. I’m generally favorable to this style of speculation and have spent a great deal of time wandering about in this territory. I suspect the “clumpiness” of cultural production is real.
Historians of jazz have asked why New Orleans seems so pivotal. And the standard answer is that that’s where we get the most intimate and extensive intermingling of European, especially high cultural European, and African musics. New Orleans, for example, had the first opera company in the New World. At the same time, you could go to Congo Square on weekends and hear traditional African music in relatively pure form.
The thing is, that’s about all New Orleans did for jazz, gave it birth. Further developments happend elsewhere, Chicago, New York. That’s another story.
Getting back to your question about Germany and classical music. There’s an aspect to that question you missed. Sure, clumping. But why did that clumping happen in Germany and not elsewhere? In general, we’re talking about he accidents of history. What accidents annointed Germany?—though Italy’s done well by opera. Martin Luther thought highly of music, could that be what gave Germany an edge?
I don’t really know. But the question is real.
At the moment I’m much taken by manga and anime, Japanese graphic novels and animated films, respectively. Manga existed from early in the 20th century, but blossomed after WWII to the point where manga constitutes 30% or so of annual Japanese print production. Why did that happen after WWII?
Beyond this, I’m wondering whether or not manga and anime will do for the visual culture of this century what African-American music did for the musical culture of the last century. Manga and anime have been spreading out from Japan. While I have a hard time imagining that graphic novels will ever capture 30% of the print production in the USA, their presence is increasing rapidly. I don’t know what will happen with film. But I can’t imagine the Matrix flics without the prior existence of the Japanese “Ghost in the Shell.
Adam, you note: “Well, it strikes me that each of the texts you mention makes something new, does something original in the (really very broadly conceived) mode of ‘the fantastic’; that Gulliver’s Travels gives us things that The Odyssey just doesn’t (for instance, satire, humour, an engagement with ‘science’ and ‘humanism’ that isn’t present in the Homeric original). The same could be said of all the works you mention.”
Yes, but the exact same thing could be said of many novels within a specific type or genre. Say, mystery. Every great mystery tale “makes something new, does something original”. So my broad type is perfectly legitimate and I think useful. What’s an “early” great mystery? Something by Poe? Something by Dostoevsky? Something by Conrad? Something by Roth? These authors have all written psychological thrillers or mysteries of a sort over centuries. Poe—most anything; Dostoevsky—Crime and Punishment; Conrad—The Secret Sharer; Roth—The Ghostwriter. Over course each work here “makes something new, does something original” even though they fall within a rather narrow literary psycho-thriller or mystery genre. Doesn’t matter how “tight” you make the genre, you’re going to see wide variation between the great works—it’s inevitable. And these great works spread out over a century and a half are essentially more similar in a key sense than they are different, as I see it —that is, their lasting value depends far more on what they share, and what defines them of a type, than how they are different—and I think the later ones are no less great and are likely to be no less renowned than the ealier ones. If this can be true over 150 years, it seems to me it can be true over 1,500 years – and is – and over 15,000 years as well, should humankind be so fortunate to last.
So, I think better examples can be found than those you gave. And remember, my criteria were quite stringent—at the extreme end, to better test my hypothesis --the criteria: plays, etc, that are “quite similar in technique and even general content”—and I think it can be met, more or less (with perhaps one caveat that I’ll mention below). Take many of the bits and pieces of poetry in The Greek Anthology. Much of it reads absolutely contemporary—someone yesterday could have written it and we wouldn’t know the difference, and some of today’s such poetry would surely be saved to be read 2,000 years from now. Or so it seems to me.
Also, I think of The Satyricon, by Petronius, the greatest ancient novel, a small fraction of which remains extant. It seems that some one or a number of exuberant recent-century novels very much like it will be canonized and read as long as there are readers. The caveat is this: The Satyricon may always be known for being the first of its kind or one of the first greats of its kind; thus, simple chronology due perhaps to historical curiousity will perhaps always give it a more prominent place in the canon and perhaps cause it to be more well known and more well read. I say perhaps because I don’t think it’s much read today and may not be as much read in the future, as much as other great and more recent examples of its type (of course The Satyricon has the disadvantage of being only partially extant).
Wikipedia has some good entries on it:
Satyricon, or the Petronii Arbitri Saturicon, is a book of randy and satirical Neronean tales attributed to Gaius Petronius Arbiter. Written around 60 AD, the tale is a mixture of prose and poetry detailing the misadventures of the narrator, Encolpius, his friend Ascyltus, and Giton, their attendant and love object. It is often regarded as the first example of what was to become the modern novel. The Roman worship of Priapus is the topic of its tales of the orgies and debauchery of Nero’s time, heterosexual, pederastic, and bisexual. Of the work itself there have been preserved 141 sections of a narrative, in the main consecutive, although interrupted by frequent gaps. Speculation as to the size of the original puts it somewhere on the order of a work of thousands of pages, and reference points for length range from Tom Jones to In Search of Lost Time. What has survived at present can be compiled into the length of a longer novella.
“Trimalchio is a character in the Roman “novel” The Satyricon by Petronius. He is gaudy and fat. He is known for throwing lavish dinner parties, where his numerous servants bring course after course of exotic delicacies, such as live birds sewn up inside a pig and a dish to represent every sign of the zodiac. The Satyricon has a lengthy description of Trimalchio’s proposed tomb, which is incredibly ostentatious and lavish. “The original title of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was “Trimalchio in West Egg.” One of Fitzgerald’s complete earlier drafts of the book was published under the name Trimalchio: An Early Version of The Great Gatsby. “Fitzgerald makes a reference to Trimalchio in the introduction to Chapter 7 of The Great Gatsby: “It was when curiosity about Gatsby was at its highest that the lights in his house failed to go on one Saturday night-and, as obscurely as it had begun, his career as Trimalchio was over.
It seems to me that there are some novels of the past several centuries a lot like The Satyricon that will last, and maybe be even more prominent than the Satyricon (perhaps including, to note just some of the more recent contenders: Coover, Barthes, Roth, Pynchon, Kennedy O’Toole). Some pages and chapters of some novels might as well has been lifted straight out of the Satyricon, they are so close, virtually identical in style and topic.
If a great novel like Middlemarch can equal or surpass in quality and lasting value a really very similar, though not totally of course, other great novel like Pride and Prejudice, decades after the first was written, then is it so much to think that some great contemporary satirist in verse could come along 2,000 years after the fact and match or surpass say Juvenal in his great satires—on topics and in a form virtually identical to his, but of contemporary times? It seems evident to me that this could be done, given the proper convergence of talent, interest, and society. Since what Juvenal describes seems utterly contemporary, I don’t see why it couldn’t be done. Of course it will be different. Middlemarch is different than Pride and Prejudice, but much more similar than not. So, as I’ve noted I think the historical examples exist to show that it has been done, is being done.
Of your “counter-exampling” of fantasies, who knows, maybe none will be read down the road, or maybe more than one. Personally, I could never get into the Tolkien books, but loved the Shannara books. I hope they last. They would for someone like me, or at least someone like I was years ago. Don’t know what my response would be today.
But of course any “counter examples” are of no consequence if there are examples of cases that actually do convincingly support the hypothesis put forth, as it seems to me I give regarding 19th century novels, and other such examples, and thoughts, in my previous posts and this one.
I think too that, to a certain extent, we may simply be focusing on different types and degrees of literary “technique” and substance, or have different understandings of these terms.
Much more could be said.
What I’ve been speculating about recently is that books become classics because they are necessary for subsequent generations of writers. Popularity in the long run doesn’t map well with being a best seller in the first years of publication. The books that are useful to writers get reprinted and the new work points backward at the older work.
I suspect that some of the survival of music from that period of German history is that it was good to play, so it gets played.
For any great period theory, we’ve got anomolies and outliers—Chaucer for one.
Looks also like the best way to have the very best art is to have a lot of people in the arts with sufficient leisure to practice it well enough to understand when the jobs are particularly well done. The US doesn’t have thousands of symphony composers. We do have probably hundreds of thousands of garage bands.
"What I’ve been speculating about recently is that books become classics because they are necessary for subsequent generations of writers. Popularity in the long run doesn’t map well with being a best seller in the first years of publication. The books that are useful to writers get reprinted and the new work points backward at the older work.”
Very much so, I think, at least in part.
“Looks also like the best way to have the very best art is to have a lot of people in the arts with sufficient leisure to practice it well enough to understand when the jobs are particularly well done. The US doesn’t have thousands of symphony composers. We do have probably hundreds of thousands of garage bands.”
Now we’ve got hundreds of thousands of weblogs (and other websites), from which maybe advanced art forms will emerge, or become, if they haven’t already.
Gould writes somewhere about the problem of the .400 batting average. Surely, one might suppose, baseball players today cannot hit like those .400 giants of yesteryear. But Gould argues that in fact baseball players today are so much collectively *better* than those in the past that batters must contend with far more powerful pitchers and fielders.
Gould goes on to extend this argument into the arts. The age of giants is not superior to ours. Giants perhaps speak to a relative lack of competition. More people study and produce “art music” today than ever before (and more people gain the sort of prestige and patronage from others sorts of music that a musician once could only gain through art music).
As far as predictions about today’s novelists go, I think Rebecca’s comment is true: future generations will determine the writers who live or die from past generations. We’ve already seen this as contemporary experimental poets redefine the contours of modernism, so that Williams and Zukofsky become more important than, say, Stevens and Frost.
Finally, about Pop: Adam writes, “My prediction: people interested in Pop for the next few centuries will still tend to fall back on the giants of the 1960s and 1970s US-UK scene.”
But of course, this is already untrue, and has been so since the mid 70s. Punk, Post-Punk and New Wave themselves wouldn’t exist without Krautrock and, in cases like Talking Heads, Devo, a lot of the No Wave scene, Adam Ant, and many others, Afro-Pop and Latin American Pop. There’s no “golden age” of Anglo-American dominance in music from the 60s and 70s. Rock starts with Sun Records in the 50s, which is a gradual outgrowth of urban electric blues and country. If anything, a stronger argument would be that African-based musics displaced European-centered musics sometime around 1900, and we’ve been living out the effects of *that* shift ever since.
Today’s music scene doesn’t look back to 60s-70s US/UK pop rock. The whole “anti-rockism” movement today is an attempt to shift attention to other streams of music, streams connecting Tin Pan Alley to Disco to slow jams. The most interesting developments in pop—such as techno and electronic dance musics—grow out of Neu! and Can and Kraftwerk. The important musicians of the past few years are looking not to Dylan but to Pearls Before Swine or The Holy Modal Rounders or John Fahey; they look not to the Beatles or the Stones but to Nicky Siano’s DJ playlists; not to the Clash but to the Slits. Joanna Newsome looks to Texas Gladden. The Fiery Furnaces and the White Stripes look to Skip James and Progressive Era pop. The Double look to Mad Professor. In fact, this is the power of those artists Adam claims will simply die out as copies of the past. Franz Ferdinand might not become huge pop-historical icons, but they will have succeeded in reminding us that UK punk was about more than English bands the Clash and the Jam. (Just as Bach constantly reminded the world of Purcell’s influence on him.)
Ultimately, I think the appearance of artistic golden ages or ages of giants are more about the construction of canons and cultural memory by subsequent generations (and by cultural institutions). Bach-Mozart-Beethoven dominate today’s live classical scene not because their audiences can recognize their superior artistry, but because their names supply these audiences with the cultural capital the audience wants. Mozart and Beethoven shocked the audiences of their respective days; they simply reflect the “good taste” of today’s audiences.
Jazz: jazz came from the whole Mississippi valley. Major figures came from places like Oklahoma City, Kansas City, and even Minneapolis (Lester Young, moved there from NOLA at age 11). When Charlie Christian reached NYC he’d fully developed his style in places like Bismarck ND, Deadwood SD, and Wyoming.
