The impotence of art theory

We also have seen a proliferation of theories and practices that aim to account for these contradictions, or to confront them from within, or to escape them by proposing or creating alternatives. I myself have long argued that the critical and political potential of art lies in its very embeddedness in a deeply conflictual social field, which can only be confronted effectively in situ. From this perspective it would seem that the apparent contradictions between the critical and political claims of art and its economic conditions are not contradictions at all but rather attest to the vitality of the art world as a site of critique and contestation, as these practices develop in scope and complexity to confront the challenges of globalization, neoliberalism, post-Fordism, new regimes of spectacle, the debt crisis, right-wing populism, and now historic levels of inequality. And if some or even most of these practices prove ineffectual, or readily absorbed, with their truly radical elements marginalized or quickly outmoded, new theories and strategies immediately emerge in their place—in an ongoing process that now seems to serve as one of the art world’s primary motors of content production.

With each passing year, however, rather than diminishing the art world’s contradictions, these theories and practices only seem to expand along with them.

Andrea Fraser, “There’s No Place Like Home” from Texts, Scripts, and Transcripts, here

On musical virtuosity

The idea of the musical ‘virtuoso’ has often been attributed to individuals who display mastery in their respective instruments, often with reference to their technical skills in matters of melody, harmony, rythym. Virtuosity has become the hallmark of musical genius, the pinnacle of every musical modernity, may it be in classical music, jazz, and to some fetishistic extent, pop music.

Yet as the virtuoso’s claim of dominance over his/her instrument of choice is not the prime element in determining his/her importance in the industry of the musical arts, so is the concept of ‘genius,’ the hero of the modern, a fragile, if not altogether defeated, concept in music. While modern virtuosos/prodigies such as Mozart and Art Tatum have undoubtedly contributed to the development of music in their respective fields, contemporary virtuosos are generally ostracized in the post-modern musical market. Words such as ‘lo-fi,’ ‘garage,’ and quite interestingly, ‘humanized’ are currently in vogue, with much credit to the anti-virtuoistic and democratizing revolutions of punk and similar movements. Musical minimalism from the likes of Philip Glass, Steve Reich and the ‘film-score generation’ of musicians have rejected the formal excesses of musical modernity. This perfectly makes sense, since Arnold Schoenberg’s mantra of ‘emancipation of the dissonance’ single-handedly dissolved centuries of classical tradition based on Bach’s well-tempered organization of tones, and even more popular genres such as rock and jazz have messed with free-jazz inspired atonality. If the logical conclusion of all musical experimentation is everything is possible, then what is left to be explored?

Interestingly, trends in critical theory have also dismantled the notion of ‘mastery’ in all arts, replacing the centuries-old concept with the idea of ‘rituals': musical practice and pedagogy have already organized even the very abstract idea of musical expression (that is why we have these so-called ‘jazz cliches,’ idioms and devices that seek to convey a particular musical idea). With music departing from a mere expression of a extemporaneous idea into a intermixing of idioms and pre-learned devices, it cannot be untrue that musical composition and performance is ‘ritualized,’ meaning the musical object has become a mere constructed object, similar to a building that cannot actualize its buildingness if built on sand. Due to this, virtuosity has become fetishized, a meaningless act carrying the prospect of profit. Rock stars like Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen and the very concept of the G3 rock supergroup capitalizes on this fetishization, producing listeners who think that any guitar player who doesn’t sweep-pick and tap is boring and unskilled. Search Youtube for the keyword “sweep-picking lesson” and you will literally thousands of lessons instructing you how to play like Malmsteen, some even selling books and materials specifically for the matter. Search Google with the keyword “how to play jazz” and you will see a lot of jazz musicians who are willing to tell you the ‘secrets’ of jazz, each promising you to sound like a legitimate jazz cat after watching the lesson. You know what happens when we spill secrets, like in the famous tv series revealing the secret behind a magician’s tricks. It spoils the fun.

It is fortunate that Philippine indigenous music was grounded on a very different musical psychology, one that doesn’t share Western music’s division between performer and audience.Indigenous music in the Philippines have a strong cultural character, meaning that a musical performance is more than a display of musical skill but a cultural act, a collective performance that gives primacy to the meaning of performance rather than the level of mastery of the individual performers. While drone music, repeatitive music, aleatoric music and other permutations of the minimalist strand have only emerged in the post-tonal stage of Western music, indigenous Filipinos have long been engaged in these types of sonic organization, all without the usual artist vs The Institution drama.

Filipino virtuosos in classical and pop music have been recognized throughout the country’s musical history, yet despite the high levels of virtuosity that these particular musicians displayed, less than few of them have garnered international recognition. This spells much the political, if not altogether economic and cultural, aspect of virtuosity: the virtuoso is Westerner’s wet dream, and those outside the circle of global musical production will only be recognized if they are truly great or they play 10 different musical instruments at a time, and are blind and poor, as the Philipppines should be. Virtuosity is inhererently a political issue, and if Filipino musicians really wanted to create something new that will distinguish them from the others, throwing virtuosity to the trash would be a start.

Lexicographical Interventions: Exam

It is a general condition of humanity to ask questions on what must be done, what is the purpose of life, what is its meaning, etc, big questions that trickle down into smaller units of inquiry, what is the best career for me, with children or no children, to resist or not to resist, etc, into further atomic subparticles of questions and questions, what must I buy, do I wake up or not, what must I do to kill this boredom, do I really love this person. This state of mind of many human beings reveals that they consider existence as a series of questions, a linear sequence of problems that require some logical practice (regardless of how logical or illogical the particular problem is), or practically, an enormous examination which can either be passed or failed. The minute we were born, older humans (our parents. as it usually is the case) applied us, without our consent, to examinations on walking, talking, shitting properly, good manners, respect, obedience of the Law. Few questioned why we have to take these exams in the first place. No one ever told us what is the prize of passing, or the price of failure.

Lorca on intellect and poetry

But intelligence is often the enemy of poetry, because it limits too much, and it elevates the poet to a sharp-edged throne where he forgets that ants could eat him or that a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head.

-Federico García Lorca, from Theory and Play of the Duende

Dostoevsky on realists and miracles

A true realist, if he is not a believer, will always find in himself the strength and ability not to believe in miracles as well, and if a miracle stands before him as an irrefutable fact, he will sooner doubt his own senses than admit the fact. And even if he does admit it, he will admit it as a fact of nature that was previously unknown to him. In the realist, faith is not born from miracles, but miracles from faith. Once the realist comes to believe, then, precisely because of his realism, he must also allow for miracles.

-Fyodor Dostoevsky, from The Brothers Karamazov, Chapter 5 “Elders”