Thursday, July 30, 2009

The road to incoherence

I've recently endorsed the neo-Thomistic philosophy of Jacques Maritain, whose "Art and Scholasticism" extends the theories of the mediaeval schoolmen to the study of aesthetics. For scholastic philosophers, the realm of aesthetics encompasses not only the "creative arts," but the entire sphere of productive action. (By "productive action" they mean any action whose goal is to produce something.) Under this broad definition, anything from a symphony to a clock to a house to a natural landscape is subject to aesthetic judgment, since each of these is the result of a creative act. The success of any created thing in providing aesthetic satisfaction, moreover, depends on the extent to which it fulfills the three Thomistic conditions of beauty: integrity, proportion, and clarity.

So far, so good. But this picture of aesthetics has two controversial corollaries that are a stumbling block to modern minds:

1) The work of art, taken abstractly as such, is morally neutral. The Scholastic picture depends on a division of human action into the sphere of Doing and the sphere of Making: any action can be judged either based on the rightness or wrongness of the action itself (ethics) or based on the product created by the action (aesthetics), but never both simultaneously. This means, among other things, that Stockhausen was wrong about the September 11th attacks; flying a plane into a building belongs definitively in the sphere of Doing.* This is not to say that the individual artist does not fall under moral judgment - if he is deliberately sloppy in his work, for instance - or that works of art cannot have tremendous impact on the sphere of practical action. It does mean, however, that the moral content of a work is a matter of indifference to its value qua art. If a work of art depended for its value on its immediate ethical relevance, much of the Western canon would no longer be worth looking at: one thinks of Wilfred Owen's war poetry, Picasso's Guernica, almost all of Dickens, and, errr, the entire corpus of instrumental music.

2) Aesthetic quality is objective. This doesn't mean that you can judge art quantitatively with a protractor or anything silly like that; it simply means, in the dictionary meaning of the word "objective," that the aesthetic quality of a work of art pertains to the qualities of the work itself. It could not be otherwise, because Scholasticism insists that the work of the artist is an act of craftsmanship rather than an act of communication. An art work is not a direct telephone line to the maker's emotional state, as the Romantics thought at their worst, nor is it an echo chamber that repeats our ingrained social prejudices, as certain postmodernists would suggest. It is nothing more or less than a made object, and our judgment of it should not be so different from the way we judge plumbing, or carpentry: is it made well? Does it do what it's supposed to do?

This is a bitter pill for some people to swallow because of the more-or-less-unchallenged hegemony of aesthetic relativism. While the average person still balks at applying relativism to ethics ("Murder could be right or wrong, depending on your point of view") or epistemology ("There might or might not be such a thing as a 'giraffe', depending on your point of view"), it seems natural to acknowledge a plurality of different possible opinions on a work of art. If Harold Bloom thinks that Messiaen's "Apparition de l'Eglise eternelle" is hideous cacophony, for example, and I think it's a wonderful work of enormous power, who's to say that one of us is "wrong"? The Scholastics have an answer for this one too, of course, which is to acknowledge that every art work created by humans is flawed: every work of poetry, visual art, or music evokes, at best, a partial and limited beauty. Each observer, based on their social context and personal idiosyncracies, will be more or less attuned to specific types of aesthetic beauty, and thus will naturally prefer certain types of art to others. Through education, however, we can learn to appreciate new types of beauty, and works that formerly held no attraction to us reveal their full potential. This view may not seem so different from relativism: haven't I just conceded that there are differing valid aesthetic stances? But in fact there's all the difference in the world; relativists hold that different cultures have wholly incompatible worldviews which prevent outsiders from gaining any true understanding. The Scholastics, however, acknowledge the obvious fact of differing aesthetic opinions while still maintaining that these reflect some small aspect of an objective truth.

Distinctions like these seem tedious to many people: why does it matter whether you hold aesthetic values to be objective or relative, as long as you're tolerant of conflicting views? How could any of this possibly have an impact in real life? I am increasingly convinced, however, that half-digested philosophical presuppositions like these have a far-reaching impact on the rest of our life. In other words, ideas have consequences. A slippery-slope effect occurs; the widespread acceptance of relativism in one field leads to the suspicion that other fields might be ripe for relativization. Before you know it, you've accepted nominalism, then moral relativism, and finally you turn into this guy:
I once debated a famous ethnomethodologist who claimed to have shown that astronomers actually create quasars and other astronomical phenomena through their researches and discourses. ‘Look’, I said, ‘suppose you and I go for a walk in the moonlight, and I say, `Nice moon tonight,' and you agree. Are we creating the moon? ‘Yes’, he said.
-John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality.