The point of that is that developing something new might only be possible somewhere away from the center (also Mussorgsky in Russia). Bismarck was low evolutionary pressure, so Christian could experiment and work out the details. NYC was intensely competitive, and since Christian was immediately recognized as a the latest new thing, he could do whatever he wanted to there too.
Classical music is a craft which was first perhaps taught informally in an apprenticeship system but quickly (1725, Fux, or before) was taught through standard textbooks and ultimately in conservatories. The local rules of German music (common-practice harmony and the rules of voice leading) came to be understood as “the laws of music.” Almost everything in the XIXc was done within these rules (with a lot of hoopla whenever anyone bent them slightly) until Musorgsky and Satie just forgot about them.
Max Weber wrote a peculiar book called “The Rational and Social Foundations of Music”, based in part on Helmholtz’s acoustics. For him classical music, like everything else in Western Europe, was an apotheosis of instrumental rationality.
Luther: ‘Bach-Mozart-Beethoven dominate today’s live classical scene not because their audiences can recognize their superior artistry, but because their names supply these audiences with the cultural capital the audience wants’: yes, I’m absolutely not saying that M and B are simply ‘better’ or ‘superior artists’ than any other two classical composers we might mention. But they do dominate it, and whilst the cultural capital is part of the answer I don’t see how it particularly adheres to these two. (Since self-conscious elitism is part of the cultural capital accumulation, wouldn’t it be better serviced by more elite, more obscure figures? Montiverdi, Belioz, John Adams?)
And with your list of pop, you put me in the unenviable position of having to justify Elvis, the Beatles and Dylan against a number of artists many of whom (I agree) are superior artists in aesthetic terms. But although of course some of the people you mention have been influential, none of them have achieved one one-thousandth of the cultural penetration or musical ubiquty as the Fab Four. Telling me that “Joanna Newsome looks to Texas Gladden” will only persuade me if you can also persuade me that Joanna Newsome is going to carve herself a niche in music such that four hundred years from now billions will be listening to her on a regular basis, as people today are with Mozart and Beethoven. This isn’t to impugn her as a musician, but there are, as Rebecca points out, many many hundreds of thousands of bands in the world. What’s going to make Joanna N stick out? Personally I think this niche, the pop music one, is already pretty much filled. However good she is, I’d be surprised if she achieves Mozartian levels of fame.
It’s something I see a lot of in SF criticism: an individual’s personal investment in a writer gets parlayed up into a belief that said writer is not just interesting to the individual concerned, but significant, important etc. Almost always they’re not. It’s the confusion between personal taste and the brute empirical fact of cultural selection. Maybe it’s true that as many people globally ought to have Can, Neu and Faust CDs as they do Beatles and Bob Marley. But they just don’t.
This is the parallel case your pop examples made me think of, Luther: who’s to say that the Renaissance tragedians Trissino, Giraldi, Speroni, Jodelle, Grevin, Torres Naharro, Montchrestian, Waldis or Frischlin weren’t as good as Shakespeare? On aesthetic grounds, on grounds of merit, maybe these fellers indeed deserve to be remembered. But there’s no getting around the fact that they are not remembered, and Shakespeare is, for all that. They are all of them, to a man, dodos; and Shakespeare is the living chicken.
I don’t think that we should get away from the fact that when two artists are both trying to do the same kind of thing, one can be objectively better than the other. If music is defined in terms of Bach, Mozart or Beethoven, it’s pretty much objectively true that they are better than the others.
I think that it’s difficult to rank styles or genres (jazz vs. classical), but within a style or genre ranking is possible. Artists usually recognize these rankings, even those like Hemingway who overrate their own work. In music you frequently have head-to-head competitions, and these often end with a clear consensus which is often shared by the defeated musician.
I just went through a list of ten top founders of bebop. Only one was born in NYC, two came to NYC from NC in their childhood, and the rest (6 from the west including NOLA, one from SC) came to NYC as fully-developed musicians.
One transcendent figure--a Mozart or Charlie Parker or Dante or Sophocles--would be a statistical rarity, but we would expect to find statistical rarities. What needs to be explained is why such transcendent figures occur in clusters. Keats would be unusual, but Keats AND Shelley AND Byron all at once seems freakish, since there are whole periods in certain places that have not even one such figure. So the obvious answer is that there have to be certain conditions that allow for “genius” to flourish: A strong tradition. And that genius will in fact flourish more than once when these conditions are met, and will stop when these conditions no longer are met.
It’s been pointed out that it can’t just be that elites want elite art, because all periods have their elite art and not everything from this tradition becomes equally canonical after the fact.
The conditions for some arts might be harder to satisfy. For example, really transcendent theater seems hard to sustain for a long period. That seems to be an extreme case of “clustering.”
It may also be a case not of “why is this so?” but of “why does it seems to us to be so?” That is, why do we need to only recognize phenomena in these clusters.
Randomness is clumpier than we think: Intuition smooths. And Darwin is primarily about variations that are selected for by the environment. My main problem with memetics, which carries over to the above, is that the variations are more directly to the environment itself. So, below the genre level, I prefer catalysis as the proper analysis, though externalities determine reactivity. (And didn’t JBarth do the whole Exhaustion/Replenishment thang?) But one clump I’ve puzzled over is the midXIXc US trio of Poe Melville & Hawthorne, particularly in that Melville was dormant for 60+yrs and Poe had to transit through France.
"I don’t think that we should get away from the fact that when two artists are both trying to do the same kind of thing, one can be objectively better than the other.”
I basically agree (tho I don’t know about ‘objectively’ ...); I’m just not sure how relevant it is. Being ‘better’ doesn’t translate into undying fame. Most of the Victorians who talked about such things agreed that Thackeray was a better novelist than Dickens; but Dickens is alive and Thackeray not. Or Thack is much less alive. Or alive only in specialised environments like university-courses. Dickens is the domestic dog, Thackeray the panda bear. Or something like that.
Me, I think Moby Grape were better than the Stones; but everybody knows Jumpin Jack Flash and nobody knows Murder in my Heart for the Judge. Tis the way it is.
On the one hand I think of Bach with that long-term steady church gig getting his stuff in front of an audience and having those musicians get familiar with his music week in and week out. Could that steady exposure given an advantage to the region where he happened to be located?
Once those jack rabbits landed in Australia they bred so fast there simply wasn’t room for anything else. Was Bach the jack rabbit of musical Europe? (He did have lots of kids.) Did his success bias the cultural environment in a way that favored certain styles over others?
But I’m also thinking that it’s audiences that matter. It’s audiences that do the cultural selecting. From a very abstract point of view we don’t need to worry about the particulars of the composers and musicians. Just posit an anonymous source of music (or fiction, or sculpture) and get it out there. But where does it stick around?
Yes, John, those bebop cats came from the hinterlands, but that’s not where they made their careers. They made their careers in front of audiences mostly in cities. And they most important cities were all major transit points—NYC, Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles. Lots of people moving in and through them.
"It’s something I see a lot of in SF criticism: an individual’s personal investment in a writer gets parlayed up into a belief that said writer is not just interesting to the individual concerned, but significant, important etc. Almost always they’re not.”
Sure, but take Tolkien and Terry Brooks: looking back 2000 years from now, are they not going to look a lot like two peas of a pod in a way—not as pretigious, or even exactly equivalent—as that of Sophocles and Euripides, or Aeschylus? Maybe today there are many Tolkiens and Brooks whereas there were only a few Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus—but that may be attributable to simple social factors, particularly population size and the incredible wealth of our age.... It seems to me the answers to your lines of thought here are readily explainable by such straightforward social factors. Why the Stones rather than anyone else? Not sure it has much to do with the art but rather the personal motivation coupled very much with the size and structure of their PR machine and the economic system waiting to use them as fuel—right place, right time. If not the Stones, someone else, and there are others. But the economic and larger social system seems to me to impose the decisive constraints here, not the artistic facility or development nearly as much.
OK, rephrase. There was no one better than Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven at what they did (Haydn might be added). They are also more famous than the people they’re better than. The choice to prefer that kind of music is a matter of taste, but once you do, those are the musicians you end up with. (In the post-Beethoven period there is less consensus, at least before Wagner. There’s less unity of style, and no one achieved dominance. Taste is a different thing; I dislike Wagner a lot, but there’s no doubt that he was the greatest composer of his time.)
I’d argue for the “objectively” too, but not right now.
"who’s to say that the Renaissance tragedians Trissino, Giraldi, Speroni, Jodelle, Grevin, Torres Naharro, Montchrestian, Waldis or Frischlin weren’t as good as Shakespeare? On aesthetic grounds, on grounds of merit, maybe these fellers indeed deserve to be remembered. But there’s no getting around the fact that they are not remembered, and Shakespeare is, for all that.”
I’m somewhat confused as to how you see these clusters being produced; as a process of contemporaneous production or something produced in retrospect? The reason I ask is that I’m thinking of someone like Walter Scott whose work was central to the novel cluster of that period (more so than Jane Austen) but whose work is nonetheless not remembered (your inclusion of him above notwithstanding).
Bill, my point is that most of them were fully formed musicians by the time reached NYC. Charlie Christian worked in NYC for less than two years. He taught more than he learned.
NYC is where it all came together, and where the radio stations were, and the record companies, and it was the financial engine, but the music itself was from a bigger, less urban pool.
Luther, much that you say seems quite valid, but this generalization and much that would follow from it has difficulty holding up:
“Ultimately, I think the appearance of artistic golden ages or ages of giants are more about the construction of canons and cultural memory by subsequent generations (and by cultural institutions).”
(I take it you mean by subsequent cultural institutions?) But no golden age of rap is going to appear before the late twentieth century because the art form did not exist, I assume. What you say may then hold true for rap ever afterward but that’s far from certain. Does there really exist a smooth and uninterrupted stream, no “clumps”, of highly accomplished plays of the quality of those produced during ancient Greece’s “golden age”? The social conditions that give rise to varieties of art forms and their intensity and qualities of production do change, sometimes radically, thus radically affecting even terminating various sorts of art. Thus, much of the explanation for the clumping and golden ages, despite some outliers.
No subsequent “construction of canons and cultural memory” accounts for the actual shape and existence of such ages, though such “selection” can and does often marginalize, distort, falsify, or conversely reveal, explain, or usefully emphasize the existence and qualities of various “clumpings” and “clearings,” call them. The forces of “selection,” cultural and otherwise, affect not only the historical view but also the contemporary production of course, which itself can lead to clumpings and clearing of production as well, to degrees that may or may not augment or override other social and cultural forces.
Though there has been a continuous (and I would guess a more-or-less ever increasing) outpouring of novels and criticism over the past few centuries, I think it’s possible to identify clumps and “golden ages” within that span and also possible to locate the socio-culture factors that largely account for those peaks and valleys (outliers aside). Additionally then, there is much, as you note, and sometimes overwhelming “construction of canons and cultural memory” that has gone on since that marginalizes or emphasizes various aspects of the actuality, and continues to.
“Bach-Mozart-Beethoven dominate today’s live classical scene not because their audiences can recognize their superior artistry, but because their names supply these audiences with the cultural capital the audience wants. Mozart and Beethoven shocked the audiences of their respective days; they simply reflect the “good taste” of today’s audiences.”
It has also been noted that Edith Wharton shocked, scandalized some of society in her era, and today’s reader may turn to her work for reasons of “good taste,” status, and any other elite and often prejudiced or biased presumptions, I assume you mean, but of course one can go to her work to learn from the achievement of an accomplished artist and to appreciate it for what it’s worth—and its actual exceptional worth and not only for its time is presumably what the reputation of “good taste” is built upon, at least in part. One may then if one wishes turn a blind eye to any would-be illuminating but discomfitting insight that makes up the folds and forms of much of the achievement of the art. That doesn’t mean it’s not there but that some vital and great quality is being ignored, or goes misunderstood, while the work is otherwise appreciated (or indulged in).
