Tag Archives: Aesthetics

Autonomous Art

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A rallying cry was heard in nineteenth-century France: “l’art pour l’art”—“art for art’s sake.” Against a backdrop of scholasticism, scientific thinking, and hostility toward “useless” art, French writers argued that the greatest value of art was not some external aim, but self-sufficiency. Art’s highest goal was to exist in its own formal perfection and be contemplated as an end in itself.

This formed the basis of aestheticism, or the aesthetic movement—an approach with ideological ties to Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgment (1790), which presents the “pure” aesthetic experience as the “disinterested” contemplation of an object that “pleases for its own sake,” without making reference to reality or claims to utility or morality. More directly, French aestheticism was rooted in Théophile Gautier’s witty defense of his assertion that art is useless (in the preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin, 1835).

Aestheticism was developed by poet Charles Baudelaire, who was greatly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe’s claim, made in “The Poetic Principle” (1850), that the supreme work is a “poem per se.” This governing ideal influenced many other writers, and spread into Victorian England through Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, Lionel Johnson, and others. Instrumental music, because of its absence of words, was sometimes touted as the apex of this artistic aspiration. Pater famously remarked, “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”

Meanwhile, German romanticists of the nineteenth century promoted self-sufficiency as a musical ideal. In contrast to programmatic music, which has a specific purpose, story, theme, or sung text, so-called “absolute music” was music for its own sake. Poets such as E. T. A. Hoffmann and Ludwig Tieck conceived of instrumental music as the language of a higher realm, and celebrated music’s potential for non-representation and non-conceptualization—qualities that led Kant to dismiss music as “more entertainment than culture” in his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment.

“Absolute music” actually began as a pejorative term, coined by Richard Wagner to expose the limitations of instrumental music and support his own view of opera’s superiority. For Wagner, music without signification was not only ludicrous, but had no right to exist. Proponents of “music per se” held the opposite view: music can (and should) express nothing other than music itself.

In practice, a pure listening experience is unobtainable. Exposure to musical sounds, whether or not they carry explicit meanings, invariably comes with a host of influencing factors, including social conditioning, cultural context, momentary disposition, and mental/emotional associations. Our responses to music, in turn, transcend strictly musical considerations.

That being said, we might choose to hear pieces as (more or less) autonomous works, or read into them extra-musical connotations, either stemming from our own backgrounds or the composers’. However, rarely (if ever) are these avenues of perception clearly bifurcated; we may favor hearing music as absolute or programmatic, but conceptual colorations are impossible to avoid. As Mark Evan Bonds writes in his recent book, Absolute Music: The History of an Idea, “[W]e are most likely to hear [musical pieces] as some combination of the two. But that is a choice we make and not a quality inherent in the works themselves. Neither mode of listening is superior to the other, and the notion that we can hear them in exclusively one way or the other is in any case deeply suspect.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Electronic Music and the Separation from Nature

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In the 1960s, German-American composer Gershon Kingsley shifted his energies to electronic music. He was among the first to experiment with the Moog synthesizer (invented by Bob Moog in 1963), recording two albums with fellow electro-musician Jean-Jacques Perrey (The In Sound from Way Out! 1966 and Kaleidoscopic Variations, 1967) and a solo album, Music to Moog By (1969), featuring the synthpop classic “Popcorn.” Kingsley was drawn to electronic music for two reasons: it promised seemingly infinite sound options, and it gave composers complete creative control. He told Harry Reasoner in a 1970 CBS interview: “Instead of going through the process of first conceiving the idea, then orchestrating it, then having it played on an instrument, now a musical work can be created entirely in the studio environment….[A] composer can now function the same way as a painter or a sculptor.”

Electronic music in those early days was gruelingly hands-on. The Moog comprised a keyboard and a set of speakers connected to a refrigerator-size consul cluttered with dials, knobs, meters, and patch cords. A pressed key sent an electronic signal to the console, which “synthesized” a particular sound. The instrument was monophonic—only one note could be played at a time—meaning that chords, counterpoint, and harmony were achieved through overlaying multiple tracks. It was a tedious, highly skilled, and labor-intensive undertaking.

