Contemporary Classical Composer

Notes

Reflections on Beauty: Part Two

June 2, 2022

Various critical traditions associated with left-wing politics have promoted apathy or antipathy toward beauty, beginning with Karl Marx, who planted the seeds of the idea that beauty is a distraction from the all-important aim of overthrowing capitalism. Beauty was part of the “ideology” used to validate the privilege and power of the ruling class. Marx’s twentieth-century disciple, Theodore Adorno, openly advocated ugliness in art as a form of protest against the evils of the free market. The vindictive resentment of the far left—whether justified or not—is incompatible with the experience of beauty as a self-transcendent vision. Such an experience would detract from the real end of tearing down capitalism and taking revenge on those who have benefited from it. A similar sentiment is evident in the work of more recent critics such as John Richardson, who condemned Philip Glass’ opera Akhnaten for not doing enough to oppose “the orientialist/capitalist-imperialist project” in its portrayal of ancient Egypt. The power differential between America and Egypt was the real concern. There is, however, no nationalist or imperialist mentality evident in that opera. Meanwhile, there are striking harmonies, compelling melodies, brilliant costumes, fascinating sets, and colorful orchestration—in short, much to miss if one heeds the bad critique.

Certainly some artworks reflect racism or other anti-humanist views, and the critic ought to expose it when necessary; but the critic’s job is also to use wisdom and know when charges of injustice are appropriate. Irresponsible critiques are themselves unjust. Critical theory (as it’s known) errs on this side, i.e. of projecting its concern with oppression onto the work it condemns. Critical theorists, however, are unlikely to admit the error, which they see as a virtue. One can always insist that a pencil drawing is merely two-dimensional, and refuse to admit that two-dimensions are hinting at three, and interpret the diagonal lines as mere angles. In a similar way, the critical theorist—or those infected by his claims—can always insist that the only relevant thing to behold in the art is orientalism or patriarchal oppression, etc. The cost of this fallacy is that one misses out on potentially wonderful experiences, and worse, blocks others from the same. Excellent art—not to mention the seascape, your sweetheart and so on—can and should bring joy without letting political preoccupations get in the way. The extremist’s rage against oppression, however, leaves little psychological room for the disinterested appreciation, let alone the rapt adoration, of beauty. It is a small world to live in.

For the far-left critic, art must explicitly take a political side. The artist must oppose social hierarchies in his work, on pain of being condemned as complicit with the oppressors. You’re either with us or against us, the artist is told. And if you’re with us, you’d better prove it. This mentality has the potential to imperialize the leftist’s brain, so that more and more and soon everything in his world is interpreted through the lens of power differentials. This is unfortunate, not just because it is a sad fate, but because it reflects poorly on the left. “Socialism,” wrote E.F. Schumacher, emphasizes “non-economic values,”—e.g. that which offers “moral, aesthetic, and cultural enrichment.” Socialism wisely rejects the idea that society should be built on the individual’s single-minded pursuit of material profit. Marxism and its related thought-systems, however, envision those with power and privilege on the guillotine, and demand that artists and writers throw garbage at them. This embittered mindset is in competition with the love of beauty. The better versions of socialism, however, are allied with anti-materialism. Similar distinctions can be made of the feminist and anti-racist movements, of which there are extreme kinds fueled by vindictive resentment, and reasonable kinds motivated by the commitment to, let’s say, absolute justice, to borrow again from Plato. These distinctions are important because they show that the problem is not with the left, but with the far-left—which veers into intolerance, authoritarianism, and eventually blood and brutality, as history shows.

*

The beauty we see in art, nature, and people is non-trivial. If we allow ourselves to be arrested by its power, we allow the part of ourselves to live that seeks meaning and joy. This thirst cannot be denied indefinitely in the human race, and as a result, the love of beauty which arouses and, to some extent, quenches that thirst will never disappear from human cultures.

