Showing posts with label Aesthetics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Aesthetics. Show all posts

Monday, March 26, 2012

Causa Pulchritudinis

"At any time between 1750 and 1930 if you had asked educated people to describe the aim of poetry, art, or music, they would have replied: beauty."

So says philosopher and author Roger Scruton in his 2007 documentary Why Beauty Matters. The radical purpose to Scruton's work is the classical notion that beauty matters, that, contra postmodern cacophilia, beauty is a value in itself as much as truth or goodness. He makes an honest and convincing case for beauty while tracing its genealogy from Plato through its banishment in the 20th century.

I would like, however, to trace and amplify a point slightly glossed over in the documentary. Scruton calls up Wilde's phrase that, "All art is absolutely useless," by which Wilde meant that art is more than useful. Scruton continues, applying Wilde's pointed compliment to mean that today we suffer under the "tyranny of the useful." We have more than utilitarian needs and suffer in not fulfilling them, he argues. I would like to return to Wilde, though, and ask: is all art absolutely useless?

Yes, and I would add that it is even more obviously useless than it might seem.

Let us begin by looking at the famous work of Hamlet since it seems to have a point. For our purposes permit a gross, obscene even, simplification: that the moral of the story is that indecisiveness and delay are bad. (Gasp! Alack! if you must, but stay with me, I beg.) If that is your goal, to demonstrate that indecisiveness is bad, why would you fulfill that goal by writing a four-hour play filled with complicated dialogue? It would be much easier, much clearer and more apparent, to write a simple morality story. What is gained by pages of complicated dialogue, shades of meaning, and a complex plot? Let me put it this way, why is:
To be, or not to be,--that is the question:--Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?
so much more full of meaning and portent than
He screwed me! Should I suck it up or kick his ass?
Well, Shakespeare's verse is more meaningful because it is more persuasive and it is more persuasive because it is more beautiful. The logic is the same, but the structure, diction, imagery, syntax, and figurative language of Shakespeare make it seem more important. The ideas take on greater scale and meaning when they are beautiful.

Let us look at another example in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. We must first observe that the entire fourth act is unnecessary to the plot since Figaro and Susanna are married at the conclusion of the third. Why conclude the opera titled The Marriage of Figaro with the Count being forgiven by his wife, then? Because all of the distrust and running around of the first three acts is well and good, but it only adds up to the rather uninspiring fact that everyone outwitted the Count. We want a bit more.

Unfortunately, the final scene of forgiveness has only a tenuous element of contrast to tie it to the plot. After all of the intrigues and fits of anger and distrust, even by Susanna and  Figaro, the Countess' act seems different, but why does it seem important somehow? Susanna and Figaro aren't villains, and neither are Bartolo and Marcellina, so why is this contrast necessary? Besides, everyone's mistrust is more heated than malicious. This simple element of contrast, then, is a relatively thin thread with which to conclude a three-hour endeavor whose main plot is already resolved. Mozart makes this finale relevant, to the plot and to us, by making it beautiful. This brief moment of sublime beauty takes on extraordinary dimensions and significance far disproportionate to the plot. This scene does not demonstrate that the Countess does the moral or just thing or that the Count will reform and be a better man or that Susanna and Figaro learn a lesson about marriage. The opera simply says that forgiveness is beautiful and the scene says this by being beautiful.

In the above examples we look at beauty acting as the element of persuasion in art which attempts to make some other point. Beauty persuades us that Hamlet's dilemma is grand and that the Countess' deed is good, but what about art which exists purely to be beautiful?

Take the fifth fugue from Book I of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. Why is that string of thirty-second notes followed by the dotted figures so full of meaning? More importantly, why does it take on so much more when developed? In fact, why should any figure played in canon, or augmented or what have you, be meaningful? Who cares if something is in inversion? Because the symmetries, rhythmic and harmonic, are beautiful.

Below Botticelli's point is not to describe the birth of Venus or even to show it, but to show beauty. Do we actually care about Venus or her birth?

Why are such symmetries and consonances pleasing to man? Why is, as Marcus Aurelius observed, the cracking of bread and the bursting of a fig a pleasing sight? Marcus' answer was the classical one that such things are naturally beautiful. I'm not sure what scientists hope to discover in asking that question today but is it likely to result in more beauty? The more experiments confirm that people prefer certain shapes and ratios the more the findings, oddly, are interpreted to mean that the pleasure we derive from contemplating and seeing beauty is meaningless. The more some preference is thought to be evolved the more one hear that we "only" prefer it because of such and such.  Yet in truth little seems to hinge on the question. Beauty by nature cannot be made vulgar, unnecessary, or undesirable. Because of its "uselessness" it can never be replaced or outdated. Fragile though it is in our hands, in this respect beauty is indestructible.

