Monday, October 4, 2010

Primitive Romance

A preliminary excursion to the crossroads of individual taste, society, culture, and art.

We'll look at these ideas in greater detail and with other examples in the future. Again, this is just a first look at the complex crossroads of many other ideas and problems. Comments, questions, and animadversions are welcome as usual.

It is not my custom here to reflect on things I dislike. I mostly only deviate from this rule to examine novel arguments but when it comes to art I'm particularly reluctant to discuss what I don't like. Such is because, first, that I do not want to endure the displeasure of experiencing bad art. Second is because such negative discussion serves less the purpose of persuading those who disagree than does praising what one sees to be good. This second reason is also more amicable to a gentlemanly disposition. Every so often, though, there is a piece of art which is very well made but not to my taste and such does have an interest for me. In those works are expressions by talented or intelligent, if not inspired or ingenious, individuals who simply have different taste than myself. That fact inspires inquiry: that reasonable people have different values. Also, such an inquiry might be reveal interesting aspects of culture.

The following work I am about to explore will likely be outside the taste of many readers. Feel free not to read the middle part of this essay: I won't take it personally! I have too much appreciation for what art can mean and be to an individual to blame someone for not wanting to see something they don't like. (Though I can blame them for their taste.)

Yet this piece has two additional interesting aspects which I would present in the light of statements from two different authors.

First from Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind"
Plato's teaching about music is, put simply, that rhythm and melody, accompanied by dance, are the barbarous expression of the soul. Barbarous, not animal. Music is the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror. Nietzsche, who in large measure agreed with Plato's analysis, says in The Birth of Tragedy (not to be forgotten is the rest of the title, Out of the Spirit of Music) that a mixture of cruelty and coarse sensuality characterized this state, which of course was religious, in the service of gods. Music is the soul's primitive and primary speech and it is alogon, without articular speech or reason.  It is not only unreasonable, it is hostile to reason. Even when articular speech is added, it is utterly subordinate to and determined by the music and the passions it expresses. [Bloom, 71]

To Plato and Nietzsche, the history of music is a series of attempts to give form and beauty to the dark, chaotic, premonitory forces in the soul–to make them serve a higher purpose, an ideal, to give man's duties a fullness. . . Hence, for those who are interested in psychological health, music is at the center of education, both for giving the passions their due and for preparing the soul for the unhampered use of reason. [Bloom, 72]

Nietzsche, particularly, sought to tap again the irrational sources of vitality, to replenish our dried-up stream from barbaric sources, and thus encouraged the Dionysian and the music derivative from it. . . This is the significance of rock music. I do not suggest that it has any high intellectual sources. But it has risen to its current heights in the education of the young on the ashes of classical music, and in an atmosphere where there is no intellectual resistance to attempts to tap the rawest passions. . . The irrationalists are all for it. . . But rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire–not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored. [Bloom, 73]
Please pardon the length of the quote from the late Professor Bloom, but I think he puts the situation, noticed long ago by Plato, particularly well. We do not quite, or perhaps at all, know why music moves us the way it does, but we know that it is powerful. We may also say rather safely, I think, that art is important to people. It gives life and expression to the innermost emotions. One's taste in art, and thus what it unlocks in you and what it vivifies, suggests what one likes having unlocked. The unique blend of emotions brought out by each artist and each work gives the artist and the work its unique character, and sometimes one may find it corresponds with his own to remarkable degree. Ayn Rand was right to say that when one finds such a work, one ought not say that "I like this work, but I am this work" [1]

Music and society are intimately related too. Adopting the positions from above, one can only imagine the significance of being able to play music. I reflected on a fugue from Bach's Art of Fugue a few weeks ago. [2] Consider that fugue, and then add the dimension of being part of it. Music is unique amongst the arts in that it requires a human to make it again and again. The composer brings it into existence, but it must be kept alive by others. Music is not the note on the page but the note as it is played; it exists only for a time and requires a human to give it pattern and, rather literally, life. Aside from solo works, music is uniquely collaborative too: music with multiple parts requires a particular degree of communication, affection, and unity amongst the players. It is by its nature a unifying, harmonizing, of individual parts. It is no wonder thinkers from Aristotle to Emerson have used musical analogies to describe the ideal natures of human relations.

