[-empyre-] Dylan's complicity

Simon Biggs s.biggs at eca.ac.uk
Wed Jan 13 20:27:00 EST 2010

Gabriela touches on a really important issue, highlighting an established
binary that needs to be addressed if we are to get past it. The degree to
which creativity (and art, as part of that) is a collective and/or
individual activity.

Simon Frith works in the Music Department just down the street. He is a very
smart guy and an excellent musicologist. I have never discussed this with
him and look forward to doing so. To begin, I am tempted to agree with him
on music being a collective activity, although I am not sure if I agree
about why some music might be bad. I would also happily extend his argument
to all the arts and beyond.

Dylan was criticised for playing the electric guitar because this was
regarded, by a doctrinaire audience of folk music fans, as a direct attack
on the primary criteria informing their (more or less) ideological
definition of folk music (acoustic, anti-institutional, anti-technological,
socially engaged, etc). This is an example that supports Frith¹s argument
that music (art) is a collective activity. The music they liked was ³good²
because they shared the criteria for why they liked it. It was the sharing
that made something ³good². Those criteria were embodied in the music¹s
means and content. When those criteria were fundamentally challenged by
somebody who had previously been seen as a proponent (even messiah) of their
shared value system that was considered ³bad². This evidences how people
³share² art by constructing shared value systems and the role art has in
manifesting and diffusing those values. Art is both the activity of creating
and the embodiment of shared values. In this sense art can be regarded as
performative, as it can be seen as transformative of the social. Art can be
considered, as both an activity and a set of artefacts, an essential element
in our social formation.

We could get on to the subject of how much the individual is a function of
the social here and begin to look at how what we perceive as an individual
activity might be considered as an instantiation of the social and
collective through the instance of the individual ­ but I do not want to
open up a philosophical can of worms. Let¹s just say that when we discuss
the import of art to the formation of value around the individual we need to
define what we mean by ³individual² ­ and we will find that very difficult,
in large part because we cannot even begin to function as individual human
beings without being social beings. Our primary means for self-reflection
are the same as our means of communication, which have developed out of
processes of socialisation. We are socially remediated to the nth degree.

This contextualises the other side of the argument ­ the personal,
subjective and, sometimes, transgressive requirement for art, including the
value of ³noodling². It seems that many of us (perhaps most) value art (here
I include all the creative arts, from film to architecture, dance to
literature, ceramics to code-poetry ­ and it goes beyond art, to creativity
per se) because it functions to highlight the personal through individual
expression. It is one of the few routes open to people to have their
personal point of view considered and for the collective to be challenged.
However, how does a collective that considers difference evidence of danger
accommodate this? We are all aware of the limits that are placed on personal
expression. We have already discussed morality in relation to art and issues
of self-censorship and state control have been raised.

If we understand the individual as an instantiation of the social collective
then this might go some way to reconciling what appear to be the conflicting
demands upon art. As artists we exist in communities and we can ask how such
creative communities form and through this gain insight into the social
effects and manifestations of creativity. Whilst creativity is often
perceived as the product of the individual artist it can also be considered
an emergent phenomenon of communities. As observed above, creativity can be
a performative activity released through and by a community, an activity of
exchange that enables (creates) people and communities. In this context
Dylan¹s music was not his own but totemic of a shared set of values and
beliefs. When he deviated from that doctrine he was expelled from his social
group. I doubt he looked back (he wrote a song about that, but that¹s
another story). The key is that that Dylan and his fans were equally
complicit in facilitating social change. The conflict can be considered part
of its performativity, accepting that the performative is social exchange.

This raises very interesting (and difficult) questions about social change
and the role of individuals and creativity in that. This topic is one that
is unresolved and open to debate. Just as Dylan¹s music was (is) contested
by various groups, with their own agendas, this question will be as well.
It¹s a loaded topic.

Reconsidering the basic thesis of Frith¹s argument, that art is a collective
activity, I still tend to agree with him, so long as the question of what an
individual can be is actively unpacked.



