Just Say No to Great Men

I remember when CNN aired segments on John Adams’s operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer—granted both operas had an immediate headline news angle—but nowadays it’s pretty rare for a story about the arts to show up on CNN (TV or internet), or just about any other mainstream media outlet at this point. So when a story about the discovery of a new painting by Leonardo Da Vinci made it onto CNN’s homepage, I was beside myself with delight. Then I read it.

At first I was extremely disappointed by the inanity of the majority of the reader comments. If indeed such comments are representative of the readership of CNN, then CNN is simply pandering to its readership by ignoring cultural news most of the time. Then again, if cultural news was published in mainstream media outlets more regularly, perhaps their readers wouldn’t see the rare cultural news item as an aberration worthy of their collective scorn and derision.

However, when I read the story more closely I realized that there was something fundamentally wrong with the way this story was reported. I want to make it clear that I believe what was wrong was not really the fault of Laura Allsop, the journalist who wrote the item, or even her editors at CNN, but rather the whole way culture is still—in 2011!—framed in our society. It is presented as something rarefied that only a select few appreciate and to which even fewer can contribute, the immortal geniuses who are—for the most part—no longer among us. No wonder most folks think that cultural news is something that doesn’t matter to them. Basically, the same mindset that says that an appreciation of “great music” begins with Beethoven awareness.

Two passages in Allsop’s Leonardo article stuck out in my mind as glaring examples of how we incorrectly frame art, pun intended, and in so doing prevent many people from actually appreciating it.

The painting was sold in 1958 for £45 — about $125 in today’s currency — by descendants of British collector Sir Frederick Cook, who bought the painting in 1900. Today, the painting is estimated to be worth $200 million, according to some scholars.

There are currently some 15 authenticated Leonardo da Vinci paintings in the world. But they are difficult to attribute, because da Vinci often left his works unfinished and some are thought to have been worked on by other artists in his workshops.

FJO New Office

There are just way too many things to listen to and to look at that are as worthwhile as the extremely limited number of anointed masterpieces and the rare cultural artifacts that briefly wind up in the public consciousness as the result of statistically skewed popularity contests. These discs behind me in my new office, which represent only a small fraction of recently released music, are a constant reminder of the staggering variety of what is out there.

While all of the above is factually true, the message that these sentences send is loud and clear: great art is something that is only created by great people. A non-great person does not create great art. But here’s the rub: the composition, the palette, and the brush strokes in that recently re-attributed painting are exactly the same as they were before people realized they were the work of Leonardo. Now it’s a timeless masterpiece, but that has more to do with our society—and our still not overturned aesthetic system based on the Great Man Theory—than this painting. Until we can look at a painting, any painting, or listen to a piece of music, any music, and respond personally and without the baggage of received wisdom, art will not be enjoyable and ultimately not aesthetically fulfilling.

If culture promulgation focused on the actual act of experiencing cultural artifacts—preferably focused mostly on things from our own place and time—we as a society might have a very different relationship with culture than we presently do. I contend that a far greater variety of artistic expression would reach a much larger audience. There might be a lesson to learn here from the media’s coverage of sports. Every day the mainstream media saturates us with images of excerpts of games from the local teams in whatever place we happen to be in. These are not some arcane acts done by people from faraway lands in distant times; they are acts done by people in our own community. To sports fans and non-sports fans alike, these games are news because they are happening here and now. When I walked into my office this morning I asked the doorman how his weekend was. He expressed that he was really disappointed because both the Jets and Giants lost. That blew my mind. Those games meant that much to him; the way they turned out actually ruined his weekend.

Of course that’s not ideal either. I also think it would ultimately be a mistake if we replaced the way we anoint classics with the kind of bandwagonism that continues to pervade how we absorb so-called popular culture, more than half a century after 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong. (Curious factoid, RCA used that tagline for an Elvis Presley album only a year after that not-yet-known-as-a-Leonardo painting sold for £45.) In the final analysis, popularity contests have the same effect as a canon of masterpieces on stifling each individual’s own abilities to interact with culture.

Telling us to like something, either because it has been declared a masterpiece by people smarter than us or because it is already known by everyone else (so we’d be chastised for living under a rock if we didn’t know about it), eventually turns us into the kind of folks who post inane comments on CNN message boards.

