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…

From Randy:

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.

From Ian:

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?

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17 thoughts on “The Emancipation of Judgment

  1. post_beat

    The underlying topic of this article seems to be (just as you have pointed out) that there is a disagreement between what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art, so I’d like to comment on that a bit.

    I for one hold the belief that there are completely subjective ways of measuring a work of art’s aesthetic value. There are certain aesthetic qualities that cannot be objectively measured, (i.e. emotional, cultural significance, etc.) but I think there are ways in which we can gauge a work’s purely ‘musical’ qualities. I largely agree with Lucy Green as she categorizes two different types of meanings: inherent and delineated. Delineated meanings are those containing the social, cultural, and historical qualities of music. Inherent meanings are those taken from the organization of the musical materials themselves. Green herself explains inherent meanings like this: “[they] are ‘inherent’ in the sense that they are contained within the musical materials, and they are ‘meanings,’ in the sense that they are perceived to have relationships.” So if you apply a standard such as that, music can be objectively compared and we can call one work better than another. Of course you could continue to argue the importance of certain inherent meanings over others, but that is par for the course…

    Furthermore, I think that it is essential for each person to have some sort of concrete standard by which to compare works. As the title of my comment suggests, I am an elitist and proud of it. I have high standards for calling things ‘creative’ and ‘experimental,’ among other things. I also avidly study music of all sorts, so my elitism is a natural way of saving me from “wasting time” on “bad music.” I’d much rather study Beethoven than My Chemical Romance, because Beethoven just has more musical value. I’m not saying that you should disregard something after one hearing or forego hearing a performance because you doubt it can top some of the music you have already heard, but I do think everyone needs to critique their own experiences. At the very least, such a consideration would make you treasure the great works already created, and be astounded when something truly novel comes along.

    Reply
  2. Garth Trinkl

    In my opinion, every single one of the Stuckist painting that you link to are mediocre and derivative (I speak as a close student of the visual arts and as a collector of contemporary art). I don’t think that a single one of these works warrants hanging on the same Tate Walls that feature Blake and Turner, or Renoir, Monet, Pollack, Hepworth, or Moore. Nor do any of these works have anything like the artistic power of “degenerate” or “formalist” paintings by such master artists as Picasso, Beckman, Malevich, Kandinsky, Gorky, or Rothko. I understand the Tate director’s position in declining this donation.

    At the same time, the figurative tradition in post post modernist art is alive and well; and many outstanding new figurative works are on display at Museums from the San Francisco Fine Arts Museum to the Metropolitan Museum in New York to the museums of Germany and Vienna; or in the commercial galleries of many of these cities. Artistic taste does exist — even in parts of New York City.

    renaissance research blog

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  3. randy

    Perhaps the Stuckists need a new approach. Checkout Wired magazine’s feature on fellow British artist Banksy. You might remember this stealth trickster ruffled some feathers last fall when he hung his own artwork, without permission, on the walls of the Met, MoMA, American Museum of Natural History, and the Brooklyn Museum all in the same day. When his work “Early Man Goes to Market” mysteriously appeared at the British Museum in London, the museum decided to acquire the piece. Way to go, dude.

    Years ago in San Francisco, one of my musical colleagues was angry about the San Francisco Symphony’s so-called “Maverick” series due to its profound lack of innovation and experimentation. The idea of a guerrilla action was kicked around inside the new music community. The idea was to sneak in our instruments and disrupt the tame music, which was being presented as something totally avant-garde and forward-looking, and hit the crowd with some real scronk-n-noise. The idea alone created a mini-rift within the community, and no action was taken. Too bad, it would have been an interesting bit of theater.

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  4. catisonh

    The underlying problem to this whole mess is how to remain critical of art and yet give everyone an equal playing field. It’s the fight between elitism and elagilitarianism. I think we could all agree that all art is not created equal, but at the same time, who are we to make those judgements? And perhaps the biggest problem the post-post-modernist generation is figuring out how to decide what is good without resorting to the heavy handed generalizations that have plauged all discussion of contemporary music for such a long time.

    But what if you could just stop caring at all?