If you enjoyed this essay you may be interested in:

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Sacred Music IV: An Unfair Comparison

Gloria de Angelis vs. Gloria Bossa Nova

Is it fair to compare the ancient Missa de Angelis with the Missa Bossa Nova, circa 1966? Nope. Yet I make it to provoke a question in those who are not onboard the chant express.
  1. If you don't like the 1966 piece but do like other non-chant music at mass, what's the difference between the Bossa Nova and what you do like?
  2. Your answer to #1 has established has established a criterion for sacred music. What are its implications?
My Point

I would guess most people don't like the Bossa Nova mass and with good reason. It's hokey and lacks expressivity. It lacks anything of musical or structural interest. It's jingly and irreverent. These observations are all criteria for sacred music, criteria I think many people have. When one compares most popular liturgical music to the Bossa Nova I think most people will consider the Bossa Nova worse. Yet if this criteria exists then one most compare the music one does like to the same standards. One must ask, "If the Bossa Nova is less reverent than what I like, is there anything more reverent than what I like?" The answer I'm trying to suggest is of course, "chant." The next question I'm trying to suggest is of course, "then why not sing it?" Can it be too reverent, too expressive, too interesting, too good? Again, I think most people would say, "surely not," so I ask again, why not chant?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Short Books, Long on Wisdom: II

Your esteemed blogger Mr. Northcutt recently composed a short list which only someone with his erudite catholicity could have assembled. It's theme is "short and insightful" and soon I am sure you will be spurred on by the exciting contents of his admirable collection.

In the meanwhile please settle for my imitation. My brief captions are, I hope, the essence of each, but at least what I learned (or learned to ask.) I would add but one observation, one only apparent to me after grouping these books together: they all possess an aesthetic dimension. They all suggest that to think, or write, or be so, is not just good, but beautiful, and in being so, necessary.

1. Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations/Exhortations [To Myself]
  • Work hard at who you are.
2. Moorman, George J. The Mass Explained
  • The Mass in black and white. Period.
3. Cicero, Marcus Tullius. Laelius: On Friendship
  • You need a friend and you need to be one.
4. Clor, Harry. On Moderation
  • See as much as you can and find you way through. 
5. Eliot, T.S. Selected Essays
  • What is a poem? A poet?
6. Feynman, Richard. Character of Physical Law
  • The world works. 
7. Hutchings, Arthur. A Companion to Mozart's Piano Concertos
  1. How a great artist handles ideas.
  2. You should expect that they do it well.
8. Lewis, C. S. Studies in Words
  • Words matter. Use with caution, knowledge, and affection.
9. Newman, John Henry. Meditations and Devotions
  • Pray!
10. Santayana, George. Three Philosophical Poets
  • What does your world look like?
11. Tolkien, J. R. R. On Fairy-Stories
  • Why tell a story?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Would you sing it on a boat?

with apologies to Dr. Seuss

Would you sing it on a boat?
Would you sing it on a float?
Would you sing it in a theater?
Would you sing it in a meter?
Would you sing it with vibrato?
Would you sing it all staccato?
Is it sung with bounds and leaps?
Is it sung in mumbles and peeps?
Is the song most long and gangly?
Is it short and jingly jangly?
Do you play it on guitar?
Do you play it with scitar?
Does it make you swing and dance?
Does it make you nod and prance?

If so my friend you've found the cause
that makes me shirk and turn and pause.
These songs they make a fuss and scene
Just where all things should be serene.
Where soft and solemn all should be
These things blare and distract me.
They clash and clang and bash and bang.
They chatter and spatter and clatter and shatter.
They shatter the words they shatter the tone
They shatter the staid and somber zone.
They shatter the earth they shatter the sea
And I tell you now they're annoying me!

Yet such must needs not come to pass,
Just don't sing these things at mass.

I know now friend you surely ask
"In what music shall we bask?
If we sing not this repertory
Then what at mass will there be?"

Friend I tell you now don't frown:
The music we need has been passed down!
Passed down from ages long of old,
Passed down has been this flowing gold.
You can sing it sans piano,
You can sing it sans soprano.
Be ye alto, tenor or bass,
It matters not if ye sing with grace.
For sung by cantor or schola cantorum
You'll find none else with this decorum.
Gently rising, softly sloping,
Ever skipping, maybe troping,
It fits the words it fits the tone
It fits with others or alone.
It fits the mass, it fits the pace,
This music's called chant and the church is its place.