13 thoughts on “Just Say No to Great Men

  1. Phil Fried

    The scorn of anonymous bloggers is well know and can be found attached to most every news story not just about the arts. Even here. The arts, for the main stream media exist mostly as weird news; multimillion dollar painting sold for pennies etc. etc. Or as a playground for press agents and publicists with an angle. Sigh.

    I understand the need to get rid of the idea that only a “great man” (or person)can possibly create great art. The problem is what has come to replace this idea.

    Rather than praise a “great artist” who set a standard we might perhaps aspire to, we now live in the time of the “successful artist.”

    Hardly an improvement.

    Reply
    1. Jon

      “Rather than praise a “great artist” who set a standard we might perhaps aspire to, we now live in the time of the “successful artist.””

      I’m not exactly sure what you mean by this. Do you mean that nowadays things made by successful artists are given more importance? If so I don’t think that’s unique to this time period at all. I think successful artists have always given the most importance in their own time. An artist only becomes great after enough people say they’re great for a long enough period of time. In the rock and roll world, the Velvet Underground are a good example of this. Horrible record sales but enough people (and importantly, people with cultural influence) held fast to the idea that they were great and now they’re a classic rock and roll band.

      Going off of this, while I admit the whole “great man” mentality is frustrating and even silly, I’m not so sure it’s really particular to our culture and I don’t think there’s much we can do about it, I think it’s just a human thing. As much as we may not want to admit it, no art is objectively good or bad, we determine its value through context. Even outside of Western culture, there may not a be a “great man” model (Though often there still is), but there’s always going to be some measure of what art is more valuable. For example music associated with a certain place could be deemed more important that music associated with another, or music that is thought to be older is considered more important. Sorry this is rambling, in short I don’t think it’s actually possible to listen to music without baggage as you say, we can’t just block out extra-musical influences and our prior musical experiences at will.

      Reply
      1. mclaren

        This issue touches on a flash part in contemporary music twixt two irreconcilable views of music history.

        On the one hand, we have the viewpoint offered in current university music education and in popular books about current music of the recent past, particularly the 1950s through the 1970s: a pantheon of certifiably great compositions whose characteristics can be clearly defined and which are unchangeable. The Great Composers (capital G, capital C, natch) exist in an Olympean realm beyond subjective opinion. The attributes which make Great music Great don’t change. Many composers try to produce Great Music, but only a few succeed.

        On the other hand, we have the viewpoint offered by current listening habits and contemporary blogs and music criticism. Cultural relativism rules: Great Music depends on a set of ever-shifting subjective criteria. The music judged Great in one era gets dumped on in another. Music critics display biases and make ludicrous mistakes. Fads erupt in contemporary music (the exact parallel of My Little Pony or Cabbage Patch Kids dolls in pop culture) and then fade away.

        Complete relativism has some strong evidence in its favor. The obvious silliness of the fad for atonal serialism that gripped contemporary music has become obvious to all but the most tenured music profs. The bizarre praise for recent composers wholly devoid of even the most rudimentary scintilla of musical talent looks ever weirder as time passes, and their compositions languish unheard on the shelves. Many critics and prestigious institutions (the Pulitzer Prize committee, for example, and Paul Griffiths’ infamous Modern Music and After) systematically singled out for laudation a list of no-talents who have had zero lasting influence on contemporary music. Meanwhile, truly groundbreaking composers like Conlon Nancarrow and Harry Partch and Tod Dockstader and Ivor Darreg systematically got ignored.

        So there’s a good deal of evidence to support the complete relativist view.

        On the other hand, the relativism viewpoint suffers from some irremediable fatal self-contradictions and logical antinomies, and leads to a crushing dead end.

        If cultural relativism indeed offers the most accurate perspective for music history, then how do we teach music? Logically, any piece of music should do as well as any other. This grossly contradicts not only current music education practice, but the observed reality of listener prferences. We clearly observe that listeners consistently prefer some composers in certain eras to others. Bach did it better than Telemann, by and large; Beethoven’s piano sonatas are simply better than Hanon’s or Czerny’s, and audiences over the course of several centuries appear to concur in this mass judgment.

        The second problem involves the logical contradiction that we should ignore the judgment of the elites when choosing which composers to glorify. This position creates an “elite” consisting of people who are not elite, so we’ve got a catch-22. In order to ignore the judgment of the elites, we must ignore the non-elites, which means…we gotta go with the classics. Logical self-contradiction.

