August 19, 2008


One of the more common avant-garde music kvetches is the seemingly disparately high public prominence of avant-garde painting compared to music. The usual explanation is temporal—a piece of music forces you to experience it over a given length of time, in a given order, but a painting is experienced on your own time, for as long as you want, lingering over whatever details you choose. (A while back, I speculated on the philosophical genealogy of this argued divide.) Personally? I've always found that explanation a bit suspect.

So it's an ego boost to find out that none other than Charles Baudelaire agrees with me. Kind of, anyways. Baudelaire made his initial splash as an art critic; in a long essay reviewing the Paris Salon of 1846, he rather infamously included a section explaining "Pourquoi la sculpture est ennuyeuse"—why sculpture is boring. Subject matter, mainly: Baudelaire was weary of sterile neo-classicism, an 18th-century holdover. (Baudelaire thus characterizes the sculptor Pradier: "He spends his life fattening ancient torsos, adjusting the coiffures atop their necks to those of kept women.") But sculpture itself suffers for being more primitive than painting.
La sculpture a plusieurs inconvénients qui sont la conséquence nécessaire de ses moyens. Brutale et positive comme la nature, elle est en même temps vague et insaisissable, parce qu’elle montre trop de faces à la fois. C’est en vain que le sculpteur s’efforce de se mettre à un point de vue unique; le spectateur, qui tourne autour de la figure, peut choisir cent points de vue différents, excepté le bon, et il arrive souvent, ce qui est humiliant pour l’artiste, qu’un hasard de lumière, un effet de lampe, découvrent une beauté qui n’est pas celle à laquelle il avait songé. Un tableau n’est que ce qu’il veut; il n’y a pas moyen de le regarder autrement que dans son jour. La peinture n’a qu’un point de vue; elle est exclusive et despotique: aussi l’expression du peintre est-elle bien plus forte.

Sculpture has numerous disadvantages which necessarily result from its means. Brutal and positive like nature, it is at other times vague and imperceptible, because it shows too many facets at once. It is in vain that the sculptor tries to put forth a unique point of view; the spectator, turning about the figure, might choose a hundred different points of view—all except the right one—and it often happens, which is a humiliation for the artist, that a trick of the light, an effect of the lamp, discovers a beauty not originally intended. A picture is only what it wants to be; there is no other way to regard it except on its own terms. Painting has one viewpoint; it is exclusive and despotic: thus the expression of the painter is that much more forceful.
Baudelaire privileges painting over sculpture because there's less room for the spectator's subjectivity to interfere with the artist's intent.

You might think that Baudelaire's century-and-a-half remove from the current media landscape might invalidate his priorities, but consider that film, which is even more despotic than painting in Baudelaire's terms, ended up trumping both music and painting in terms of cultural market share. The progression is towards less room for the spectator to maneuver, not more. My new BFF Walter Benjamin quoted part of the above passage approvingly, commenting, "Baudelaire makes exactly the same point about sculpture from the perspective of painting as is made today about painting from the perspective of film." And yet the current cultural landscape—fractured into millions of self-serve niches via digital technology—seems to contradict that. What does that spectator really want? To be in control? Or to be controlled? Put it another way: does 21st-century culture privilege an objective viewpoint, or a subjective one?

When I was a kid, ingesting television culture like free Froot Loops, the main framework for thinking about media in general was still that promulgated by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s, particularly in his books The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media. McLuhan famously divided media—or at least arranged them on a continuum—using categories of "hot" and "cold"; hot media included print, radio, and film, while cool media included the telephone, conversation, and, interestingly, television. Why put television and film into opposite categories? McLuhan's explanation is that hot media exclude audience participation, while cool media encourage it. Film fills in all the information the spectator needs—correlating with Benjamin's analysis vs. painting—but television presents a lower-resolution image, one that (unlike the distinct frames of film) is always in flux, lines of electrons continually scanning across the screen. For McLuhan, the increased effort needed to parse the image results in a tactile experience, the use of a greater number of sensory imaginations. (McLuhan pointed to the increased popularity of Westerns as evidence for this, the necessary presence of leather saddles, metal six-guns, horseflesh and dust dovetailing with the medium's increased tactile engagement.)

Um, okay. As interesting as that idea is, I sometimes wonder if McLuhan isn't reversing causality a bit, defining values as inherent to the medium that the medium is only reflecting. He would often point to politicians—Kennedy's successful use of TV, as opposed to Nixon or Goldwater or LBJ, all of whom were, in his analysis, too "hot" for television. From a 1969 Playboy interview:
MCLUHAN: Kennedy was the first TV President because he was the first prominent American politician to ever understand the dynamics and lines of force of the television iconoscope. As I've explained, TV is an inherently cool medium, and Kennedy had a compatible coolness and indifference to power, bred of personal wealth, which allowed him to adapt fully to TV. Any political candidate who doesn't have such cool, low definition qualities, which allow the viewer to fill in the gaps with his own personal identification, simply electrocutes himself on television—as Richard Nixon did in his disastrous debates with Kennedy in the 1960 campaign. Nixon was essentially hot; he presented a high-definition, sharply-defined image and action on the TV screen that contributed to his reputation as a phony—the "Tricky Dicky" syndrome that has dogged his footsteps for years. "Would you buy a used car from this man?" the political cartoon asked—and the answer was no, because he didn't project the cool aura of disinterest and objectivity that Kennedy emanated so effortlessly and engagingly.