Again, there is considerable mystery here. Why do certain cadences and intervals seem to have the characters they do? Why does one march to a march and waltz to a waltz? Many forms are of course formal inventions and conventions, but they are rooted in something natural to us. To return to Bloom and Nietzsche, the elemental power of music is undeniable. This is not a new discovery. Countesses swooned for Beethoven's sonatas and the Greeks certainly knew the strength of music. One is unsure whether Bach's audience knew to what heights they were being called or if Mozart's Vienna knew what he had gotten away with in Don Giovanni. We recently discussed two takes on Wagner's overwhelming scene in Act II of Tristan und Isolde [3]

All of the art we have discussed on this blog has used a sophisticated, traditional yet evolving, musical language to apply power toward different ends. Some composers were more conservative than others and some had varying ideas on when passion passed the point of being pleasing or elucidating. In September 1781 Mozart wrote his father to discuss Wolfgang's upcoming Opera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
A person who gets into such a violent rage transgresses himself every order, moderation, and limit; he no longer knows himself.–In the same way the Music must no longer know itself-but because passions, violent or not, must never be expressed to the point of disgust, and Music must never offend the ear, even in the most horrendous situations, but must always be pleasing, in other words always remain music. [4]
Art then is not simply realism, but a particular representation of life. Such requires shaping, restraint, and taste, and there are as many variations as artists, as we said above.

Yet some music, it sounds curmudgeonly and passé to say 'rock and roll' as Bloom did and besides I don't really know what that genre is, either in essence or practice, so I'll just say "some music," and art does not utilize sophisticated and intellectual means of expression. It does not require appreciation of subtleties of structure or symbolism. It needs no "pattern." You need not bring anything to it. In discussing Dante and his travail in the underworld we saw the case of Paolo and Francesca and said "It is the vulgar moment that knows only itself." [5] To expand that, we might say the vulgar individual is who does not know the culture from whence he has sprung, his place in it, and the fact that he is contributing to create a new one. We may say precisely the same of art.

Such brings us to our second point, which we see in T. S. Eliot's 1948 essay, "Notes Toward the Definition of Culture." This is in fact a corollary of our definition of vulgarity, which is that culture requires participation and an overlapping of shared interests. [Eliot, 27] Both such interests but also conflicts must have meaning before they can be dramatized and perceived as significant as an audience. As such, individual, culture, and art are all inextricably linked. (This line of thinking has interesting implications for the nature of pluralistic societies, but we will discuss them, and the rest of Eliot's essay, at another date.)

One might even propose a "cultural way of thinking." Such may sound contrived or perhaps indistinguishable from being simply intellectual yet I believe the distinction is worth considering. Eliot wisely noted [Eliot, 22] that artists are frequently insensitive to other arts and that who contributes to culture is not necessarily cultured. Additionally, consider that humans are uniquely able to pass on their knowledge and experiences which crystallize into a larger conception of the past. Such "pasts" vary locally, regionally, nationally, and so forth. Thus a great deal of simply and strictly "intellectual" knowledge in fact has a tradition. For example, it is no simple act of endearment to write a sonnet for someone since a sonnet has a long and rich history. Names too have cultural histories, and even the most culturally insensitive person chooses the name of his child with care. (The invention of "new" names here is significant, I think.) This sense of cultural thinking is closely related to the importance of storytelling in a culture. [6] Words too, and many of them, have particularly interesting and significant histories, and though it sounds trivial to say it, to use a particular one means something. Using our definitions of culture and vulgarity, imagine a "vulgar" sentence: you wouldn't know what any of the words meant. It would be a different language.

What kind of "art" would result in the absence of culture? We'll revisit this questions after we look at a particular piece, but for now consider two possibilities: it would either be wholly new and so lacking a past would require one to learn it as a new language or it would be consciously primitive, using only the most fundamental means of communication to get its point across. I propose to examine such a piece now, with your indulgence.

Looking at
Bad Romance
by Lady Gaga

[see the music video on YouTube]

N.B. It was my original intent to make this a video review, but I didn't feel like wrangling with issues of copyright for posting my commentary over the whole video on YouTube. In this written form, though, it is impractical to add so many pictures so I suggest you keep the video open in another window and manually scroll it along as we look at it.

N.B. Certain words have been translated into Latin for courtesy and decorum.

The opening is surprising. It in fact begins with a canon [7] on a sort of harpsichord-sounding instrument. I don't suspect many people have noticed this, and such is significant in consideration of our discussion of culture. Significantly, she's playing the music from a recorder, which she shuts off. The canon and the language and world they represent are not the world of this video. Such is consistent with the title, Bad Romance. Putting aside the history of the word romance and its despoiling, we may take it at the obvious face value and say it simply refers to relations between men and women. Bad, usually a useless and generic word, is in fact significant and enough here. She's seeking out a bad romance, clearly indicating she knows not what the good is, but that something better is possible. (That these are relative terms here is not significant.) This is, then, at least a somewhat consciously primitive expression. Yet is expression the proper word. The title and opening suggests some (however general or peripheral, one cannot say) awareness of the cultural contrast we are discussing, and thus a deliberateness in construction. Such of course does not preclude drawing conclusions about the significance of its popularity.