I apologize, a little, for the tone this comment will undoubtedly take, but it suggests one of my complaints about literary theorists: some of them believe that the study of literature makes them scholars of everything. (Because all scholarship is done with words, right?)
The speculations above are interesting, but are so riddled with half-truths and misunderstandings when it comes to the “evidence” that I can’t bear to finish the article or read the comments.
The Dodo wasn’t ill-adapted to its environment. It was ushered into extinction with help. The idea of text as animal but nothing at all like meme suggests a lack of familiarity with meme (whatever the merits of the uncomfortably inapt - to my ears, anyway - analogy with animals). Bach didn’t start the musical techniques of the Baroque, he finished them. He didn’t chance upon them either, they were the technique he was born into.
Furthermore, it is hardly clear that this argument, as presented, represents any better an understanding of Darwin’s ideas (or their modern incarnations) than Social Darwinism.
And lastly, the analogy, for whatever interest it may hold, fails to encompass some very important aspects of literary (and musical!) works: some works “breed” like nobody’s business for a couple of years - then vanish without a trace. The virtues of the canon are not that those books, outside of the classroom, are so universally read! And some genres persist with indistinguishable (to the untrained eye) formulaic offering after formulaic offering - individual instances instantly forgettable, but the imprint marching on.
When you get done taking a cold hard look at the discussion above, and ridding it of all the “something like that, anyway” evidence, you are left with the late night “dude, like, what if our universe were, like, a single atom in some bigger universe” speculation. Interesting if it is late at night and if you haven’t learned any cosmology or physics.
The question is interesting - but the analysis? Maybe I hold this list to unnecessarily high standards. But the argument, such as it is, sounds a lot like fishing around for things that can be made to fit a conclusion, rather than a real and rigorous search for truth, even if it doesn’t come in a neat “darwinian” package. If you are seriously interested in the question, I’d hope it would be worth more serious thought than it seems to have been given.
Tony, of course, you are correct. I overstated the importance of institutions in shaping cultural memory, and probably overstated the fickleness of cultural memory itself. To return to your rap example:
Yes, no golden age of rap will appear before, say, 1976. But, this isn’t to say that we know when and where “rap” as such came into existence, what constitutes it in its purest formal or aesthetic terms, and so on. Yazoo Records has a fabulous collection called “The Roots of Rap,” and many of these tracks from the teens and 20s sound like rap. Bruce Jackson’s CD for *Get Your Ass In the Water* has prison and streetside recordings of toasts that predate rap and yet sound exactly like it.
The question then becomes: when was rap institutionally constituted such that it *could* be said to have a golden age? Early 1980s, right? And that’s exactly where many people locate its golden age. Artistic giants and cultural golden ages often emerge at the very moment of an art form’s cultural constitution or its moment of recognition. Of course, there’s a dialectical movement here: a set of historical conditions allows the constitution or recognition of something called “rap,” and a certain set of artists—a certain critical mass—define the new parameters of this thing named “rap,” this thing that actually predated “rap” itself. Same goes for “rock” or “folk”—Howlin’ Wolf and Dock Boggs should be the touchstones, but instead, as Adam suggested, many musicians continue to go back to the Stones or Dylan for their influences.
Adam, regarding cultural capital, I think you’ve identified the power of the middlebrow. More obscure or experimental artists may offer “more” cultural capital, but cultural capital is not simply one currency, but rather several currencies each of which is only accepted by certain cultural groups. Going to see Charalambides in a loft will not get you more cultural capital than going to see the 9th at the local orchestra house, but each will give you cultural capital for different groups.
Which is to say that the “dominance” of a group of artists often means these artists are defined by the lowest common denominator. We can’t just talk about the dominance of Beethoven; we have to talk about the dominance of a certain version of Beethoven.
Adam, I realize that you weren’t arguing that these Giants are intrinsically better than other artists. I agree that we need to consider how a certain artist, nation, or historical period comes to cultural dominance. But my point about a contemporary artist like Joanna Newsome looking back to Texas Gladden wasn’t to say that she will have the sort of impact of the Beatles or the Stones or Elvis. Instead, I want to argue that the music of recent years that will be remembered—much of it electronic, freak-folk, and “out” rock, or what a friend calls “Wire Magazine Rock”—has already put into question the enduring influence of Elvis or the Beatles on contemporary music. Today’s dominant musicians—whether in terms of sales or artistic recognition—are not rockers. Mariah Carey will overtake the Number One single record set by Elvis and the Beatles. Jay-Z has nothing to do with the 60s rock canon. But I’d hazard a bet that Jay-Z (or Timberland) knows about Can, because so many DJs sample their drum beats. (Rock itself is probably already in its death throes. Why else has it needed to be saved from black folks and gays and teeny-boppers twice in 20 years? First the anti-disco movement, and more recently the spate of White Stripes and Strokes criticism that tried to herald the Rebirth of Rock in the face of Britney and Jessica. In fifty years, Morodor might be a giant like Dylan or Elvis.)
Finally Tony, I didn’t mean to imply that today’s classical music audience somehow invalidates the aesthetic merit of classical composers. My point was only that, to rephrase what I just argued, what dominates is too often a “vanilla” version of an artist, a simple narrative of his/her life and work. This is also tied to institutions: Beethoven or Mozart could get challenging music heard and performed, as could Schoenberg or even Boulez. But since the 1970s, the classical music establishment has worked against “new musics” (just as the jazz establishment has worked against out jazz—in each case, it’s probably a reaction to the dominance of pop and rock and rap and r’n’b from the late 60s til now: classical and jazz institutions could stay in business by promoting only “the Greats” and taking no new risks). John Zorn has to run his own labels to get his music out, and he’s had a great deal of success for an experimental composer. Anthony Braxton can’t get performed or recognized—being black and experimental can do that to a man.
Ultimately, though, I agree that there are times and places where great art seems to cohere and spread at a faster rate than in other times or other places. 1915 to 1945 was such a period, and it might in fact mark the first truly global artistic golden age. But many people would be quick to remind me that this historicization is simplistic: modernism can be smoothly traced back and forward from, or it can be taken apart as a set of discontinuous historical fragments even within, that 30 year time span.
Tim says: “ ...riddled with half-truths and misunderstandings when it comes to the “evidence” that I can’t bear to finish the article or read the comments ...”
Really? Let’s take a look at your objections.
“The Dodo wasn’t ill-adapted to its environment.”
It was adapted to its environment fine for a while, but then its environment changed. When a predator presented itself (us) it proved itself very poorly adapted to its environment. Or are you suggesting that humanity is not a significant feature of the enviornment of a wide variety of living things? But that would be a crazy thing to say.
“The idea of text as animal but nothing at all like meme suggests a lack of familiarity with meme (whatever the merits of the uncomfortably inapt - to my ears, anyway - analogy with animals).”
I don’t understand the point of your objection here, apart from the fact that you don’t like the analogy of texts with animals. That’s fine; but it is only an analogy. Of course texts aren’t literally animals. “... suggests a lack of familiarity with meme ...” You’re saying I havn’t read Dawkins? I have. A meme in his formulation is an idea that lodges in people’s minds, which can be passed on to other people’s minds, and which is subject to quasi-Darwinist constraints. I’m not talking here about ideas in people’s minds so much as the larger cultural profile of ‘art’ and its place in society.
“"Bach didn’t start the musical techniques of the Baroque, he finished them. He didn’t chance upon them either, they were the technique he was born into.”
How is this relevant to what I’m arguing? I don’t disagree with what you say here, but whether Bach was the first musician to try a particular style, or whether he found that style by chance or not, has no bearing on the case I’m making. I’m interested in the cultural endurance of Bach, nothing else.
“Furthermore, it is hardly clear that this argument, as presented, represents any better an understanding of Darwin’s ideas (or their modern incarnations) than Social Darwinism.”
This is an assertion. In what ways does my argument misrepresent Darwin’s ideas?
“And lastly, the analogy, for whatever interest it may hold, fails to encompass some very important aspects of literary (and musical!) works:”
Agreed. This is a few thousand words of speculative writing, not a comprehensive critical account. There are lots of things it doesn’t cover.
“Some works “breed” like nobody’s business for a couple of years - then vanish without a trace.”
This is true, of course. But it’s true of the analogous Darwinian biological world too, which contains lots and lots of instances of species flourishing for a time and then dying out. How does this fact invalidate what I say, exactly? (Hint: it doesn’t)
“The virtues of the canon are not that those books, outside of the classroom, are so universally read!”
This sentence doesn’t make sense.
“When you get done taking a cold hard look at the discussion above, and ridding it of all the “something like that, anyway” evidence, you are left with the late night “dude, like, what if our universe were, like, a single atom in some bigger universe” speculation. Interesting if it is late at night and if you haven’t learned any cosmology or physics.”
I don’t see what this has to do with anything I’ve written here.
“The question is interesting - but the analysis? Maybe I hold this list to unnecessarily high
OK. If I might make a suggestion? Perhaps you should hold your own writing to the higher standard of which you speak. At the moment, and on the evidence of this, it’s rather incoherent.
“I apologize, a little, for the tone this comment will undoubtedly take ...”
There’s no need to apologize. Disagreement is the lifeblood of debate, and scholarship. Just try to disagree a little more effectively, that’s all.
I apologize, a tiny beak, for the tone this comment may take to those who have not yet evolved ears, but it suggests one of my complaints about drive-by anonymous commentators: some of them believe that their wit is as sharp as everything, a wet bill not least. (Because all anonymous commentary is done with thought, right?)
The speculations above (of the anonymous, timorous dodo) are interesting, but are so riddled with the ill-development common to drive-by anonymous commentary that I can hardly bear to read the note and finish off its comments.
The drive-by anonymous dodo wasn’t necessarily ill-adapted to this environment. Yet it was ushered into its own oblivion with the help that it would apparently not think it supplied. The idea of a drive-by anonymous comment as a would-be meme dodo that is nothing at all like an animal suggests a lack of familiarity with what being meme is all about (whatever the merits of the comfortably apt - to my ears, anyway - metaphor of meme dodo). Bach didn’t start with dodos, you understand, he finished them off. Poor buggers, that is, birds - you see. Bach didn’t chance upon them either, they were the drive-by anonymous dodos he saw fit to bore into.
Oh to be a dodo who would be meme.
Furthermore, it is hardly clear that such commentary, as presented, represents any better an understanding of Dodo the Great’s ideas (or their modern incarnations) than Social Dodoism.
And lastly, the drive-by anonymous dodo, due to whatever disinterest it may hold, fails to navigate some very important aspects of weblog commentary (and oh how!) it works: thus, some anonymous dodos “breed” like nobody’s business for a couple of moments - then vanish without a trace. The virtues of such commentators are not that they, outside of the Weblog, are so universally read! And some such commentaries persist with dun (to the delighted dodo’s eye) dumping after dumping - individual instances instantly excreted, the fowl imprint of the anonymous dodo marching on.
When you get done taking a cold hard look at the drive-by dodo’s commentary above, and ridding it of all the “somedung like that, anyway” guano, you are still left with the pre-dawn “dodo, like, what if our pond were, like, a single mud puddle in some bigger lake” gabbling. Interesting, I suppose, if the drive-by dodo is staring its own anonymous oblivion in the bill and if it hasn’t learned any astrology to guide it on its way of ducking about.
The question is interesting - but the drive-by anonymous dodo? Maybe I hold this dodo to unnecessarily high standards. But the commentating, such as it is, sounds a lot like fishing around for fowl scraps of bait that can be made to fit a dull hook, rather than a real and rigorous search for truth. Well, this is the standard sort of “dodoian” gambit. If you, anonymous drive-by dodo, are truly interested in any question, I’d hope it would be worth far more serious flexing of the feathers than that which you, proud bird of oblivion, have so surely given.