So grab your missal and chant with vigor,
Chant with love and chant with rigor.
Ord' and proper chant the mass
And chant the hours as they pass.
Chant alone or with a friend,
Chant the year from start to end.
Drop the rest. The chant will last:
The best for the future is the best from the past.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Thoughts on Sacred Music, Part III

In our first essay on Sacred Music we looked at chant and discussed some of the properties which make it uniquely appropriate for the liturgy. In our second essay we looked at one short section of the liturgy and examined its treatment by various composers. Now I would like to look at some of the choices a composer has when setting a text. In articulating and observing them it is my hope we will then be able to appreciate when composers make (and do not make) excellent and novel use of the resources at their disposal.

1. Declamation vs. Development

In setting a section of the mass a composer must choose whether he wishes merely to decorate the text or to develop the idea, that is, he must decide whether he will simply mention the idea or whether he will attempt to explore its meaning or describe. We might find a few examples to define the spectrum of choices. On the extreme of one side would be mere declamation, i.e., pronunciation of the text. Opposite might be a fugue, a dense development of the idea. In between might be plainchant, the use of sequence and repetition, and imitation. 

The texts of the mass, both ordinary and proper, provide various opportunities for the composer. Clearly some ideas seem suited to one type of treatment. For example, "Kyrie eleison," "cum Sancto Spiritu," and "Osanna" have traditionally been treated fugally and this seems both appropriate and acceptable. Why? First, they occur either at the beginning or the end of a section of the mass and a large fugal section is more suited as an introduction or conclusion than a middle. Second, the ideas are short and self contained and thus they are appropriate candidates for fugue subjects.  

Please let me note it is not my intent to map out the mass and suggest how each section ought to be set, but rather point out that the composer must first make certain considerations and then choose a course of action. The mass of course presents challenge and opportunity for composers, the greatest of whom have responded with genius. No theoretician could have predicated Bach's setting of the Crucifixus, which Forkel, Bach's first biographer, called a "crown of thorns." My reason in articulating these points is to suggest that good liturgical music will attempt to address them. Likewise when a piece fails to address these problems it will be seen to be proportionately lacking in affect.

2. Strophic vs. Through-Composed

A composer would then have to consider how he wishes to divide the text, if at all. For example, will it be  
  1. Through-composed, i.e. with unique music for each line but with little or no repetitions and doubling back.
  2. Broken up by line or phrase as seems appropriate to the composer
  3. Treated strophically, with each line or stanza set to the same music. 
Again, certain parts of the mass lend themselves to certain treatments. For example, one can compare Palestrina's through-composed setting of the Gloria in his Missa Papae Marcelli to Bach's setting in the B-minor Mass in which Bach carefully sets particular phrases to particular music. Likewise one might compare the traditional setting of the Dies Irae sequence which is strophic to Mozart's setting in his Requiem in which he groups the stanzas and then sets them.

3. Soloists vs. Choral

An individual in an audience or congregation will invariably perceive a relationship between himself and a solo singer as different from one between himself and a choir.  If a soloist sings "adoramus te" or "miserere nobis" it seems as if he is speaking on behalf of the congregation. If a choir sings them it seems as if the choir asks as an extension of the congregation. Looking at the Dies Irae sequence is instructive here also. If a soloist sings "Mors stupebit" we empathize with him as a fellow man looking at death and the effect is dramatic. If a choir sings these words the result is more descriptive and we are more affected by the sight than any personal situation. The composer must then, if he uses soloists, be aware of this difference. 

4. Time

While the issue of the passing of time does not so much affect music for the liturgy as other non-liturgical sacred music such as oratorio we ought briefly touch on the matter. In principle we may say that in an aria time seems to be still as the music explores a given moment whereas recitative and drama push the action forward. Much like the difference between a fugue which explores a particular idea and chant which declaims it, the aria describes or explores the present emotion or situation whereas the drama or recitative conveys action. A fine example of this contrast are the contrasting and adjacent pieces from Part II of Handel's Messiah. Time seems to stop in the aria "Thou art gone up on high" as the soloist repeats and reflects on the idea. In contrast, the subsequent music for chorus conveys action: The Lord gave the word. Superficially the pieces might not seem different, but how much more reflective and personal (and longer) is the aria than the choral piece? How much more emotional and suited toward sudden flights of feeling?  

5. Detail, Structure

Lastly we must note that detail must be contextualized within a large-scale structure to be understood. Only if we know the language and rules of the composer and the direction of the piece can the composer convey a sense of departure, significant action, and return. This requires attention to structure within and among movements, that is, attention to and consistency in the:
  1. passage of keys within movements
  2. tonic keys of each movement
  3. thematic material if it is repeated
  4. instrumentation
  5. setting of music for soloist or choir
  6. meter and tempo
  7. four points mentioned above
  8. use of parallelism

In setting the mass a composer will make these choices whether consciously or not. If he is not conscious of the possibilites it is hard to imagine, even if the music is competently written, that it will suit the text or that there will be any unity of affect.

