The Emancipation of Judgment
Despite a series of extremely hot music stories that seemed ubiquitous in the final heat-filled days of July—Marin Alsop’s contested ascendancy to Baltimore Symphony Music Director, the million downloads of Beethoven, the latest Payola bust (so much for public opinion ever being on the side of the record industry), etc.—the news item that continues to capture my attention was actually about British art.
Several publications published accounts of how London’s venerable Tate Museum turned down a donation of a significant collection of paintings by a group of artists collectively known as the Stuckists, many of which were featured in an extremely popular exhibition mounted in Liverpool last year. So, I did a little surfing and visited the Stuckist site to see the paintings myself. While I was not particularly moved by any of them, I found the Stuckists’ various artistic statements rather appealing, especially the following credo at the very end of their original 1999 Manifesto:
Stuckism embraces all that it denounces. We only denounce that which stops at the starting point — Stuckism starts at the stopping point!
These simpatico sentiments have been enough for me in good tasteless fashion to actually question my initial dismissal of the paintings. While subsequent viewings (albeit in the compromised digitally pixilated format available on my computer from their website) have still not won me over aesthetically, I am even more eager to see these works in person and even more inclined to be favorably disposed to their cause if not their content.
What clinched it for me is what I believed to be unforgiveable arrogance emanating from Sir Nicholas Serota, the Tate’s director, who was quoted in the London Times as saying:
We do not feel that the work is of sufficient quality in terms of accomplishment, innovation or originality of thought to warrant preservation in perpetuity in the national collection.
Now, imagine if someone said that about your music. Well, in fact quite a few already have. Those who attempted to proscribe what music should be either for political ends (the Nazi dismissal of “degenerate art,” Stalin’s purge of “formalistic” tendencies, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, the Taliban, etc.), or for aesthetic ones whether progressive or regressive (Boulez’s infamous “Schoenberg is Dead” essay which claimed any contemporary music that is not 12-tone is useless or many classical radio stations who, after fetishizing market research, will not play any modernist-sounding music).
I have long thought that the only way to be a receptive listener to music in a world where the Schoenberg/Cage emancipation of dissonance was a fait accompli is to engage in a similar emancipation involving judgment and taste. Such a stance not only liberates dissonance but also re-embraces consonance, any kind of timbre, rhythm or lack thereof, duration, you name it. “But,” you say, “there are only so many hours in the day. How do we separate out the good from the bad? There’s no time to waste on bad music.” However, once we set up paradigms of good and bad, worthwhile and worthless, cool and uncool, we doom ourselves at best to being tomorrow’s Horatio Parker and, at worst, to being a mirror image of the very thing we claim not to let into our aesthetic purview. Perhaps that’s why in the wake of all the modernism bashing like Terry Teachout’s most recent paean to neo-romaticism in Commentary—most eye-straining line: “the twelve-tone method…is no longer practiced by any important composer anywhere in the world”—I have found myself compulsively drawn to composing serial music for the first time in my life.
But, ever trying to refrain from closing the door of possibility by rushing to judgment, maybe I’m over-reacting here by equating the Tate—a museum whose Turners and Rothkos floor me—with Joseph Goebbels or WCRB-FM in Boston. At least it’s been the source of some provocative discussions here in the Box…
I don’t have any problem that the Tate decided not to accept the Stuckists paintings. Housing and conserving artwork is an expensive endeavor, and yes, sometimes museums just have to go with their gut as to whether or not it’s worth it. I still don’t see the problem with actually having taste—or the fact that curators and other people in a position to make evaluative judgment calls about art also have taste. In fact, they should develop their opinions and learn to trust their instincts. It’s their job. One doesn’t just stumble into these positions, they dedicate themselves wholeheartedly. They spend time with artists, go into their studios, travel to exhibitions…not to mention the years of studying. Yeah, it’s fine to take their choices with a grain of salt, but maybe curators make a good filter for those of us who don’t have as strong of a commitment to the arts.
I actually like the idea of having human arbiters to decide highly subjective issues, if the arbitration process is taken extremely seriously by all parties involved, including the people affected by the arbitration. In my opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court, recent developments notwithstanding, is one of the great examples of how this kind of subjective assessment can work. The danger with arts institutions and our world in general is when the people who are charged with the responsibility of being “tastemakers” are (a) allowed to act on their own, opening up the possibility of personal eccentricities tainting the process, (b) not fully aware of the true ramifications of the decisions that they make, and/or (c) chosen haphazardly based on personal connections rather than an open process which involves the artists whose work will be judged. Personal bias may not be so harmful when we are talking about small ensembles or local music series, but when one gets to national institutions and budgets in the seven-figure range, it becomes ever more important to keep the process as clean as possible. At these levels, I feel that curating should be an honor of the highest order, treated with all the seriousness of a judge taking an oath of office. There should be procedures for censure in cases of abuses of power, and the community should have an active role in choosing the people who will decide the fate of their artistic endeavors.
What do you think? Who and what factors should determine what gets hung in a museum, what music gets funded and performed, what body of creative work makes it into the greater public awareness and ultimately into history?