I’m sorry, I don’t have time to follow all the comments, and you may be aware of this already, but Peter Hall’s massive Cities and Civilization takes up the question of Golden Ages in art and urban design through a series of case studies ranging from ancient times to the near-present. It’s massive - worth saying twice - and his answers are perhaps ultimately not satisfying - he was critical of his own work in a talk I heard around the time the book came out - but definitely worth a look
"Artistic giants and cultural golden ages often emerge at the very moment of an art form’s cultural constitution or its moment of recognition.”
This seems too roughly stated. A problem is that a “cultural golden age” seems to be blurred with “an art form’s cultural constitution”. That is, it seems a lot like a restatement. Much of popular music and its culture that was pioneered in the late 1950s, the Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley, etc, era, I think, though it remains great in its way was later developed and continues to be developed I think in ways that at least partly, and even largely, stay true to, say, those “roots” and earlier roots, whether it’s the crooning love songs and ballads or some particular lively similar musical zeitgeist. There may be a sort of particular sort of lively social scene that has now gone and become something else, but I think the sorts of music that were pioneered then continue to manifest itself today, decades later, in ways that sometimes maybe often equal or surpass what was done then. The “pioneers” certainly remain distinct and great of course, as do their predecessors, but I wouldn’t say they could necessarily be said to represent the golden age of their art form. _A_ golden age, of some sort, sure.
Would not the same hold for rap? Take some recent five years and collect the greatest rap songs recorded and then take any five years in the 80s and collect the great rap songs—would the 80s songs really shine so much more brightly than the 2000s songs? Would late 1950s love ballads really shine so much more brightly than late 1990s love ballads? It doesn’t seem likely to me, but it’s something that could be tested, it seems to me....
Or apply a similar sort of test to particular sorts of novels written in the early 1900s and those written in the mid and late 1900s.
I do think that a peak, or the peak of the novel, may be identified as roughly the Victorian age, the Victorian novel, loosely defined, very loosely, in that I would argue in a certain way at least, the novel’s peak age runs from Jane Austen in the early 1900s and extending throughout the century, that is, no short period of time, extending well beyond “the very moment of an art form’s cultural constitution or its moment of recognition.”
Of course, relatively speaking, that could be considered a short period of time, even as ‘a moment of emergence,’ all those many decades clumped together.
You then it seems to me usefully qualify indirectly and partially at least your remarks above here:
“Ultimately, though, I agree that there are times and places where great art seems to cohere and spread at a faster rate than in other times or other places. 1915 to 1945 was such a period, and it might in fact mark the first truly global artistic golden age. But many people would be quick to remind me that this historicization is simplistic: modernism can be smoothly traced back and forward from, or it can be taken apart as a set of discontinuous historical fragments even within, that 30 year time span.”
Just in passing, it’s often misunderstood—the history has been so badly consciously (especially at first) distorted for ideological reasons—much of the most socially engaged and most concrete political art and politically progressive art of this era was also easily among the most avante garde (or progressive) in technique, aesthetics as well—The Living Newspaper of the Federal Theatre Project, for example. Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy. Bertolt Brecht’s work, and so on. Not as true today perhaps, though the mixture of progressive politics and progressive aesthetics is far from unknown in contemporary works.
For what it’s worth, as for long fiction today (both apart from TV and film and including them), it seems to me that the aesthetic, cultural, intellectual, social…and political possibilities are vast, as vast and vital as they must have seemed to the great novelists during their great era(s). Ditto for criticism of all variety, and many other forms of human endeavor. Not that today’s great long fictions could or should look excessively like the great Victorian novels, though I think they would have no little bit in common with them. Unfortunately, the threats to all this are at least equally great and require, it seems to me, much of our immediate efforts.
Tony Christini: “Maybe today there are many Tolkiens and Brooks whereas there were only a few Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus...” Actually, there were indeed many classical Greek tragedians (if not as many as there are Tolkienesque fantasists). The reason nobody aside from a few scholars has heard of them is that only fragments of their works survive. The same is true of most of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus, for that matter.
Adam (Roberts): At one point in your original post you say this: Salieri’s music failed because it was less well fitted. It is not that Salieri’s music is in any sense intrinsically ‘worse’ than Mozart’s, any more than a dodo was intrinsically worse than a seagull. It is simply that one was adapted to its environment better than the other.
Later on, however, you say this: In the natural world random mutations introduce variations into the gene pool, some beneficial, most neutral or negative. In the world of art we see the same thing. Bach chanced upon techniques of musical composition that made his music ‘stronger’ than other composers’ work in a Darwinian sense: more likely to live in people’s hearts, more likely to make people replicate it and continue it.
It seems to me that this is awfully close to saying that Bach’s music was intrinsically better than the immediate competition. Presumably the music appealed to the heart because of properties that the music itself had - certain melodies, certain chord progressions, and rhythms, and so forth. Those properties matched—as a key to a lock?—the affective needs of the population within earshot of Bach’s music. How more intrinsic could you get? Music is supposed to appeal to the heart, no?
Alternatively you could say that the population was desperately in need of something. Bach’s music came along at that time and they immediately became attached to it (in the way Konrad Lorenz’s goslings became attached to him?) and thereby the population became Bach-biased. Thereafter, alternatives were not appealing, even though they might have been so had they gotten there before Bach.
* * * * * * *
On a different matter, it would be interesting to take the canon of British novels and map them onto the categorized list on which Moretti based his study of genre succession in the British novel. Are the canonical novels a random subset of this full collection, so that no genre and no time period is more likely to be in the canon than any other? Or are the canonical novels “clumped” with respect to the full run?
* * * * * * *
Finally, Shakespeare did well enough to live comfortably and give performances in the most elite of circles. But was he the most popular Elizabethan dramatist of the age? Did he rack up the most performances in his time and rake in the most money? Or was his popularity middling, but also elite? Was he, say, a George Lucas or an Ingmar Bergman?
Adam Stephanides: In fact, thousands of students, along with many educated readers, at the very least, have certainly “heard of” the existence of the many classical Greek playwrights, as well as of the fact that the vast majority of the works of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus have not survived. But that has nothing to do with the point of my comment, which was that today there may be more fantasy writers of fairly equal high caliber (as was more than implied) alongside the Tolkiens and the Brooks than there were playwrights of the caliber of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus, of times past.
I’ll simply repeat, my suggestion is that Tolkien and Brooks may not be so very much more great, if at all, than many other fantasy writers of today; maybe there are dozens or more at a top level today, as compared to a few of times past. It may be true, as I wrote, if only due to such factors as population size and the wealth of our age, compared to those of times past. If true, it seems to me that this complicates the matters that Adam Roberts and others are interested in. Even if not true, it’s quite worth considering, for a variety of pertinent reasons, it seems to me.
And of course much could be said about whether or not Tolkien and Brooks and others are relatively equally accomplished, and what it means in terms of the larger accomplishment for one writer to precede or follow another even slightly in time…
On another perhaps not unconnected matter, maybe I should point out that my satire of tim’s post doesn’t negate some of the real concerns to be found in his post, especially regarding those about the quality of commentary found on weblogs, of virtually all variety. Surely much scholarly work is best suited to the traditional forms of most careful reflection, deliberation, and review to be found in the production of many essays, journals, and books quite apart from (or in conjunction with) running weblog discussions. Such concerns partly account for my carried over use of tim’s phrase “The speculations above [...] are interesting,” using it of course to indicate his post, and partly account for my taking and treating tim’s post with no little seriousness—however necessarily, it seems to me, satiric. Obviously I think weblogs can be extremely useful as well, for all variety of matters, some number of which may be found on the Valve.
“Bach chanced upon techniques of musical composition that made his music ‘stronger’ than other composers’ work in a Darwinian sense: more likely to live in people’s hearts, more likely to make people replicate it and continue it."
It seems to me that this is awfully close to saying that Bach’s music was intrinsically better than the immediate competition.....
Alternatively you could say that the population was desperately in need of something. Bach’s music came along at that time and they immediately became attached to it (in the way Konrad Lorenz’s goslings became attached to him?) and thereby the population became Bach-biased. Thereafter, alternatives were not appealing, even though they might have been so had they gotten there before Bach.
I don’t see any reason to rule out the possibility that Bach’s music was, in fact, “better”. During Bach’s time there was a big, serious, sophisticated, educated musical audience, and composer’s strove to satisfy this. Most composers were doing varients of the same thing, and Bach was recognized to have surpassed the others. He didn’t just “happen on” anything, though; he was a wrokaholic and travelled here and there in order to learn what the other guys were doing. (For one thing, he learned both the German and the Italian style).
Bach was “better” than the others in the same sense that Michael Jordan was “better” than the others. You can argue that perhaps Handel was as good as Bach, but as far as I know, there’s no other contemporary about whom you can say this. It’s not just “taste”.
A fly in the ointment: when styles changed, Bach was more or less forgotten for about a century. He was revived mostly by Mendelsohn.
Bach was “better” than the others in the same sense that Michael Jordan was “better” than the others.
Ummm, except it’s possible to quantify Michael Jordan’s being “better” than the others, which is why modern athletics are so stats-obsessed. It would seem implausible for Bach to be “better” than other composers in anything close to this sense.
Maybe quantification isn’t why Jordan is better. Maybe it’s because he beat everyone else one on one, which is what Bach did.
Bracketing out artistic quality as intangible and unknowable and really quite arbitrary and subjective is a positivist cliche, a contemporary truism, and a basic Valve doctrine, but by and large I think that Bach’s contemporaries recognized his superiority. I don’t think that people should so automatically assume that it was an audience whim.
"A fly in the ointment: when styles changed, Bach was more or less forgotten for about a century. He was revived mostly by Mendelsohn.”
That’s the effect I was talking about.
The other thing is that we don’t know if canon formation is retrospective and that in the day, there were others equally as well known as Bach. And if Bach was more or less forgotten for about a century until a newer composer found him to be useful, then that does imply that Bach wasn’t played much between his death and Mendelsohn’s revival of him.
Every writer reads Shakespeare and most writers from sometime after Shakespeare have read Chaucer and Skelton. How we read the past depends on our presents—before the linguistics involved were understood, people read Chaucer in a radically different way that we do now.
The other thing is the issue of critical mass—the great periods are rarely products of one person. They’re generally products of a group of talented people being born in an environment that brings them together.
We had 19th Century official US poetry, and we had Poe, Whitman, and Dickinson. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, Dickinson’s only supportive contact with the popular writers of her day was with Helen Hunt Jackson (Thomas Wentworth Higginson thought Dickinson was half mad and tried to get Whitman fired from his government day job). That may have been enough. Most people, however, do require more. I’ve often wondered what Whitman and Dickinson would have made of each other. The Atlantic Monthly poetry of that time is pretty much forgotten or of historical interest only. Dickinson and Whitman still sell in the top 5,000 at Amazon.com. (Whitman had more social contacts with other writers, including Oscar Wilde).
People who riff off from their friend’s work, ideas and energy don’t tend to be imitators of each other—their groupies tend to be the derivitive ones, and older writers don’t have a good track record at picking their successors, so any age burns out quickly because of those two factors.
Universities may be controlling the critical mass needed for a good creative age by spreading the bright young artists around after graduate school so that creative communities of the sorts that formed in the national capitals and creative cities in the pass can’t form now outside of cities with many universities and even then, getting together with people who aren’t colleagues is harder than getting together with people who are.
Great art doesn’t just take the person whose works live on as useful to subsequent artists, but the people who egged her or him on. Human beings don’t do work of any kind in a social void.
Outside of universities, the general reader reads things that are contemporary and things that those contemporary writers found useful or refer to.
I know that ranking the intrinsic value of these artists is fraught with difficulties, and that Adam’s argument focuses on other factors than the inherent artistic worth of Bach or Mozart, but can we honestly remove such considerations when looking at why “Golden Ages” have formed the way they have? (I believe John was getting at something similar to this.)