Notice the visceral nature of the opening frame: the feline postures of the women and the aggressive postures of the men. Notice how offensive the back-lighting is, how the dog is pretty much on par with everyone else. Notice her baroque clothes and shoes in contrast to the poor dress of the others and the starkness of the room.

The first music is the video's only music, the vocal "oh" theme, the "caught in a bad romance" theme, and the thumping bass. Could it get any more "barbaric?" The lens flare in the dark evokes a vague sense of the cosmic. Notice I say, "evoke" since there is no significance of the cosmic here. There is merely effect and an appeal to the emotions evoked by the image of colored spheres against blackness. No relationship is suggested.

The title in the next scene, "Bath Haus of Gaga" is too an evocation: an appeal to, for Americans, the foreign and exotic. Surely something exotic happens in a bath haus, far away, no? Consider the dialogue:
Rah, rah, ah, ah, ah
Roma, roma, ma
Gaga, ooh, la, la
Want your bad romance

Essentially nonverbal grunting, again against the throbbing bass. When the characters come out of their cases, they introduce what becomes a motif throughout the video: the curled, claw-like hand gestures and the staccato swiping gestures. It is as if they are being born: they are blind and swiping about, and all they know is "want." Now the motion of the characters becomes synchronized to the beat, a feature which will remain throughout. Again, this synchronization is an old trick: anyone who has set slides to music knows the ease with which one may synchronize the two. This synchronization, here, fosters the frenetic mood of the video. To, say, syncopate the movements would have made a statement of contrast. Not to have synchronized anything, a la 2001: A Space Odyssey, would invite contemplation. This is a simple, primal, thumping: the libidinous rhythm.

Note the cacophonous and negative vocabulary:
I want your ugly, I want your disease
I want your everything as long as it's free
"Free" as in disconnected, without asking for anything in return, without bounds.

I want your drama, the touch of your hand
I want your leather studded kiss in the sand
Look at the contrast there: a pleasant image, a very human one, of the hand contrasted against "leather studded kiss in the sand," a nonsense phrase used for contrast and to evoke the primitive as she grasps her ilum. She proceeds to make a gun gesture with her hand, pointing up, a gesture simultaneously phallic and adversarial. Now this pink-tressed version of her takes the stage, in a gesture rolling her eyes back and partially sticking her tongue out, suggesting an ecstasy of abandon. Also, note the disproportionately large eyes. Human eyes being unique in size, proportion, et cetera, they are enlarged here to more strongly suggest humanity and innocence, since otherwise we would grow disconnected and disenchanted. We will see scenes of a far more pure version of her, clad in white and with white hair, inter-cut toward the same purpose. Yet she chants, "bad, bad, bad."
The following scene and dialogue again is all effect, with no particular connection or conceptualizations. It includes the taped papillae, (of course drawing more, not less, attention to them), the forced bathing, forced drinking, the spitting, the crying; none of this has any meaning other than the crudeness of it, to be associated with the baseness of the urge.

Consider more of the words and note their adversarial nature:

I want your love, and all your love is revenge
I want your horror, I want your design
'Cause you're a criminal as long as you're mine

Now we shift to two new scenes which will alternate. Starting with the second: she's in a sort of cylindrical semi-cage in a room with white tiled-walls and lit with white light from above. It's an antiseptic environment, essentially a sterile torture chamber. She's tortured by the urge. Again, realize all the images are deliberately evoked and consistent. See her protruding spine and the bald bat on her head. She looks like an animal in a cage.

To the return of the "gah gah" theme and thumping, she's stripped by the women down to what looks like an ancient ecdysiast's outfit, something worn long ago to please a far away potentate.

I shrink from the task of interpreting the following:
I want your psycho, your vertical stick
Want you in my rear window, baby, you're sick
Now we see the male figure. He is presented as the superior: seated, with a brass jawpiece, (emphasizing his jawline and thus masculinity and also his superior status by its artifice), drinking out of a glass. She, in her outfit, crawls towards him on all fours and the camera shot is from between his legs. The words illustrate a contradiction: "You know that I want you. . . Cause I'm a free canicula, baby!" More words, not reproduced here, escalate the innuendo.