        Third, cognitive neuroscience and current brain scans show clearly that some compositions set off lots of pleasurable brain activity, while others don’t. The complete relativism position ignores this hard cognitive science.

        The absolutist position has some evidence in its favor too. Audiences consistently prefer certain composers and certain compositions above others. This has a long history, and goes back a long ways. Attempting to argue audiences into appreciating minor composers like, say, Louis Spohr or Arnold Bax just doesn’t work. Listeners who know nothing about music will tend to zero in on composers that critics had judged “great” and listen to them in preference to the minor figures who are marginalized in music history texts.

        Too, in order to teach music, you need to lay down criteria. If anything is acceptable in a composition, how does a teacher teach composition? (Maybe you can’t, but universities and conservatories persist in trying…) How do you teach music history without creating an implicit hierarchy by mentioning some composers and not mentioning others? (You can’t cover everyone throughout all music history!) How do you analyze musical compositions without creating an implicit hierarchy of values? (Focusing on one type of structure as opposed to others creates that implicit hierarchy.)

        Against those compelling arguments, we have the brutal reality that music critics have a savage track record of getting things wrong. Again and again, composers got effusively praised who today are simply not regarded very highly. I have an 1854 music encylopedia in my library with a pantheon on its title page marked THE GREAT COMPOSERS. And who do you think is numero uno? Handel! Weber gets second place! Bach is there, and Beethoven, but right below ‘em, there’s…Gounod! Wow. How many current music critics would rank Handel above Bach, and Gounod and Weber in the same class with Bach and Beethoven…?

        Again, the irruption of recent bizarre fads and trends in contemporary music which audiences have comprehensively rejected (incidents which come to mind include drinking carrot juice while holding a microphone to one’s throat, rolling naked women in paint across blank musical scores and playing the result, setting pianos and violins and what-have-you on fire and calling the result “music”) reminds us that there’s a huge difference twixt fads and good music. The track record on this goes all the way back to Beethoven’s “Turkish” march, which no one today judges well by comparison with his better stuff.

        To date, no contemporary music critics appear to have acknowledged, let alone resolved, this antinomy. We continue to get factions advocating absolute values and ranked hierarchies, and that’s the way music continues to get taught in universities and coservatories…yet arrayed against them we have the formidable phalanxes of the relativists, who seem to control contemporary concert programming (Bang On A Can takes overt pride in programming composeres like Babbitt and Reich in the same concert, impelling the minimalists to leave the concert hall when Babbitt gets played and forcing the set theory mavens to leave the hall when Reich gets played) and also increasingly hold sway over popular histories of contemporary music (Trevor Leighton’s Leaving Home offers a fine example of the relativist ideology in contemporary music history, as does Groves Encyclopedia of Music and Musicians and David Cope’s New Directions In Music series. Any scholarly or popular text which strives to include a wide variety of different mutually incompatible musical styles conceals an implicit relativism ideology).

        Reply
        1. Jon

          Whoa crushed me in the long post department. Was this a response to my post or the main post? Because I actually don’t think most of what you’re saying is contradicting what I said at all. I made no arguments that we should ignore the views of elites or that we should take a totally relative view of music, my claim is actually that such a view goes against human nature, people will always find a way to say one thing is better than another. However, I will stick to my view that there’s nothing objective behind saying one work of art is better than another. Your defense of an objective greatness is all based within the world of classical music, but what if you step outside that world? Imagine we went to every person in the USA and forced them to make a choice: completely remove the music of Bach, Beethoven, the classical greats from their lives, or the music of Kanye West, The Beatles, (insert other pop music great). If we did that, I promise that the classical greats would overwhelmingly be forgotten. My point here is, as much as we may love Bach, we don’t particularly need him, we need music but it doesn’t have to be Bach. Though you’re right in saying that we can’t really teach music without certain hierarchies, but I’d argue that the hierarchy we have was not the only option, it’s just the one we’re using currently.

          Lastly, you say “cognitive neuroscience and current brain scans show clearly that some compositions set off lots of pleasurable brain activity, while others don’t. The complete relativism position ignores this hard cognitive science.”

