Monday, 28 September 2015

Why is experimentation dated?

It is tempting in clichéd journalistic parlance to write off experimentation as dated. Its apex was the 1960s and it stubbornly persisted in some quarters in the 1970s. It is seen as a naive and juvenile enterprise. It has little substance. It is nothing more than a cold intellectual exercise in formalism.

A term dished when defining experimentation is 'avant-garde.' The meaning of the word is to radically break conventions and staid practices. In a uber-ironic post-modern art-world that can seem a little trite. The word is, in fact, a little trite. What is the point in breaking all rules when the rules have largely been broken? What's the point in offending pieties when we live in such a liberally permissive society where no-one is ever shocked anymore? Everything about the term is clichéd. The desire to destroy the past and to insult a conservative agenda is in itself conventional - and boring. Shock in and of itself, with no accompanying form or content, is vacuous and childish.

The commercial art world is laughable in this sense. It has institutionalised the avant-garde. It is now respectable to break taboos in a badly framed photographed or an inchoate painting. Many people flock to the Tate to see works by Emin and Hirst. Their work embodies the avant-garde in the way I outlined it in the paragraph above. Both Emin and Hirst mount gratuitous art objects and installations. Or photographs. Or sometimes paintings. Whatever it is they do, their output is the same. It aims to slap the viewer in the face. The viewer is unruffled as he is used to being smacked constantly by other media. The motive, though, is laudable. There is a need, it seems, to institutionalise the edgy and the offensive.

What would the avant-garde of the 1920s, 30s etc. have said about this? No doubt, they would have been horrified. Theirs was largely a clandestine operation. They were effectively terrorists, launching bombs at a po-faced art establishment. The art world, and the avant-gardism it celebrates, now is the establishment. What's more, the avant-garde in the early 20th century was, apart from the shock value, interested in just making something interesting and worthwhile. Most of the artists were poor. It was generally made because the artist felt a desire to make it. Now the avant-garde in the art world can be often be the equivalent of becoming a banker in the financial sector. You can make pots of money. Most importantly, you have to be an astute entrepeneur. You have to know how to sell your specious object.

This is a shame. The desire to experiment, regardless of its putative claims to shock or innovate, is written off altogether. Experimentation is consigned to a by-gone era in cultural history. Why is this? The commercial art world is in a bubble of its own. It is a financial sector, not really a cultural one. Experimentation in film, music and literature is often written off now.

I remember reading an obituary somewhere of the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti. It said that his career started with a bang. His music had an audience. It was trendy. Ligeti kept composing arcane pieces nobody cared about. The obituary (I never think an obituary should pass judgement on its subject in this manner, but nevermind) said something like 'The world had moved on and he hadn't.'

I find it distressing how so many people are reluctant to see modern classical music as a continuation of their Romantic forefathers. It is seen by many as an anachronistic 1950s fad. People have moved on from it.

Although post-war composers like Boulez and Stockhousen used the rhetoric of the avant-garde, their music can be seen as an addition to the canon, not an act of destruction. Boulez did heckle at supposedly passé Stravisnky concerts and did assert that the 'Mona Lisa was dead.' He largely moved on from that. Stockhausen, meanwhile, retreated into obscure reclusion. Anyway, both composers added new ideas and new ways of thinking. Their work isn't empty nor gimmicky. (Someone like John Cage might be.) On the contrary, the opposite is true. When you first hear a piece by either composer, there is a sense of sonic overload. It is packed with ideas. When you hear it for the first time, you are overwhelmed. That's part of the attraction. You hear the pieces again and again and you start to hear structures and arrangements. You wouldn't be able to understand all of it. To do that, you would have to have deep understanding of music theory and maybe have some mathematical nous. That's also part of the attraction. They're densely layered works you will never fully understand. They're not cold. They're often energysing and visceral. I find that my mind in particular is exhilarated in the intriacy behind the construction, the aggressive force with which it is played and the strange angular beauty of the voices. It's a shame that it's increasingly uncommon to place, say, a piece by Elliott Carter next to one by Bach. Both are great, so why not?

The literary novel is said to be a dying breed. I hardly think that's true. There is a lot of respectability surrounding people like Jonathan Franzen and there is quite a big market for it. The greatest attraction for literary writing is to have a very individualistic voice and world-view. Increasingly, creative writing courses spew out impeccable writers who are not particularly individualistic nor do they write with a philosophy. If they write a post-modern novel or poem, it feels like a class assignment. Avant-garde poetry and literature has always felt to me like an externalisation of your mind into something scattered. There is a formula behind that now. How could you possibly formulate that? I sense that when I see avant-garde poetry here and there.

I feel that there is less of a need now for ambitious novel of ideas. Publishers are scared. They lose money if they push for something with ambition. The current state of the world is open to myriad analysis and insights. The effective media like these have on our minds is unprecedented. Why can't we have more novels analysing all this? I am aware that there are many. The problem is that they do not seem to have as much grip on the reading classes as the work of, say, Pynchon did in the 1970s.

I'll end with a few words about film. You could say that the golden era was the 1970s. Financial backers were willing to take risks on 'auteurs' with ambitious projects. That kind of complete control is less common today. Woody Allen, Terrence Malick and Martin Scorcese are one of the few remaining directors from that generation. Many arty films hardly ever profit, so why pump money into them whilst trusting some crazy guy? The arthouse market is fragmented. That, in a sense, is a good thing. There is so much to see and there are a lot of great young filmmakers around. It's just tough to find them - unless they get the help of a distributor.

It is easy to make the assumption that art films are a relic of the 60s. Or that contemporary classical music is cold and intellectual. Or that an experimental novel cannot be compulsively readable. We do have a certain advantage over the cultural era of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Although silly chicness is present now, it does not necessarily mean that it taints the perspective of the artist. Many films from the 1960s no longer get made - and with good reason. The desire for experimentation can be seen as a far more modest one. Instead of breaking taboos and upsetting older generations, it can be seen as a way of exploring interesting ideas in a more unorthodox and idiosyncratic manner. Why should that be dated? Isn't it an impulse shared by many people who aren't even artists?

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