Now she takes the stage. Even more scantily clad, she stands amidst clear jewels suspended in the air, as if a constellation revolves around her. A scene where she is adorned by a series of hoops follows, again another image of her centrality. These are both more cosmic invocations. Also, now she is the center of attention, encircled by men instead of having to approach them.

Rosary beads are draped around her and a clear crucifix is draped over her ilum. She proceeds to make the sign of the crucifix. Why? She is not using the rosary (i.e. praying the rosary) or venerating the crucifix. Such would in fact draw on cultural notions. It is invoked as a totem, perhaps even in a sense an example of sympathetic magic, wherein by having this object and making this gesture, what they stand for is hoped to be brought about. But what do they stand for? Merely, "something significant."

Now she chants mostly meaningless phrases as she walks about, adorned with colorfully studded costumes. This scene is redundant as it merely emphasizes her new success.
Walk, walk, fashion, baby
Work it, move that thing, crazy
Walk, walk, fashion, baby
Work it, move that thing, crazy
The coda is redundant. The final scene however, begins with another animal: a bearskin costume (with head) which she disrobes from, revealing her derriere. The bed, on which the man sits, is flanked by animal heads on the walls. She repeats the main phrase, only now in French, again only a gesture of exoticism (and euphony, here.) The bed bursts into flames and the final shot is of a charred mattress, her lover's charred skeleton, and her sparking mamillae. The "harpsichord-theme" plays but this is only to create a sense of symmetry with the beginning.

The release of her desire is of consumption and destruction, instead of consummation. There is release and destruction. Again, this is consistent: what else could there be? Using our earlier defined sense, this is vulgar, it is disconnected from a culture of ideas. The primitive music and symbols could appeal to the most undeveloped individual. I would suggest only in the actual absence of culture could this video be so popular as it is. What could the video mean to someone with a culture, with a way of relating to the world, a way both inherited and created? This video speaks no language. It is either acultural or a subculture of barbarism. In the absence of a shared culture, shared language and conceptions, we get the primitive.

To speak of the matter in the reverse: in the absence of inherited forms, i.e. mainly symbols and structures, a work is left either so that it can be understandable only on its own terms or appeals only to the basest experience of life. In the former case the work speaks only its own language, putting it at great distance. In the latter case, the work feels primal, without any layer of removal. Such art may have great power and indeed it is possible to have the forms without the sense of the fire and depths below. The use of a particular body of forms, though, creates a particular cultural identity, one inherited, added to, and passed on. When forms die they become relics, which are used without any sense of the intense connection to the concepts with which they were associated. One might argue they when that connection is lost they ought not to be used. Perhaps, but their passing should be noted.
In this respect it is possible to speak of a culture as alive, one which accepts its inherited forms and with enthusiasm reworks and modifies them. For such to happen the connection to the original concept, the passion for it, must endure, in the context of whatever emotion in particular.

This new acultural art would be desperate to re-kindle feeling and significance. Bad art, perhaps it might be, but it would represent a cultural bottoming-out and an attempt to start anew. (If not in the intent of its creation, then so if it is popularly well-received.) It would be primitive, consciously or not, because of the absence of the old, archaic, forms which have lost the power to communicate.

Instead of shared concepts we see invocations of items: images to bring about feelings but not ideas. None of the animals depicted (or mimicked) are symbolic, they are simply present as animals to evoke a sense of savageness. There are no symbols of sexuality, like the snake or a brace of hares (a Late Gothic symbol.) The functions of the imagery is not dissimilar from that of the roots of animistic cultures and those associated with fertility rites. Yet in the West those roots grew into structures and culture. Here we have the raw forces with no interpretive layer between us and those forces. There is simply yielding to the force and no conceptualization of it. There is only the rawness of the desire, no suggestion of what the human reaction ought to be. There is no attempt to understand the force as part of something larger. There is no sense of binding with or understanding the nature of things, of religio and reason. We have the the "dark, chaotic, premonitory forces in the soul" but no attempt to make them "serve a higher purpose, an ideal, to give man's duties a fullness," by use of form and beauty. There is also, then, no elevation of such to the realm of the transcendent.

The following comparison is made not to contrast the quality of the music, but because the following is the perfect opposite of the aforementioned. Consider the final opera of Wolfgang Mozart, Die Zauberflöte.[8] In it he uses a wealth of language to elevate the opera's themes (love, the relation of men and women, knowledge, the good) to the level of the sacred. He uses all manner of symbols, instrumentation, cadences, harmonies, words, et cetera, to elevate the ideas to sacredness. Discussing Nietzsche, Bloom wrote, "a shared sense of the sacred is the surest way to recognize a culture. . . What a people bows before tells us what it is." [Bloom, 204]

Love proclaims the nobility of man and woman and together they reach toward the divine.