PLAYBOY: Did Nixon take any lessons from you the last time around?

MCLUHAN: He certainly took lessons from somebody, because in the recent election it was Nixon who was cool and Humphrey who was hot. I had noticed the change in Nixon as far back as 1963 when I saw him on The Jack Paar Show. No longer the slick, glib, aggressive Nixon of 1960, he had been toned down, polished, programed and packaged into the new Nixon we saw in 1968: earnest, modest, quietly sincere—in a word, cool. I realized then that if Nixon maintained this mask, he could be elected President, and apparently the American electorate agreed last November.
McLuhan's analysis is spot-on, but he doesn't consider, at least here, the possibility that society is driving the media and not the other way around. McLuhan is right to point out that the technology's ubiquity does have an effect on how we subsequently interact with the world, but the "coolness" of the medium may just be an artful illusion, one that caters to a societal need or wish, one that would have been utilized whatever the medium.

There's a bit of a linguistic elision here, too. McLuhan himself refers to Kennedy's "cool aura of disinterest and objectivity," careful to characterize that as an appearance, not necessarily a fact. But there has grown up around McLuhan's ideas the sense that cooler media are more objective, that the participatory aspect somehow ensures a greater objectivity. Within the regime of "hot" and "cool" media, subjectivity becomes an assault from without. Baudelaire's "despotic" viewpoint takes on all the negative aspects of a despot.

Last week, Nico Muhly was comparing molecular gastronomy and minimalist music:
When done right, molecular gastronomy can be unspeakably evocative. There is a drink at WD-50 which consists of tequila, dried thai long chilis, and smoked pear juice, which all sounds too cool for school, until you taste it. I got the tiniest sip down and was immediately reminded of the smell of an censer a friend of my mother had sent me when I was a child: it was a little pueblo house with a couple of poncho-clad figurines standing out front of it; this same friend later wrote a book in which she analyzed gruesome fin-de-siècle crime scene photographs of mutilated bodies in Paris; all of these memories were immediately available to me on first sip.

Minimal composition, for me, should aspire to evoke similarly specific emotions; whereas Romantic music appeals to the Jungian journeys we “all” supposedly can relate to (the home, the woods, the lover, the villain), minimal music, for me, is unspecific in origin but specific and very personal in destination. You take six pitches, and oscillate between them in some sort of pattern, and one person in the audience remembers playing a broken pump organ, and another remembers a childhood spent playing underneath high-tension electric wires.
This is a description of a McLuhanesque "cool" medium par excellence: presenting a surface that seems to need filling in. The idea that Romanticism appeals to universal stories that "we all can relate to" is a refraction through a society favoring ubiquitous, "participatory" media; Baudelaire would insist that the power of Romantic art is that you are irresistibly pulled into the artist's journey, an absolutely subjective viewpoint. But that's not to say that Romantic music has to be experienced in Baudelaire's terms; each generation reinvents the past for its own purposes. Nonetheless, it points up what we perceive today as a contrast: Romantic music presents a "subjective" surface, minimalist music an "objective" one.

But then again, all music is more objective than subjective, especially if you take those terms a bit literally, to match Baudelaire's analysis: sculpture produces objects, and it's the "object"-ness of the sculpture that is the immediately perceived surface. Paintings are, of course, objects as well, but the immediately perceived surface of the painting is its subject, be that a figurative or an abstract subject. Music in general tends closer to sculpture than painting in that regard; the listener is left largely free to perceive a piece of music's status as a sonic object in time to whatever extent they wish, while even the most subjective compositional viewpoint leaves ample room for individual interpretation on the part of the listener. I caught a bit of Strauss's Don Quixote on the radio yesterday, one of the most programmatically pre-determined works in the repertoire, yet I was still struck by how much imaginative participation is invited from the listener on a moment-to-moment basis—yes, the cello is Don Quixote, but hearing that line, that phrase, what does it mean? What is he feeling at that point of the story? What are we?

Baudelaire's analysis of painting as what McLuhan would consider a "hot" medium is the exact opposite of the contrast of avant-garde painting with avant-garde music, which sets up painting as the "cool" medium, one in which the spectator retains control over the participatory apprehension of the artistic intent. Yet the experience of music remains so vague as to beg the question of which, in fact, is the more participatory medium. What if avant-garde music seems more forbidding to certain audience members than avant-garde painting because it requires too much participation, if, in McLuhan's terms, modern music really is too "cool" for school?