The dominance of relativism eventually reaches the point that even avowedly anti-relativist tracts, like Paul Boghossian's Fear of Knowledge, fail to reach the root of the problem. Boghossian successfully demonstrates that epistemic relativism is conceptually incoherent, but he's unwilling to extend his criticism to other domains of relativism. Thus, for example, one of his central critiques proceeds by stating a traditional argument for moral relativism** and demonstrating that an argument which works for ethics does not work for facts about the external world. While Boghossian never explicitly endorses moral or aesthetic relativism, his books gives the impression that they are, at the very least, legitimate intellectual positions. Unfortunately, this gives away the store at the outset: the acceptance of relativism in moral and aesthetic domains creates precisely the conditions under which epistemic relativism will continue to recur.

There is something about contemporary culture that encourages us to see objective or absolute theories of truth as "limiting": they supposedly pin us down to a single way of seeing the world, and close our minds to others worldviews. Yet, paradoxically, we cannot have true intellectual freedom unless we agree to be bound by these constraints. By claiming that facts about the outside world are socially constructed, we are admitting that our ideas lack any real-world referents, which is tantamount to saying that our ideas are meaningless. Which, for relativist writers, is often correct.

* I'm being a bit glib here; bear with me.
** pp. 47-51.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Clowns in church

Featured on the front page of YouTube today: an all-clown pilgrimage to pay homage to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

You can't make this stuff up, folks.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Saul, was verfolgst du mich?

I am currently re-reading The Unconscious Civilization, a transcript of John Ralston Saul's 1995 Massey Lectures. Having originally read the book some eight years ago and remembered it as a cogent analysis of North American social ills, I was disappointed to find Saul's case is stated more poorly than I thought. The book is to a great extent a critique of the "corporatist" ideology of the contemporary Right, which views the unrestrained operation of free markets - despite all evidence to the contrary - as an economic panacea. Saul argues that this utopian view is fundamentally flawed. We don't need Plato's Republic, Saul tells us, with its prescriptive recipe for a perfect society - instead, we need followers of Socrates, who will question received wisdom and unconsidered ideas, from whatever source.

So far, so good; I have no quarrel with any of the above. Indeed, regular readers of this blog will recognize the above as an attack on neon arrows. But the devil, as always, is in the details. For Saul's examples of the supposed corporatist, ideological trend in right-wing politics are, of all people, Michael Oakeshott and Allan Bloom. That this is ridiculous should be apparent to anyone familiar with the work of these thinkers: the author of Rationalism in Politics would undoubtedly be surprised to be told that his book was advocating rationalism rather than condemning it, and Bloom would likely wonder what on earth The Closing of the American Mind has to do with neoconservative ideology. (Indeed, Saul spends some pages condemning the demise of liberal arts education, which is one of the most characteristic tropes in Bloom's book.) Saul ends his second chapter by suggesting that Oakeshott and Bloom, were they alive in the 4th century B. C., would have voted in favour of Socrates' execution. Yeesh.

(I pass lightly over Saul's repeated jabs at the medieval schoolmen, and the fact that one of his notes misspells the ablative plural ending of a Latin noun. "De legibas"?)

The problem here is a distressingly common one in political writing: the tendency to conflate conservatism with free-market ideology. By its nature, conservatism is opposed to ideology of any political stripe, favouring continuity with the past and a moderate, carefully considered rate of change. A demagogue who advocates the immediate dismantling of social institutions according to the strictures of Chicago School economics, therefore, is the opposite of a conservative. The contemporary political scene, unfortunately, is so dominated by competing social and political ideologies that no current political party represents a consistently conservative political agenda, and so it's easy to forget what the word "conservative" once represented - a moderating impulse seeking to slow the force of ideologically-driven change. But if you fail to make this crucial distinction, you won't know what to make of a thinker like Oakeshott. Certainly Oakeshott would not have been pleased that Saul compares him to Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, both of whom were dedicated exponents of liberal, free-market doctrine.

The point is this: Saul wants to attack thinkers who hold up neon arrows, but he fails to distinguish between his enemies, the free-market radicals, and his natural allies, the traditional conservatives. And so his catalogue of ideological offenders doesn't quite fit together - for every three starfish he lines up, there's one crab. Understood properly, Saul's project should lead one to an essentially conservative view of the dangers of utopian politics, from either the Left or the Right - but because the author is committed to a decidedly left-wing political stance, he feels compelled to reject everything "conservative," and thus throws the baby out with the bathwater.

