April 15, 2004



On this abstraction thing, started by David Stubbs, and taken up by Woebot, amongst others: first of all, Angus is definitely right, music is INHERENTLY abstract and non-representational. (On fiction versus visual art: Burroughs famously remarked that writing is lagging one hundred years behind visual art.)

I do wonder though if the supposed appeal of experimental visual art as opposed to its sonic counterpart isn't partly to do with what people are prepared to SAY they like. I'd question whether people really like much experimental art; though for some reason, it's become fashionable to claim to, so there's some kudos to be had for mooching listlessly around galleries (like Ian Penman - c'mon IP time for another post! - I've never really got the hang of what one's supposed to do in galleries). Course this begs the question of WHY it's become fashionable - even compulsory - to pretend to a taste for avant-garde art.

On the other hand, it's almost certainly the case that people enjoy experimental music more than they think they do. Witness the use of experimental composers on television and in films. The BBC Radiophonic orchestra (which re-situated all manner of avant-garde trickery in the most banal settings) is one example; Kubrick (with his use of Penderecki and Ligeti) is another. When this music is given a context and a function, when it is not at the centre of people's attention, they can find a use for it.

Actually, this argument is underscored by Paul Morley's Words and Music(which I'm just hitching a lift through). A central drift of Morley's argument is that the most opulent superpopulist Pop (Kylie!) is indebted to the avant-garde at its most forbiddingly austere (LaMonte Young, Cage, Stockhausen). Course, as PM would be the first to admit, this is less a 'real' story than a reflection of Morley's long-cherished PostModernist dream, what he attempted to script and sculpt with Z.T.T.'s concept-Pop. The vindication of the avant-garde by Pop, and vice versa.

Posted by mark at April 15, 2004 09:36 PM | TrackBack

Avant-garde visual art has become a lot more accessible than avant-garde music, mainly because of conceptualism, which has introduced humor as a prime compositional element. And humor is the other thing besides pure aesthetics that functions as a semi-universal entry point to art. (The avant-garde has also tried to add "offensiveness" to that group, but without success, I think. Effective offensiveness is just humor.) If something looks pretty or makes me laugh or smile, I'll be interested enough to delve in further. This is in paricular a nice antidote to that whole stupid complexity thing championed by modernism and largely taken up by pomo.

Posted by: Eppy at April 15, 2004 09:52 PM

Of course, this whole thing started off about abstraction, not experimentalism, and so of course conceptualism isn't a part of the former.

Posted by: Eppy at April 15, 2004 09:54 PM

yeah nice.

but again on the hating on galleries tip, is it all you musos do?!

all joking aside, apart from the totally subjective and 'well my mate claims to like such and such but doesn't cause he's just frontin'...' factor of I'd question whether people really like much experimental art; though for some reason, it's become fashionable to claim to... - since we're throwing aspersions around - i must be allowed to note that i'd question whether people really like much minimalism, since it's fashionable to have an affection for Reich etc...

Posted by: scott at April 15, 2004 09:59 PM

Eppy, yeh - not clear on the distinction between conceptualism and pomo (isn't conceptualism a mode of pomo actually?)

In the UK, conceptualism has made art 'accessible' by basically doing away with affect altogether and substituting what the artists are pleased to call 'concepts' for an art experience; or rather the experience IS the consumption of the 'concept'. It's emperor's new clothes philistinism.

On the abstraction thing, much more relevant to art coz (as Angus established) there is no such thing as representational music...

Scott, yeh pt taken, but I would tend to agree with David's original claim that, amongst the chattering classes, experimental art has become de rigeur in a way that Reich et al haven't. Course, this in no way detracts from the merits of either Reich or (say) Rothko; rather, it's to do with the vissiscitudes of taste...

Posted by: mark k-punk at April 15, 2004 10:20 PM

yeah conceptualism is a form of pomo isn't it?

ah, the chattering classes: say no more!

so that explains Stubbs' flagellating tone... ...seriously, i'll have to drop this minor side-issue as i'll just look like the arse i am even more and more (though i'm still not entirely happy with it, nothing to do with k-p in this case, more the slight touch almost of grumpiness nearly i've read into David's original post, and indeed an Ian piece awhilebackonthe Tate Modern &c).

one interesting issue here though - while i think so anyway - is if we accept Islington dwellers are munching on their sun-dried bruschetta whilst gazing lovingly at their Newman prints on the kitchen wall, why do they then go off and do the school run to Classic FM?
are there are a load of people in the regions who listen to Varese but have only Constable or Granddad's old watercolours on the wall? and if so, what does this inverse relationship mean to your average sociologist?

i think we should be told.