Mozart IS better than Salieri, and Shakespeare IS better than (for example) Marlowe. Saying that Shakespeare is only perceived as the best because he’s read the most by modern authors is rather disingenuous, I believe. I think Adam hits at some good points about why these clumps occur the ways they do, but other comments seem ready to assume that all artistic quality is completely subjective.
I know we can never be objective about artistic quality, obviously. And I know that some “masters” in the canon aren’t as great as others who never made it in (for many of the reasons Adam pointed out). But there is, I think, a strong correlation betweeen quality and artistic immortality. Saying otherwise just doesn’t seem fair.
Shakespeare is perceived as best because he can be read in more ways than some of the others, but he’s got gaps through which one can drive a whole minor poet. He was a biased witness to his age. Even someone as minor as Robert Green corrects some of his blind spots.
As far as I know, Shakespeare’s Globe was, if not the most profitable theatres, one of the two most profitable theatres in Elizabethan London. My understanding is that theatre then was like rock music venues with a heavy dose of government propaganda on the conservative side and some fairly subversive plays by people who decided being anonymous was a good thing (Arden of Faversham). Shakespeare was better enough to have Ben Jonson alternate between jealousy and flattery.
Would Shakespeare would have done something else if he’d been born today—like science. If creativity is general, not specific to any particular art, the clusters will be around whatever art or science or technology that’s most open to innovators in any given age, so the people who were creative in Germany between Bach’s time and Beethoven’s would be composers, a little later, they’d be physicists, but the numbers of creative people could be constant, just with what they work in changing due to different cultural conditions. Leonardo da Vinci is most obviously someone who would have been a scientist today, but I have noticed that a number of scientists have been in chamber groups.
In the sciences, people understand the concept of “critical mass” quite well. It takes an environment with the right stuff, which varies from equipment to social conditions to colleagues to make an great age in science.
I think there’s a strong correlation between quality and being a source of continual inspiration for newer writers. Artistic immortality has never depended on the general reading public. Sometimes, as in Shakespeare’s London, the general play going public appears to have good taste or Shakespeare was able to cater to it without losing what interests us in him today.
The idea of artistic immortality is not terribly realistic. In 5,000 years, nobody or only specialists will be reading Shakespeare in the original English. In 20,000 years, we could have lost any connection with that language. In a million years, the sophonts probably won’t be human, and in ten million years, they definitely won’t be. We’re creatures of a particular culture and some works matter to that culture, but our culture is not immortal, much less art works produced by it. At this point, probably most of Chaucer’s readership is specialists, and I suspect that only specialists and Yale Ph.D.s now read Latin or Greek works in the original languages.
From what I’ve read, Africans who aren’t musicians can’t get Western Music, but Africans who are musicians do understand what the Europeans doing. The newer generations of writers are the people who best understand or misunderstand most fruitfully what the older writers were doing.
Shakespeare has survived because he’s interesting despite changing literary fashions, but I suspect that most of my students now wouldn’t voluntarily read him any more than they’d voluntarily read Ezra Pound. I do have students who voluntarily read Ginsberg fifty years after “Howl” was published.
Most of the English language classics are re-read by people who do have writerly ambitions. (I suspect that everyone reading The Value has ambition to write something significant whether it’s creative or critical).
"The other thing is the issue of critical mass—the great periods are rarely products of one person.”
Sort of by definition. How great could “a period” be if only one person were really in bloom? Of course a period or a golden age is basically a unit of time, but used in this sense it more or less implies a collectivity…at least to me. And then interestingly you immediately bring up, below, what may seem to be nearly a counterexample of my sense of a period or age: “We had 19th Century official US poetry, and we had Poe, Whitman, and Dickinson.” In near isolation, it seems. Dickinson especially. (Not sure as much about Poe’s climate.) To a considerable extent I suppose it may be said that most great artists are outliers. Some, like Dickinson and Whitman – Dickinson especially – are much greater outliers than others, in a variety of ways, even great enough to be mistaken sometimes for the age, or to be (mis)construed as the age, after the fact.
“People who riff off from their friend’s work, ideas and energy don’t tend to be imitators of each other…”
This “riffing” is quite important to note, I think, because it is such a live and productive phenomena at times, though as you mention the riffing is often off of writers of all periods too, and includes those of contemporary times whom the writer may not know personally. A strong counterargument or qualification I think could be made as well that shows the actuality of imitation or near imitation of a sort too, one that manifests itself as artistic strength and weakness both.
“Universities may be controlling the critical mass needed for a good creative age by spreading the bright young artists around after graduate school so that creative communities of the sorts that formed in the national capitals and creative cities in the pass can’t form now outside of cities with many universities and even then, getting together with people who aren’t colleagues is harder than getting together with people who are.”
Possibly, though the ideological controls, largely unconscious, of not only universities but of much of the larger society and culture as well strike me as the main type of “controlling” mechanism that severely represses much of what would make for a wholesale great “creative age.”
“Great art doesn’t just take the person whose works live on as useful to subsequent artists, but the people who egged her or him on. Human beings don’t do work of any kind in a social void.”
Or ideological void, and so on.
“Outside of universities, the general reader reads things that are contemporary and things that those contemporary writers found useful or refer to.”
There is also a lot that is available to be read and that is read (by “general readers” and writers both) that is unhelpful in more ways than not, even destructive….
“Shakespeare is perceived as best because he can be read in more ways than some of the others, but he’s got gaps through which one can drive a whole minor poet. He was a biased witness to his age. Even someone as minor as Robert Green corrects some of his blind spots.”
One could drive major writers through Shakespeare’s “gaps,” despite his tremendous achievement.
“In the sciences, people understand the concept of “critical mass” quite well. It takes an environment with the right stuff, which varies from equipment to social conditions to colleagues to make an great age in science.”
As with art and anything. At Mainstay Press, we are quite consciously trying to build a “critical mass,” in a way as encompassing as possible regarding art, culture, social change.
“I think there’s a strong correlation between quality and being a source of continual inspiration for newer writers. Artistic immortality has never depended on the general reading public. Sometimes, as in Shakespeare’s London, the general play going public appears to have good taste or Shakespeare was able to cater to it without losing what interests us in him today.”
That artistic immortality does sometimes depend on the general public, reading and otherwise, seems evident to me. Obviously artistic or aesthetic quality is often important, and many times the crucial and decisive factor, but surely not always. There’s a lot of so-so art still around from ancient times simply because it was popular, common, a part of many people’s daily lives. Look in the Bible and so on. No so-so yet still useful art and aesthetics in there that are still around influencing (sometimes quite good) art and artists? And then there is lots of popular and common non-literary art work that has survived, mainly because it was so common, pottery and rings and things. It may not be of super quality, but some of it still has artistic influence, is more than historical curiosity. This holds too for very popular literary works like The Jungle and Uncle Tom’s Cabin that are not my idea of wholesale superior artistry, but they likely will survive, maybe forever, largely due to their popularity in their time _and_ (that is, not only because of) their historical importance (which of course was due to their popularity, largely). And they are influential aesthetically, in part because they do have some real aesthetic accomplishment, even particularly intriguing such value, but they are also still (and likely will remain) influential aesthetically simply because their popularity, once upon a time, has helped to make them well known and to endure and be part of our knowledge and lives. (See Chris Bachelder’s recent acclaimed novel U.S.! based heavily upon Upton Sinclair and his novels, in which there is some significant if often transformed aesthetic influence, a great deal of “riffing” off Sinclair and his works. Some lively productive imitation, as well, in bits and pieces at least, of both Sinclair’s stronger and weaker aesthetic moments.)
“The idea of artistic immortality is not terribly realistic. In 5,000 years, nobody or only specialists will be reading Shakespeare in the original English.”
Who cares if it’s in the original English if it’s still being read? Don Quixote and The Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh (over 4,000 years old) are still produced in wonderful lively popular editions and are great delightful and thoughtful reads for any age reader. It’s easy to think of simple improvements that can be made in our country and world and that we can work to create that would make it more likely that such works would be far, far more widely read, enjoyed, appreciated, benefitted from. Of course that could be said about a lot of good and potential contemporary art too (and so many other things), so there will always be the competition of the present. About the power of translations, for, say, English-only readers, I think older works written in English are at a disadvantage compared to works that great translators can enliven for contemporary audiences. The best thing to happen to Beowulf along these lines was for it to be old enough to need to be translated into its “own” language (though to me it doesn’t seem to be one of the liveliest ancient reads).
“In 20,000 years, we could have lost any connection with that language. In a million years, the sophonts probably won’t be human, and in ten million years, they definitely won’t be. We’re creatures of a particular culture and some works matter to that culture, but our culture is not immortal, much less art works produced by it. At this point, probably most of Chaucer’s readership is specialists, and I suspect that only specialists and Yale Ph.D.s now read Latin or Greek works in the original languages.”
Ancient art endures in very lively contemporary editions. That it’s in translation or even in contemporary “rendering” is not necessarily of great consequence. That the 4000+ year old Epic of Gilgamesh continues to sell better (and read better) than most contemporary works of the imagination leads me to think that particular art works would well survive tens of thousands even hundreds of thousands of years, or more, should humanity last.
“Shakespeare has survived because he’s interesting despite changing literary fashions, but I suspect that most of my students now wouldn’t voluntarily read him any more than they’d voluntarily read Ezra Pound. I do have students who voluntarily read Ginsberg fifty years after “Howl” was published.”
About the readership, that says far more about our particular culture at this point in time than anything else. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has distributed to the public a million free copies of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which you might recall, “recently beat the likes of Shakespeare and Tolstoy to be named the best work of fiction in a survey of leading writers from across the world.” There are plenty of great lively old and ancient works, let alone contemporary ones, that the U.S. could distribute free in bus stations, the DMV, oil change shops, etc, that would be read eagerly by people from all walks of life. It’s really a crime that something like this isn’t done, as with so many things.
“Most of the English language classics are re-read by people who do have writerly ambitions. (I suspect that everyone reading The Value has ambition to write something significant whether it’s creative or critical).”
Again, this demonstrates in part some of our cultural poverty, or distraction at least, but is far from an immutable fact.
Switching posts: “Maybe quantification isn’t why Jordan is better. Maybe it’s because he beat everyone else one on one, which is what Bach did.”
Much more could be said too about, call them, quantification fallacies.
“Bracketing out artistic quality as intangible and unknowable and really quite arbitrary and subjective is a positivist cliche, a contemporary truism, and a basic Valve doctrine, but by and large I think that Bach’s contemporaries recognized his superiority. I don’t think that people should so automatically assume that it was an audience whim.”
Sure, and there are all sorts of measures of quality that can be made, and often are, as you note. But it ought to be done with some care. Take for example the New York Times “best American fiction of the past 25 years” list. Philip Roth who by far garnered the most votes seems to me to be one of the top novelists of the past decades and possibly the most highly accomplished, in wholesale ways. I think his The Ghost Writer is a particularly great, if flawed, achievement, maybe his “best” in many ways. But in my view, Dorothy Allison’s great collection of short stories, Trash, equals (yes, taken as a work of literature) any single novel of Roth’s, and arguably surpasses most of them, on a variety of grounds. (I would not say the same is true of her novels, though at least one of her books of nonfiction also seems to me to be one of the more generally valuable books of recent times, moreso, even far moreso, than the nonfiction books I’m aware of by Roth.) As far as I’m aware, Allison gets no mention in this NYT exercise, nor does much other work that has been extraordinarily vital to fiction (and culture) over the past quarter century and more, accounting for a good deal of the best of it, as measured, appropriately, in a variety of ways, including much of what is understood, for better or worse, as “aesthetic.” No Native American fiction, to mention merely one glaring case, as accomplished as, or easily within the ranks of, anything by C. McCarthy, or DeLillo, or Updike, and the others? That’s a deficiency of this scandalous list that ought to serve as the basis for or be the focus of a much needed dissertation, etc. As has been widely mentioned, the problem lies with the set-up of the exercise rather than with the individual participants (except perhaps insofar as they agreed to participate within its severe constraints). In a wide variety of ways, the New York Times exercise was utterly careless, as many have noted, an exercise largely if not wholly incapable of pointing to much of the best quality “American” fiction of recent years.