Next time we will look at a famous setting of a mass and see whether its composer paid attention to these five aspects.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Thoughts on Sacred Music, Part II

In our first look at sacred music last month we discussed some concrete principals and why they functioned as the essence of good sacred music. It is, however, often said that taste is subjective. This I do concede to a point, and as an experiment I would like to make a less scientific comparison. We may say certainly that people have reactions to music but of course it is something in the music that has generated that reaction. I would like to look at a few incipits from some sacred music and briefly characterize what they suggest. I decided to use the beginnings of these pieces because they invariably receive an enormous amount of attention from the composer and they set the tone of the piece. In short, we can assume them to be the best the composer has to offer and exactly what he wants. Many musical works have weak transitions, lines, and moments, but we tend not to discuss the ones which fall out of the gate.

The incipits should briefly and perfectly capture the essence of the piece, or at least set a clear stage for development. So we may ask, then: first, do they, and second, what do they say?

N.B. I included only pieces using the Latin text of the Gloria from the Ordinary of the mass. I included the intonation of the Gloria de Angelis only once, which naturally excluded many settings which begin with the famous phrase. I have edited the chant and classical examples into the video below. The modern pieces have links to performances next to their descriptions.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Robert Levin on Improvisation

This short excerpt is from from the 1992 documentary "On the Edge," written and narrated by Derek Bailey. The clip features pianist, conductor, composer, and musicologist Robert Levin and conductor Christopher Hogwood, with the Academy of Ancient Music. Levin discusses the importance of improvisation to performance and culture, both for contemporary playing and in the classical and baroque eras.

His points are particularly relevant to our recent discussions of a living culture and music as language. I have added a short summary below the video and emphasized a few of Levin's statements as they relate to the themes we have been discussing. As usual Levin is affable, enthusiastic and gives a most illuminating talk.

Also take a look at this article from the Washington Post which discusses Levin's performance of Beethoven's first piano concerto, op. 15, earlier this year with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Part I | Part II

Levin begins by suggesting that the degree to which standardization and lack of improvisation in much modern music-making has created a lack of challenging, interesting, and unique performances.
Many of the performances are interchangeable, they're middle-of-the road, they are not challenging. They are above all concerned with the outlines of composition, but not with their inner content: neither the emotional nor the intellectual fundaments that create all of the inequalities, the dissonances, the stresses, the strains in this music.
Of course performing with improvisation and ornamentation has risks. In terms of recording, which often splices sections from different performances, not all takes will be compatible since an ornamentation in one take might clash with one from another. In terms of live performance, there is the chance the performer might in fact play a few wrong notes due either to the challenge of creating spontaneously or to the excitement it creates, or that you might offend a few people by deviating from "standard practice." Yet if more people were playing in this creative way, Levin says, people would not be willing to forgo a live performance in favor popping in a CD. They would say:
Oh its really a pity I have this CD at home since I have the same silly thing all of the time and not the sense that I have experienced a performance that belongs only to me and only to those who heard it; to be treasured forever or exchanged with another which I treasure even more. But which is fragile as this music really ought to be and not capable of replication.
Levin concludes by mentioning the fact that we have undoubtedly heard, say, Mozart's music not just more but hundreds of times more than even the composer himself ever did.  Some have become museum pieces through ceaseless repetition and a lack of flexibility in performance.
The risk of appalling a few people who hear a couple of extra notes is more than balanced by the rewards of assimilating a language and bringing it alive. We are very fortunate in that in the piano variations and in the solo sonatas we have many examples of precisely the vocabulary Mozart uses when he desires florid embellishment

You might create and like an embellishment while practicing, he says, and try it in front of an audience where it falls completely flat. Why did it work at home and not in front of an audience?
There is a truth about a performance, about playing in front of people, that transforms even the absolute identity of notes and tells you that they're right or that they're wrong. The most important thing is the willingness to take risks and the acknowledgment that doing so invests the artistic statement with a level of integrity, with a level of personality, with a level of uniqueness that nothing [else] can.
Levin concludes by discussing the interconnectedness of the nature of the music, the performance of it, and its reception by an audience.
Baroque and classical music have a texture which is peculiarly ideal in terms of an improvisatory discourse. This music, despite is occasional elaborateness on the page, has a translucency which is very much designed to allow this practice [of improvisation] that was so integral to the period to be successfully put across. One of the issues that addresses is the gap between popular and serious culture that exists in our society now which certainly was not nearly so far during Mozart's time, with folk music constantly being borrowed and used and also when the composer was much closer to the audience and catered more to the audience and calculated his music to impact upon the audience in a way that these days does not take place.