We have not addressed another quality that we attribute to art, nature, and even people: the sublime—that which inspires awe and wonder. Beauty and the sublime have different connotations. A list of things under each heading will yield different results. For me, Beethoven’s Ninth is on both lists. But my things, of one kind or another, will differ from yours. Some of them might coincide. Any two people who share the same experiences are more than fellow-humans that owe respect to one another; they are the same kind of person

Read The First Post on this Topic

Reflections on Beauty: Part One

May 31, 2022

Last week I was enjoying the vistas of the Sonoran desert hills while the Phoenix morning air was still cool, and mentally visited the old question of whether beauty is subjective or objective—whether it exists in the mind of the observer, or is a real attribute of beautiful objects. It must be both, I thought, but how can that be? I enjoyed the rest of my hike, and when I got home I did some reading on the subject, and scribbled the following list under the heading of Beautiful Things:

  • Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony
  • Borodin’s “Notturno” from String Quartet no. 2
  • John Tavener’s “Mother of God, Here I Stand”
  • Cabanel’s Birth of Venus
  • The Bust of Socrates
  • Sedona, AZ
  • The Grand Tetons, WY
  • Cupsogue Beach, Long Island
  • Piazza Venezia, Rome
  • Every photo and video of Audrey Hepburn

While writing I was conscious that all ten of these items fall into one of the following categories: Art (music, painting, sculpture), Nature, and People. Then I thought:

Beauty is the quality that stimulates amazement and delight in me as an observer. Beauty does not exist in my brain; the pleasure it creates exists in my brain. The things listed above—they are beautiful. I respond accordingly. People like me respond similarly.

Beauty is a reflection of the face of God. It is a glimpse of that with which I yearn to be connected. God is conceived and experienced differently by different people. He is not like physical objects, the existence of which can be empirically verified. But he speaks to us through physical reality—he fills us with longing, or he longs within us, for connection with the beauty we see in the world—or rather with the deeper reality of which these are the manifestations—divine love, or in Plato’s terms, absolute beauty.

Beauty is the manifestation of divine love acknowledged by human beings, who are also manifestations of divine love. When beauty is experienced, God is seeing an aspect of himself with longing through a physical form into which he has been incarnated.

Thus the experience of beauty is different for different people. God is speaking to them differently—or being glimpsed by them through different things—or glimpsing himself through himself in different ways. Forms awaken longing or joy in the individual that possesses some kind of symmetry with it. Thus beauty is personal. But patterns emerge. Groups emerge. I and people like me emerge, who see beauty in similar things. These groups may be described as informal communities. They are Tolkien fans, supporters of the Phoenix Chorale, Arizona backpackers with REI memberships, subscribers to any number of magazines, etc. None of the individuals in these groups will experience the thing they love in exactly the same way. No doubt they will be as indifferent to strangers within the “community” as to anyone else. But the core agreement puts them into intellectual proximity and is one of the conditions of friendship. Humans are delighted to find others like themselves, who see what they see. The faster the agreement, the greater the joy of discovering the other person. Even as few as two may agree, and form an island together. They will clasp hands and affirm that their opinion is not arbitrary or coincidental, but a natural response to the excellence of the thing they love—because beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, but in the object, and similar souls acknowledge it.

*

This attempt to articulate the mystery of the experience of beauty acknowledges its transcendent quality. The individual perceives excellence outside himself or herself. This experience should not be minimized. Accordingly, we should reject the subjectivist view that makes beautiful mean nothing more than I happen to get pleasure from it; and we can reject that view without denying that people obviously have different experiences and will rank the value or impact of them differently.

The subjectivist movement of last century (not the most important intellectual phenomenon happening at the time) coincided with a decline of interest in beauty amongst the artists historically regarded as prominent—Schoenberg, Kandinsky, Cage, Warhol, etc. This hiatus could not last very long because it contradicts human nature. The longing for deeper meaning cannot disappear, and honest people are eventually bound to admit their reflections. By the end of the century there was a renewal of interest in beauty in the academy and in the arts. Of course, subjectivism remains alive, and ever-opposed to the spiritual experience of beauty as described above.

Read Part Two

Composers Need Rules

I was reading John Locke and came across this:

“For law, in its true notion, is not so much the limitation as the direction of a free and intelligent agent to his proper interest, and prescribes no farther than is for the general good of those under that law: could they be happier without it, the law, as an useless thing, would of itself vanish; and that ill deserves the name of confinement which hedges us in only from bogs and precipices. So that, however it may be mistaken, the end of the law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom…”

John Locke, Two Treatises on Government, Part Two, Chapter VI, para. 57

Of course this was stated in the context of a discussion about political power, but it reflects a larger principle, which the great composers of the past from Bach to Stravinksy and so on have duly embraced – compose within restraints, whether it’s “don’t write parallel perfect consonances” or “don’t repeat this pitch-class until these six others have been used.”

January 2, 2022

On Moral Fallacies: Why True Liberalism and Conservatism are Both Valid

A commitment to justice and a willingness to risk one’s life, livelihood, or reputation in its pursuit…These are the very qualities needed to defeat both Perverted Liberalism and Irrational Conservatism.