    At the concert hall, at the museum, and just about anywhere else art is being exhibited, you won’t find so much an audience as a group of amatuer critics, each trying to say what is good and bad and think himself the better for it. Sometimes it just sickens me how unyielding some audiences are to the likes of Tobias Picker or how some promodernist audience members simply refuse to enjoy Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto on a matter of principle.

    And I used to be like that too. Until I realized that my job as part of an audience is nothing other than to enjoy what art has to offer. Its amazing the release you get when you don’t care if the art is good or bad, but can just perceive with an open mind.

    Of course critics and curators don’t have this luxury. But I think they would best serve the public by allowing the widest array possible to be available. So maybe a little bad art is displayed sometimes. What could be the harm of it? Eventually, after we come to some sort of agreement on those intangables inherent in art, we’ll know the good from the bad. But right now, who cares?

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  5. Chris Becker

    Randy, what is so forward and avant-garde about skronk and noise?

    I’ll second the sentiments expressed just above this post and add that once composers let go of their preconceptions of just who should be acknowleding and recognizing their work (i.e. large museums, big orchestras, music publications…) and acknowledge and express thanks to those who DO recognize their talents (i.e. collaborators, friends, and family) – another sort of release can be experienced.

    Look, I’m definitely a cranky composer – but at some point you gotta let this debate go and just do your work and get it out to an audience yourself. DIY instead of mulling over the decision making of boards, curators, and critics. Otherwise, you’ll drive yourself crazy…

    With that in mind, maybe Randy and his buds should have gone ahead with a counter protest concert in someone’s living room or loft. Cook some food, take some donations for the next show…or did I miss the point?

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  6. randy

    Is scronk and noise forward or avant-garde? No. Not even when interrupting (or, depending on how you look at it, ornamenting) the music of Aaron Copland, Lou Harrison, Lukas Foss, David Del Tredici, Elliott Carter, John Adams, and the many other composers represented as revolutionaries and kooky radicals in SF Symphony’s Maverick series. My colleague’s problem had more to do with marketing and public perceptions rather than “Gee, why don’t they play my music?”

    I hear what you’re saying Chris, and I agree. But I still don’t have any problems with making judgments about the arts, or surrendering to the filters that museums set in motion. I also enjoy visiting artists’ studios, commercial galleries, and alternative spaces—and the Stuckists should be content to remain un-institutionalized. However, I also can’t deny my devilish impulses to make some waves…organizing a bake sale doesn’t really satisfy that streak in me.

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  7. nabu

    I think the title of Mr. Oteri’s article should be ‘Abandonment’ of judgment.

    Considering what Mr. O. said about Sir Serota’s comments, I think Mr. O. may have issues with regard to accepting criticism/authority.

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  8. JPehrson

    Well, just a thought.

    Isn’t the Tate the most prestigious modern museum in London? Aren’t there possibly other smaller contemporary museums or galleries that would have accepted this acquisition? Is it possible that the Stuckits were actually being Stuck-ups by trying to stick it in the Tate?…

    Joseph Pehrson

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  9. Frank J. Oteri

    Ah, prepositions…

    Nabu’s response above contains a point well taken. A universe of nuance can be interpreted as a result of saying “The Emancipation of Judgment” as opposed to saying “The Emancipation from Judgment,” which in retrospect might have been the more apt title.

    However, I’m reminded of a T-shirt I saw in the Reagan years that I strongly disagreed with which proclaimed, “Freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion.” For the same relativistic reasons, I’ve always found it disconcerting (an apt pun perhaps) that the implication of the “emancipation of dissonance” required an avoidance of consonance. Which is why I hear in Cage a more complete sonic emancipation than in the music of most of Schoenberg’s other students, especially in Cage’s late number pieces where major and minor triads can occur with the same lack of shame as 012 trichords and vice versa.

    Utopian though it may sound, the hope is that an emancipation from judgment will in fact yield an emancipation of judgment where listeners can experience and appreciate the widest range of musical possibilities without worrying that they are wasting their time on something that an “authority” (to once again cite Nabu above) hasn’t declared as a masterpiece. Lawrence Dillon pointed out the time and space impracticality of being able to experience all and everything and indeed someone who attempts to hear it all is doomed to a life of clutter and the sinking feeling of never being finished. Alas.