As technologies advanced, electronic music became further and further removed from the manual interaction of player and instrument. Music was now programmable, automated, and easily rearranged. The performance was unhindered by the limits of human breath, endurance, or dexterity. The sonic palette was endless and undefined, and tonal possibilities—note bending, durations, microtones, pitch range—far exceeded the capacity of organic instruments (those classified in the original Hornbostel–Sachs system as idiophones, membranophones, chordophones, and aerophones). These properties combined to disassociate electronic music from the natural world.

The aesthetic appeal of music divorced from a naturalistic backdrop has parallel in the “imaginative geography” of cities, where clear borders separate ordered human civilization from the untamed wild. Cities exert human dominion: the permission of certain forms of nature to exist in certain places within a human-centered environment. As Colin Jerolmack, author of the paper “How Pigeons Became Rats: The Cultural-Spatial Logic of Problem Animals,” says: “We cut out little squares in the concrete, and that’s where the trees belong. We don’t like it when grass and weeds begin to grow through cracks in the sidewalks, because that’s nature breaking out of those boundaries that we want to keep it in.”

Implicitly or explicitly, a principle of “perfecting” motivates bifurcated cityscapes and nature-eschewing electronic sounds. In the conventional scheme of human progress, there is a movement away from uncontrolled habitats to manicured environs. At first, sounds emanating from animals and the atmosphere were a major source of musical inspiration. Human beings mimicked the noises of insects, the pattering of rain, the calls of birds, and other non-human sounds. Over time, human music developed its own logic, techniques, conventions, and instruments, and became a self-imitative art form. The resulting styles and sonorities increase our distance from music’s evolutionary origins.

An early critic of this separation was French Benedictine monk Antoine Augustin Calmet. In a 1723 treatise, Dissertations sur la poésie et la musique des Anciens en général et des Hébreux en particulier, he called out the “false notion that the world develops toward greater and greater perfection and that our century is much more enlightened and cultured than previous centuries.” As if predicting developments that would lead to electronic music, Calmet wrote: “Many believe that the simplicity of ancient music was an imperfection. I think, on the contrary, that it contributed to its perfection. The more one approaches nature, the more one approaches the beautiful and the perfect.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

To Jargon or Not to Jargon

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Art historian Bernard Berenson described the transformative potential of gazing at visual art, “when the spectator is at one with the work of art he is looking at, or with actuality of any kind that the spectator himself sees in terms of art, as form and colour. He ceases to be his ordinary self, and the picture or building, statue, landscape, or aesthetic actuality is no longer outside himself. The two become one entity; time and space are abolished and the spectator is possessed by one awareness.” Berenson compared this moment to a flash of “mystic vision,” when the workaday mind is muted and perceptive faculties transcend their ordinary functions.

This articulation of experientialism, which values experience as a source of truth, contrasts with intellectualism, where knowledge is derived from reason. The latter is characteristic of Marxist theorist Theodor W. Adorno, whose studies of the arts comprise over half of his oeuvre. Adorno used his considerable intellect to criticize jazz, the “in-the-moment” art par excellence, and popular music, which encourages pre-rational engagement. In fairness, he was less concerned with the substance of “pop” than with its capitalist producers and passive consumers. He viewed popular music as evidence of a devious hegemony rooted in the “industrialization of culture,” which conditions passive listeners to hardly listen at all.

This argument has some validity. Listening habits are standardized through exposure to “hits” and popular styles, such that listeners essentially know what will happen in a song before they hear it. As R. C. Smith, a philosopher of science and defender of Adorno, notes: “In the world of mass produced music, in the very experience itself, standardisation acts as a sort of regularisation of sensational patterns. As a result of the conformity of these patterns there is a sort of lulling effect which, in a manner of speaking, is almost (inter)subjectively stunting.”