Long Artist Statement

I am from the United States; but artistically, I identify as closely with my Italian heritage. More importantly than my citizenship or ancestry, however, I am an idealist. Like Abraham, I look for a better country.

Artist Statement

In my work I acknowledge John Keats’ simple maxim—“Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

Karen Armstrong’s St Paul: An Epistolary Review

March 17, 2017

Last Thanksgiving a friend got me a book called St. Paul: the Apostle We Love to Hate by historian Karen Armstrong. On December 30th I emailed a response, which is pasted below, typos and all (and pictures added), as an “epistolary” review of the book.

Brad,

Hope your Christmas was fun. On the plane-ride to Italy I finished Karen Armstrong’s St. Paul. It was an enjoyable read with many insightful perspectives. I found it a convincing and informative biography with relatively little to quibble with. I’ll give a brief synopsis of my reaction to it, so you can have some Cliff Notes if you don’t have time to read it yourself…better call them Klug Notes!

1. I enjoyed, in fact loved, her characterization of the “Jesus Movement,” as inseparable from the political context in which it was birthed. She cites John the Baptist and Jesus himself in the opening chapter, describing their vision as one in which people were called to shoulder the burden of the economically oppressed, to give and receive freely, as Luke describes the believers in Acts having “all things in common.” This in contradistinction to the Roman empire which taxed laborers at extreme rates, and locked them up if they could not shoulder the burden–up to 66% of yield, she says. She quotes one historian who says that the common person under Roman patronage had two daily concerns, “shall I eat today?” and “shall I fall ill and be unable to pay my taxes?” (Think of the significance of Christ’s healing in this context!) This in conjunction with the use of crucifixion to scare subjugated peoples into obedience meant that the political system, despite it’s pretense as ushering a Pax Romana, was systematically cruel and unjust. Meanwhile, the elite in Judea, she says, were in cahoots with Rome, making matters worse.

The Roman Empire circa 100 CE

Before reading this book I remember reflecting on how Christ said, “come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”–how it cannot have been originally understood otherwise than as addressing peoples’ economic plight. And the beatitudes…blessed are the poor for they shall inherit, etc….he foretells a world order in which political injustice is abolished. This is what the prophets in the bible have always cared about. It’s a refreshing thought, especially when many in the church have made the essence of biblical tradition into a “love letter from God,” and so on.

That Jesus’ message was given to people who were faced with the reality of political/economic oppression is implicit in the Gospels, and KA’s succinct articulation of it is beautiful and worthy of remembrance. Paul, she narrates, responded to this message with his conversion, and (along w the other Apostles) carried the torch passed by J the B and Jesus before him. It was a torch she describes as “utopian” and “egalitarian.”

The conversion of St. Paul, Michelangelo, 1542-45

2. She says the consensus among historians today is that Paul did not actually write a number of the letters attributed to him in the NT, including Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thess., 1 & 2 Tim, Titus. I’m skeptical about this…I was curious and double-checked the salutations in some of these. In 2 Thess. he signs “I Paul, sign this with my own hand as I sign all my letters…” but then KA says “these were not forgeries in our sense.” Here I’ll quibble. Anyone who writes in the name of an admired sage and then signs that way is committing a forgery. I would have liked a footnote with some explanation on this point…but it was convenient to her argument that 1 & 2 Tim should not be Paul’s. Those are letter that have some of the most offensive talk about women being subject to men, etc. The biography is something of a rehabilitation of Paul…people hate him bc, for example, he is blamed for the long tradition of misogyny in the church, for condoning slavery, unconditional obedience to the government. By eliminating the letters to Timothy, KA’s job of rehabilitation is easier. But then she has to deal w I Corinthians.

3. She argues that the rule against women speaking in the assembly in 1 Cor. was probably an add-on, not by Paul himself. She argues the same for one of his exhortations to obey the ruling authorities. For me, this is possible but seems like a stretch. It reminds me of those who deny Thomas Jefferson’s involvement w Sally Hemmings…it doesn’t fit their conception of who this great man is supposed to be. They don’t want to believe it, so they go to whatever lengths necessary to come up with a reason they don’t have to believe in it. It seems like KA may be doing something similar with Paul. Indeed, I’d much rather Paul be innocent of those things, but it looks to me like agnosticism is the best stance available. KA argues that the misogynist passage is at odds with Paul’s statement in Galatians, “no more Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male female, but all are one in Christ…” that it would contradict his egalitarian ideals. I answer: indeed…people contradict themselves. My assessment of Paul, before reading this, was that he was extraordinarily progressive in many important respects (Gentiles don’t have to become circumcised, mutual racism between Jews and Gentiles should be transcended, pride in “works” of religious law is useless), but that he couldn’t let go of *all* that he had been raised to believe. And how can we expect so much of him? It’s hard to turn your back on *that* much of what you’ve been taught.