One more example, a tangential one. If you've watched any of the American coverage of the Olympics this month, you've been hit full-blast with NBC's penchant for human-interest background stories and endless dramaticizing hype. I'm not going to deny that it makes for good TV, but I do find it interesting that television, that supposedly "cool" medium, has taken what originated as an essentially neo-classical event—a spectacle of athletic competition, for which an in-person audience probably doesn't have very much sense of the competitors as individuals, except in isolated instances—and changed it into a rather Romantic artifact: hundreds of individual dramas of triumph, or redemption, or perseverance, or heartbreak, each of which provides pre-packaged water-cooler conversation fodder. The thing is, NBC presents this highly subjective interpretation of the games—dramatic structures and narratives imposed on the competition—with a highly objective veneer: reporters, interviews, an anchor's desk, medal counts, scores calculated to a thousandth of a point, times calculated to a thousandth of a second.

It would seem that we want the illusion of objectivity, but not the subsequent responsibility to fashion that objective data into our own subjective viewpoint. We want McLuhan's "cool" participation and Baudelaire's despotic force. We want the freedom to interpret, but the authoritarian confidence that we'll arrive at the "right" interpretation. But those wants are also in response to what society and technology present to us, and on some level, we remain unsatisfied, knowing that what's presented to us isn't entirely "true." Maybe that's why music, in spite of constantly seeming to finish second to this or that other artistic pursuit, persists with such tenacity.


Osbert Parsley said...

McLuhan writes in (I believe) Understanding Media that the "coolness" of the television medium resulted from the grainy, indistinct quality of the images on early B&W cathode-ray-tube sets. If technology improved to the point that TV had the same visual resolution as a movie screen, he wrote, they would both be classed as equally "hot".

Certainly anecdotal evidence would support this, if you compare the general mood of 1950s/60s television programs to current shows. The pace is much faster, the volume louder. There are more jump cuts. Movies still have a temperature edge on television, because of the bigger screen size, larger budgets, and the social rituals surrounding the movie theatre, but the gap has narrowed significantly.

I mention all of this only because McLuhan's categorization of TV as a cold medium is one that always raises eyebrows - if he lived today, he would probably want to correct his statement. Really glad, though, to see such a thought-provoking post and one dealing with McLuhan, who's one of my heroes.

Matthew said...

That's what I thought, too, but McLuhan never backed off that argument, and his biographer, W. Terrence Gordon, explicitly reaffirms it, even in light of HDTV technology, to refute Jonathan Miller's (yes, that Jonathan Miller) 1960s criticisms of Understanding Media. It's interesting to speculate what McLuhan himself would have made of TV, but his intellectual progeny have not seen the need to alter the argument.

I'm with you in that I think film and TV should register about the same temperature on the continuum, with allowances made for the size of both the local and simultaneous audiences. But I always thought McLuhan was being a little deliberately slippery in whether the medium or the person/object appearing via the medium was what was "cool" or "hot," in order to sidestep any need to consider content independent of technology.

McLuhan was one of the first thinkers I lived long enough to see go from on top to dismissed to back on top again, so I've always been especially fascinated by him.

Osbert Parsley said...

Huh. Serves me right not for reading the Escape into Understanding biography - it's sitting on my bookshelf.

I don't have access to my copy of Understanding Media now, but I will look for that quotation when I do, as I'm pretty sure he says in so many words that if technology improved, TV could become a hot medium. Although certainly his followers at U of T are running with his original argument - cf. the Fordham Experiment.

Unknown said...

Muhly's ret-conning of 19th Century aesthetics into Jungian collectivity, really doesn't hold up, if you think about Wagner's critique of the mimetic, Brahms's formalism, what the Impressionists were actually after, and the intense retroimposition of the absolute that to which the later half of the century subject subjected the first. Rather than the push towards the transcendental and absolute is pretty astounding, especially since he's making an argument about minimalism that is amazingly similar to the (oversimplified and inaccurate popular version of the) argument for serialism as a technique and to a lesser extent as an aesthetic. We've heard this tune before, over and over again, mostly because the people whistling haven't bothered to pay attention in class...

Matthew said...

sarble: Nico's interpretation of 19th-century music is just that, an interpretation, but I think it points up both music's amenability to such retrofitting and, also, perhaps the possible necessity of acknowledging such retrofitting. Yes, he's certainly not hearing the music as a 19th-century listener would, but none of us do, no matter how hard we try. The sort of anachronistic listening that Nico is espousing is both interesting and, I think, important, since it explores why such old repertoire still holds up, why people still seek it out.

It's the difference between serialism and minimalism that I think emphasizes the distinction that McLuhan was trying to make, in spite of their similar use of formal vocabularies. Babbitt's magic ears aside, minimalism certainly makes its structures more immediately audible, more indelibly on the surface, which is what I think encourages the listener to fill in their own subjective narrative. Serialism, because the technical framework isn't as much on the surface, seems to present more of a pre-existing narrative to us (the lack of a ready semiotic signaling of that narrative may be what bothers people about it). It's almost as if, the more "technical" the surface—the more we seem to perceive the technique of the piece—the more readily we begin to superimpose our own emotional frame. (You can get a hint of this comparing descriptions of Bach's music of varying poeticism.)

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