A. Representational Media
Over time, I find I have become increasingly less enamored with aesthetic works that are “things” or “objects,” as opposed to events, processes or performances. This is not because I have stopped enjoying, say, paintings (certain paintings, that is). Rather, I simply have become dubious about their ontological status – what it is they are – particularly because they “signify,” or attempt to do so. That is, they are not complete, or cannot be understood, “as they are.” Instead, they represent (or purport to represent), or point to, or only can be seen in terms of, something else.
For a painting, this “something else” may be an arrangement of objects (as in a still life), a landscape, or a person (as with a portrait). While these are obvious examples, the problem still lurks for what we might call less “conventionally”-oriented works. Because even a work that is completely abstract or non-representational still has a subject, which may be nothing other than “the painter’s conception of that which is painted.” In each instance, the painting purports to depict something that is not the “painting itself,” understood as a canvas with certain dimensions that has been covered with pigment in certain colors. It therefore has a kind of derivative or “second-order” ontological status; in a weird kind of way, it is “not itself.”
Seen from this perspective, it’s not hard to discern that paintings aren’t the sole culprits here. CDs iterate or instantiate a certain version of an artist’s recorded musical performance; DVDs encapsulate a film; and photographs almost per se are constrained to be representational (except for a very few, but those still depict something other than what they are). I’m not concerned whether any of these media do a good job of this, or a poor one. Rather, the thing that bothers me is that they do it at all.
The root of the problem lies in the nature of aesthetic works. As things or objects, they fundamentally are different than, say, tools (equipment), or items found in nature, like a rock. Tools are useful. They can be deployed (employed) to “do” something. A hammer, for instance, drives in a nail. A computer plays games, processes words, calculates numbers, color-balances images, sequences music. And, rocks just sit there, inoffensively.
Aesthetic works, on the other hand, are neither of these things. We might think of them as tools, but only in a convoluted sense (“That picture helped me achieve a better understanding of x“). And, they certainly don’t merely repose. The nature of an aesthetic work is to demand a response. The listener – viewer is solicited, or invited, to interact with it, and thereby to become engaged. If the work doesn’t do this, if it is so innocuous that it merely reposes, then it hardly is an aesthetic work. Rather, it’s more like, say, a door-stopper.
Aesthetic works also are unlike religious icons (idols). These are extremely disturbing, from an ontological standpoint, because they have a weird, tripartite kind of existence. (1) They’re typically thought of as aesthetic works. This imports all of the signification issues we’ve discussed, but with a zinger, which is, that which is signified may be a transcendental presence (as in, a “god”). (2) They may be tools, in that they provide (or facilitate) access to a transcendental experience. And (this is the most peculiar part), (3) they actually may embody a transcendental presence, when (a) viewed in the correct light, (b) spoken to using an approved form of incantation, (c) supplicated with appropriate offerings, or (d) etc.
B. Space Is the Place
As a parallel development to my concern about artistic objects, I also have come to believe that most performing art is so highly diluted, that it is but a pallid simulacrum of either (a) the way it originally was intended to be expressed by its creator, or (b) the best performance of it we can imagine. Of course the creative participants mean well, but in a profound sense they “don’t know what they are doing.” They are “going through the motions.” The performance lacks the energy, the enthusiasm, which connects a genuine performance, an “authentic” one, with its cultural milieu.
Here’s what I mean by “cultural milieu.” A work of art originates at a place; and it is this place, it should evoke. It only can be comprehended with reference to this place; if one attempts to understand it in terms of some other place, then one will not be able to achieve a true understanding of it. The great jazz artist Sun Ra said, “Space is the Place,” by which he didn’t mean “outer space” (as in, stars and planets), but rather, the “background” or “clearing” of the world we inhabit, which offers to us roles, equipment, significations, and everything else we require in order to create. It is this context in which any artistic work arises, and it is context that gives it meaning, import and dimensionality.