Saint Paul, by Rembrandt, 1657

4. KA argues against the idea that Paul was authoritarian. One of my personal problems with Paul as a teenager was Romans 9, where his response to the injustice of double predestination essentially amounts to “because God says so.” That, and other passages in the NT epistles, troubled me deeply, and I was ready to give up the faith (only the Gospels stayed my hand). In any case, KA doesn’t mention this Romans 9 bit, but for me it is at variance with her portrait of Paul as a de-centralist egalitarian.

5. Among the many eye-widening points she makes in the book was her comment that the specific language used to describe the Caesars in the first century was the same as that which the early Christians used to describe Christ–“savior,” “son of God,” “visible image of God.” This puts into perspective how early Christians viewed Jesus, and (I believe) how Jesus viewed himself–he is the true ruler of the world. Rulers at this time were considered divine. She says that back then the gulf between human and divine was not a big deal–gods became men and men became gods, in myth and legend. I recall in Acts someone from a crowd calls out when Herod Antipas is speaking, “it is the voice of a god, and not of a man!” This is one of several examples that put into historical context the language of scripture. It also reinforces the idea that the early Jesus followers were indeed concerned political rulership, as was the entire history of Israel in the OT.

6. I loved her emphasis of Kenosis–self-emptying love embodied by Christ’s sacrifice–and how Paul followed this example by working as an artisan after his conversion even though he was born into privilege and didn’t have to do so to make a living. He worked long and hard, and did so for others’ benefit. It’s a powerful testament to the humble character of this man, and it justifies the title of “Saint.”

Medieval Portrait of St. Paul

7. Paul’s story ends with imprisonment and unknown cause of death, and the delay of the hoped-for Parousia (second coming). KA wonders whether he died in despair. For me, his silent and uneventful passing underscores the idea that, while we hope for political salvation–world peace basically–in this world, the ultimate destination is after this life. Even if Parousia, and the concomitant deposition of unjust power, doesn’t happen in this life, the example of a self-emptying leader such as Paul does much to encourage others after him to not despair, but to, like he said, “press forward toward the mark” and “run the race set for me” so as to win.

I’ll stop here. Thanks again for sending the book over!

Hoping you’re well and that the New Year brings great things!

Greg

 

 

Review: The Triumph of Vulgarity

September 7, 2016

Vulgarity is understood to mean indecency, obsceneness, and lewdness; but this is the vulgar definition of the word. The classical meaning of vulgar is of or pertaining to the common people, unrefined, undiscriminating, and accessible to all. The title—The Triumph of Vulgarity—captures the paradoxical nature of Robert Pattison’s examination of American culture through the lens of rock—it is a refined, discriminating, and narrowly accessible discourse on music that celebrates the opposite of those qualities.

IMG_3038

Pattison contends that rock is “the music of triumphant vulgarity” and “the liturgy of vulgar pantheism.” A reflection of nineteenth-century Romanticism, rock is “America’s most powerful weapon and most successful export.” Having received the embrace of both “high” and “low” classes in less than thirty years since its inception in the American south, vulgar rock has triumphed over the long tradition of humanity’s refined culture, embodied by the work of poets and artists from Homer to Wordsworth. Pattison’s claims hold implications for culture, society and politics, and are as worthy of consideration today as when Vulgarity was published thirty years ago.

Again, the book is paradoxical. The central revelation—“vulgarity has triumphed”—personifies vulgarity, like the Nike of Samothrace, and positions it over its enemies. This personification is a kind of metaphor commonly used in Classical and Romantic literature to uncover otherwise hidden or obscured truths; but the vulgarity that has triumphed scorns such revelatory talk. Pattison writes, “Vulgar is not a word in the vulgarian’s lexicon because he has no transcendent vantage from which to make the implied distinction between the ordinary and the cultured.” That vulgarity has triumphed is not a cry of exultation before the masses, but a frank revelation—perhaps a bitingly sarcastic one—given to those who speak the language of classical poetry—the cultured and the refined. The opening lines of the first chapter capture this irony with brilliant wit.