Posted by: scott at April 15, 2004 10:40 PM

oh yeah Mark have you seen the latest Spectator? if so, what is this Lovibond cove banging on about?

Posted by: scott at April 15, 2004 10:42 PM

Actually I think the term "abstract" is probably a red herring here, since after all abstract art is all around us and always has been, in wallpaper and fabric patterns, architectural decoration, mosaics and so on, and you don't have to be very avant-garde to admire those things; moreover, anyone who has grown up in a nonconformist Christian denomination, or in Islam, is completely at home with abstract art because the other kind is regarded as idolatrous. It's really a quirk of art history that abstraction in itself came to be the currency of the avant-garde in 20th century gallery art.

Just for the record, though, I wasn't really claiming that all music is abstract, although I certainly agree that it's non-representational in the strictest sense. I was referring to the distinction in classical music between "abstract" (or "absolute") and "programme" music, really less a dichotomoy than a continuum, with a Bach fugue for instance at one end and something like Peter and the Wolf at the other; the latter evokes something outside itself even if doesn't represent it.

Posted by: Angus at April 16, 2004 12:30 PM

Technically, conceptualism predated postmodernism by at least 20 years, although I'm sort of talking out of my ass here. But I think that Duchamp came out during the height of literary modernism in the early part of the 20th century and created key conceptualist works; it wasn't until the 60s that postmodernism got going with Foucault, Derrida, etc. Pomo was actually an outgrowth of existentialism in certain European intellectual circles (the relationship between Sartre and Foucault etc.) and so obv. that's all 50s up in that shit.

I like conceptualist art; I think, like pop, it can either be really good or really bad, and throws out some (but not enough) pretensions of intellectualism, which makes it vulnerable to superficial critiques. I'm not saying that all conceptualist art is great--far from it--but I do think that it's taking a lot more chances than abstraction at this stage of the game.

Posted by: Eppy at April 16, 2004 04:38 PM

And so anyway, conceptualism and postmodernism have certainly converged, which is annoying since most people don't actually understand postmodernism (sigh), but they were originally quite separate (although conceptualism and surrealism were certainly big influences on pomo thought) and you can separate them still.

Good points there, Angus. But is music concrete representational?

Posted by: Eppy at April 16, 2004 04:41 PM

Not so sure that you can say "that people enjoy experimental music" because of "the use of experimental composers on television and in film". When "experimental music" is used in this context it's usually a short cut to creating unease or tension. You did't get the BBC Radiophonic orchestra plonking around with ring modulators and half-speed bed-springs during romantic comedies and historical dramas, just Dr Who and other SF/horror outings.

That said, I'm sure SF and horror film music from the late 50s and early 60s opened more listeners' ears to 20th century classical music than any amount of academic explanation -- although that's another topic for debate altogether.

Posted by: Nigel R. at April 16, 2004 07:00 PM

Interestingly, Scott Bradley’s music for The Cat that Hated People, a 1947 Tom and Jerry short, features the first known use of the twelve-note row in a Hollywood score.

Posted by: sphaleotas at April 16, 2004 08:09 PM

Angus on absolute and programme music, Eppy on conceptualism (i guess i should have said how the two are seen as the same thing in the public eye these days; cause yeah Duchamp's urinal is from back in the day), Nigel R, all OTM.

is abstraction the currency of the gallery's avant-garde in the last century?
i guess i thought Abstract Expressionism is one current, but (again!) conceptualism is more 'it' these days.
and so on.

Posted by: scott at April 16, 2004 08:13 PM

If "abstract art is all around us," by the same token isn't abstract or avant garde music all around us? The noises of traffic, for example. People don't think of traffic as music, but they don't think of fabric patterns or architecture as art either.