Thus, for example, if Britney Spears was attempting a sexy stripper dance at her recent performance at the Video Music Awards, her performance was an ignominious failure. On the other hand, if she was attempting to move her body like an over-weight, depressed, drug-addled trailer park resident from somewhere in the Deep South, then her performance was an unqualified success. I couldn’t be less interested in hearing performances of Brahms and Beethoven performed by any orchestra other than the Berlin Philharmonic, because only they have the requisite artistic temperament, or centered-ness, to interpret the work properly (the same might be said of any other world-class orchestra whose members predominantly comprise persons from Germany). The best flamenco guitar I’ve ever heard was off a dusky alley in Madrid. Let’s not bother with Swan Lake, unless it’s the Bolshoi Ballet.
I think you get the idea. The best interpreters, or performers, of an artistic work, typically are those geographically connected to its point of origin. The reason why is, there is a one-to-one correspondence, a connection, between their performance of the work, and the myriad of assumptions, techniques, cues and other interpretive constraints embedded in the work itself.
To avoid any potential misunderstandings, I am not saying other performers are incapable of interpreting, or unable to interpret, the work. Indeed, occasionally, they may do a far better job. The reason why this happens is because they are able to juxtapose elements or techniques from their background, training and experience against those implicit in, or that lie within, the parameters of the work. But this is an altogether different aesthetic experience than an idiomatic interpretation of the work by a performer to whom, or for whom, that curtelage of assumptions is reflexively transparent.
To avoid a second possible set of misunderstandings, I don’t think this has anything to do with race or ethnicity. Rather, my argument is far more mundane – it’s based on geography, not genetics. I don’t believe that creativity is innate, that one is “born with,” say, the ability to play the violin. Rather, creative ability is a result, or a consequence, of the way we become acculturated within our community – its shared assumptions, the matrix of possibilities it presents, what’s encouraged and what’s de-emphasized, the way (say) a teacher sparks a student’s interest in a certain set of phenomena.
Similarly, I don’t believe that any one person’s ability to respond to these stimulations is any better than any other’s. (Unless not), all of us come into this world with the same equipment – ears, eyes, fingers, a curious and inquiring mind. We’re all equal at the starting gate, at least insofar as concerns our creative potential.
This is why, in my view, cultural education is vitally important. Not only does it activate and stimulate the physical and mental faculties we have been given for that purpose. It also generates self-awareness of the culture of the place, the society, into which one is born – literally, where one “finds oneself,” at such time as one has the capacity to do so. An informed understanding of one’s own culture – the background of conventions, assumptions, and protocols it comprises – surely is necessary before one can go off and start evoking those of others, by performing, or attempting to perform, its artistic works. Without the former prerequisite, one simply would be play-acting at performing, or performing fictionally, which is dull, lifeless and boring.
C. The Only Performance that Really Makes It
There is a second way in which the nature of place permeates that of performance. Let’s consider a few examples.
– The reason why so many “good” metal bands (i.e., they thoroughly and effectively iterated the genre) came from the Sunset Strip, is because they were acculturated and constrained by that space: the location of the clubs, the infra-structure of booking agents, music stores, cheap living accommodations, and the warm Southern California sunshine. The clubs were there for a reason – West Hollywood originally was right outside the jurisdiction of the City of Los Angeles, so law enforcement was lax and the environment was more permissive. Over time, this attracted not only performance venues, but also an infrastructure of roads, parking facilities, restaurants, and other accouterments to support them.
– The reason why so much “good” disco (again, in the sense that it thoroughly and effectively iterates the genre) arose out of gay culture in New York and Berlin, is because its performers and producers were hedged in and enclosed by the population and spatial characteristics of those urban centers. Large cities historically have amalgamated a variety of different life-style options, giving rise to distinctively gay (or gay-inspired) artifacts, such as dance clubs. These in turn required rhythmic music. Noticing this need, entrepreneurial producers created a supply to fulfill the demand.
– Gangsta rap emerged from South Central L.A., fueled by the rage of a generation of creative performers, stewing in the aftermath of the Watts uprising. Which in turn was precipitated by a number of factors, many of which were place-based: for example, deteriorating housing stock and the lack of urban infrastructure and services, despite high population density. At the same time, South Central L.A. had a lengthy and vibrant history of cross-pollinating musical genres, as illustrated, for example, by the profusion of clubs along Central Avenue during the 1920s – 1950s.
– Country music began thriving in Nashville because it was a natural accumulation-point for music all the way from the Appalachians to the Ozarks. Once music publishers, radio stations, recording studios and a cadre of skilled performers became entrenched, Nashville acquired cultural momentum, developing its own set of conventions and protocols.