Mozart's letters talk about how he wrote a passage that he knew the audience would like and sure enough they burst into applause in the middle of the movement. Now who would dream of applauding in the middle of a movement in today's performances? However if you go to a jazz club and you hear a jazz player and the jazz player plays a great lick then everybody applauds immediately and it is extraordinary to think as you read these letters that the ethos in Mozart's concert life was exactly that that one finds in a jazz club today.

Now if we're incapable of seeing that then it shows something about the rigidity that has grown into the performance of this kind of music, which is most unfortunate.

Sprachkunst and Musical Expression

Music critic and author of "The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century" Alex Ross has an interesting article in this past weekend's The Guardian in which he ponders why so many people seem to dislike modern classical music. I would like to elaborate on a few of his points.

He seems to suggest that music is, or people who listen are, by nature more conservative. Why is modern art in other fields like literature or painting better received? He seems to praise the propaganda put forth by museums for other arts, but this translates only into popularity at best. Of course popularity is what he is talking about, but surely he would want to suggest modern music is as good as older music, not just that it is potentially as good. We'll talk about popularity again in a bit.

Ross properly notes that people are not inherently hostile to dissonance. Yet this is rather incomplete. All music makes use of dissonance, the question may simply be of means or degree. As when he writes that he learned to "acknowledge the force of dissonance" we can only beg for clarification. 

Most interestingly he writes, "All music is an acquired taste; no music is everywhere beloved." which I don't quite agree with. It seems to me to be the extreme end of a rather old debate on the nature of music. On one end of this debate is the concept of music as affektenlehre, i.e. that it is of a sort of rhetorical nature. In this theory there are stock musical components which are arranged to elicit particular reactions. It is not quite as mechanistic as it sounds but that is the essence. On the other hand is the concept of music as wholly autonomous and understandable only on its own terms.

Perhaps it would be fruitful to consider music more as sprachkunst, a term typically but not out of necessity associated with musical hermeneutics. Perhaps we can consider music as a language, one of great power but lesser ability to communicate specifics. It seems to me that the aforementioned extremes are ideologically consistent but most unhelpful. In contrast the analogy to spoken and written languages seems quite natural. In this line of thinking, some few musical tendencies are common to all people at all times, some more to particular ages, some more to particular regions, and to individuals.  Thus you might categorize a piece of music as Baroque, but you might also specify Italian or German, or you might specify further Bach or Vivaldi. So yes there are Baroque styles, Italian and German styles, and features particular to Bach and Vivaldi. The analogies to linguistic roots, families, and dialects seems to apply here also.

This framework also leaves room both for general rules about music and how we listen and for individual taste. Music is neither wholly mechanistic nor wholly esoteric. It is possible to write in Baroque style, but it is not possible to write Bach. This approach also seems more sensible when you consider that an artist, no matter how unique he is and how unusual his idiom, has to use a language of expression which is partly inherited and partly shared in order to express himself. It seems rather incredible to invent your own language and then complain no one understands you.

Ross writes, "By the time Schoenberg, Stravinsky and company introduced a new vocabulary of chords and rhythms. . ." Let me ask you this: if you met someone on the street and spoke a language of new words would you be able to understand him? Worse, what if there was no dictionary to turn to because he made them up himself? That's not really the fault of the listener now is it? Now of course and individual should have some musical education, but 1) it is not acceptable to consider "dissonant" music to be somehow inherently harder to comprehend or beyond other music, 2) one must have an incentive to learn the new language. What incentive is there? Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart have reputations which precede them as do many of their pieces. For my part, I have never heard a champion of 20th century music say, "I understand you don't like this but listen to X, it will change your mind." In contrast champions of earlier music say, "Listen to Beethoven's 5th, Don Giovanni, et cetera." If someone asks me why they should learn say, ancient Greek, I would say because you can read Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Aristophanes, and so forth." In the absence of those great works, would you take up an esoteric and complicated language, new or old?

Perhaps, if you are a composer. Yet still you must consider if the old one inferior or if are you unable to use it with the skill of your predecessors. Is the new language as capable of expression? Different languages have different rules and present different challenges and possibilities. How should the new and the old get along? We certainly want our musical culture to be alive and not simply preserved, and to achieve that the new and the old have to vie a little. Many artistic movements, musical and otherwise, came and went, never really catching on. Sometimes it is hard to say why something catches on somewhere and sometime rather than another. Take two of Mozart's operas for example. Figaro and Don Giovanni were hits in Prague but not in Vienna. Why? On account of taste, or because they were said to be complicated?

