The Modern Arts

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Until the late nineteenth century, all of the arts (including poetry) were based on craft, on the artist’s ability to control the medium to produce a predetermined effect.  Chance plays a role in this, of course.  The “happy accident” occurs and is kept because the artist recognizes some value in it, but such accidents only occur in a context of control.  It is not true that chance should play a fundamental role in the production of art, although some art professors and critics will tell you that it is.  Control produces art:  chance produces noise, a mess, or gibberish, depending upon which art you have in mind.  Unfortunately, it is now possible for people who haven’t mastered the basic skills to represent themselves as painters and poets.  Fortunately, the case is not nearly so bad in music.


Music is rule-governed to an extent that painting and poetry are not, and it also has a more immediate effect on its hearers.  (It has even been claimed that music can directly touch the emotions—wrongly, I suspect.)  Though dissonance can serve as a kind of spice, one must have the musical notes to produce music, and the notes are themselves highly regulated sounds with distinct physical and mathematical relationships among them.  Thus, the difference between the noises heard in a factory, or in the slamming of a door, and the organization of notes heard in a concert is fundamental to our perception of music, and a hundred years of theorizing hasn’t fundamentally changed this.  Nothing of the kind is true in painting, however, and we have reached the point where the paint spilled on a painter’s drop cloth may have the same apparent qualities as the painting hung in a gallery.  (One might think that the representational character of traditional painting provides a formal basis for establishing its appeal, but theorists have perversely invented a hypothetical “aesthetic emotion” which is triggered by the painter’s marks, and which is independent of the subject matter!)


Poetry occupies the intermediate ground.  I italicized “poetry” because poetry is very rarely written any more, and the term is usually applied to prose libre (a take-off from free “verse”); as this is written, it is generally nostalgic, emotional, suggestive, vaguely philosophical, or fragmentary prose presented as “poetry.”  Some of this is thought-provoking, even moving, and it may be a valuable genre, but it remains a kind of prose because it rejects form.  For thousands of years form was what defined poetry—up until the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.  I don’t reject the new genre (prose libre), but I strongly object to the loss of an art form with an ancient history, which is now largely ignored (except in some English classes) because its name, and the prestige historically associated with it, has been adopted by those who are doing something entirely different


The dismal history that has led to all this involves the progress of the notion that “theory” can reasonably determine the course of development of the arts—thereby undermining many centuries of tradition.  One sense of the word, “theory,” (a notion) has replaced another (an accepted body of practices).  Such theorizing originates with critics, curators, college art professors and now, many “artists.”  From them it has trickled down to the public-school teachers, but despite half a century of proselytizing, the results are mixed.  Music has survived largely intact; poetry has become a prose genre; and painting has been split into two camps—modern and traditional.


One part of this breakdown of tradition has involved various notions of “self-expression” as a psychological mechanism.  This is sometimes proposed as a way of explaining why we should respect works that seem chaotic and unintelligible.  Self-expression has done very well, and has been linked to the popular notion that creativity, itself, is self-expression.  What is more, it is said by some to be a joyous, spontaneous, and natural activity.  Making art, according to many primary school teachers, is akin to having fun.


To see how absurd all of this is, let’s compare painting and poetry with music—which has remained largely unaffected (on the popular level at least).  Anyone who presents herself as a musician and performs in public will already have practiced many hundreds of hours (probably thousands) and will have listened with an appreciative but critical ear for many hundreds more.  One can hardly imagine that a person who has not mastered the fundamental skills of music would dare to perform in public.  To be sure, it is satisfying to be able to play, but this ability comes with talent, study, and practice.  It takes work to achieve it.  Remember the old joke:  “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”  “Practice, Man, practice!”


And then we have the “poet.”  A student in a college “poetry” class, a person who has never written a “poem,” and who has spent only a few hours in his whole life reading poetry of any kind, gets excited about “poetry,” and writes a “poem,” (free prose), and his friends like it, and his teacher rewards him with praise, and soon his “poems” are printed in the school’s literary magazine, and in a few months we may even hear him reciting his “poetry” to others.  How can this happen?  (It couldn’t happen if the poetry class had been teaching students traditional poetry, for that requires both talent and a great deal of hard work.)


Or the painter.  She has taken up art as an activity to relax with after work.  Her family likes her paintings, and the next thing you know the stuff is displayed at a regional festival and may occasionally be seen on the walls of a local bookstore or coffee shop.  How good is it?  The eyes in the portraits are drawn like two badly observed almonds.  The flowers are blotches of color.  Well . . . perhaps she is being expressive.  We could look at the composition, use of color, and brushwork for a hint, but a more definitive test would be to find out whether she can, in fact, paint a portrait in which the eyes are well-modeled, or a floral arrangement in which the flowers are accurately drawn?  If she cannot, her painting is surely the result of poor skills—skills both of observation and drawing.  Where is the talent needed from the start if this is to be more than a recreation?  Where is the hundreds or the thousands of hours of study and practice?


Competence and expressiveness are the criteria.  Competence is the control of the medium that allows the painter to do anything she wants, and without such control there can be no expressiveness.  What is being expressed if the artist cannot choose among effects and produce the effect that is chosen?  The amateur painter’s work is really controlled by the limitations of her skills, not by her artistic intentions.  And it requires a leap of faith to believe that she is in tune with some mysterious thing that controls the brush to produce art.


There is an unfortunate side-effect to the performances of mediocre “poets” and painters.  When people come to accept incompetent daubs or incompetent “poems” as self-expression—and thereby as art—there must also be less respect for artists of talent who have mastered the fundamental skills.


Even music has been under siege.  When I was teaching English at a large mid-western university, one of my classes was scheduled in the music building.  There were cork boards on the walls, and on them—stretching around the room—was a series of 3 x 5 cards with a musical note on a staff on one side and a picture cut from a magazine on the other.  This puzzle was explained to me by a student.  A musical composition class was held in the same room.  Students had been asked to cut out pictures they thought were interesting and paste them on cards.  Then, they were to write musical notes chosen at random on the blank sides.  They were told to bring their instruments to class, to pin the cards to the boards, and to walk around the room at random, playing a note that expressed what they felt as they looked at the picture, and turning the cards over to play the note written on the other side!

It is not surprising that this was the decade in which a “novel” was available in the college bookstore which consisted of loose pages in a box.  The purchaser was supposed to shuffle the pages before “reading.”  And of course, there were poets who went to elaborate lengths inventing algorithms to pick words at random and to place them in sequence as “poetry”—and these were published in The Paris Review and elsewhere.

The point about chance producing noise and a mess is well made by Hans Zinsser, the bacteriologist who isolated the Typhus organism, in his ground-breaking book, Rats, Lice, and History.  Zinsser, who seems to have been more influenced by Sterne than Toynbee, begins with a tirade against literary and art critics and imagines that a monkey might escape from a cage in his laboratory and have a fine time making noise by breaking glassware and by scattering colored liquids and powders—without producing either music or art.  His book, which is probably the first to look at the role of disease in determining political events, is instructive and amusing.  (His footnote to the word “saprophyte” tells the reader that if he doesn’t know the meaning of this word it is just too bad.)