          I’d love to see this study but I’m very skeptical of calling something like this hard science, remember not long ago scientists “proved” making our babies listen to Mozart would make them smarter. With something like this there are just so many variables. For example, what’s the range of different compositions they’re playing(How many and what different styles of music)? What’s the control, that is if one piece of music sets off “pleasurable activity” and one doesn’t, how are they measuring what the difference between the two is? Also very importantly, who is listening to the music? There are so many others but basically I just can’t imagine how you could actually create a controlled experiment to determine an objective level of pleasure associated with music.

          Reply
  2. Phil Fried

    Jon I do agree with you. Yet the successful writer Edith Wharton gave financial support to the less successful Henry James and there are many other examples of this. Rossini’s deference to the aforementioned Beethoven for example. What their criteria was for assuming greatness in others I’m not sure. This is for certain; until we all agree on what greatness means –what are the qualifiers etc. the point is moot.

    Reply
  3. Matthew Peterson

    I really agree with what I think Frank is arguing for here. He wants a culture that places primacy on experiencing music, art, etc. I think that has important ramifications for the topics that are coming up in posts, including teaching, the canon, judgments of merit, influence, et al. I know that this mindset helps me in my own composition “teaching” (one of those Zen things – composition can’t be taught, but it can be learned – a teacher can therefore help a student learn). I often have students close their eyes and imagine what they want the listener/audience to experience. I find the students are usually very creative (in very different ways) when they focus on the experience, and less creative when they focus on the pitches or notation, or on what they want the music to be “like.”

    Reply
  4. Joanne Hubbard Cossa

    I was heartened last evening by seeing a several minute feature on Lawrence “Butch” Morris on BBC World News America, complete with snippets of him conducting an improvising ensemble, and talking about conduction. Then my heart sank a little when I remembered that a) our European neighbors feature culture in their coverage more frequently than we do in the US and b) that I suspect the viewer demographic for BBCWNA is vastly different than that of CNN. But anyway, cheers for new music on the news!

    Reply
  5. Joseph Holbrooke

    “Telling us to like something, either because it has been declared a masterpiece by people smarter than us or because it is already known by everyone else (so we’d be chastised for living under a rock if we didn’t know about it), eventually turns us into the kind of folks who post inane comments on CNN message boards.”

    Frank, you seem suspicious of popular opinion and our systems for choosing experts. Fair enough, they have their flaws. But it makes perfect sense to inform our own perspectives by engaging with popular and expert ideas. You can’t wish away the complexity of our culture. For many people, including myself, one of the thrilling uses for music is as a neutral play ground for navigating competing ideas. Ignoring popular trends and expert opinions would greatly diminish my experience.

    Reply
  6. Ratzo B Harris

    I think we run into something like a brick wall whenever we attempt to access extracanonical paradigms. Certainly, there is so much more than what’s made available and some of it might be of real value, but the canon so defines our worlds that we can’t live as humans without it. Really, what are human relations if not an attempt to share canons? But sometimes I wonder what music would sound like if, say, the Brandenburg Concerti were never heard, or if Duke Ellington never happened.

    Reply
  7. cathy

    I really agree with this article. there are so many factors involved in determining what music a particular person listens to in the first place, which is limited by what they have access to, what they are recommended, etc. and many of these factors, in particular i’d say what people have access to, is often determined by commercial interests. you can go even further than that and say the music that is actually made, the kinds of music, and the kinds of people who have the opportunity to make it, and end up being promoted, is affected by prejudices norms and opressions in society, so that what i end up hearing is already a distortion, or unfair, or whatever- not everyone has an opportunity to create and express themselves,which is in my view a tragedy, or millions of tragedies. but i think that when i love a piece of music,ina way this doesn’t matter, and in fact this situation is part of the reason i love the music i love so much; because i am so glad that whoever made it had the bravery and determination to do so, despite the horrendous commercialized and elitist world of culture. of course it matters for people who make or want to make music or whatever art form. and it bothers me immensely when people use the word genius or talk about things in that way. and it can be really depressing and really affect self esteem, and definitely distorts peoples dreams about where they want to go, idealising the life of highly successful artist/musician, etc, and aspiring to success on a really grand scale, in this world of everything having to be macro, from how far our food comes to how many people we want to inspire with our art in order to feel like it was worthwhile. BUT i find myself right now when i think about it just praising the lord for the fact that so many amazing musicians are brave and strong enough to do their thing anyway!

    Reply
  8. Pingback: primary and secondary experience « quiet.quiet.quiet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.