Mozart's father cautioned him against harmonic progressions which would go over the heads of listeners, but the composer maintained a balance between the esoteric and complex and the need to get people in the seats. Still his music was considered difficult. Bach was considered to have written in a depreciated or archaic style even though his harmonies were bolder than his predecessors. Both were in some respects more famous as keyboard performers than as composers. What aspects of their styles went on to be popular with audiences and emulated by composers, by whom, and when?

Maybe modern composers simply lack the cultural cachet of their predecessors. Maybe people simply don't think of classical music as a contemporary genre. Maybe its problem isn't its language but its message.

Overall I am in sympathy with Ross' complaint that good music is overlooked without good reason. I'm not at all saying modern music is bad, rather I am just saying there are understandable, unextraordinary, and probably as yet unknown reasons why it's not as popular as some people think it ought to be.

N.B. There are number of insightful thoughts in the comments section so I encourage you to take a look there.

Also, Ross writes, "What must fall away is the notion of classical music as a reliable conduit for consoling beauty." Now I appreciate his sentiment but I think he has misstated it. I think he means music should not be palliative or therapeutic, that it should enliven not dull. Indeed! Yet using the word beauty rather implies that beauty only consoles, and that being beautiful prevents a piece from being arresting. It also sort of implies that what is arresting,  purportedly "modern" music, is arresting but not beautiful, which I don't think he means.

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.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Roger Scruton on Beauty

Our need for beauty is not, I believe,a redundant addition to the list of human interests. It is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people. It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition, as free individuals, seeking our place in a shared and objective world. We can wander through this world, alienated, resentful, full of suspicion and distrust. Or we can find our home here, coming to rest in harmony with others and with ourselves. The experience of beauty guides us along this second path: it tells us that we are at home in the world, that the world is already ordered in our perceptions as a place fit for the lives of beings like us. But beings like us become at home in the world only by paying tribute to our ‘fallen’ condition. Hence the experience of beauty also points us beyond this world, to a ‘kingdom of ends’ in which our immortal longings and our desire for perfection are finally answered. As Plato and Kant both saw, therefore, the feeling for beauty is proximate to the religious frame of mind, arising from a humble sense of harmony between the world around us and the needs within, and aspiring towards the highest unity with the transcendental...
We can, at any moment, turn away from desecration and ask ourselves instead what inspires us and what we should revere. We can set ourselves on a path along which the light of beauty shines – as we do when we listen to Mozart’s opera in the quiet of our home, so rescuing it from the grip of those who would despoil it. We can turn our attention to things we love – the woods and streams of our native country, friends and family, the ‘starry heavens above’ – and ask ourselves what they tell us about our life on earth, and how that life should be lived. And then we can look on the world of art, poetry and music and know that there is a real difference between the sacrilegious, with which we are alone and troubled, and the beautiful, with which we are in company, and at home.
fr. 'The Flight from Beauty'

Monday, November 30, 2009

Movie Review: Mon Oncle

Directed by Jacques Tati. 1958.

Mr and Mrs Arpel have really everything they want, they have achieved every success, everything is new in their house: the garden is new, the house is new, the books are new. And I think they need to be warned, somebody should definitely say to Mr Arpel: “Be careful, you should not forget a bit of humour! Your son is only nine and I think you should enjoy yourself and have a good time with him.” People think it is a message but it isn’t: one should be free to say to a man who is building a house “Be careful. It might be too well-built.”
- Jacques Tati

Creating and maintaining that personal tone is perhaps Tati’s greatest achievement in Mon Oncle. Like Playtime, Mon Oncle is not a hyper-intellectualized criticism of modernity. Nor is it an unsparing critique of consumerist habits. Rather it is a wistful look back at the world Tati knew and loved, and a quizzical, apprehensive look at the one he saw replacing it.  He sets up the contrast  no sooner than the opening credits, where the camera pans down the names which are neatly typed out on a neatly designed sign at the loud construction site of a new building. In contrast, the title card is a plain old street corner from Mr. Hulot’s town, with Mon Oncle scrawled on the wall in chalk. Dogs walk by and relieve themselves on the street lamp.

That image, however inglorious, is not a bad representation of Hulot's world. It has puddles, garbage, misshapen patches of grass, cracked stones, and yes, dogs do relieve themselves. It is a lived-in world and one that reflects what the people who live there do. Tati’s town was not built at once according to one master plan, but built and changed over many years as people came and went, as families grew and people passed on. Like his house, it many ad hoc solutions, little cribs, additions, and cheats to meet a new need without destroying what was there.