Why should classical musicians care about any of this? Because in today's multicultural society, only traditionally conservative arguments can justify the maintenance of classical music at all. The ideologues of the Right won't help us - they're committed to the unfettered operation of market forces, and so if your local symphony orchestra can't pay for itself, it deserves to die away. The ideologues of the Left won't help us - they're committed to a relativistic, multicultural agenda which sees the Western literate tradition as an artefact of imperialist hegemony. If classical music deserves the support of society, equal funding should be offered to all other musical traditions, since every cultural expression has the same validity.

But there's a third option - not a bland, milquetoast compromise between the two or, heaven forbid, a Hegelian synthesis, but an entirely different viewpoint on the matter. From a conservative standpoint, classical music deserves preservation because it is a unique example of a highly developed literate tradition in music, and one which connects us to the broader tradition of Western culture of which we, like it or not, are a part. If we abandon a tradition of such immense historical and cultural value, we will lose an important connection to past generations; and unless we retain the sense that we are part of a broader, intergenerational community, we will lose our sense of responsibility to either the past or the future. Cutting our ties with the past, and relegating the traditions of our forebears to museums, can only lead to anomie, alienation, and eventual social disintegration.

This is not a fashionable argument to make to ideologues of either political stripe. It has nothing to recommend it except that it is true, and that it is the only intellectually honest and consistent way of defending what we do from encroaching social forces.

Broken links

Countercritic reports the death of Merce Cunningham, aged 90. Not only a pioneer in twentieth-century dance, Cunningham was arguably one of the great twentieth-century artists in any medium. The New York Times has an informative tribute here.

Musicians, of course, know Cunningham as the longtime creative partner of John Cage.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

An antidote to German aesthetics

But Art remains, nevertheless, in the order of Making, and it is by drudgery upon some matter that it aims at delighting the spirit. Hence for the artist a strange and saddening condition, image itself of man's condition in the world, where he must wear himself out among bodies and live with the spirits. . . And if the condition of the artist is more human and less exalted than that of the wise man, it is also more discordant and more painful, because his activity does not remain wholly within the pure immanence of spiritual operations, and does not in itself consist in contemplating, but in making. Without enjoying the substance and the peace of wisdom, he is caught up in the hard exigencies of the intellect and speculative life, and he is condemned to all the servile miseries of practice and of temporal production. . .

The Middle Ages knew this order. The Renaissance shattered it. After three centuries of infidelity, prodigal Art aspired to become the ultimate end of man, his Bread and Wine, the consubstantial mirror of beatific Beauty. . . Rimbaud's silence perhaps marks the end of a secular apostasy. In any case it clearly signifies that it is folly to seek in art the words of eternal life and the repose of the human heart; and that the artist, if he is not to shatter his art or his soul, must simply be, as artist, what art wants him to be -- a good workman.
Jacques Maritain, "Art and Scholasticism," V.

As an aside to anyone in the publishing industry (you never know, right?), I'd like to point out that "Art and Scholasticism" is badly overdue for a new edition. The text is in the public domain, but the only edition currently in print is poorly bound and contains many typos but no endnotes.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Who said the organ wasn't exciting?

Who, indeed.

It's been an inspiring couple of weeks - I was a participant in the McGill Summer Organ Academy, which is now arguably one of the top summer organ festivals in the world. The quality of performance and teaching on offer in the various masterclasses was, as always, superb, and after my week at the RCCO convention, I have a long list of repertoire to tackle for the fall. I also return with a few battle scars; whatever your organ playing horror story is, I doubt it can top the following:

- cutting your finger on a broken key (a tenor F, I think) while making a manual change

. . . in the Guillou toccata

. . . in a public masterclass

. . . with Olivier Latry.

There was nothing to do, of course, but keep playing, wondering occasionally if I was bleeding all over the keyboard. (Thankfully, I wasn't.)

The best, however, was yet to come, as I returned to my temporary church home in Toronto to practice, and found the organ almost unusable - it was hopelessly out of tune, and the Swell division seemed to have more dead notes than working ones. What was going on?

A thorough investigation turned up a nest of baby squirrels in the bell tower, inside a box marked - I kid you not - "Nativity Set". Inside the organ was a scene of untold carnage, with pipes strewn across the floor and the telltale marks of teeth on the toe boards. Squirrels, of course, are notorious for their dislike of twentieth-century French music, and might have planned this act of vandalism to stop me from playing Messiaen and Guillou, but the people at pest control suggest that they were only after the felt from the valves, which they use to build their nest.

In the meantime, it seems that we are in for an expensive repair job, and that I need to start making friends with the piano again (horrors!)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Summer hiatus

The staff of TBWCTW will be out of town from tomorrow morning onward, and will not be updating this space. Please patronize other blogging establishments in our absence, a choice selection of which are found in the right sidebar.