Posted by: cole at April 17, 2004 01:23 AM

Eppy--from the little I know about musique concrete I wouldn't say it's representational; it's using pre-existing sound to construct music that's still essentially abstract, I would have thought, but I'm no expert.

Scott, maybe that "the currency" was exaggerated--I guess I'm just thinking of modernism in art as being a movement away from representation towards abstraction, but then even that's not necessarily true (eg surrealism is still essentially representational isn't it, the novelty is what is being represented).

Cole, don't people think of fabric patterns or architectural decoration as art? I would have said that on the whole they did; I certainly do. Traffic noises are different; I wouldn't call them "art" because they're not created with the explicit purpose of eliciting aesthetic responses, although of course they can do so unintentionally (as can sunsets, which are also not art).

Posted by: Angus at April 17, 2004 02:20 PM

are you cribbing Mark?

Posted by: loaf at April 17, 2004 04:26 PM

Think I disagree with eppy's defintion of postmodernism; wouldn't call Foucault et al postmodern, accept unless the term is used in a very broad and general way.
There's a case for saying that Postmodernism begins with Duchamp I would argue (though Duchamp was certainly much wittier than most of his conceptualist successors, who are still making the r.mutt joke).

Nigel --- simply not true about the radiophonic workshop. They did the music for John Craven's Newsround, for fuxake! Michael's pt abt cartoons also highly relevant.

Posted by: mark k-punk at April 17, 2004 08:16 PM

Not to mention a huge body of work for local, national and overseas BBC Radio. . . as quotidian an influence as you could wish for.

Posted by: sphaleotas at April 17, 2004 09:51 PM

Angus: your remark brings up an interesting bunch of questions. OK, so a live performance in which, say, an anvil is struck is the aural equivalent of a collage, or maybe an installation of all "real things" like a bunch of people sitting in a living room or something, so it's not really representational. But how about a recording of a live performance of an anvil, or for that matter a live performance in which the sampled sound of an airplane is used? How is that any less representational than a photograph? And if we're granting this, although you certainly don't have to, then where is the line? Is a sample of a kick drum representational because it's a recording of a real thing? If not, how can visual art that contains any man-made object be said to be representational, since by this logic anything incorporating anything made with human hands is not strictly representational? What would be? How about a synthesized sound of an anvil, or birdsong?

Mark: you can certainly make a good argument that Duchamp lies at the root of postmodernism, but I think as it's generally regarded to be a movement that began with literary theory, for better or for worse (and this is very pomo of me), we're really only talking about what people generally agree upon, and I think the consensus is that postmodernism as a movement (but not the ideas therein) started in the 60s. Pomo certainly takes a lot from early 20th-c. semiotics, but it also takes a whole lot from modernism, and it is neither modernism, semiotics, or conceptualism. Would you really not call Foucault et al postmodernist/poststructuralist? I think, again, most people would, but hey...

I think Scott's right in that the two (i.e. conceptualism and pomo) have become largely synonymous, but this is also to do with a way big misunderstanding of what, y'know, postmodernism actually is. But this is all pretty silly stuff.

Posted by: Eppy at April 18, 2004 05:19 AM

or for that matter a live performance in which the sampled sound of an airplane is used? How is that any less representational than a photograph?

It's certainly representational if the sampled sound of an aeroplane is being used to represent the sound of an aeroplane. But my impression of musique concrete was that the sampled sounds were being used simply as things-in-themselves to be manipulated, and that the effect of that manipulation was to sever the connection between them and their outside-world referents, ie precisely to make them cease being representational. But again, I don't know that much about musique concrete so I could be wrong there; it could indeed be that when you hear the sound of an aeroplane in a music concrete piece you're meant to think "hey, aeroplane!" As for the sampled sound of a kick-drum, yes that is certainly representational in a certain narrow sense, in that it signifies "kick drum"; but conventionally the dividing line between abstract and representational music is drawn where music starts claiming to represent extra-musical things, like the Siege of Leningrad or the Afternoon of a Faun.

In any case though, I certainly agree with your larger point that this dividing line, if it exists at all, is extremely blurry.

Posted by: Angus at April 18, 2004 09:13 AM

By the way, my man Foucault hated being called a postmodernist. (Although that in itself shouldn't stop you calling him one if you want to.)

Posted by: Angus at April 18, 2004 09:14 AM