Art and meta-art

Audrey: What Jane Austen novels have you read?

Tom: None. I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism.

Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan

One more music-related post and I’ll give it a rest for a while. I have unfavorably compared Ornette Coleman to Thelonious Monk. Monk’s music has real beauty, I have claimed, while Coleman’s does not, despite the fact that both are to some extent discordant. The reason for this, I proposed, was that artistic beauty involves (among other things) a balance of plenitude and economy or order, and that while Coleman’s music scores high on the plenitude scale, it scores too low on the economy scale. (I gave this and this as examples of Coleman’s music, and you can find plenty more on YouTube if you are so inclined.)

Still, there is order in Coleman’s music, albeit at a very abstract level; and there are people who enjoy it. So what accounts for this enjoyment? And is it evidence that my analysis is wrong? In response, let me expand upon some remarks I made in the combox discussion of my post on Richard Weaver’s critique of jazz.

As Roger Scruton has emphasized in An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, aesthetic modernism was driven in large part by a desire to avoid kitsch, the banality and sentimentality that so often attends the mass-produced culture of modern, secularized consumerist society. Accordingly, Scruton tells us, “the first effect of modernism was to make high-culture difficult: to surround beauty with a wall of erudition” (p. 85). Old forms came to be seen as exhausted, no longer capable of expressing genuine feeling; new forms had to be created (so the argument went) so that truly high art could once again be possible, forms the very understanding of which required such intellectual effort that none but the serious aesthete could appreciate them. Hence the modernist poetry of Eliot, the atonal music of Schoenberg, and the trend toward abstraction in painting.

The consequences of this were many, and (to say the least) mixed; consult Scruton for a useful analysis. The particular consequence that concerns us here, though, is that the nature of art became itself a subject of art in a way it had not been before. Modernist works were as much statements about what art is and what it could be as they were statements about their purported subject matter – religion, everyday experience, and other traditional themes – and as experimentation with new forms progressed, the former theme started to crowd out the latter ones. The manic self-referentiality of post-modernism was the inevitable sequel. Art was transformed thereby into meta-art – it became, in effect, philosophy of art expressed in colors and sounds rather than academic prose.

Now there is certainly nothing inherently wrong with a writer, painter, or musician making literature, painting or music themselves subjects of artistic exploration. But a novel about the novelist’s life or even a song about the making of song is a very different sort of thing from Art about Music or Fiction or Painting, all considered as abstractions. The more such reflection on art qua art takes center stage, the more difficult it is for this sort of thing to avoid falling into self-parody, cliché, and indeed the very banality that modernism was supposed to enable us to avoid – what in a choice phrase Scruton has called the “preemptive kitsch” of post-modernism. We can allow that a Duchamp (for instance) may have had something of interest to say. But it need be said only once, and its interest is in any event less aesthetic than theoretical, a “lecture” to be thought through rather than a thing of beauty to be savored and continually re-experienced. And even then the lecture seems interesting primarily as a reductio ad absurdum of the premises that led to it.

This, it seems to me, is why the music of Coleman – an application to jazz of the self-conscious, experimentalist spirit of modernism – fails aesthetically even if some might find it interesting and even enjoyable. The interest and enjoyment could only ever be bloodlessly intellectual, a kind of philosophical pleasure which is taken in the act of meditating along with Coleman and his sidemen on the theme of what jazz is or could be, rather than in the music per se. There is something faintly absurd, indeed perverse, in the making of such navel-gazing the theme of art. It is like watching Julie and Julia instead of having dinner, or spending one’s wedding night reading aloud passages from Love and Responsibility – all well and good in another context, but not quite what is called for under the circumstances.
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