Sunday, April 01, 2012

How to rename a contest

I've made it to the second round of the Art Blogging Match of Doom (ABMOD).  I was quite glad to hear that at least one of the judges found me to be "right, wrong, brilliant, and infuriating." p I'm called at least two of those things regularly at home, it's nice to get the full gamut.  So here is the next writing prompt:

We live in an aggressively visual age; images dominate the popular culture. But which art form has the most to say about contemporary culture, and why?

I started out thinking about how to characterize contemporary culture. I came up with the qualities of diversity, eclecticism, and ubiquity. As I wrote in the last contest post, the Internet has provided access to so many cultural experiences that we don't even blink at the ability to see a Finnish folk singer or a Brazilian ballet. Our culture isn't local, it is global. But this diversity is not creating thousands of artistic enclaves. Instead, any given person consumes a whole range of cultural products, even within a single art form. This diversity and eclecticism is encouraged by the economics of the new digital media, that allows selling the long tail to be a viable business plan.  I can sample a whole variety of poetry with little investment of my time or money, because I can locate recommendations from experts online, view samples for free, and purchase small quantities online.  Heck, there is an app for that!  And then I can discuss the poetry in online forums, to help my understanding and appreciation.  And with smart phones and tablets, I can reasonably expect to consume my diverse cultural products whenever and wherever I want.

Once I defined contemporary culture, the next step was to show which art form says the most about it.  My natural inclination was and always is to look to music.  I've been trained in music from the age of four, it is my main means of fun and profit. There are plenty examples of music that demonstrate those three qualities.  Despite his current troubles, Osvaldo Golijov created (with help) a work of genius in Ayre.  This song cycle is incredibly eclectic, combining elements from around the world and across many genres.  The ABMOD's own judge Nico Muhly is known for his eclectic approach to music as well.  Andrew Bird, Björk, Bon Iver, The Clogs, Bang on A Can All-stars, all these groups defy genre labels.  The pop/classical divide is not necessarily gone, but it has distinctly blurred.  I can write academically about Dave Matthews Band, and be accepted by my fellow music theorists, and an opera singer can make it on The Voice or Britain's Got Talent.

There are also great examples in books and video games; theater and dance; painting and sculpture; architecture and synchronized swimming.  But comments on contemporary culture, require a multi-media approach, using the languages of visual images, audio examples, and expository writing.  A film character can say explicitly, "contemporary culture is very eclectic," accompanied by great examples of rap from Pakistan and hip hop version of Carmen, while eating some fusion cooking.  A blog post can contain links to all these examples (watch out, I'm starting to get recursive here), and allows easy feedback from the consumer.  Blogs, of course are so 2008, so Twitter says the most about contemporary culture.  140 characters to allow us to sample from a wide number of followings without a huge time commitment.  Links to deeper coverage on Tumblr, YouTube, or online articles reward higher levels of interest, but with the consumer still in complete control.  This says a lot about our culture.

However, I found I had serious problems answering the posed question. Art exists within culture, thus any given art form cannot act as a disinterested observer. Just as the act of observation affects the result in quantum physics, a self-aware art form changes the culture around it. And since I based my definition of culture on my knowledge of art, it seems circular to then use that same art to comment on the state of culture. So while I think social media is an art form that says a lot about the state of contemporary culture, I don't think any given form can give an accurate picture by itself. It's sort of the artistic version of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem.


Elaine Fine said...

This is a great post about the futility of trying to answer a truly impossible question.

On this week before Passover I find myself asking the question "why is this time different from all other times," and the only answer I can come up with is that we have so much quick access to so much stuff, and so little time to consider it properly, that we become superficial in our appreciation of all things cultural. Our particular area of concentration (non pop music) necessitates evaluating experiences that happen in real time, and when those experiences are longer than three or four minutes (the usual length of a pop song), there are only so many we can consider properly. There are no shortcuts with music. Sure, you can skip an exposition repeat, but otherwise everything that happens from top to toe in a well-constructed piece from the Common Practice Period is important to the whole.

Unfortunately the constant use of our continuous partial attention skills tend to make work that involves long-term concentration more difficult to do for those not in the habit of doing it. And habitual consumers of "easy" culture (like the consumers of "easy" food that doesn't require preparation or excessive chewing) may never develop the skills to consider music organized over a long period of time (30 minutes to an hour, perhaps) satisfying.

For this reason, the music you and I care about, teach, study, play, and write is essentially invalid. And the music that makes up the programs in the music festival holding this competition would likewise be considered invalid.

Sad, but true.

Elena said...

This is a great answer, Scott. I agree that this question was difficult to answer, and that any response felt subjective. Good luck.

Scott said...

Hi Elena, good luck to you too!

Elaine, I think it is a sign that music will be changing. Not necessarily getting rid of the long form, but giving more control to the audience in deciding how invested to become. Ambient music, sound sculptures, and audience-participation art, I think these will be the most popular forms of music in the future. But the economics of the long tail will still give us opportunities for the music we love. And classical music will still have relevant things to say about emotion and dreams. Some classical music, that is.

jordan said...

Hello Scott,
My name is Jordan, and I'm with TLC Book Tours ( We coordinate online blog tours for authors and publishers. I'm working with TLC Book Tours on a tour that I think would be a good fit for Musical Perceptions. The tour I'm currently working on is the book "Where the Heart Beats", written by art critic, Kay Larson. This biography (and cultural history) of the mid 20th century composer, John Cage, shows how Zen Buddhism transformed his life and shaped his music. I saw that you've recently written about Cage's music, and also review books, so I thought this book might interest you.
If you were interested, we'd have the book sent out to you in exchange for your posting your thoughts on the book on a mutually agreed-upon date in July. We don't require positive reviews, just honest ones. 
I'd love to have you on this tour if you're interested! I look forward to hearing from you!
Jordan (at) tlcbooktours (dot) com
(I couldn't find your email address on this blog, so I decided to comment instead.)