Maybe quantification isn’t why Jordan is better. Maybe it’s because he beat everyone else one on one
By scoring a lot more than they did, if I remember correctly. (At least that’s what makes him identifiable as the uncontested champ. Plenty of other players had those intangible, subjective qualities like leadership, on-court charisma and championship spirit.) We can’t count how many three-pointers Bach sank and how many MVPs he won, and I suspect neither could his contemporaries. So the basketball analogy is really just bad, IMO.
Bracketing out artistic quality as intangible and unknowable and really quite arbitrary and subjective is a positivist cliche, a contemporary truism
And quite defensible, given the alternatives. Well, at least as far as “intangible” and “subjective” go; “arbitrary” and “unknowable” do not really follow from these.
I’ll put it this way:
- It’s perfectly possible for a musician to be “objectively” better than another at a specific skill, or set of skills.
- It’s possible for clusters of those skills to appeal to a certain sensibility, or range of sensibilities—though the choice of which skills get favoured is quite possibly the most arbitrary part of aesthetics, heavily dependent on historical accident and inscrutable cultural cross-currents.
- It’s equally possible for music or art possessed of virtually none of those vaunted skills, but of some other “intangible” quality, to wind up holding even greater appeal in virtually the same cultural contexts. (This is a big part of why Dryden famously admired Jonson—the pick of most educated Elizabethans as the truly great playwright of their age—but loved Shakespeare.)
- It’s almost never possible to identify exactly what in the soup of cultural x-factors leads a society to prefer one set of aesthetic talents to another, or decides when it throws off its avowed preferences for something different and exciting. It is possible to identify “objectively” what certain ages considered to be the rules of good taste and figure out which aesthetics most closely matched them—but since aesthetic sensibilities often thrive by exceeding these sorts of bounds of good taste, it’s hard to see how useful an exercise such a restricted measurement could really be.
In view of all this, I don’t see how one can identify (say) a composer’s contemporaries as the ultimate judges of his talent; if there’s one thing musical history shows, it’s how easily the conventional wisdom of a particular age is blindsided. And I really don’t see the point of railing against the subjectivity of artistic taste. (I think it’s perfectly evident that Shakespeare “objectively” appeals to aesthetic sensibilities that Marlowe doesn’t—and just as evident that the aesthetics he appeals to are every bit as contingent, subjective and obscure in its constitution as any other aesthetics that has ever existed. So, you know, maybe one shouldn’t go making too much of it.)
Look, the idea that nothing can be known if it can’t be quantified is a university cliche, and the idea that the truth can be reached only by bracketing out normative ("aesthetic") questions is a positivist cliche, and I think that it’s peculiarly inappropriate to apply these cliches to artistic endeavors.
You do have “subjective differences in taste” in the art, but you also have master artists who are trying to do the same thing as everyone else, but are recognized as doing it better. It’s not a simple numerical ranking 1-100 but some artists have it and some don’t.
There are disagreements and reevaluations when tastes change, and some artists get special attention because they’re “different” rather than “better”. Often these factors coincide —Satie and Mussorgsky stand out against more masterful artists because the more masterful artists were trying unsuccessfully to be Wagner or Beethoven, and do something that already had been done.
To demote or promote someone in the canon, or to propose a different canon entirely (I have put together a fiction canon which excludes all realist authors) is fine. I don’t get the point of simply assuming that the canon has been randomly and casually produced and should be looked at in a non-aesthetic way though.
"There are plenty of great lively old and ancient works, let alone contemporary ones, that the U.S. could distribute free in bus stations, the DMV, oil change shops, etc, that would be read eagerly by people from all walks of life. It’s really a crime that something like this isn’t done, as with so many things.”
I should remind you that during Communism, more people read the classics than read them now in Russia where the best sellers are now not that different from what people in this country are reading.
People have access to an amazing range of things free through Project Gutenberg. I still haven’t met anyone who read widely and throughout history who didn’t write, whether published or not. The fantasy of getting truck drivers to put down their David Drake and read the classics that Drake read instead strike me as kinda fantastic.
Some things are read because they’re the only surviving witness to a period. We only have Gilgamesh by a fluke, and the language skills to translate it due to scholars working backward from the Rosetta Stone. My father has been working on a autobiography—the only parts that are interesting are the ones about an era that’s faded—the rural Southern life of the early 20th Century before that region joined the industrial age.
Dickinson is probably the case for least critical mass necessary in that she was in contact with one other writer who took her seriously and a couple of editors who thought she had promise. Poe had contact with England; Whitman was connected (Oscar Wilde visited him in Camden, so he had at that time at least a trans-Atlantic reputation).
I also don’t think we can appreciate a writer in isolation; we appreciate Shakespeare because we have read Elizabethan history and Marlowe and Classic Comics (or some other narrative based on the plays that gives for modern readers what the general culture gave to the original Elizabethan audience—the known story frame that Shakespeare hung the performance on.
“Again, this demonstrates in part some of our cultural poverty, or distraction at least, but is far from an immutable fact.”
I don’t think we’re living in a culturally improverished age. We have a disconnect between the past and the present that’s probably going to look as significant as the disconnect between hunter/gatherer societies and farming societies a thousand years from now. When Shakespeare was a living part of popular culture, we didn’t need to teach him. The rise of English literature as a field of study seems to be contemporary with the telephone.
I suspect that Richard Powers is more the cutting edge of the future than anything mentioned in the NY Times survey. And we haven’t really digested Joyce yet.
To back up Doctor Slack:
If we are arguing for a Evolutionary Theory of Art, then we must prove that the prime mover with regards to a piece’s (or author’s corpus’) survivability, that is, suitability to environment, can be located within the piece itself. After all, with biological evolution, it is the biological (and sometimes behavioral) traits of one species that allow it to command a niche (think the bills of Darwin’s finches).
But in music we find Bach. Great and good, and all that, and influential, but whose existence in such Golden Age lists as Adam’s is entirely dependent on the existence of Mendelssohn. Had Mendelssohn never been born, Bach would have been relegated to the second tier of classical music.
This is not evolution. Evolution does not rest on the assumption that one species’ non-competitive contact with another (Bach with Mendelssohn) will slingshot it into survivability even when uncoupled from the other species (the only evolutionarily “permissible” non-competitive contact between two species is symbiosis, but any comparative advantage gained by the symbiotic relationship is lost when one of the species tries to function independently again).
And this is not disparaging Bach. It’s just to say that Bach’s survivability was depentent upon a boost from another composer. In the natural world, this is like saying that, after humans learned to fly, birds became better suited to their environment.
The problem here is that we’re essentially defining evolution as nothing more than change over time with regards to environment. But it’s not. Evolution is a scientifically testable (on the micro scale) and modelable (on the macro) theory. Show me an evolutionary model of music, with Medelssohns, on par with what we’ve got going for biology, and I’ll believe it. Otherwise it’s not evolution, it’s something else.
You’d probably get a prize if you could. Because even microevolution is on a vastly larger scale than what we’re talking about. Tse tse flies, the prefered lab rat of micro ev testing, produce offspring at a rate that makes garage bands’ seemingly endless self-reproduction look like the conjugal efforts of CS Lewis. So even if you limited yourself to such bands, which vastly outnumber the composers of the period we’re talking about, your sample size is still so comparatively small in relation to what is needed to prove evolution, that you would have a whopping margin of error that would likely swallow your results (ask one of those tse tse fly guys how hard it is to overcome margin of error when selecting for a given trait, such as three eyes).
Without statistically significant modeling, you don’t have evolution, you have a heuristic trend.
All that said, I broadly agree with John as to the fact that quantification and modeling is not necessary to study arching trends in the arts and literature. I am fine with identifying a trend and studying it purely qualitatively, and frankly, prefer it that way, because if qual doesn’t have a home in the humanities, it would be forced to leave academia for good, packing up all its insights with it. But as soon as you claim evolution, you are declaring yourself for a quatitative approach, and cannot defend it on purely qualitative grounds.
Had Mendelssohn never been born, Bach would have been relegated to the second tier of classical music.
No, this is a peculiar version of the “individual genius” theory of history. Mozart also rediscovered Bach, but he wasn’t a publicist like Mendelsohn. Someone would have come along.
I think that Donald Campbell’s “Evolutionary Epistomology” is a better model than biological evolution. Contingency, historical irreversibility, proliferation and decimation, and variation and selective retention.
Ah! Thank you John E; Donald T Campbell (I’ve just googled him) is exactly the kind of hint I was angling for, and this post is a really very belated reinvention of his wheel. I’ll go dig ou some of his writing.
To think he set all those land and water speed records as well ...
On this Bach Mendelsohn thing, it’s my not-so-well-informed belief that, until Mendelsohn came along, the standard practice in programming high art music was to program the Current Stuff. Mendelsohn, in his capacity as a conductor, changed that. He programmed music that had slipped into the past but that he thought worthy of his audience’s time and attention. Hence, he rediscovered Bach. But one might also argue that he started the job of institutionalizing a whole body of work, Classical Music, as opposed simply to programming the Current Stuff.
* * * * * *
On the “subjective,” I’m often confused when something, such as beauty, is said to be subjective. More often than not what is being asserted is that something varies so wildly and aribitrarily from one individual to another that there is no way to make sense of it. So, it’s subjective and there’s no point in thinking about it any more.
It seems to me that that notion is derivative upon a more fundamental notion. Something is subjective if it is knowable only by, is meaningful only to, subjects. For there to be beauty there must be a beholder with an open and interested eye. This does not necessarily entail that judgments of beauty will vary from one beholder to another. They may or they may not.
Whatever the case may be, there’s no reason we can’t investigate how and why subjects see this or that as beautifu. It’s not easy to do, but I don’t see any reason, in principle, why it can’t be done. And where subject’s judgments differ, I don’t see why we can’t look into that either.
Further, I don’t see any way of quantifying aesthetic judgment except to model the judgments made by people. I don’t see any way of developing such models from a priori principles.
Note that Donald Campbell DID base his evolutionary epistemology on Darwinian evolution. I believe that the phrasing “random variation and selective retention” is his and that it applies to both biological and cultural evolution. You should take a look at my paper on <a href = “http://asweknowit.ca/evcult/Arena/Arena00.shtml">"Culture as an Evolutionary Arena."</a> It is one of a suite of papers on <a href = “http://asweknowit.ca/evcult/">mind-culture co-evolution.</a>
Yeah, but Campbell’s epistomology avoids the dilemmas that rise when you try to get a tight fit with biological evolution. I was responding mostly to “dunno”, who was taking the evolution model strictly.
No, this is a peculiar version of the “individual genius” theory of history. Mozart also rediscovered Bach, but he wasn’t a publicist like Mendelsohn. Someone would have come along.
First off, it isn’t an “individual genius” claim of any sort. I am claiming an accident of history.
You can look carefully and see that nowhere did I claim greatness, genius or any such for Mendelssohn. And as for the claim that Mozart wasn’t a publicist like Mendelssohn, well, that’s my point. No one was. Composers and musicians overwhelmingly aren’t publicists. And even when they are, they aren’t extreme enough to manage to catapault their target from obscurity to the universally understood pantheon of all-time greats.