Act I: Dutet, Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen

Not only the moral world but the mood of The Magic Flute is the opposite of the music video we discussed. Here one does not yield to desires but channels them in particular expressions, sometimes the opposite of the emotion: to achieve knowledge you must go by the way of unknowing, to achieve unity you must go by the way of separation.

What ended in destruction, base release, and vulgarity above, ends in sacred, harmonious, unity in Mozart. He uses and builds on an inherited tradition and culture his audience knew to say to them, "See, see how glorious these things, our things, are!"

Act II, Finale.

[1] Citation needed. I'll provide it soon.
[4] Letter of W. A. Mozart to his father, in Salzburg. September 26, 1781 See, Mozart's Letters, Mozart's Life. Edited by Robert Spaethling. W. W. Norton and Company. New York. 2000. (p. 286)
[7] for a primer on counterpoint, see introduction here:
[8] It is worth noting the trend of increasingly elaborate opera stagings, i.e. attempts to add easily-understandable spectacle and effects to make the opera more exciting, appealing, et cetera, instead of relying on the music to do such. Karajan's 1987 production is a great exception: see the "simplicity" of the cosmic dimension:

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind:  How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. Simon and Schuster, New York. 1987.

Eliot, T. S. Notes Toward the Definition of Culture. Harcourt, Brace, and Company. New York. 1949.


  1. I just posted a lengthy response which for some reason didn't take, so I'll follow up with the short version. When Bloom's book first came out some reviewers called it "profound," and I think that word can be used to describe your essay. Great job!

  2. Wow! Thanks so much, really! I'm glad the essay brought out the importance of the issue. It started as I was reflecting on my own reaction to the music video; it had an undeniable power yet felt oddly distant from me. It seems to speak a different language if one tries to interpret it. And I was just recently re-reading Bloom and in the past few months Eliot has never been far from my mind.

    I'm so sorry if Blogger ate your comment! I would definitely love to hear your thoughts but I understand if it's too much to re-write. I hope to develop, reflect on, and elaborate on some of these threads in the future. Please share any other approaches to or byways along these ideas and suggestions for other modern pieces for comparison. Again: I'm sorry it ate your post!

    I'm not against "new" stuff, but I do try to think about why I don't like a good deal of it; what a curious piece this video was!

  3. My earlier comment mostly talked about how most analysis of popular culture is very self conscious, self important and as vapid as its subject matter and your effort to examine that video in a wider historical and technical context was refreshing and novel.

    But what is most important I think is the paradigm shift from the days of Nietzsche to Lady Gaga is music as a purely commercial product designed for consumption rather than enjoyment or emotional response. So that greatly complicates the equation. I admired Closing of the American Mind but I thought that Bloom's focus on the erotic aspect of rock music was a little one dimensional and even moreso today because of commercialism and the fact that the rock song is becoming indistinguishable from the music video (i.e., packaged as a single product. Eroticism, especially in the video is a big part of it but not the whole story. Plus the carnivalesque aspects of the rock concert are another factor. I imagine that eroticism may play a part at that level but there is something else going on as well--some sort of scary groupthink. Another aspect of commercialism is that it ensures that there is little innovation in the mainstream product (and in my opinion in the non mainstream as well). It would be interesting to do a comparison of a Lady Gaga video and a 20 year old Madonna video. I'm sure you'd see the same iconography, the same tropes and fundamentally the same message. Anyway, lots of fertile ground for discussion and I look forward to seeing where you go with the topic.

  4. Thanks for re-writing that: you bring up a host of issues for consideration. It indeed would be interesting (so to speak) to compare a recent and an older "piece." I too suspect such similarities.

    Considering and elucidating concepts like consumerism/commercialism/"popculturalism" in the context of art, culture, and even democracy (i.e. contrasting the odd situation where some stuff both is hyper self-conscious and exudes a certain group think) I think would be quite fruitful too.

    Thanks so much again for your kind thoughts and for sharing your take: it really helped get me thinking about this in yet more contexts.

  5. Hi, I am from Australia.

    Please find some related references on Art, Culture and politics. The Realization of The Beautiful an introduction to the above author/artist (and much more)

    The politics that extends from what the author/artist communicates in his Art & Literature