What these social critiques overlook is the music’s experiential impact. The transcendence Berenson described can occur with any art form, regardless of its origins, intentions, or predictability. In the subjective, spontaneous, and totalizing moment, all that exists is the experience itself. Analysis is as impossible as it is superfluous.

Experientialism finds its opposite in Adorno’s writings, which have been called “excessively negative,” “excessively ornamented,” and “excessively difficult.” The complexity of his German prose made early English translations unreliable, and his esoteric vocabulary can obscure his insights. Adorno was critical of this tendency in others, as evidenced in his attack on the language of Martin Heidegger (Jargon der Eigentlichkeit). Yet he admitted in a footnote to that work: “Even he who despises jargon is by no means secure from infection by it—consequently all the more reason to be afraid of it.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Conductor as Performer

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Felix Mendelssohn is credited with popularizing the use of a baton for orchestral conducting, beginning in 1829. Louis Spohr claimed he introduced the practice in 1820 while guest-conducting the large and spread apart London Philharmonic Society. Accounts of wooden batons appear before the end of the eighteenth century, but the device was slow to catch on, largely due to resistance from orchestras. Seventeenth-century ensembles were typically led by violinists (concert masters), who kept groups together by playing loudly, bowing vigorously, and occasionally tapping with the bow. Other tactics emerged as ensembles grew in size. In a 1752 treatise, C. P. E. Bach advised leading from the keyboard. When orchestras were first joined with choirs, the violinist would often lead one section, while the harpsichordist led the other. Opera conductors sometimes stood off to the side, pounding a staff on the floor. By the early nineteenth century, conductors positioned themselves in front of orchestras, brandishing rolled-up sheets of paper. They typically faced the audience, not the players, so as not to appear rude.

As this sketch suggests, the early history of conducting is not uniform or altogether clear. The stable position as we know it today masks a gradual and convoluted development. Mendelssohn was key in establishing the conductor’s independent role. According to Leonard Bernstein, a famously kinetic twentieth-century conductor, Mendelssohn founded the “‘elegant’ school, whereas Wagner inspired the ‘passionate’ school of conducting.” The two styles are not necessarily diametrically opposed: there can be passion in elegance, and elegance in passion. Nevertheless, they represent contrasting aesthetics, as outlined by Phillip Murray Dineen of the University of Ottawa.

The first is resident aesthetics, or functional beauty accrued from gestures associated with the music performed. These include fixed beat patterns and their modifications: accelerandos, ritardandos, fermatas, dynamic changes, and the like. The second is sympathetic aesthetics, or beauty derived from decorative contrivances apart from the task at hand. Dineen describes it as “a largely non-functional set of gestures unique to a given conductor, which often accomplish little or nothing mechanical in and of themselves, but instead either work to elicit a particular and specialized affect from the players or serve merely as interesting bodily motions for the aesthetic satisfaction of the audience.”

Bernstein is representative of the latter class. As music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969 (and conductor emeritus thereafter), he was praised and criticized for his ecstatic, dance-like style. His statement in The Joy of Music took some by surprise: “Perhaps the chief requirement of all is that [the conductor] be humble before the composer; that he never interpose himself between the music and the audience.” Gunther Schuller considered it “saddening and perplexing that Bernstein rarely followed his own credo.”

Of course, some music demands more exaggerated gestures than others. Compare, for instance, a quasi-spontaneous avant-garde composition with a predicable Classical chamber piece. In the former, demonstrative conducting is more functional than self-indulgent. Still, whether the movements are staid, effusive, or somewhere in between, the modern conductor adds an important visual dimension to a largely aural phenomenon.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