– It is difficult to imagine punk rock emanating from anywhere other than the bleak industrial centers of Thatcherite Britain – places like Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool. Their core businesses, such as steel-making, ship-building, and heavy equipment-manufacturing, had become obsolete. There was little job opportunity. Exacerbating the problem, Britain’s rigid social structure – approximating a caste system – made it difficult to envision, much less implement, employment alternatives. Factors like these, coupled with cold, rainy weather, created a prevailing mood of grim despair.
There probably are as many examples of this as there are styles or genres of music, and I do not mean for this enumeration (both of genres and contributing factors) to be anything other than illustrative. There is a sense in which anything can come from anywhere, particularly in today’s post-modern, homogenized cultural economy. National chain stores import committee-designed fashions into formerly isolated cultural enclaves all the way from Olympia to Memphis. MTV and its progeny (such as almost any show on E*Television) blast lowest-common-denominator, corporately-designed cultural paradigms into living rooms across the country (actually, across the world).
However, it is a mistake to think of the performer as bringing a style of music to the place, or “choosing” to perform a particular style of music in a particular place, as opposed to some other (any other) style. That happens, of course, but it’s precisely that music which is awful. In all of the artistically noteworthy cases, it is the place that impacts itself upon the music, not vice versa.
Even given the sanding-down process of cultural homogenization, one no more can think of Nashville as being the originator of Sunset Boulevard-style metal music, than one can think of South Central L.A. as the home of country music. This is true not just for historical reasons; because “that’s how it happened.” Rather, distinct styles and genres of music are uniquely embedded in the place and culture from which they arose.
There is a reason why they arose from those places. And, it’s not just a musicological exercise to discern those reasons. Rather, it is the task of cultural anthropology. For each person who (a) is a member of a culture (that would include all of us), and (b) who experience creative urges (which would include many of us), or (c) who is a consumer of cultural artifacts (which includes most of us), it is a critical component to self-discovery, and the experience of a performance that is not just informed, but authentic.
What do I mean by an “authentic” performance? When it comes to performances, my taste is agnostic; or, perhaps I should say, catholic. What I can’t tolerate is incompleteness, or infelicity, of expression – performances that are uninformed, or that fail to resonate, with the milieu of which they are a part; that congeries of background factors, nuances, and ingredients that qualitatively differentiate one set of cultural expectations, from another. Like Mick Jagger once said, “The only performance that really makes it is the one that achieves madness” (or something like that).
Mr. Jagger didn’t mean “going crazy” or “losing your head,” and giving an insane performance, or one like a mad person. Rather, he meant one that is so facile, and so ready-to-hand, that it is given thoughtlessly (i.e., without the intervention of conscious thought). It is so graceful and uninhibited, that the performer has become transparent to the world in which he or she is embedded. The performer inculcates, or embodies, or interiorizes, the work’s space of origin. The work attains an internal cohesiveness or coherency; if it was a logical proof, we would say it was “elegant.” It is forceful and dynamic (even if enacting that which is limpid, in which event, it is forcefully limpid).
As a result, the work (as performed by the performer) becomes such a thorough expression of the “background” or the “clearing” from which it originated, and is so idiomatically nuanced, that you can’t conceive of it as coming from anywhere else, or being performed by anyone else. That world (and its assumptions and presuppositions) is disclosed, and illuminated; the performer shines a light on it for us, so we can peer into it, marveling, amazed and mystified.
D. Objects Redux
“Space is the place,” as we have (possibly, re-) interpreted Mr. Ra’s concept, also has application to aesthetic works that are things, or objects. I was pleased when the Getty Museum in Los Angeles recently agreed to return various antiquities to Italy. I couldn’t care less if they were stolen fair and square, or what are the legal niceties and equitable precepts of the situation. The point is, they belong at the space from which they originated.
I should say the same thing is true of the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone – and the Laocoön, presently languishing, dusty and forlorn, in the Vatican Museum. Both Byron and Shelley thought it one of the greatest sculptures ever made. It was stolen by the Romans from the Greeks, so that’s where it belongs (unless, of course, it really was carved by Michelangelo, in which case it can say where it’s at, though they really should do a better job of displaying it!).