A few days ago some of the fellows wandered down to a sports pub near Piazza Navona that televises soccer and football games from around the world. We were there to cheer on No. 18, Sage Rosenfels, the quarterback of the Houston Texans and first cousin to Lisa Sanditz, painter and wife of fellow Tim Davis.
After an early touchdown and some fancy passes from Rosenfels, the Texans began to be severely crushed by the Indianapolis Colts and their socially conservative, “I’m on the Lord’s side” coach Tony Dungy. ‘Tis the season.
When we hit halftime, a commercial for an American cellphone company came on, showing a boy filming (on his cellphone, naturally) a flip-book that he had drawn, which he then sent to his sister or lover. (I couldn’t tell—the bar was noisy.)
Suddenly a heated debate began between four of the fellows about the nature of art. It seemed like the kind of argument you’d have after your first week in art school—when you’re 18 and you’ve just suddenly realized that there are other people like you who are consumed by and passionate about their work.
Two fellows were vociferously arguing that the only art that really matters is that which is informed by mass culture, and therefore commercials (despite their message of consumerism) are important sources of inspiration. High art and low art are useless misnomers, and the avant-garde is irrelevant if not non-existent.
On the other side of the sticky bar table, between bites of our first French fries in four months, some of the other fellows pointed out that art is always being created in the shadows of successful art. The market may support only that which is close to the heart of popular culture, but that’s not to say that art isn’t being created now that won’t be understood for a generation or two. The point: We shouldn’t be preoccupied with making works that are “relevant” or “useful.”
One fellow mentioned the elusive art of Gordon Matta-Clark, only now being fully recognized for work done in the 1970s; or the sculptures of Lee Bontecou who “retired” from the art world and fell into obscurity for decades; or the work being created by mentally ill patients at the Living Museum, housed in the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center—work that has nothing to do with being culturally relevant and everything to do with facing inner demons.
And in the vein of the cellphone commercial, we have the large-scale kitsch of Jeff Koons, the Piss Christ of Andres Serrano, the pickled shark of Damien Hirst. It is art that is controversial, yet at the same time taps into pop culture and is therefore quickly digestible. What are the musical counterparts to these artists?
Musical overtones seemed obvious—Hindemith and his Gebrauchmusik for starters or, more recently, the Concertino for Cellular Phones and Orchestra by David Baker. Are these works more in touch with modern society than a Palestrina mass because, on a surface level, they deal with “relevant” modern issues? On the other hand, we are dealing with the imaginary life of tones when we talk about non-conceptual art. At a certain point, art allusions fail to translate into discussions of music. Titles are often the only part of a musical work that make any extra-musical references. Once we get these out of the way, we’re left with pure notes, and how we interpret them—whether it’s a car commercial or a piano sonata—is thankfully up to the individual.