The Useful and the Useless

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Among the many definitions of beauty is the one most operative in our everyday lives: the pleasing or attractive features of something or someone. This is beauty in the intuitive or experiential sense; we know it when we sense it. Aesthetic snap-judgments of this sort and the disagreements they ignite recall the cliché, “There’s no accounting for taste,” and its Latin predecessor, de gustibus non est disputandum (“In matters of taste, there can be no disputes”). This does not mean that taste is thoroughly or hopelessly subjective. Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have uncovered basic universal principles of art. For example, philosopher Denis Dutton observed that we find beauty in things done especially well, while anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake contends that “decorating” was a crucial way our ancestors marked off practices essential to physical and cultural survival, such as hunting, peacemaking, and rites of passage. Yet, once we move beyond the baseline acceptance of the existence of beauty and its importance in human life, opinions take over and vary widely.

Historically, aesthetics has been a difficult subject to intellectualize. George Santayana observed in The Sense of Beauty (1896) that, as a philosophical subject, beauty has “suffered much from the prejudice against the subjective.” This is mitigated in part by the inclusion of art history and critical theory under the philosophical umbrella. Yet, such efforts highlight rather than bypass the fundamental obstacle of personal taste: in order for beauty to be taken seriously, it must be removed from the proverbial beholder’s eye and placed in some externalized rubric. Santayana summed it up: “so strong is the popular sense of the unworthiness and insignificance of things purely emotional, that those who have taken moral problems to heart and felt their dignity have often been led into attempts to discover some external right and beauty of which our moral and aesthetic feelings should be perceptions or discoveries, just as our intellectual activity is, in men’s opinion, a perception or discovery of external fact.” In other words, if beauty (and morality) cannot find footing in objective truth, they are forever doomed to triviality.

The dismissal of emotions runs counter to the biological-anthropological theories alluded to above. Whereas philosophers tend to view beauty as an end and art “for its own sake,” evolutionary theorists investigate the basis for art’s emergence and persistence as a cross-cultural phenomenon. For them, what constitutes the beautiful from one person or group to the next is less important than its functionality. Beauty and utility are not at odds, but are instead inextricably linked.

In a way, our aesthetic judgments harmonize the philosophical and biological-anthropological sides of this debate. On the one hand, we over-rely on the moral-philosophical categories of “good” and “bad” when describing art, giving the impression of absolute or empirical standards, whether or not they actually exist. On the other hand, these designations stem from a functionalist response: “good” means useful; “bad” means “useless” (or “less useful”). A painting or musical composition might be beautiful according to academic standards, but fail to move us on a personal level. We can intellectually appreciate its creativity and execution without being emotionally attracted to it. Likewise, something of lesser technical quality can be strikingly beautiful if it serves a purpose. As Baruch Spinoza put it in his Ethics (1677): “By good I mean that which we certainly know to be useful to us.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Art is Not Life

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Art is not life. Although woven into life’s intricate tapestry, artistic expression stands apart from the messy details and fluid meanderings of worldly experience. Even the most elaborate artwork—be it a novel, film, symphony, or painting—is simplistic compared to the overwhelming complexities of an average day. Poetry, both calculated and free-flowing, bypasses the vagaries of flatly spoken words, and all the “uhs” and “ums” that come with them. Poets supplant natural speech with measured syllables, crafted imagery, thoughtful word choices, and detours from standard syntax and grammar. Singers follow suit: their words are crafted into clean and fluid phrases; their “speech” is regimented into meter and tonal intervals. The focus is narrowed, the fat is trimmed, the message is tightly conveyed.

This essential quality of art is illustrated by its opposite. In 1951, University of Kansas psychologist Roger Barker and co-author Herbert F. Wright published One Boy’s Day: A Specimen Record of Behavior, chronicling a fourteen-hour span in the life of a mid-western boy. Eight researchers took turns following the boy, recording his minute-by-minute activities at home, school, and play. 7:08 AM: “He came out of the bathroom carrying a bottle of hair oil.” 8:24 AM: “He tossed a stone in the air and swung, but accidentally clipped a flag pole.” No theoretical approach was offered or suggested, just 435 pages of unadorned verbatim notes. Barker expected scientists to enthusiastically examine the raw data, breaking it down and interpreting it in various directions. But the book flopped. Readers—both scientists and laypeople—had little interest in trees without a view of the forest.