    Joe Pehrson is also right on the mark when he questions the desire for the Stuckists to be shown in a museum that is not interested in exhibiting their work. The tastemakers can only wield their power if we let them have that power and allow their decisions from preventing us to find alternative outlets. The legacy of successful composer-led concert series, ensembles, and organizations to counteract “not being allowed on the official program” is overwhelming testimony that we have the opportunity to shape our own destiny. From the Copland-Sessions Concerts to Glass and Reich’s composer-led groups, to Bang on a Can to, in fact, the Composers Concordance series which Joe co-directs, such a model is ultimately far more effective way to respond.

    The best advice to the Stuckists is to tell them to get their own museum near the Tate, lure away their visitors, and put them out of business! Although, before the screeds get pixilated here, I’d hate to see the Tate ever close shop. The Rothko room is one of the most inspiring places I can think of, but alas that’s just my personal opinion.

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  10. Frank J. Oteri

    "But is life solely about experiencing as much as you can?"

    Indeed, there is a danger of wanting to take in so much information at the expense of being able to absorb it: the whirlwind Around the World in 80 Days approach to travel versus spending time somewhere and soaking it all in.

    I confess to the lure of the 80 Days approach myself. I want to see it all. Of course, no one can see it all, and I know that you can'
    t completely see something if you don'
    t take time to stand still long enough to look at it. Some people always order the same beer, or
    always order a burger and fries, I like to try the thing on the menu I haven' t had before.

    Being a record collector, however,
    is all about rediscovery and I do frequently like to hear things over and over again. And,
    much as I like the new beer I'
    ve never had, a Guinness is always something to look forward to :)

    Reply
  11. nabu

    Aren’t we supposed to make a judgment based on an aesthetic criteria of shared values?

    Perhaps people have become so individualistic that creating an aesthetic criteria is no longer possible:

    – …It’s hard to be subversive in an age that retains no shared values to subvert.

    Geoffrey Woolf

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  12. Frank J. Oteri

    “Perhaps people have become so individualistic that creating an aesthetic criteria is no longer possible: – …It’s hard to be subversive in an age that retains no shared values to subvert.”

    Indeed, in an era of 500 cable TV channels and niche marketing, “shared values” are less and less a reality. Of course, postmodern hindsight also leads us to question whether such “shared values” ever existed beyond a small minority in the first place. There certainly was never such a thing as a pan-national consensus at any time in history and ultimately, that’s probably a good thing.

    I much prefer a world where everyone has the opportunity to establish his or her own unique voice rather than conform to someone’s preordained idea of what such a voice should be.

    As for subversion, I often wonder why that is still such a paramount goal for so many people. Indeed it seems somewhat hypocritical for someone to want there to be a status quo just in order to overthrow it. (Which is what I meant when I said before that there is an inherent danger in the usurper resembling the usurped.)

    To bring this back to purely musical concerns, some might argue that the inherent value of historical events such as Schoenberg’s “emancipation of the dissonance,” the events at Minton’s in the early 1940s that led to bebop, or the rise of AOR in the late 1960s, or works such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Terry Riley’s In C or George Rochberg’s String Quartet No. 3, is based on how they subverted the rules of what came before. But someone listening to this music now can only hear it in the context of his or her own inevitably limited exposure to what came after as well as what came before. (Is Schubert’s contribution to harmony in any way diminshed because the same modulatory tricks had already been explored before he was born by an obscure 18th century French composer named Hyacinthe Jadin, whom most people, including Schubert, probably has never heard of?)

    It is ultimately impossible to hear such music based on its subversive content. Yet we continue to judge it on those terms.

    I do not mean to imply here that there are no lessons to be learned from history. History is indeed our greatest human resource. But that history is ultimately a lot larger than the arbiters of taste would have us believe, which is why my buttons get pressed whenever someone tries to close off chapters of that history.

    Reply

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