Regular programming, whatever that means, will resume in approximately two weeks.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

No neon arrows

Along with some co-conspirators, I have been considering the slogan "No Neon Arrows" for a line of merchandise (shirts, coffee mugs, pop-up ads, billboards, undergarments). What we mean by this is that the world is a complicated place, and that anyone who tries to offer an all-encompassing theory to explain it - a brightly-coloured neon arrow pointing in a particular direction - is probably trying to sell you something. The Anti-Neon-Arrow Brigade is opposed to:
  • Cultural theorists who reduce the workings of society to economic interactions (Marx) or power relations (Foucault)
  • Scientistic thinkers who reduce the workings of the universe to the interactions of its physical components (the so-called "eliminative materialists") or the workings of the human mind to psychological and evolutionary factors (Pinker, Dennett)
  • Historiography that attempts to reduce messy periods of history to neatly organized categories and lists of characteristics (Peter Gay's Modernism, see also sidebar) or that imposes upon it a Whig History perspective
  • Theories of musical meaning which needlessly constrain the possible meanings of a musical work by prescribing a particular analytic technique (Schenker) or a particular narrative reading (much of the "new musicology")
  • Postmodernists who claim that the failures of the above projects are evidence of something called "the death of the metanarrative," and that we should therefore accept an equally dogmatic relativist worldview in which all truths are socially contingent.
We argue that fallen humanity lacks the clarity of vision that would be required to integrate our knowledge into a synoptic view of reality. It is not enough, therefore, to simply react against the ideas of our forefathers: to do that is simply to turn the neon arrow to face the opposite direction. Even to turn the arrow towards Nothing, as today's fashionable nihilists and relativists are wont to do, isn't the answer. We need to take down the neon arrows entirely. Instead, we need a discourse that:
  • describes the workings of society with reference to a variety of factors, none of which is individually predictive
  • acknowledges the findings of science while recognizing its ultimate limitations
  • treats past historical periods on their own terms, recognizing that they are just as complex and conflicted as our own era
  • offers real insight into works of art without claiming that a single interpretation can capture the many valid ways of listening to a piece
  • appreciates the fact that some truths are contingent, while holding to the necessary corollary that other truths are objective.

A bit of a stir has been created recently by the appearance of, a newly-founded website that argues for the superiority of classical music over all forms of pop music. These arguments are nothing new (A. C. Douglas has made similar statements for years*), but the new website, whose anonymous editing and ambitious goals suggest the workings of a secretive cabal, has attracted fire from prominent journalists, including the Guardian's Tom Service and the Washington Post's Anne Midgette. Unsurprisingly, Service and Midgette respond with the usual party line: pop music can be just as good as classical music; arguing for the superiority of one type of music over another is snobbish and insulting; there should be room for a variety of contrasting musical expressions in our society, et cetera, et cetera.

What we have here is precisely a Neon Arrow situation.

The proprietors of are attempting to resurrect the conventional wisdom of a previous era: that classical music is innately and by definition superior to popular music. In the opposite corner, we have Midgette and Service, defending today's conventional wisdom: that all musical styles have equal value, and that any attempt to promote one style over the other is "ignorant", "snobbish", and "indefensible cultural demagoguery". There is something in both arguments that seems fundamentally ill-conceived: the definition of "good music" would exclude not only pop music, but folk music and all non-Western musical styles (one of their most valued criteria being a literate tradition of transmission in musical notation). Yet there's also something counterintuitive about claiming that all genres are a priori equal: surely no-one would seriously maintain that a classical-music listener is "missing out" by not listening to an equal amount of death metal?

What we need here is a third option, one which avoids asserting the absolute superiority of any one musical style without sliding into relativism. John Gray's idea of incommensurability is useful here: in Enlightenment's Wake, he argues that the competing belief systems of different societies are ultimately irreconcilable, not because all values are relative but simply because different societies have different visions of the good. (Gray's best example contrasts the liberal individualism of the West with the community-driven, consensus-based cultures of many East Asian cultures.) Accepting the incommensurability of different cultural ideals does not mean that the cultures involved cannot agree on many issues (the undesirability of murder, for example), but does mean that they can never be fully integrated. It seems reasonable to suppose that classical and pop music might be in a similar situation. While they share many musical ideals in common (rhythm and melody, a tonal centre, the attempt to express new ideas in an original manner), they are ultimately incommensurable because of their different methods of composition and transmission. (Classical music is by definition a literate tradition, in which music is composed in notated form for later performance; this separates it from folk music, which is transmitted orally, and pop music, which is transmitted electrically.)'s claim of the superiority of classical music, therefore, is not "ignorant" or "cultural demagoguery" or anything else: it's just tautological. Because their arguments begin by specifying the musical values they consider most important (ie: acoustic production, single authorship, and literate transmission), the conclusion that classical music fits these criteria best is hardly surprising. This sort of argument is equivalent to saying that "classical music is better than pop music at being classical music", which is not the most insightful observation ever. One can certainly say, however, that classical music occupies a special place as a unique example of a highly developed literate tradition in music, and deserves preferment to other musics on that basis. It exemplifies musical values ultimately different from those expressed in any popular or folk tradition, and its current cultural invisibility is depriving our society of a compelling and unique voice.

