Thursday, December 28, 2006

"Collage students," Part IV: Playing Bach for Africans

The curious can find Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here.

Consider this, the cover image from Tortoise's recent box set, A Lazarus Taxon. I'm now the proud owner of this and will have more to say about it in a future post (the curious/impatient among you can go here to listen to every track in its entirety). But this picture . . . does it not encapsulate the way some of us feel in our travels on the 'Nets?: we have a clear idea where we're headed, what we're looking for, only to hit some road debris on the Information Superhighway in the form of a URL address that leads us to think about (and, in my case this morning, post about) something completely other than what we'd intended. We end up sideways in our tunnel-vision-like pursuit of knowledge, kind of wondering how we ended up that way but/and, now, contemplating the walls of the tunnel itself.

In my particular case today, I find myself wanting to add a piece or two to my "Collage Student" series.

The booklet that accompanies A Lazarus Taxon has essays about Tortoise written in several languages, only one of which I'm able to read, alas. No matter for the moment, though: it's what led me to the reason why this post is here.

In that essay, Alan Licht mentions an essay by Brian Eno written in 1994 called "Unfinished," in which Eno writes about the implications of interactive media on the notion of definitive versions of art. Curious, I looked for and failed to find the essay, but I did find this interview with Eno in the May 1995 issue of Wired in which he talks about that very idea:
In a blinding flash of inspiration, the other day I realized that "interactive" anything is the wrong word. Interactive makes you imagine people sitting with their hands on controls, some kind of gamelike thing. The right word is "unfinished." Think of cultural products, or art works, or the people who use them even, as being unfinished. Permanently unfinished. We come from a cultural heritage that says things have a "nature," and that this nature is fixed and describable. We find more and more that this idea is insupportable - the "nature" of something is not by any means singular, and depends on where and when you find it, and what you want it for. The functional identity of things is a product of our interaction with them. And our own identities are products of our interaction with everything else. Now a lot of cultures far more "primitive" than ours take this entirely for granted - surely it is the whole basis of animism that the universe is a living, changing, changeable place. Does this make clearer why I welcome that African thing? [Earlier, Eno had made a distinction between what he sees as African musics' (and cultures') organicism and openness to experimentation and Western music's (and cultures') tendency to favor definitive performances] It's not nostalgia or admiration of the exotic - it's saying, Here is a bundle of ideas that we would do well to learn from.
In this passage is a glimpse of a sensibility I'd noted in the earlier "Collage Student" posts: a de-emphasis of the permanent in favor of the temporal, the transitory, with the result that my students have difficulty even feeling a desire to, much less a need to, establish a context in their writing by which they attempt to connect their experiences and tastes with an audience's knowledge.

The way out of that dilemma? For Eno, the solution seems to be something along the lines of re-defining what an artist is:
An artist is now a curator. An artist is now much more seen as a connector of things, a person who scans the enormous field of possible places for artistic attention, and says, What I am going to do is draw your attention to this sequence of things. . . . [W]hat postmodernist thinking is suggesting is that there isn't one line, there's just a field, a field through which different people negotiate differently. Thus there is no longer such a thing as "art history" but there are multiple "art stories." Your story might involve foot-binding, Indonesian medicine rituals, and late Haydn string quartets, something like that. You have made what seems to you a meaningful pattern in this field of possibilities. You've drawn your own line. This is why the curator, the editor, the compiler, and the anthologist have become such big figures. They are all people whose job it is to digest things, and to connect them together.
From a pedagogical standpoint (assuming we read "artist" here as "student"), I find this idea both disorienting and liberating. The disorienting part is that the instructor is traditionally figured as the arbiter and imparter of Knowledge, which implies that a) only what s/he says is of significance as far as a class's subject matter is concerned; and b) the student becomes an empty vessel. Not that I've ever taught as though those notions were literally true, but that frame, I'd dare say, is implicit, no matter the class, if only because of that little matter of grades. At least where I teach, grades aren't going to go away any time soon, but those other, just-as-standard frames (such as a syllabus that determines each and every thing to be read, discussed and written about in a class) can be fiddled with, and that's somthing that I will be experimenting with come this spring.

And here is the liberating part: At the college level--even at the freshman level--students, as early and as often as possible, need to be teaching themselves: not just mechanics, though that of course matters, but how to convey to an audience why it should pay attention to what they have to say about something. What is appealing to me about the student-as-curator model, at least at first blush, is that, in theory, students won't have to generate a false sense of personal investment in the subjects of their writing assignments. What's equally-liberating for me--not to mention challenging for students--is that they will have to work harder, think harder and smarter, seeing as the measure for success for such a model becomes not the extent to which students' writing conforms to the requirements of the assignment and to the standards of mechanical correctness but the extent to which they can make connections between/among the things they already know and the things they can reasonably assume an audience knows to be true or accepts as a valid truth. In the process, they'll have to seriously evaluate, perhaps for the first time, something as basic as why they like something or like knowing about something. No more "I don't know why--I just do"--at least, not in my class. Curators have to know stuff.

Eno makes clear that he sees curating as a creative act--and he also explains why simple "exposure" to Great Works isn't enough, even if the Great Work is a product of one's own culture:
To create meanings - or perhaps "new readings," which is what curators try to do - is to create. Period. Making something new does not necessarily involve bringing something physical into existence - it can be something mental such as a metaphor or a theory. More and more curatorship becomes inseparable from the so-called art part. Since there's no longer a golden line through the fine arts, you are acting curatorially all the time by just making a choice to be in one particular place in the field rather than another.
In the traditional classical view, art objects are containers of some kind of aesthetic value. This value was put into them by the artist, who got it from God or from the Muse or from the universal unconscious, and then it radiated back out to those who beheld it. It was thus that missionaries played gramophone records of Bach to Africans in the expectation that it would civilize them, as though they would somehow be enriched by the flood of goodness washing over them. We now see the arrogance of this assumption, but I think few people understand what is really wrong about it, aside from its political incorrectness. What's wrong about it is that cultural objects have no notable identity outside of that which we confer upon them. This is a controversial and volatile statement. Their value is entirely a product of the interaction that we have with them. Duchamp's urinal was an exercise in this. Things become artworks not because they contain value, but because we're prepared to see them as artworks, to allow ourselves to have art experiences from them, before them, to frame them in contexts that confer value on them. (emphasis added)
This is Kant's definition of art as "purposiveness without purpose" from the viewer's point of view. I like the idea of the onus of determining a piece's value being put on the audience, because it reinforces the strong sense I have of art being less the object itself than a dialogue that takes place between the object and its audience. The same, by extension, is true when we determine the value of any piece of knowledge we might have or encounter.

And here I'll leave off for now. Part V, though, will be a sketching out of what I have in mind for the coming semester, along with some comments on how Eno's idea of "unfinishedness" might fit into all this.

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John B. said...

For those who might be curious: I have cross-posted this piece over at Clusterflock; some comments have appeared over there.

Phillip said...

Good stuff. I'll have to reread it later for it to really sink in. Although I just commented on your Psycho post, this one is what led me here. I was going through my iTunes, finding cover art for tracks that were lacking, when I came across a track from that Tortoise box set. (Corporone Brunch (Mike Watt mix).) I don't really know where it came from, as I don't really have any Tortoise, however I have lots of Mike Watt. Anyway, I googled for some cover art, and arrived here. Nice place you got here, I'll be back!