Louvre_Victory_01b

The Nike of Samothrace

What follows is a beautifully articulated description of vulgarity and refinement, the history of pantheism, and its necessary connection with vulgarity and rock. The author’s stated methodology is “not to condemn [vulgarity], which has been done without success, but to describe it, which has yet to be undertaken.” Pattison’s description of pantheism overlaps with what some term “postmodernism” and “poststructuralism” today—“Pantheism is necessarily vulgar because it rejects the transcendence from which refinement springs, because it delights in the noisy confusion of life, and because it sacrifices discrimination to eclecticism.” The author enumerates the positive features of rock’s vulgar pantheism—infinite tolerance, personal contentment, and outrageous energy, fun, and humor.

The examination of the mythology and pantheist ideology of rock that unfolds in subsequent chapters is challenging, even-handed, and hilarious. The tone long remains objective, however momentous may be the implications of vulgarity’s triumph. In the last two chapters, the author opens his mouth for the voiceless, articulating for the rocker a defense against the Marxists, psychologists, and fundamentalists that have attacked rock. In the end Pattison rebukes his academic peers and President Reagan’s Secretary of Education who “lust after foreign models of culture,” and counsels the few American “champions of refinement” that remain to pay tribute to triumphant vulgarity, which merits no more or less respect accorded to the “prophet of vulgarity” who anticipated the spirit of rock, Walt Whitman.

Walt_Whitman_-_Brady-Handy_restored

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Make the Most of Vulgarity?

Pattison says “vulgarity is here to stay.” He asks whether we can escape the fate of Rome given “the probability that civilization cannot survive vulgarity.” He estimates that “if vulgarity is without redeeming features, then civilization is lost, because the triumph of vulgarity is assured.” In his satire of American vulgar culture, he imagines a bitter end: “Civilization would pulsate briefly in the throes of anarchy, lapse into the paralysis of overindulgence, and pass finally into the void beyond mind, taste, and decency.” Despite the apparently grim prognosis of culture, the author’s suggestion is to “make the most of it,” and appreciate what redeeming features vulgar pantheism has to offer. There is an implied fatalism in this perspective, despite the appeal of vulgar pantheism’s benefits. Paraphrasing Wordsworth, Pattison says, “We cannot stop at vulgarity unless we are prepared to die in our souls, any more than the child can prevent his growth to manhood unless he is prepared to die in his body.” To accept vulgarity without moving beyond it is to substitute death for eternal life, according to Wordsworth. But his transcendent Romanticism is dead, Pattison says. Meanwhile, the “bastard” version of Romanticism, “unwilling to grow up,” is alive and well in rock. In his commitment to ideological consistency, Pattison offers his cultured readers two unattractive choices—continue to hope in the dead vision of self-transcendent refinement, or make the most of vulgarity’s triumph. It may be that the choices are not quite so stark if traces of transcendent Romanticism can still be found even in triumphant rock.

Wordsworth Image

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

Is Rock Necessarily Solipsistic?

Pattison states frankly that rock music is self-centered, solipsistic. This is largely undeniable, but surely some songs under rock’s wing are nothing of the sort—“You’ve Got a Friend,” by James Taylor/Carol King; “Don’t Give Up,” by Peter Gabriel; “Tangled Up Puppet,” and other Harry Chapin songs about fatherhood, “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton, etc. The list is long when rock is taken as a blanket term for post-mid-century popular music. In the nineties and beyond, hip hop songs such as “Unconditional Love” and “Keep Ya Head Up,” by Tupac, “Runaway Love,” by Ludacris make the grade of “vulgar” but self-transcending popular music. If the broad definition of rock is just, then without qualification it has become the musical idiom of American culture; but though rock was birthed as a willful reaction to the moralistic strictures of “respectable” society, it is not necessarily fated to remain the music of self-preoccupied youth. Perhaps in the rock idiom there is no way to denote the sort of joy, rapture, and ecstasy that, Pattison notes, is the subject of refined works like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—and still remain rock. These qualities, indeed, belong to a world of transcendent values, which vulgar pantheism denies. But if the rock idiom is limited by a vocabulary that does not include “joy,” “rapture,” and “ecstasy,” musicians may yet denote those or similar ideas in whatever capacity the language does allow. In fact, the limitations of the vulgar language may permit a form of expression that was denied to Beethoven because his language was limited in other ways. James Taylor can informally deliver lyrics embodying brotherly love before relaxed audiences in the concert hall or living room. He can sing comfortably without projecting vibrato or displaying refined poetic craft, as a solo baritone reciting Schiller. He can use his catchy rock syncopations, warm major seventh chords, vernacular American English, and hint nothing of solipsism.

