February 21, 2006

What is art for?

I have the answer! Er, an answer, via Louis Andriessen, who gave a masterclass this afternoon as part of his visit this week to Eastman. He cited Kierkegaard's definition of irony (pardon me if I botch it), where actions and events have multiple plausible causes, and one is made strongly aware of this unresolvable multiplicity. He gave (wait for it...) Stravinsky as an exemplar of this virtue. Stravinsky frequently takes ideas in unexpected directions. This puts the listener in a bind, not altogether sure why this happened or what the composer's motivation for the whole thing was.

The purpose of this ambiguity is to get you to ask questions, not to provide easy answers. Andriessen said that art's role should be in reminding you to ask various important questions that you might otherwise neglect. Art focused on conveying emotion/feeling (à l'Allemand) will always reduce down to the same syrupy sentimentality.

While I don't let my internal Angst-meter give the final verdict on a piece of art, I don't hold the same level of disdain for emotional expression. Sometimes emotionality is the only tool available for posing certain important questions. The vulnerability that's in so many Kenneth Patchen poems makes you ask if you're always true to yourself. Probably Andriessen's contention was more with putting in emotion for its own selfish sake. No problem there. The world doesn't need any more whiny break-up songs.

Elsewhere on the sentimentality front, I received a startling newspaper clipping in a recent dispatch from home. In the arts section of the 2/12 edition of the Boston Sunday Globe, they devoted 3/4 of the page width and the entirety of its length to a couple features and smaller factoids on Arnold Schoenberg. Levine's decision to program a series of all-Arnie concerts was responsible for this wholly remarkable level of coverage. Further in the section, the title of one of the articles informs us that "Programming proves a boon for modernists." After this victory, what lies next for this wily lot of lunatics and rabblerousers? I'm seeing "Modernists implicated in opera house bombing" plastered across the front page.

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