Look at when Eric Clapton and Keith Richards got together and essentially underwrote the compilation of the complete Robert Johnson, a massive scale effort due to issues with age, small runs, recording quality, vanished recording comanies, and initial distribution. They managed to make it clear to all experts what they had known all along: that he was central to the sounds, phrasings, and methods of what would later become rock guitar. But even this enormous effort, which did climb the charts, was not enough to bring Johnson’s place home to the everyday audience, so that if you were to play Johnson’s “Traveling Riverside Blues” to 100 rock fans, 97’d ask why he was playing Led Zeppelin. The fact of the matter is, it is very hard to sucessfully catapault an artist into universal knowledge after he and his style (Johnson and acoustic country blues, or Bach and Baroque) have been dead and dormant for significant periods. It should not lightly be assumed that “[s]omeone would have come along.”
Generally speaking, there’s a time window on resuscitation of dead works (not just less popular, but of the “where’d you get this” variety). It seems to be sucessful when something similar to the work is being produced anyway.
For example, Europe was still writing virtually everything in Latin when the Latin clasics arrived in their consciousness as a result of trade with the East. Once they got over the religion barrier, they were ready to utilize it.
On the other hand, Gilgamesh arrived too late. Interest in the Classics was already on the wane, and its use was pretty much limited to anthropology and comp. lit. As a result, I’ve never met a person who hasn’t gone to college who knows in the smallest way “who” Gilgamesh was (try that test on Achilles), most of those who have, still don’t, even in the subset that do, those who actually find importance in the whole thing are still a minority. Resuscitating art is hard.
So even if we assume that another non-Mendelssohn Mendelssohn would have come along, the odds are he would have had to come along by 1900, before Classical music was on its steep decline to being a purely academic pursuit are slim to none (before you get on me for talking about a decline “to” academics, all I’m saying is that it was roughly the same as if all novels, plays and poems were now written essentially be English professors, for English professors as if they were journal submissions, with only the very occasional small outside audience, I would call that a decline, too). After the rise of popular forms of music, the effort would be even greater, unless the rediscovery become a museum piece like Gilgamesh.
My point stands. As great as Bach’s works were, as much as I love them, they relied on Mendellsohn’s great effort on their behalf, on an accident of history, for their survival. That’s not evolution.
Look, the idea that nothing can be known if it can’t be quantified is a university cliche,
Well, when I said that “unknowable” and “arbitrary” do not follow from “intangible” and “subjective,” I had kind of hoped it would be clear that I was not agreeing with the idea that “nothing can be known if it can’t be quantified.”
I do think we need to get used to the idea that aesthetic formations (and their motivations) are extremely complicated—and yes, that there is often a good amount of chance involved—and to the idea that applying normative judgments to them in any but the most localized sense isn’t going to be all that productive. It can be perfectly edifying to discuss and evaluate canons in terms of what they did to influence our moment and aesthetic tastes, but I just don’t see what’s so terrifying about acknowledging that our judgments are not going to be the last word, or that the exercise is a wee bit more involved than figuring out who the best player in basketball is. This isn’t a bad thing; to me, it’s part of the appeal of studying any kind of aesthetics.
I don’t get the point of simply assuming that the canon has been randomly and casually produced and should be looked at in a non-aesthetic way though.
I don’t get where you get this. Saying a canon’s production is complex and influenced by many close-to-arbitrary factors is really not the same thing as saying it was “randomly and casually produced.” Saying that it’s a good idea to let our aesthetic judgments be conditioned by some acknowledgment of that complexity is really not that same thing as saying it “should be looked at in a non-aesthetic way.”
Further, I don’t see any way of quantifying aesthetic judgment except to model the judgments made by people.
That’s fine. That’s the sort of modeling I’d expect. But, and I’m sure Donald Cambell would agree here, the modeling must include promnently the quantitative:
Dr. Campbell argued that the sophisticated use of many approaches, each with its own distinct but measurable flaws, was required to design reliable research projects. The paper he wrote with Donald W. Fiske to present this thesis, “Convergent and Discriminant Validation by the Multitrait-Multimethod Matrix,” is one of the most frequently cited papers in the social science literature.[cite]
The rough modeling that is being done here by those defending the “evolutionary art” claim is all of the same form. To cite Cambpell in defense of it is disingenuous. As I’ve said before, an evolutionary claim requires quantitative modeling by the nature of evolutionary theory. I do not reject an evolution-like qualitative approach as a supplement to this in the social sciences and humanities, to achieve to the goals of cross-checking laid out by Cambell, but if you want to engage solely in qualitative loosely quasi-historicist mapping, don’t call it evolution just because you find change and what might have been correlation had you done the math. Cambell didn’t.
More often than not what is being asserted is that something varies so wildly and aribitrarily from one individual to another that there is no way to make sense of it. So, it’s subjective and there’s no point in thinking about it any more.
This one also puzzles me. Aesthetic taste obviously varies wildly between individuals, societies and contexts, but it doesn’t follow from this that “there is no way to makes sense of it” or “no point in thinking about it.” Calling a thing “subjective” suggests that the subjects involved have no means of evaluating whose preferences are “objectively” better (beyond various sets of highly local and contingent criteria that are constantly being superseded). To say that a thing becomes unworthy of study because it’s not possible to produce The Definitive Judgment of it would seem to me, as John is fond of saying, a positivist cliche.
I’ll acknowledge my overzealousness in discussing the applicability of evolution (though I might argue I was led in that direction by statments such as Adam’s claim that non-great composers are just like Dodos, that’s why their music isn’t around anymore).
Quantitative, Campbellian ev analysis is more than fine by me, if it’s done right, which I feared at the time I wrote the above comments was not what was being pushed for. Your posting has alleviated that concern, to a large extent.
(By the way, apologies for my butchering of Campbell’s name in my prior post. I’ve always had atrocious spelling and must not have been policing it as tightly as I should).
"As great as Bach’s works were, as much as I love them, they relied on Mendellsohn’s great effort on their behalf, on an accident of history, for their survival. That’s not evolution.”
But isn’t evolution full of accidents?—jackrabbits in Australia, an asteroid in the Yucatan and so forth.
That Mendelssohn chose to program Bach was no guarantee that his audiences would like Bach. Much less that they would like him enough for music publishers to prepare and market editions of Bach. That Mendelssohn’s generation liked Bach was no guarantee that succeeding generations would do so as well. Independently of the performance of Bach’s own work, we have the music written by composers who trained with Bach and those who were directly influenced by him.
The claim was “if Mendolsohn had never been born”. That’s too strong. After Mendelsohn, Bach couldn’t be rediscovered again, obviously. Before him, Bach was rediscovered more than once, albeit with less success. To assume that it all depended on one man is a big leap.
Where does Campbell say that his method MUST be quantitatively used? It’s been awhile, but I remember it as being a fairly general paradigm capable of various applications.
This new study is not my idea and I’m not entirely in sympathy with it, so I’m not its best defender but you should note that it’s in the exploratory blocking-out stage right now. It isn’t being presented as a finished theory.
I think that in general, to the extent that musicians are trying to do approximately the same thing, their judgements of relative merit are pretty reliable. Music is a skilled craft with standards.
The controversies come when there’s stylistic change, or when individuals overestimate their own work, or when instrumentalists overestimate virtuosity, and so on. So it’s not unanimous. But it’s way different than judging different flavors of ice cream.
P.S. No one cited Campbell in defense of anything. I suggested that Campbell’s more general moderl would be more usable than biological evolution in a strict sense, and Adam thought that I might be right.
"I should remind you that during Communism, more people read the classics than read them now in Russia where the best sellers are now not that different from what people in this country are reading.”
No, I have no illusions that making literary classics widely available would have much if anything to do with a progressive political movement. But I think the government might find such works harmless enough to distribute them, if for nothing other than literacy purposes, as I believe has been done in Mexico City recently and elsewhere. In fact, the political effect might be negative, but if so I don’t think it would be extremely negative, if at all, that it couldn’t be counteracted by some accompanying or countervailing measure or effect. I suggest that great work be provided in public because there is much richness to be found there, much insight into what is sometimes called the full human condition, in the Victorian novel especially, also in much poetry and so on. It enriches people lives, heightens perceptions, can give great psychological insight, and so on. And it belongs to the public in my view. If it’s not in the bus station, the DMV, etc., it’s not nearly as available as it should be, in my view (Project Gutenberg or no). Also, I would hate to see just the great European and American classics in such places. The Bhagavad-Gita, etc, should be there too. And the great contemporary field labor poems of Gary Soto, which were so powerful to many students I’ve taught, many of whom came from migrant labor families. And much much more, including good work classic and contemporary that is in various ways specific to local cultures and conditions and therefore may be most appealing and most read.
“People have access to an amazing range of things free through Project Gutenberg. I still haven’t met anyone who read widely and throughout history who didn’t write, whether published or not. The fantasy of getting truck drivers to put down their David Drake and read the classics that Drake read instead strike me as kinda fantastic.”
That’s the problem with arguing strictly from one’s personal experience. You haven’t met anyone who does this, but just in my own limited personal experience, I’ve met quite a few, and some of them have read far more than I (who write) have. One such person I did meet in a bus station. She brought her own classic novel. Another such person, I asked him if he wrote as well. “I can’t write a post card,” he said. Of yet another such person I asked if he ever intended to write anything. “Why [on earth] do you think I should?” he said.
“I also don’t think we can appreciate a writer in isolation; we appreciate Shakespeare because we have read Elizabethan history and Marlowe and Classic Comics (or some other narrative based on the plays that gives for modern readers what the general culture gave to the original Elizabethan audience—the known story frame that Shakespeare hung the performance on.”
Are you saying you’ve never picked a classic text out of some time period that you know nothing or next to nothing about, and you haven’t been able to appreciate it? This would seem bizarre to me? What do I know about the era of the Epic of Gilgamesh? Zero. And little or nothing of other ages and cultures from which I read and can appreciate great work—though not as fully no doubt as if I knew something, let alone a lot, about the particular culture and age. Of course if you’re saying that our current culture usually gives us some handle for understanding past, different, or other work, then of course. Some art across cultures can be extremely difficult or impossible to much understand without some background explanation, which it seems to me can usually be provided rather quickly. Although the first two examples that come to mind are ones in which I simply didn’t speak the language being sung and danced to.
“Again, this demonstrates in part some of our cultural poverty, or distraction at least, but is far from an immutable fact.”
“I don’t think we’re living in a culturally impoverished age.”
We certainly don’t in many ways. In other ways, we do. And similar types of such poverty may be found within class and across class in our society, in every class. Also, any class-ridden society, a society of great and unjustifiable inequality (such as ours), suffers from a severe cultural impoverishment, in my view. A classless society can of course be culturally impoverished in a wide variety of ways too.
“We have a disconnect between the past and the present that’s probably going to look as significant as the disconnect between hunter/gatherer societies and farming societies a thousand years from now. When Shakespeare was a living part of popular culture, we didn’t need to teach him. The rise of English literature as a field of study seems to be contemporary with the telephone.”
There are certainly many other things that could be done to help raise literacy levels and to help spread cultural and public knowledge, beauty, and other wealth than placing great literature of today and the past at the fingertips of the public, especially in places where we are often essentially trapped and so have the time and often the unmet need to do something more than with otherwise might or are likely to. This isn’t teaching. It’s distributing the wealth. Again, there are all sorts of cultural wealth that could be and I think should be much better distributed.
“I suspect that Richard Powers is more the cutting edge of the future than anything mentioned in the NY Times survey. And we haven’t really digested Joyce yet.”
Joyce doesn’t seem that mysterious to me. In my early twenties I really appreciated Powers’ Goldbug Variations. Haven’t read his work recently.
While another Mendelssohn-like figure might have sprung up to champion Bach, that, ultimately, is not my point. I read Roberts as saying that there is something in the work itself that endears it to the audience, whose overswell of enjoyment makes it immortal (I know this is a gross simplification, but I believe it captures the essence of the post). So I guess what I was trying to do (and bumbling rather lovingly at it, it seems) was to construct a counterfactual. Would Bach’s music, with the same intrinsic values (forget how they’re measured, just that they’re there), when it is faced the same audience, but without a mediator on the level of of a Mendelssohn, still have reached the canon? Because if it wouldn’t have, then it there’s more to audience-survival in music than just adaptive traits. If Bach would have failed to reach the level of the greats without Mendelssohn, with the same music-traits and audience-environment, then what was going on was probably something other than evolution.