JamesTaylor

Though rock was born as the music of self-preoccupied adolescence, it may, for better or worse, move beyond that stage. Steven Tyler and the Stones celebrate rock’s myth of eternal youth—examined by Pattison—to the present day; but Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) has expressed his monist worldview using the rock idiom, and Bob Dylan has opened the Great American Songbook of his generation’s sires. These examples, of course, come decades after Vulgarity was published, but they are living proof for today’s readers that rock is not necessarily solipsistic. Old and young artists, whether a minority or no, continue to prove otherwise.

It is highly likely, however, that certain subgenres of rock lend themselves more to self-transcendent expression. “You’ve Got a Friend,” for one, belongs in the soft or folk rock categories. It is less likely that psychedelic rock or heavy metal should fall short of self-glorification. This is no pejorative comment per se. Pattison has made the case compellingly that, as vulgar pantheist, the true rocker would either welcome the indictment of solipsism with alacrity or else shrug at it with indifference. Pattison’s contention that it is impossible to make the liturgy of vulgar pantheism “respectable” must be granted—but all rock music may not constitute that liturgy.

Does Rock Music Have No Effect On Its Listeners’ Behavior?

Pattison demonstrates that rock is “impervious to the diatribes” of its accusers. Answering charges that rock correlates with violence, immorality, and crime, Pattison argues that there is a gulf between what rockers feel and what they do. Like religious believers, they can “live a full emotional life inside the myths, not in the danger of external events.”

The traditional metaphysician may argue that under true vulgar pantheism, morality disappears. The “kindness, decency, and toleration” of which Whitman was a model become matters of personal preference, and cannot logically be superior to their opposites. Thus Charles Manson cannot truly be condemned for his violent intentions and murders, apparently inspired or exacerbated by the Beatles’ proto-metal song “Helter Skelter,” because to condemn him or anyone else is to stand in the transcendent place and look down like a judge on hateful deeds—but that place is supposed to be illusory under vulgar pantheism. So the one who approves not only the mythic celebration of violence in music, but the enactment of it in the real world as something neither better nor worse than Whitman’s kindness and toleration holds the most ideologically consistent view under vulgar pantheism.

But if the rocker who maintains the moral rectitude of his Romantic predecessors is accused of contradiction for claiming “nothing is forbidden, all things are permitted,”and meanwhile holding signs that say “fuck war,” the response available to him, Pattison says, is a spate of nonsense syllables. “Rock in its vulgarity,” he articulates, “wants no part of eloquence or logic.” Whether this constitutes a defeat of the rocker’s ideology can only depend on one’s  predetermined system of values. Insofar as logical consistency and articulateness are good, the rocker loses; insofar as unfettered commitment to the expansion of infinite self is good, the traditional metaphysician loses.

Sloan_If_It_Feels_Good_Do_It

In any case, while the suggestion that rock inspires violent intentions in those who have not already entertained them may indeed remain nebulous, it cannot be that rock (or any other kind of music) is without effect on its listeners. If so, it is meaningless to speak of it as a “powerful weapon.” Pattison writes, “Any connection between rock mythology and the behavior of large numbers of people is unproven and probably unprovable.” And yet earlier he states that the rocker’s apathy toward capitalism “translates into decreasing percentages of voter participation and detachment from public debate and gainful employment;”and later he cites the marked decrease in church attendance that has coincided with the advent of rock. Whether either of these trends are good or bad, again, depends on a predetermined value-system; but if rock helps create or sustain apathy toward religion and politics, then it is not, as intuition seems to confirm, without effect on the behavior of its listeners. Its status as a powerful force is evident in the real world.

Is Civilization Doomed?

Pattison claims that rock is the product of vulgar American democracy, which is premised on self-interest and liberation from authority. In his words, the American revolutionary myth prizes the same values stressed in rock’s liturgy under the names “democracy, pluralism, individualism, limited government, manifest destiny, and civil rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” American democracy, he states, provides “an ideal setting for the growth of romantic pantheism.” Those in American leadership who wish to “save America from its own vulgarity” live in contradiction, because it is impossible to disdain vulgarity while supporting “the democracy out of which it grows.” That the political system of the United States explains the vulgarity of its popular culture is a point well taken. De Tocqueville, Pattison notes, foretold it before the Civil War, and Arthur Sullivan, he observes, trembled prophetically at the prospect of Edison’s talking machine putting great power into the hands of the vulgar masses.

CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 21: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers a speech during the evening session on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Republican National Convention kicked off on July 18. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Donald Trump (b. 1946)

Perhaps the American Experiment of democracy has proven that, especially after the Industrial Revolution, vulgarity trumps refinement; but to undercut those who would encourage American citizens, particularly children in the context of education, to move beyond vulgarity is surely fatalistic. Those whose commitment to self-transcendence is absolute may take heart that Jefferson, with Adams, envisioned an America led by the “aristocracy of virtue and talent,” that the political system is not immutable if people are willing to sacrifice for the possibility of achieving a more perfect union; they may respond to Longfellow’s exhortation in his “Psalm of Life” to summon one’s commitment to higher things, and reject the authoritarianism or moralism that serve to stoke the flames of the very vulgarity it seeks to quell. They may do all this and not be guilty of lusting after foreign models of culture. Artistically, Americans have many examples of culture-creators past and present whose work moves beyond vulgarity—Samuel Barber,  John Coltrane, Leonard Bernstein, Wynton Marsalis, Eric Whaticre, to name a few. A fatalistic response to the truths, realities, and powerful myths described in Pattison’s work is not the only response available.

TJ

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

Conclusion

Pattison’s analysis of rock as idea offers unique perspective that thinkers and creators of today ought to consider. His command of world literature and assimilation of a broad spectrum of scholarship inform the challenging discourse presented in Vulgarity. The book succeeds brilliantly in relating the underlying philosophical divisions that are reflected in contemporary music, culture, and even politics. Pattison states that, “American democracy necessarily grows more not less vulgar.” Using popular culture and the RNC as the barometer, who can deny that this statement has already proven accurate in the thirty years since Vulgarity was published? While artists, educators, and critics that still value refined craftsmanship must look squarely at the stark reality around them which Pattison has described, they may yet—perhaps they must—contribute to culture in ways that move beyond or coopt vulgarity, whether or not its broader triumph is absolute.

 

The Holographic Universe: A Review

Here is the last in my series of posts on books I read in 2015. This one packed a punch:

Michael Talbot, The Holographic Universe: The Revolutionary Theory of Reality [1991] (New York: Harper Perennial, 2011).

Reading this book is like taking a journey into space: it disorients your equilibrium and challenges you to adapt to the new conditions. The Holographic Universe is difficult to process after only one reading, but here’s a brief attempt:

First, when I first read online somewhere that the universe may be a cosmic hologram in motion, the idea appealed to my feeling that material reality is not the ultimate reality, that it is in fact only a reflection of something more fundamental, namely consciousness. Talbot makes this very case in his well-researched investigation of the holographic principle. He begins by introducing neurophysiologist Karl Pribram, whose research suggests that the brain projects and decodes information in the same way that information is encoded in and projected through a holographic screen. The reader’s next acquaintance is physicist David Bohm, whose work in quantum physics (entailing topics including “action at a distance,” the EPR paradox, and plasmons) led him to conclude essentially that the universe as a whole is a holographic “movie” projection from a deeper, more highly organized level of reality. The significance of these ideas is that objective reality is a construct of the mind.

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The rest of the book is a compendium of the supernatural, the paranormal, and the freaky. Heed well Talbot’s invitation in the introduction to keep an open mind—without one you will not get very far. The unsettling part is that the stuff he cites has been documented. I frequently found myself googling names, peoples, and personages, unwilling to yield assent—sometimes even consideration—too quickly. “Why haven’t I heard about this?” I wondered. Sure enough, there are Wikipedia articles on topics like Mirin Dajo, who had himself impaled through his vital organs without suffering harm; the Convulsionnaires of Saint-Médard, who in fits of religious hysteria, witnesses confirm, pleaded to be tortured but reported relief rather than pain, and emerged without sign of injury; the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab (PEAR) in which effects of psychokinesis—the ability to move something basically using The Force; i.e., to imagine something intently and thereby influence the outcome of actual reality—was apparently experimentally measured; Emanuel Swedenborg, who reported detailed visions of the afterlife realm as well as having interacted with the spirit-beings that dwell there, including the deceased humans; and Therese Neumann—whose name I recalled from Schumacher—a Catholic mystic who according to many witnesses ate and drank nothing for thirty-five years except the daily Eucharist. Different readers will respond differently to such accounts—which, if true, are surely paradigm-shifting. Some may categorically reject them; some may seek to explain them in natural terms; others may not want to be bothered because it would take too much time and effort to rethink their worldview; and others may become obsessed with the supernatural and seek out such experiences like the Holy Grail. To me, the best response is frankly to accept the reality of the supernatural, and, even if skepticism remains toward this or that particular anecdote, allow the paradigm to be shifted away from materialism and philosophical realism toward an acknowledgment of the power of consciousness and of the higher Levels of Being. This can be done without becoming obsessed with the supernatural, naively accepting every fairy tale, or relinquishing your “I’m no fool” card.

