Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Eclecticism as an American aesthetic: A lion's preliminary throat-clearing

I don't have time to develop this just now, but between now and when I do, I'd like to encourage my reader(s) to comment on something, either here or elsewhere.

Gawain of Heaven Tree frequently posts on aesthetics and the notion of taste. A central assumption of his on these issues is that the values and standards giving shape to these matters are not, in the end, culturally- or historically-determined but are both discoverable and universal. He has clearly done more--and more careful--thinking and writing about these matters than I have, and I greatly respect that fact about his work, even as I wonder sometimes whether he's right. Sometimes, as in a passage from this post on the implications of evolutionary psychology for aesthetics, he can write so eloquently that, even if I'm not sure he's right, I find myself wanting him to be right:

my primitive intuition (and that of most of us) that when I (we) find something beautiful, there really is something there, something beyond the social ambiance of the work, something unrelated to power structures and religious meaning and media manipulation, role of education and museums, something unquestionable and immovable and immutable. Something which makes us completely powerless, something which rules and overcomes us. That there is something not arbitrary but, on the contrary, ultimately indisputably really beautiful about some works of art. Some element, however miniscule, of beauty pure and simple, unalloyed and independent of its religio-politico-sioco-econo-moral associations.

It's been some time ago that I first read his provocatively-titled post, "Why I hate pop music, or the mystery of eclectic tastes", but the passage below has recently come back to mind:
My third observation is that all the eclectics I have ever known have all been Americans. I have never heard a Chinese, a Japanese, or a European argue for the equality of pop and classical (or interchangeability of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Claudio Monteverdi). What is it about Americans which makes it possible for them to believe such things? Indeed, to experience them? Is their ideological commitment to imagined equality of everything so strong as to make them blind to obvious emotional stimuli? Or do they have congenitally different brains? I don’t know. I really do not know. It is one of those ways in which my American friends (of whom many I love dearly) will remain to me inscrutable ciphers. A human mystery.

Wittgenstein once said: If a lion could speak, we would not understand him.

Well, yes.
Now: I'll just say here by way of marking out some territory that I'll build on later that a) I think there is some truth embedded in this paragraph but needs some teasing out; and b) while Gawain's tone here smacks a bit of that old joke, "The natives are revolting."/"Yes--they certainly are," I'd argue that eclecticism (of a sort other than Gawain's characterization here) is not some congenital condition that causes my countrymen to fail their Art Appreciation classes but, instead, is nothing to be ashamed of--if, that is, we want to call ourselves "Americans."

What think y'all? I hope those of you who are so inclined, whether or not you're from the States, will comment here or initiate a discussion at your own places. If you choose the latter option, I hope you'll link to this post so that I won't miss your posts.

Thanks in advance.

UPDATE: Another nugget to chew on regarding this topic: Sorry to be vague as to the sourcing, but I was only half-listening to the radio when the announcer said this by way of quoting someone else: "Duke Ellington is of the belief that that there are two kinds of music: "Good," and "The other kind."


Andrew Simone said...

There will be a post. It may take a few days, but there will definitely be a post about this. I'll, er, keep you posted.

Camille said...

This thing, "american," has been coming up in conversations lately. Today, discussing potatoes and the value of the dollar with an Irish woman and on Sunday talking about the need for worship music in Swiss-German for Swiss-German congregations with a Swiss-German musician who wants to create worship music in the style of "The Killers". They both observed that the Americans they spoke to always said that they came from "here and there and there." There wasn't a cohesive identity and no one identified themselves as "American." I find that to be an accurate portrayal, of myself and most people I know.

If there is an eclecticism in identity, why not in aesthetics? I certainly have no shame in claiming an American aesthetic heritage. How can Gawain say that Andrew Lloyd Webber evokes no "emotional stimuli"? (ALW is British for cryin' out loud. He'd have to have a heart of stone not to cry for the Phantom). Monteverdi wrote operas, which was a popular form for his day. It sounds like he's fallen victim to chronological snobbery.

gymbrall said...

Just some random thoughts:

I'll chime in and agree somewhat with Camille (about the chronological snobbery). I think it also has something to do with purity and complexity. Camembert vs Cheez Wiz, Violin vs Fiddle, Poetry vs. Free Verse, Buster Keaton vs The Simpsons. All different comparisons, but all the same in some ways.

American taste and cutlture is like a balancing act between a debauched connosieur choosing dinner and appetizers and a three year old choosing breakfast cereal, and maybe forget that it's a balancing act.

But to go back to Gawain's quote: Is their ideological commitment to imagined equality of everything so strong as to make them blind to obvious emotional stimuli?

Anytime we rate two things as equal, we are either inadvertently expressing our inability to make further distinction or we are being pragmatic. Either way, he is right in that we are telling quite a bit about ourselves when we say such things.

This was interesting. Thanks for posting it and for letting me ramble.


R. Sherman said...

Youza. I'll be thinking about this all weekend, at least when I'm not yelling at the OD to mark up on the opposing team's striker.


fearful_syzygy said...

I can't speak to Far-East Asian eclecticism (but judging by the awful stuff my former Chinese flatmate used to listen to, I'd say it needs some work), but in Europe the distinction between High and Low culture/art is very pronounced. Adorno was only interested in Kultur (which by definition is high culture in German), and not much has changed, to be honest. Let's take Andrew Lloyd Webber as an example, and more specifically as an example of trans-Atlantic incomprehension. I don't know if you've seen "Match Point", but at one point they mention that they're going to see "The Woman in White". No doubt this is indeed something that is actually something that the upper classes might consider doing of a Friday evening in America, but it is inconceivable that the people depicted in that film would go to a Lloyd Webber musical, in real life. But seemingly Woody Allen is oblivious to this state of affairs, different as it most likely is to his native New York. Musicals are a decidedly lower-middle class pastime in England, and someone who enjoys the opera or the ballet is very unlikely also to be seen queueing for tickets to see Cats.
In America, in theory a classless society, my impression is that these distinctions are less pronounced, or rather that the distinctions that matter in Europe don't matter so much over here. Instead of class-based prejudices, in America cultural segregation is more likely to occur on racial grounds. Andrew Lloyd Webber, is not only British, he's also white as can be. The moment he includes hip-hop beats in one of his productions, you can be sure there'll be uproar.