At least with regards to the audience. I do think that was a bad choice of presumed “environment,” as logical as it might sound. Audiences take into account significantly more than just the musical traits of a piece when approving of it: Let It Bleed would have languished had it been from New England’s Own Bradford Street Blues Rockers. No one was looking for an album by the Bradford Street Blues Rockers, and an exposure to the same audience would have disappeared.
I like your idea of the musicians as the environment, though. I think that might have some promise.
And of course, to be fair, Stephen Jay Gould was mentioned upthread, in regards to his batting average analogy, which I believe is almost the wrong bit of work to cite for this thread. That analogy, to the best of my knowledge, was first employed in Full House, in which he was trying to popularize this evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium, which, if you believe evolution is what’s controlling musical trends, is probably the best place to start in looking for the answer to the question, “Why are the greatest composers all German?”
Of course, it was in readings of Gould that I got my antipathy toward non-biological uses of evolutionary theory. He was always vehemently opposed.
No, the audience is a perfectly reasonable characterization of the environment for music. Musicians are a part of the environment.
While I would agree that, in plain language, “the audience is a perfectly reasonable characterization of the environment for music,” the point I think that was trying to be made (sorry for the convolution. The idea was not mine first, and I wouldn’t like to maul it too bad in the event I am wrong) was that for the sake of an evolutionary model, musicians perform the role of the environment.
I’m not trying to kick the reader out of the room. Instead I’m trying to see, if you could find an evolutionary model to closely fit historical trends, what shape it would take. I personally believe that evolutionary modelling of literary trends is more trouble than its results are worth, relative to other forms of study, and I thank you for the polite reminder of what an unmodelled world looks like.
"Are you saying you’ve never picked a classic text out of some time period that you know nothing or next to nothing about, and you haven’t been able to appreciate it? This would seem bizarre to me? What do I know about the era of the Epic of Gilgamesh? Zero. And little or nothing of other ages and cultures from which I read and can appreciate great work—though not as fully no doubt as if I knew something, let alone a lot, about the particular culture and age. “
Unless you can read the original languages, what you’re reading is a modern take on a work of the past. I could be persuaded that translations are new works inspired by older works in other languages. Robert Silverberg’s Gilgamesh works point readers back to modern translations that are closer to the original language, but unless you’re reading the original language, you’re reading a relatively modern work inspired by the fragments. I suspect Borges would argue that even reading work in an original language is a translation for the modern reader.
Classics covers a huge range of things. I met a T.V. executive once who said CBS was doing classics as they were adapting the Count of Monte Cristo.
I don’t see, dunno, why the qualification “for the sake of an evolutionary model” should change anything. If it’s an evolutionary model of music, then I need something I can count, otherwise there’s no way to test the model against observations. Bach survives if there are performances of his music. So that’s what I want to count, performances. Audiences - or, if you will, the social group - determine whether or not there are performances.
Of course, counting peformances is a tricky matter. There are definitional matters—does a rehearsal count as a performance? what about listening to a recording?—and there is the business of actually performing the count, which is a methodological one.
It’s worth keeping in mind that in the simplest human societies - hunter-gatherers - there is no distinction between performer and audience. Some members of a band may be more skillful than anothers, but everyone sings and dances. Performances are done in groups. It takes a bit of social development to arrive at a situation where there is a meaningful distinction between performers and more or less passive audiences.
I used fellow-musicians rather than audiences as judges just to show how the evaluation of musical units is different than saying which kind of ice cream is your favorite. A well-informed audience (perhaps of amateur musicians) would be just as good. I was pecking away at the idea that the first thing to do is ignore aethetic questions, one of the supports of which was the intuition “Who is to say, really?”
Performances are done in groups. It takes a bit of social development to arrive at a situation where there is a meaningful distinction between performers and more or less passive audiences.
I’d say classical music reached that point sometime before the time they put and upper limit on the number of people in a string quartet, popular music by the end of WWII. We can now move on, relatively safe in the assumption that no one is going to bound onstage to show Aretha how it’s done.
A well-informed audience (perhaps of amateur musicians) would be just as good.
Keep in mind that pianos were common in middle-class 19th century homes. And they weren’t mere decoration. They were played. Music publishing was big business, and most of the music was sold to amateurs.
I’d say classical music reached that point sometime before the time they put and upper limit on the number of people in a string quartet, popular music by the end of WWII.
The distinction between performers and passive audiences was well-established before classical music emerged. Now, many people in the audience of a professional performance would have been amateur musicians, but, for a given professional performance, they were passive. The listened to the music presented to them. Some for pop music.
The distinction between performers and passive audiences was well-established before classical music emerged.
I was being willfully conservative in my estimate. Your expansion of that conservative estimate of timeframe for passive listeners only bolsters my point: general audiences were increasingly made up of individuals who had no desire and often no capacity to approach music this way:
It’s worth keeping in mind that in the simplest human societies - hunter-gatherers - there is no distinction between performer and audience. Some members of a band may be more skillful than anothers, but everyone sings and dances. Performances are done in groups. It takes a bit of social development to arrive at a situation where there is a meaningful distinction between performers and more or less passive audiences.
I found that assertion, while true in isolation, entirely irrelevant to the discussion of modern-classical-audience-as-metric, and sought to sideline it. Sorry it turned into such an ordeal.
Late and later into the fray, and I apologize to all the commenters who may have already said what I’m inadvertently repeating.
To my: Bach didn’t start the musical techniques of the Baroque, he finished them. He didn’t chance upon them either, they were the technique he was born into.
You respond: How is this relevant to what I’m arguing? I don’t disagree with what you say here, but whether Bach was the first musician to try a particular style, or whether he found that style by chance or not, has no bearing on the case I’m making.
It’s relevant because if the evidence you present that I know something about is not quite right, it makes the rest of the evidence seem not so credible either. And when too much of the evidence is not quite right (but “something sort of like that” instead) there is no argument.
Then you ask In what ways does my argument misrepresent Darwin’s ideas?
Because Darwin’s theories are about survival of species, not individuals. What is the species? The Goldberg Variations? Bach’s catalog of works? Baroque music? And the theories are about survival of the species through evolution. What did The Goldberg Variations or the catalog of works or Baroque music in general evolve into? If it is evolving into things, how does that relate to the central point about isolated pockets of genius? What represents generations of the species, and what is the stuff that is the “genetic material” getting passed on from one generation to the next?
Evolution is about change: the finch beaks are changing to respond to the environment. But your model is about stasis: we are still listening to Bach’s music even now.
Just because there is competition, doesn’t mean that evolution makes a good model. And for evolution to make a good model, you have to be a lot less glib about how the components of your model are analogous to Darwin’s.
. . . What is the species? The Goldberg Variations? Bach’s catalog of works? Baroque music?
An interesting set of questions. One I’ve considered a bit. But I’d like to start with the cultural individual, as a cultural species is a collection of (closely related) cultural individuals. In Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture I’ve argued that performances are the individuals of musical culture. To be sure, performances are ephemeral, but then so are all biological individuals as well. Individuals are born—a performance begins—they last for some period of time, and then they die—the performance is over.
What does it mean for a performance to reproduce? Well, how likely is a given performance likely to inspire a repetition of the piece that was performed? If the performance gave pleasure to the musicians and audience, then they’ll want to do it again. That’s reproduction. So, a good performance of “The Goldberg Variations” leads to another performance and so on. It might in fact be sufficient that a good performance of one Bach piece led to performances of other Bach pieces. If there are enough musicians, audience members, and performance occasions it really doesn’t matter that a performance of a given piece induces a desire to hear that exact piece again or simply a desire to hear more Bach.
It’s not entirely clear to me just what a musical species would be. Obviously it’s going to be a population of closely related individuals—as a biological species is. But whether various performances of “The Goldberg Variations” are in the Bach species or the Baroque species, or possibly some other species, I don’t quite know. Perhaps here’s were some mathematical modeling would be useful, as would an account of the cultural correlate to the biological gene. I do suspect, however, that the boundaries between cultural species are likely to be more permeable that those between biological species (something I touched on <a href ="http://tinyurl.com/jo7by" target="blue">here</a>).
I think one interesting take upon the phenonmenon of German music dominating the “greater Romantic era” is the interpretation that Germans of the time themselves put upon it (at least, by the time of the late nineteenth century).
Generally, Germans of the time considered the German musical dominance as an integral part of German culture / civilivation / worldview. Germans would argue that German musical superiority was a result of German culture’s closer connection to the emotions or the Volk or Germanic tradition or nature, etc. This was in general contrasted to the “French” attachment to reason.
I think this is actually true, but in a sort of convex way from how Germans argued it. Rather, it was not that German culture was somehow naturally more musical, but rather that German culture was the culture most penetrated by Romanticism. I.E. though other nations/cultures also were of course influenced by Romanticism, no culture was more influenced than German culture was. Thus, German culture produced the finest Romantic-era music, because the overall German culture was itself the most in tune with Romanticism generally.
We can see this in comparing France versus Germany (which were the two cultural axles of Europe throughout the period). Why wasn’t French Romantic music stronger? Well, full-blown Romanticism simply didn’t have the hold over France that it did over Germany. The kinds of criticism of Romanticism that Balzac or Baudelaire or Flaubert start having by the 1840s or before don’t appear in German literature with the same force until much later (only in the 1880s and after). Also, while modern German culture is founded during the early Romantic era (Goethe), French culture is significantly older.
So, German culture was much more interpenetrated by Romanticism than many other European cultures were. Russia, whose culture was also very Romantic, had the second strongest musical culture. (the Scandanavian countries also were heavily influenced by Romanticism, and had pretty good musical cultures for their sizes). Places where Romanticism had less impact - England or America - didn’t have as good Romantic music. Notably, England had a comparatively decent musical history for a small Protestant nation before the Romantic era (William Byrd, Thomas Morley, John Dunstable in the 15th century, etc) AND did quite well after in the twentieth century after Romantic music’s heyday had passed.
Seems simple to me.
1a. Classical music is the expression of European spirit.
2a. Nowhere is this found more intensely than in Germany (and Italy, where a lot of great classical existed).
1b. The period of great classical music was a culmination of centuries of previous ideas.
2b. It required stability to mold it and future instability to launch it, and these were present in the most action oriented of nations, including Germany and Italy.
.: 3. Germany was a cultural icebreaker for classical music.
Interesting to note that Germany has the highest IQ of Western Nations (107 average) and Italy isn’t that much far behind, and that these two were partners in WWII, which many on the Axis side fought to “save Europe” ("Europeans, Fight for Europe” was a popular Nazi slogan).
Also Tony Iommi, the guitarist for Black Sabbath, was Italian <-- non sequitur
S.R.Prozak is right on the mark. Modern nihilistic cultural nominalism has purposely ignored the most culturally-formative component of all: the native Western Indo-European root and its Promethean-Faustian, superlatively creative spirit which produces geniuses like none other. No other civilizations have produced the like of Bach or Beethoven.
***The Celtic-German “race” has the strongest will-power the world has ever seen.*** Oswald Spengler, Jahre der Entscheidung [Years of Decision] (Berlin: Beck’sche Verlagbuchshandlung, 1933)
Oswald Spengler stands vindicated against the modern hordes of reductionistic economists, Marxists, nominalists, Lysenkoists, nihilists and false sophisters.
Guys i have almost no knowledge of classical composing apart from the rare Beethoven, did not know till 5 mts back that Bach was considered better, i came here by googling ‘why are germans so fuck%n good in composing’ without the %, after i stumbled on Klaus Badelt having loved Hans Zimmer’s work for the past few years. I think Germans are just good in this.