Tag Archives: Piss Christ

Hard (Melodic) Cases Make Bad (Melodic) Law

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Hard cases make bad law.” This legal maxim cautions against seeking general principles in the extremes. A case that is hard, either because it is unusually complicated or emotionally loaded, occupies disputed territory outside of the uncontroversial center. General law is derived from average situations and common concerns; difficult cases neither fit within its parameters nor contribute to them. Similarly, aesthetic outsiders offer little to normative notions of art. Duchamp’s Fountain and Cage’s 4’33” might be fertile topics for discussion, but without a basic consensus about what constitutes art, they would simply be an out-of-place urinal and a prolonged awkward silence.

Philosophers of art often give undue attention to fringe examples and provocative excursions, as if the existence of rule breakers sends aesthetics into a whirlwind of subjectivity. Who is to say whether Piss Christ is any more or less magnificent than Venus de Milo? The absurdity of this question reiterates the importance of the artistic center and its values. There is, of course, room for divergent approaches and variegated judgments; but art is generally recognized as art. (Incidentally, the outsider pieces cited above—Fountain, 4’33” and Piss Christ—have each been accused of not being art.)

The extent to which artistic conceptions are natural is demonstrated by melody. Certain elements are present in almost every Western tonal melody, from Baroque to mariachi to soul to grunge. These include repeating devices (e.g., melodic intervals and rhythms), a range within an octave-and-a-half, conjunct motion with occasional leaps (steps and skips), gravity (ascension, climax and dissension), and harmonic movement resolving to the root. These and other components are conventional to the point of being intuitive: any spontaneously imagined tune will likely contain most or all of them. This does not mean that adventures are forbidden in mainstream melodies. Standard components can be periodically stretched, as long as the overall integrity of the melody remains intact.

“Hard cases” in the world of melody are those that actively disregard this musical intuition. Twelve-tone serialism is a prime example, with its lack of tonal center, tone rows (non-repetitive arrangement of the notes of the chromatic scale), and regulated obscuration of patterns. Such musical experiments are conscious departures from the norm: they take account of the conventional building blocks, and proceed to knock them over. As with peculiar litigations, they can be thought-provoking and foster debate; but their influence on melodic standards and recognition is minimal at best.

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

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No Definition

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913) made a name for himself concocting sardonic epigrams. Many of them took the form of witty definitions originally published in the Wasp, a satirical San Francisco magazine, and were later compiled as The Devil’s Dictionary (1911). The name he earned for himself was “Bitter.” Each entry divulges the darkness of his humor. For instance, he defined birth as “The first and direst of all disasters,” and faith as “Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.” Another term Bierce skewered was art, of which he dryly wrote, “This word has no definition.”

A more conventional definition would describe art as the application of skill and creativity to produce works intended to evoke emotional and/or aesthetic responses. The vagueness in this definition and the total avoidance in Bierce’s highlight the difficulty of identifying what constitutes art, as well as the subjectivity of assessment once something has been labeled art. There is a sense that any strict parameter would be unfair, as it would deny options for imaginative excursions and inspired divergences. This is especially true in the wake of the twentieth century, with its envelope pushes, aesthetic challenges, deconstructions, reconstructions, abstractions and distractions. Most of us approach art intuitively: we know it when we see it (or hear it in the case of music). Because this process is personal, there is no guarantee that one person’s recognition of something as art will be shared by all. Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987) is an obvious example.

Subjectiveness even extends to things universally accepted as art. Nowhere is this more clear than in the construction of artistic pantheons. Our concept of what constitutes greatness in art is, by and large, determined for us by historians and aficionados. True, the works tend to have some general appeal and strike the obligatory chords of beauty and emotion. But our relationship with art is such that there can be no universal agreement. Art is not just beyond definition. There is also wisdom in the old cliché that there’s no accounting for taste.

Take these evaluations of widely admired musical works. Celebrated American violinist Ruggiero Ricci remarked, “A violinist can hide in the Brahms Concerto, where bad taste and musical inadequacies won’t show up as easily as they do in Mozart.” Nineteenth-century composer Gioachino Rossini quipped, “One can’t judge Wagner’s opera Lohengrin after a first hearing, and I certainly don’t intend to hear it a second time.” The always-opinionated Igor Stravinsky asked, “Why is it that every time I hear a piece of bad music, it’s by Villa-Lobos?” These biting words call to mind Bierce’s definition of painting: “The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic.”

The nature of art is the root cause of this diversity of opinion. Both its indefiniteness and its way of triggering emotions expose it to strong and idiosyncratic responses. Tastes vary in every conceivable direction: person to person, group to group, region to region, culture to culture, period to period, life stage to life stage, etc. Behind every like and dislike are innumerable conscious and unconscious reasons. But rather than a weakness, the fact that art invites such individual feelings is perhaps its greatest strength. The freedom of reaction that art affords helps explain our attraction to it, whatever it is.

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