I am reading „The Classical Revolution“ by John Bostlap and think about it (8)
The Cultural Shopping Mall: Pluralism and Choice
This is my least favorite chapter of Borstlap’s book so far. Several times during reading I wanted to call out “but this is complete bullshit!” because of its po-faced preaching of a very vague “spirituality” of things and its depiction of contemporary times in the most simple of manners (Modernism and its ugly stepson Postmodernism are bad, New Classic is good, and there is not a lot else).
This is the content of the chapter in a nutshell:
– Both concept art and sonic art are deplorable, because they understand only the “surface” of things. The same is to be said about Post-Modernism because it makes everything superficial. Modernism was of course already deplorable, and that hasn’t changed.
– It is ok to write in a past style if it is “authentic” (what defines authenticity is unexplained here).
– Ornaments in architecture wouldn’t be so bad actually.
– Classical revolutionaries are in fact the “torch bearers of a new musical century” (Page 119)
Borstlap tries to support these very flimsy and inherently vague statements with the following two main arguments:
1) In a world of “anything goes” (i.e.: now! Boo!) the true meaning of things gets lost, because artists only work with simplified “representations” grabbed from the “cultural shopping mall”, which have become de-spiritualized because they are selected only for their material and not idealistic values. Therefore presenting any particular selection from this “shopping mall” is basically meaningless, like random paraphernalia taken from an antique store.
2) The world has become so shallow and multi-cultural that a concentration on an authentic reinvigoration of your own culture would result in something akin to a healing process. This has also happened sucesfully in history (Renaissance, Pax Romana et al.)
The “Classical Composer” of refined taste (i.e. Borstlap and his friends) seeks instead to “create his own inner context based upon the tools of a tradition that suits him or her best.(sic!)” (Borstlap, Page 110).
And with this sentence Borstlap leads his own argumentation ad absurdum.
Because I ask you: what is the fundamental difference between somebody selecting a lot of different things from the shopping mall (the evil postmodern composer) or somebody selecting only a few, select things that “suit him or her best” (the good classical composer)? Is there really a difference?
Because here quantity a difference doth not make, that much is clear. If I go into the shopping mall of past styles and expressions (something that both postmodernists and new classicals are doing)…. I go into the shopping mall, period!!! I use something that already exists to express something. So why is the postmodernist evil and the classical guy good? Only because the postmodernist has taken more things from the shopping mall, has looked at more different things, styles and world views? Why is it good (or more worthy) to look at less? Wouldn’t being a good artist at any time in the history of music also mean that you are informed in as many musical languages as possible, instead of only a select few that you deem – by a dubious personal choice of pure taste, I might add – “authentic”? Mozart certainly was curious about current AND past musical trends all his life, and he was certainly a damn good composer.
Not to be misunderstood: I absolutely agree with Borstlap on one single point: one can use or adapt past musical languages to express something contemporary.
But I am not so sure if past generations where so much less “superficially multi-cultural” than our present. Europe especially experienced a lot of dramatic change during the past centuries, an ever-changing influx from a wide variety of cultures and belief-systems. How “deep” and “authentic” was Mozart’s understanding of for example African/Arab culture when he used characters like Monostatos or Osmin? How deep was his understanding of Osman culture when he wrote the “Turkish March”? Shallow at best, but this is not Mozart’s fault, but the fault of his times. But he responded to these “multicultural” influences of his time as they came along. And “The Abduction From The Seraglio” as well as “The Magic Flute” as well as the “Turkish March” remain valid and exceptionally vivid musical documents of the spirit of their times. And that is the best any composer can hope for!
Another mistake of logic lies in Borstlap’s confusion of content and intent. In Borstlap’s view the “postmodern” composer is shallow because he just presents a materialistic selection of objectified musical styles. His negative comparison in the visual arts is – of course – Andy Warhol. But does Andy Warhol’s use of images like Campbell soup cans mean that he really wanted the world to be as materialistic and shallow as possible, or is it not rather a reflection of his time by a rather sensitive (by all accounts Warhol was extremely sensitive, troubled and very, very talented in fact) artist? Time has already clearly shown that Warhol’s images – if you like them or not – are a perfect representation of the spirit of their times, and in this Andy Warhol has absolutely succeeded as an artist, much like Mozart. His famous Marilyn Monroe portrait says more about the 60’s, the hollowness and exchangeability of stardom and the cult of the public image than a lot of long-winded and boring texts by some haughty philosopher.
I would call that artistic success.
Again: showing/painting/ composing/modeling/adapting something doesn’t mean that you want to be that thing yourself or that you completely approve of it. A novelist also does not want to be a murderer if he describes a murder in his novel, that much should be obvious. But in Borstlap’s logic talking about the shopping mall also means that you ARE the shopping mall, which is a rather weird thought.
I repeat: to show the horrors of the shopping mall you have to actually ENTER THE SHOPPING MALL (like George A. Romero did in “Dawn Of The Dead”, which remains one of the most influential films of the past century and actually becomes increasingly clever, poignant and relevant to our times in hindsight, especially in this currently undead obsessed age). You cannot ignore the shopping mall because doing so means ignoring the world. And ignoring the world means that you put yourself in your own little ivory tower as an artist, which I don’t think is a very healthy strategy.
I could for example envision a very “postmodern” piece of music with radically changing styles and a very contemporary, yes, even modernist or conceptual “vibe” that wants to express exactly what Borstlap says in his book, and which is a reflection or even a critique of the “shallowness” of our times that Borstlap so laments. Isn’t Picasso’s “Guernica” also a purposefully partially primitivist and crass painting that expresses and exposes exactly these primitivist and crass tendencies in our human nature?
Again, content and intent…..two very, very different things. Welcome to the World. But if you want to change it, you have to actually be a part of it.