Artistic representations avoid life’s tedious details. According to musicologist Curt Sachs, “Art denaturalizes nature in order to raise it to a higher, or at least a different, plane.” This applies well to music. Unlike the ever-ticking clock, musical pieces are set within limited durations (“The Song that Never Ends” perhaps notwithstanding). The self-enclosed architecture of musical form contrasts with the convoluted tangles of the natural world. Musical lines, whether monophonic or hyper-polyphonic, are cherry-picked from infinite sonic possibilities. In both vocal and instrumental music, there is an unnatural clarity of intentions and ideas. Stereotyped modes, phrases, devices, and figurations replace the murkiness and gray areas of real life.

The foregoing discussion is summarized in Picasso’s famous saying: “Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.” Our attraction to art stems from its distinction from natural processes and mundane human affairs. Without this fundamental separation, there can be no art.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Symmetric Sounds

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

According to science writer Philip Ball, roughly ninety-four percent of music lasting more than a few seconds contains verbatim repeats. This is true of music-cultures scattered throughout the globe. Indeed, despite the astonishing variety of expressive sounds culturally defined as music, repetition appears to be a unifying characteristic. On the micro scale, repetition derives from alternating longer and shorter note values, sometimes with pauses in between. If extended, these temporally balanced blocks merge into macro patterns: ostinati, verse-chorus form, sonata form (exposition, development, recapitulation), thirty-two bar form (AABA), and so on. Repeated rhythms and melodic/harmonic lines are also heard in through-composed works, flowing ecclesiastical chants, and patchwork songs, such as “Fingertips” by They Might Be Giants, comprising twenty-one short songs of five to twenty seconds apiece.

On the small and large scale, repetition yields symmetry: a sense of pleasing proportions. Symmetry is a fundamental aspect of beauty. Biologically, left-to-right symmetry in the face and/or body is a generalized indicator of physiological and psychological health. Thus, the most symmetrical people are considered the most beautiful (eye-of-the beholder arguments notwithstanding). Likewise, we are attracted to well-proportioned patterns of nature—flora, fauna, and geological—and repelled by their opposite.

To a significant extent, art is indebted to the mathematical symmetry present in nature. Nature-imitative patterns are woven into pottery, poetry, architecture, and musical repetition. Contrastingly, modernist movements that intentionally frustrate our pattern-seeking brains tend to provoke negative responses. (In the works of Pierre Boulez, for instance, references to other music are expunged as far as possible.)

However, over-redundancy has its own problems. Occasional deviations can be welcome and gratifying surprises, so long as the pattern is quickly retrieved. In music, agreeable breaks are typically achieved through truncation (subtraction of metrical units), prolongation (addition of metrical units), or elision (overlapping of two symmetrical units). It can also result accidentally. For example, during a performance of Juan Tizol’s “Perdido” at Carnegie Hall on January 19, 1974, Charles Mingus and his band of all-stars (George Adams, Hamiet Bluiett, Jon Faddis, John Handy, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Charles McPherson, Don Pullen, and Dannie Richmond) botched the AABA form under Bluiett’s baritone sax solo. The musicians played three A sections in a row in one chorus, and just one A section in the next. In Montréal, these gaffes are known as a “three-headed monster” and a “one-eyed beauty,” respectively. The “three-headed monster” emerges again in the last chorus of Pullen’s piano solo. These errors, hardly unusual during jam sessions, rarely spoil the music. They are (usually) amusing anomalies, which temporarily rupture, but never dismantle, the predictable pattern.

The attraction of symmetry in music is self-evident. All human cultures have music, virtually all of that music contains repetition, repetition creates symmetry, and all cultures consider music aesthetically rewarding. Moreover, music that discards symmetry is often called “ugly,” with some challenging its very musical-ness.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.