Talbot himself nudges the reader toward a pursuit of the supernatural. A refrain throughout the book is that the same transcendent potential exemplified by the mystics and visionaries he cites is “latent within all of us.” To some readers, religious orthodoxy may call for the censure of things mentioned in a positive light in this book: psychic readings, chakras, auras, hypnotism, shamanism, and belief in reincarnation. Whatever your views on such things may be, Talbot’s journalism logically contributes to the ultimate thesis of his work, which I happen to agree with: reality is the product of mind, or “spirit.” In the author’s terminology, the universe is “omnijective”—neither objective nor subjective, but both; a product of consciousness, but also quite real.

The idea that all reality is the product of consciousness may seem esoteric and strange, but it is nourishment to the bones of one whose faith in higher things must (in principle) harmonize with a rational view of the universe. To illustrate: Christians believe in miracles and the existence of a spiritual realm supervening this physical one. If such beliefs are warranted, what is the mode of interaction between spirit and matter? How can mountains be moved, the dead raised? The answer is no longer shrouded in mystery if material reality by definition is subordinate to spiritual agency. Matter obeys whatever spirit—endowed with much greater power than we’re used to—tells it to do. For this curiosity to be explained strengthens the credibility of faith.

Therefore, reading this book confirmed my sentiment that it is the final destiny of man and woman to transcend the limitations imposed by matter at the present level of existence, to ascend to higher Levels of Being, and ultimately to see the face of God. The empirical work of Pribram, Bohm and others is enough to encourage those who “desire a better country” beyond this world, and are committed to living this life with the attainment of that end in mind.

Reflections on Sculpture

In 2015 I nourished my appetite for aesthetic mastery by perusing, slowly but steadily, the following volume:

Georges Duby and Jean-Luc Daval, eds. Sculpture: From the Renaissance to the Present Day (Köhn: Taschen, 2006).

Sculpture has always inspired me with awe–especially realist marble representation of the human form. The masterworks in this historical survey have reignited my desire to visit Europe, particularly Italy and France where many of them are found. High on my list of sculptures presented in this anthology are Michelangelo’s breathtaking Pietà, arresting Moses, and paragon David.

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In addition to these mega-hits of world sculpture are many others that demand recognition (see my list below). The Baroque masters are described as “virtuosos,” a characterization which readily invites comparison with the art of music, and the challenge of execution it presents. This comment, and the astonishing display of skill before my eyes, caused me to wonder which of the arts may be the most difficult to master: sculpture, painting, composition, music performance, poetry, dance? Although I can speak of the travail of composition, it seemed to me that the balance leaned toward the representational graphic forms: sculpture and painting. Perhaps this suggestion is like the marveling of a musical novice hearing me play Rondo a la Turca. It is difficult to tell. But with figurative sculpture there is no forgiveness for minor mistakes. One can’t mask them with rubato or some pedal. The subtle mastery required in capturing the human form with such stunning veracity and expressivity as in the work of Michelangelo, Donatello, Bernini, Rodin, and dozens others simply defies belief.

There is grandeur in the art of sculpture. The works I am most drawn to belong to the pre-modernist age when art reflected belief in the Great Levels of Being. To the Renaissance artists, for example, “The human figure was the tangible manifestation of a higher Beauty, that of divine splendour. Thus the perfect harmonious representation of the human body was evidence of the image of God.” Profundity, awe, transcendence, brilliance—these are the qualities that command attention by the classical works featured in this volume. Below are some more of my personal favorites:

Francisque Duret: Chactas Meditating on Atala’s Tomb

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James Pradier: Odalisque

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And these:

Gian Lorenzo Bernini: Fountain of the Four RiversThe Ecstasy of St. Theresa

Augustin Pajou: Psyche Abandoned

Bertel Thorvaldsen: Jason with the Golden Fleece

Pierre-Jules Cavalier: The River Durance between allegories of Wheat and the Grapevine

Antonio Canova: Theseus Slaying the Centaur