modernism and high art -- 12/1/23

Today's selection -- from The Classical Revolution by John Borstlap. Modernism unintentionally killed the essence of the tradition of high art:

“Modernism, as formulated both theoretically and in terms of works of art at the beginning of the last century, was not meant to kill off tradition. As Roger Scruton writes about early modernism in his Modern Culture (1998):

“'The first effect of modernism was to make high-culture difficult: to surround beauty with a wall of erudition. The hidden purpose was twofold: to protect art against popular entertainment, and to create a new barrier, a new obstacle to membership, and a new rite of passage to the adult and illuminated sphere. To those whom modernism excluded, the movement seemed like a betrayal of the past. Tonality and tunefulness in music; the human image in painting; the pleasing dignity of metre and rhyme--even the homely comfort of a story well told--all these ways in which art had opened its arms to normal humanity were suddenly rejected, like a false embrace. To the modernists, however, the past was betrayed not by modernism but by popular culture. Tonal harmonies had been corrupted and banalized by popular music; figurative painting had been trumped by photography; rhyme and metre had become the stuff of Christmas cards, and the stories had been too often told. Everything out there, in the world of naive and unthinking people, was kitsch. Modernism was not an assault on the artistic tradition, but an attempt to rescue it. Such was the surprising thought expressed by Eliott and Schonberg, and their eloquence transformed the high culture of Europe.'

“With hindsight, it can be concluded that in so doing, modernism unintentionally killed the essence of the tradition of high art: its humanity; and in its constructivism and ideologies of progressiveness it tried to take on the appearance of science, which was, after all, to become the most spectacular endeavor of Western civilization. But art, of course, is not science, which is based upon fact, research, and theoretical speculation, which is verified by proof. Art is subjective by nature and thus operates on quite another level. As the art historian Ernest Gombrich said in an interview in 1994:

“'Objective assessments about art are not possible. In art there are debates, but objective arguments are not possible in that territory and on this point art is different from science. The reason for this is not that judgment in art would merely be a matter of taste, but because our experience of art is so closely intertwined with our culture and personal development.' (Dutch newspaper NRC 28/10/94: ‘The unexpected is trivial’)

“Music became a caricature of science and of what was perceived as progressiveness: a line of history projected into the future--and the most important yardstick of ‘value’ of ‘musical works’--thus reducing an art form that was an expression and representation of the inner life of man to a merely materialistic playground. Also it provided the tools of contempt for creations that did not meet the requirements of avant-garde conditions; music from the past was belittled as a product of people who, unfortunately, did not have the knowledge and understanding of the highly endowed present. (A residue of this quasiscientific thinking still exists in the way new classical music is sometimes treated: looked down upon as something lacking the sophistication of modernity, and its composers seen as naive children who have not as yet understood that the earth is not flat.)

Schönberg Family, a painting by Richard Gerstl, 1907

“In music, it was Arnold Schonberg who took the first step toward the drastic materialist intellectualization of the art form that would have such following in the last century. To be able to do that, he had to somehow break away from the fundamentals of the old tradition that he thought to be corrupted and outdated. Upon developing his twelve-tone music, he created the first form of a sound art that, at first, seemed to have most elements in common with music, except the basis which made art music possible at all: tonality. Much ink has been spilled over the question of what music actually is, and what tonality is. A couple of books that explore this territory can be found in the bibliography at the end of this book. For our subject, it is sufficient to conclude that tonality is the relationship in terms of resonance that exists between separate tones, a relationship made possible by the physical phenomenon of overtones. In every tone, other tones softly resonate; above the fundamental tone these overtones are in the order of octave, fifth, again octave, third, again fifth, and smaller intervals which spread out in an increasingly diffuse and faint range at the top. The closer the overtone is to the fundamental, the stronger the connection and the stronger the resonance caused by the amplitude ratios of sound. As Alex Ross formulates in his The Rest is Noise, paraphrasing Hermann von Helmhotz:

“'As the waveforms of any two simultaneous tones intersect, they create ‘beats,’ pulsations in the air. The interval of the octave causes a pleasant sensation, Helmhotz said, because the oscillations of the upper note align with those of the lower note in a perfect two-to one ratio, meaning that no beats are felt. The perfect fifth, which has a three-to-two ratio, also sounds ‘clean’ to the ear.'

“This still holds as an apt explanation of the natural, physical resonances which are possible between different notes. This type of relationship is like a force of gravity which pulls a sound toward its fundamental tone. In a musical work, a fundamental tone could be compared to the vanishing point in figurative painting: it is the point to which all the lines of perspective and all the objects in the ‘virtual’ space of the image are related, thus creating the ef feet of space in an otherwise flat surface. Our brain immediately ‘recognizes’ spatial depth where in reality there is only a flat surface, because our capacity to interpret these lines of perspective as depth is hardwired in our visual sense. In a comparable way the fundamental tone is the focus of all the relationships that operate in a piece of music at a given moment, and since music moves in time and all the different tones move according to the parameters of melody, harmony, and rhythm, they continually shift their relationship toward the fundamental tone, in continuously varying degrees of distance and strength of connection, thus creating the effect of energies moving along between fixed, less fixed, and floating positions. The result is what metaphorically could be called an ‘aural perspective’ in which the force of tonality, with varying intensities, continuously focuses upon the fundamental tone: a ‘musical space’ comparable to the quasi-physical space created by perspective in a figurative painting. The gravitational force of tonality makes the scales--the basic materials of music--possible and the simultaneousness of different tones forming a coherent unity: harmony. And it makes direct communication possible via the ear and brain, which are related to the natural phenomenon of overtone series: the difference between an octave and a second, is immediately aurally perceptible even to the most unmusical person. Our perceptive organ and the physical nature of sound are closely interrelated, as our whole body is part of nature's overall ‘design.’ Compare this to the reactions by pet animals to music or visual art: apparently, they only see the material presence of a painting and only hear the sound a musical work makes; they are not capable of seeing ‘into’ the image or hearing ‘into’ the music.”



John Borstlap


The Classical Revolution: Thoughts on New Music in the 21st Century Revised and Expanded Edition


Dover Publications


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