Sure, it is a rigmarole to get in, but what character it has! Mismatched shutters, mixed styles, hanging laundry, and so on. One wonders many people, how many generations worked on it. It reflects the characters of those who do, and who have, lived there. It is also, of course, Hulot’s home, filled with his friends and neighbors, so why would he want to live elsewhere?

Now the Arpel’s house is certainly a contrast to Mr. Hulot’s, but not so much in terms of outcome as of intent. Sure Hulot’s apartment building is inefficient, but it was not designed with the pretension of efficiency. The Arpel’s house is designed to be the pinnacle of modern style and efficient design. The house was built according to a plan, but a thoughtless, inhuman one. The building is simply not conducive for living. Take the kitchen for example, which looks like a cross between a dentist’s office and a NASA laboratory. It has every convenience, but it is cold and unwelcoming. The appliances buzz and whirr and crank. Even something as simple as a cabinet, which might have a gentle squeak as cabinets often do, instead has been engineered into a mechanical maw which nearly has Hulot’s hand for supper.

The yard is also quite a spectacle. It is large and walled off for privacy. It is the home of a ghastly fountain that only gets turned on for visitors and this touch most epitomizes the whole situation of the Arpels: they have all of this stuff that is not really for them. They have the fountain because it is supposed to impress others or display affluence. They have all of these conveniences and time-saving appliances, and what do they do with the time they save? They spend it on more time saving devices or they spend it away from their house. Have they really thought about what they would like to do, for its own sake? Of course none of what they do is bad, really, but it looks so silly because it is not done for any particular end. Look at the yard:

It is designed into many sections and cordoned off so you are only “supposed” to walk in certain areas. Why? Look at the picture above. In the scene, the party had to move from the other side of the yard to this side to sit down and eat, but there is no room because there is no other space sectioned off “for eating.” They have this big yard and cannot use it for what they want. In the scene depicted above, which may have presaged a similar scene in Playtime that uses cars instead of people, the characters walk around that little square like a circus line, amplifying the ridiculousness of the situation. We are glad to see later, when a dog gets loose at the party, the people running around trying to catch him. We want to say, “Yes, good! Go, run over the lines! It’s your yard, you can set the rules. Have fun in it and make a bit of a mess for once!”

Hulot’s brother in law works is a similarly sterile and highly polished, impersonal world. Trying to make Hulot more like himself, Mr. Arpel asks his boss to hire Hulot. The boss’ office looks like the lair of a James Bond villain, with ceilings so high they are out of sight, strange silver chairs, a map of the world in the back, and the boss sitting at an enormous desk. While in the office, Mr. Arpel phones Hulot to offer him the job, but wherever Hulot is, music is playing and Arpel cannot hear him. In a brilliant touch, Tati lets the music take over the soundtrack, and delightfully, it is as if Mr. Hulot’s world is pouring into that big and cold room, warming it and giving it life for the first time.  Of course the company is not up to any nefarious business like world domination and that is the point, why does it look like that? Why should someone's office, where someone works, be so uninviting? Even Arpel’s briefcase, which looked chichi at home when his wife neurotically dusted it, looks warm in such a hostile atmosphere.

Indeed it is atmosphere, specifically a personable one, that lies at the heart of Hulot’s world. The Arpel’s house, for all of its order, is in fact an order imposed upon them and not by them, and their house reflects their desire to live apart from others. (Recall that cursed, clanking, buzzer-operated fence that closes off their yard.) The human relationships are the heart of Hulot’s town, for better and worse. It is human incongruities that made it mismatched and imperfect, but also the desire of its people to live there, together, that kept it together. The combination of those two elements made it unique. The film’s title suggests what Tati’s quote about the film does: the desire to remind people who choose to live the “new way” to make the human component the heart of their endeavor. Hulot’s nephew is dreadfully unhappy at home. Quite simply, it is too clean and boring and more like living in a hospital ward than a home. When he goes out with his uncle, he rides on his bike amongst the townspeople (as opposed to riding past them in a car,) he eats jam-covered crullers with extra sugar, and plays pranks on people with other boys in the town. The boy’s classic prank, and a running gag throughout the film, is to whistle at someone as he approaches a pole in order to get him to turn around and look at you and thus crash into the pole. Towards the end of the movie, the boy’s father accidentally pulls the prank on someone and the boy grabs and squeezes his father’s hand in excitement as they try to sneak away. It is a beautiful little moment and we hope his father can learn from it.