I've tried to develop a position different from both the anti-pop trumpetings of and the fashionable relativism that opposes it. Because both are neon-arrow arguments, neither is ultimately very helpful. We need instead a third position, not some bland milquetoast compromise or, heaven forbid, a Hegelian synthesis, but an entirely different option. I've attempted to outline what that might look like, but until this third position is fully developed, the classical-pop debate will continue to operate at a very low intellectual level.

None of this, by the way, is to denigrate the work of Midgette or Service, who I respect - nor to devalue the very real value of the articles on Indeed, I am largely in sympathy with much of their project: their desire for a higher profile for classical music, their opposition to schizophonic pop music in public places, and their attribution of the problem to neoliberalism, globalization and cultural relativism (among other things). I will follow their future postings with much interest, even if I think their basic arguments are somewhat poorly situated.

* Addendum (5 July 2009): ACD points out that his argument for the special status of classical music is distinct from that of; his actual position is similar to my "incommensurability" argument, although he reaches a slightly different conclusion than I do. For more details, see the comment thread.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Happy centenary

This year marks the centenary of the Royal Canadian College of Organists, and this week saw organists from all around the world converge on Toronto for the celebratory International Organ Festival. Your humble servant infiltrated the convention for most of its duration (responsibilities elsewhere preventing us from attending all of the events) and is pleased to put the TBWCTW seal of approval on this year's convention: it was superb. I was delighted to attend an event so well organized, with so many things to do, and with such high-quality performers, venues, and discussions. A few of the highlights:
  • Thierry Escaich's recital at St. Paul's, combining masterly performances of the standard French recital with his own compositions and an extended improvisation,
  • A performance by Rachel Laurin consisting entirely of preludes and fugues, all but two of which were by contemporary Canadian composers - and it worked!
  • The appearance of Parry's hymn tune "Rustington" at the annual College Service, which in a sane world would be in the standard repertoire,
  • A panel discussion on the future of the organ that avoided the extremes of both Chicken Little and Doctor Pangloss.
I was provided with much unintentional entertainment during the convention by a half-page glossy advertisement on the back of the convention brochure for an upcoming concert series by Cameron Carpenter. While I am essentially a Cameron Carpenter agnostic, holding the minority view that he is neither the saviour of the organ world nor a symptom of the imminent decline of Western culture, I'm convinced he needs a better publicist. The advertisement shows a publicity photo of the young Mr. Carpenter looking as though he has just suffered a major head injury: below, we read the following sentence.
Here is an iconoclastic organist and composer whose "masterly playing" has been described by The Wall Street Journal as "alternately dazzling and subtle, and always fired by profound musical intelligence."
Ummm. Why is "The" capitalized? Why is "masterly playing" in scare quotes? But what amuses me most is the use of the word "iconoclastic," which appears in every article ever written that references Carpenter. Anyone who's visited the medieval churches of England will have seen the wake of destruction left by iconoclasm: broken stained-glass windows, statues and wood carvings defaced with chisels, beautiful paintings and murals whitewashed. Organs, of course, were also prime targets for the iconoclasts, and the excesses of the Reformation and the English Civil War destroyed countless historic instruments throughout Britain. In other words, if the people assembling Carpenter's press kit had any idea what the word "iconoclastic" actually means - namely, a sort of destructive Puritanism - they would realize it shouldn't be used to describe an organist. (Perhaps these are the same people who described the work of feminist musicologist Susan McLary as "seminal".)

In any case, whenever I found myself bored between convention events, I could imagine all sorts of neo-Puritan dramas in my head: Cameron Carpenter leads a group of torch-wielding peasants into St. Bartholomew's and orders them to destroy all popish ornaments, finally melting down the organ pipes to make farming implements - or, better yet, a Cameron Carpenter recital is interrupted by Oliver Cromwell and/or Ulrich Zwingli, and the expressions of mounting horror on their faces as they realize he's not the sort of iconoclast they were expecting. . .

That's quite enough. Happy 100th birthday, RCCO!