We hope he learns what Mr. Hulot has taught us, that you have to be willing to make yourself a little vulnerable and go out and live with your neighbors. Sometimes you get splashed, covered in dust, or punched in the face, but that is probably better than having nothing happen at all, the same way the folksy little “town tune” is preferable to the silence of the Arpel household. Yet there is a certain wistful sadness to Mon Oncle, for just as surely as Mr. Hulot was moving away, the old world was passing. This theme is conveyed throughout the movie by cutting to a scene of construction workers tearing down an old building with pickaxes. The town is such a character this feels a surprisingly violent act, but we should not be too alarmed. It is not really the stuff we should be concerned about. Some change is normal, like Hulot’s little neighbor who is all grown up when he leaves. We should just make sure we do not get carried away with change just because it is novel and that we never forget the human element, the humour as Tati said; and in Mon Oncle Tati is not scolding or imploring us. The tone of Mon Oncle is not that of a self-righteous spokesperson crusading for a better world or an intellectual browbeating you into accepting his aesthetic philosophy. It’s more like your neighbor leaning over your fence as you  remodel your home and saying to you, “You’re going to add what? Really? Oh. . . Really?”

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Jane Jacobs

'Constraints on materials, styles, heights, and sizes, rather than on functions; recognition of the street as the primary public space, and of pedestrians as the primary users of it; preservation of façades and street frontages, while facilitating change of use behind them: all such remedies, which are slowly emerging (for example in the renewal of Baltimore and other damaged American cities) and which have been powerfully advocated and illustrated by Leon Krier at Poundbury and by the New Urbanists in Italy and America – all owe an incalculable debt to Jane Jacobs.
But they also illustrate the way in which her own preference for "spontaneity" over "planning" cannot, in the end, be sustained. It is not planning that has destroyed the American city, but the wrong kind of planning directed towards the wrong kind of things.'

Roger Scruton
Jane Jacobs (1916-2006): cities for life


Monday, September 14, 2009

Why I Hate Modernism: The Tragedy of St. Stephen Walbrook

Three years ago, I vacationed in London for two weeks: I traveled solo, and so was able to indulge my own interests and eccentricities. One such interest was a desire to see as many of Christopher Wren's City Churches as possible. On my first visit to London, I had been in awe of the sublime beauty of St. Paul's Cathedral, and so returning years later, I wanted to see whether Wren had sustained that vision in less exalted circumstances, the design of several parish churches. 
I was not disappointed: Wren's English Baroque style is impressive on both small and grand scales. Of the many Wren churches I visited, my favorite was St. Lawrence Jewry, (the previous church had stood near the London Jewish Ghetto). Incidentally, the Church was playing host to a fine group of classical musicians when I visited, an encouraging sign. Many of the London Anglican churches hosted lunchtime or afternoon concerts.

When I visted St. Mary Abchurch, a very kind, elderly gentleman escorted me throughout the church, leading me up to the organ loft and allowing me to mount the exquisitely carved high pulpit. He was extremely knowledgeable, and had a great deal of historical and architectural lore to share. He told me that he 'motored' in from the suburbs every week, so that the church could be opened on weekdays for the visiting tourists. (During my own visit, a half-hour at least, not another tourist was to be seen. St. Mary Abchurch is one of the lesser lights in the Wren repertoire.) He'd gotten friendly with the parson a few years ago, and he had a key, and he thought it very important that such a significant building should be open. When I prepared to leave, I asked him if this was his parish church, did he come in on Sundays for service? 'No,' the old man said, 'I'm an atheist. I don't attend church.' 

The very same day I met my kindly atheist-guide, I visited several other Wren churches, including St. Stephen Walbrook.  I will not attempt to describe the revulsion I felt when confronted with the monstrosity depicted below. That very day, I became the implacable enemy of modernism and of all men who would, by subterfuge and in the teeth of a horrified opposition,  intrude their own inferior talents into a masterpiece.

That detestable object in the center of the Church is rumored to be an altar.

Christopher Alexander and the Timeless Way of Building

I'm currently reading Christopher Alexander's The Timeless Way  of Building and acquainting myself with the remarkable ideas of this very interesting thinker.

His magnum opus is his recently completed, four-volume Nature of Order, where he attempts to craft a synthesis of the various strains of knowledge that inform his own thinking: philosophical, scientific, religious, and of course, architectural. As soon as I finish Timeless Way, I'll write up my own thoughts, but for the present, here are some links to whet your appetite:

Christopher Alexander: A Biography

Christopher Alexander's website, A Pattern Language

The text of a debate between modernist Peter Eisenman and Christopher Alexander

James Kalb on Alexander 

Interview with Alexander's friend and collaborator Nikos Salingaros  

(Inner garden of the Julian Street Inn, Shelter for the Homeless,
San Jose, California)