Simon Biggs

Research Professor
edinburgh college of art
s.biggs at eca.ac.uk

Creative Interdisciplinary Research into CoLlaborative Environments
CIRCLE research group

simon at littlepig.org.uk
AIM/Skype: simonbiggsuk

From: Gabriela Vargas-Cetina <gabyvargasc at prodigy.net.mx>
Reply-To: soft_skinned_space <empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au>
Date: Tue, 12 Jan 2010 12:13:56 -0600
To: soft_skinned_space <empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au>
Cc: "jhaber at haberarts.com" <jhaber at haberarts.com>
Subject: Re: [-empyre-] empyre Digest, Vol 62, Issue 13

Hello.  This is a great discussion, thank you!  Happy New Year to you all.

I have been reading since yesterday a book called "Bad Music.  The Music We
Love to Hate" (Christopher J. Washburne and Maiken Derno, eds.  Routledge
2004).  The opening chapter, by Simon Frith, discusses what "bad music"
could be, from several perspectives, and some of his points are very
relevant to the current discussion.

One of Frith's main conclusions is that "bad music" is music that has a
negative emotional effect on the listeners and/or concert audiences, often
because it generates feelings of anger (p.31): 1. "Anger that other people
are enjoying something not worthy of enjoyment"; 2. "Anger that performers
or composers are betraying their talent" and 3. "Anger that a performer or
composer or record company is dishonouring music by corrupting its original
integrity".  People find music, in all these cases, to be insulting.  He
gives the following examples:

(1) a performer plays in a sloppy way the audience feels cheated because the
performer in question did not practice enough and the audience deserves top
chops; (2) a musician composes/plays something the audience considers
beneath themselves; here he makes reference to the famous first performance
of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," where he included sounds not considered
then part of 'classical music' and the audience felt they were being mocked,
and Bob Dylan's concert at Free Trade's Hall in 1966, when he played the
electric guitar for the first time and the audience felt he was 'selling
out' (I'm an electric guitar player and can't quite comprehend why playing
the electric guitar means 'selling out' but that is beside the point here);
(3) the band uses a pre-recorded track, for example a drum machine, in a
live show, and (4) the composer/musician has created music mainly for him or
herself and does not care if the audience can't comprehend it.  This latter
point was most interesting to me, because Frith sees audiences'
understanding of music as a collective activity.

Artists who don't rely on bands or who are not intent on communicating
('therapy' musicians, who play only to relax themselves, for example) are
often accused of making 'bad music', whether or not they are proficient
musicians.  This is because their art is not trying to communicate, but only
to soothe the musician's mind.

As a musician, (I guess a 'therapy' musician in these terms) I find this
difficult to accept, even if as an anthropologist I find it logical and even
'natural' to a large extent; so far, all humans everywhere have been found
to expect other humans to be part of groups.  Art, however, could, and
probably should be something that comes out of oneself for its own sake.  If
the musician or composer finds no gratification or no real expression in
what s/he is doing, then his or her performance hardly qualifies as art.
Yes, as a social scientist I agree that there is a social dimension to art,
but as a musician I believe that there has to be a personal dimension;
otherwise all art would be variations of the same.

Gabriela Vargas-Cetina

Gabriela Vargas-Cetina
Professor of Anthropology
Facultad de Ciencias Antropológicas
Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán
Campus de Ciencias Sociales
Carretera a Tizimín Km. 1
Mérida, Yucatan 97305
Tel. +52 999 930 0090
gvcetina at uady.mx

On 1/12/10 11:19 AM, "davin heckman" <davinheckman at gmail.com> wrote:

> This is shaping up to be an interesting week on Empyre.  Thank you, everyone.
> Sometimes, I think it is good to think about art, politics, criticism,
> theory, morality, etc. from a naive perspective, a sort of psychic
> backtracking, so that we follow the paths that we have avoided in the
> past, and imagine what would be if we were not where we are today.
> The knot of art, theory, politics, and  commerce that we live in right
> now is singular, and so it is treacherous to extrapolate this into a
> general theory of how artists or critics or anyone should operate (in
> fact, all speculation is fraught with peril, because other people do
> and want other things).
> If art is not meant to communicate, what is it for?  Is it for the
> artist to express him or herself?  If so, then for what end?  I don't
> want to burden art with too much of a redemptive mission...  but at
> the very least, I think art ought to be communicable in some way.
> That the event can be reproduced (as a concept, as a record, a trace,
> an object, a text, whatever)...  that it is has to go from one person
> to another person in some way that intervenes against the flow of time
> and space.  Art has to refer to an idea that at least one other person
> (even a hypothetical one) could agree upon.  To offer the most meager
> definition of art, at the very least, it could be like the words in
> your head that give shape to your ideas.  Undoubtedly, our brains do
> things.  Animals' brains do things.  But when we put these neural
> actions into representation, whether we share this representation or
> not, we enter into that socially constructed space outside of the
> whatever-would-have-happened-had-we-not-intervened (nature?  the
> animal?  physics?).  Now, this is a naive explanation of art.  It
> ignores many of the specifics that determine what we think about when
> we talk about art today.  It even lends art a certain "innocence" that
> might be a good conceit to work under, but which itself is just an
> artifice erected against doubt.  But I think it also ties the notion
> of art to politics in the sense that art always has something to do
> with the other (the other who it aims to represent, the other who is
> its intended audience, the other who it is supposed to be hidden from,
> etc.)  Art, as long as it is made and has any meaning, would seem to
> be concerned with communication of some sort.  And thus it seems that
> it cannot easily be untangled from the moral, the ethical, the
> political.  Furthermore, anything that expresses human will could
> conceivably be formed in the awareness of how this will effect others
> (friends, enemies, nations, environments, species...  even, perhaps,
> yourself....the other that you will become).
> What limits we want to draw around introspection and moral
> accountability are things that we might be able to hammer out some
> kind of agreement on.  We might even be able to establish some system
> like the one sketched out by Matthew Arnold, where artists do the
> primary work (and make the messes) while critics do the lesser work
> (present the work as socially valuable).  Maybe we can hammer out some
> other system of art....  with no critics, but just robots which count
> "diggs" and direct individuals to works that were sufficiently "dugg"
> by people like you (with a little bit of extra recommending going to
> sponsored content --yuck).  In any case, figuring out just what the
> relationship between art, criticism, and audience carries with it
> moral implications.
> But to just say that art and politics or art and theory do not belong
> together, while it might solve some historically specific problems we
> have today with art institutions, theoretical fashions, a debased
> public sphere, and out of control financial markets....  We live in an
> age where capitalism has radically separated itself from moral
> concern.  It is a social invention that we treat as though it operates
> through natural laws, and should protected from human intervention,
> protected from "art."  The greatest artifice in the history of
> civilization....  and its priests proclaim it beyond art, beyond
> representation, beyond control.  I don't know what we gain, what
> artists gain, by following the examples of a degraded culture.  I
> don't know why artists should resist social, moral, political
> intervention.  I don't see why artists should disentangle themselves
> from the responsibility of theorizing their work.  Or why artist
> should be shielded from criticism, either.  (On the other hand, I can
> see why artists might want to avoid the sort of normative stances we
> associate with Theory or Politics, as these terms relate to
> "respected" schools of thought).  And if we are looking at "radical"
> interventions....  I cannot see how art can intervene against a system
> which is, at its root, hostile to culture, community, life....  by
> removing itself from the very kernel of hope that we have....  the
> idea that maybe we ought to take better care of each other.
> Davin
> On Tue, Jan 12, 2010 at 9:47 AM, Saul Ostrow <sostrow at cia.edu> wrote:
>> Pragmatically, it would seem that it is necessary tactically as well as
>> strategically to preserve critical culture
>>  as a realm of relative freedom, and to sustain the promise that through
>> experimentation, it can contribute to the development of the experiential
>> knowledge that is necessary not only to formulate hypothetical alternative
>> to the instrumentality of bourgeois thought, but also to act upon them in a
>> promiscuous manner and therefore be capable of manifesting the ungovernable,
>> the indeterminate, and other imagined as aspects of being. Consequently, art
>> should not be viewed as an apparatus - mechanism capable of achieving
>> specific purposes ­ be they aesthetic, moral, or political. Being an
>> apparatus places art at risk of becoming instrumental ­ that is at loosing
>> itself to fixed logics, forms, and functions ­ of being formal. For it is
>> the systemic or procedural aspect of apparatuses, which make them useful in
>> that they accomplish a task in a predictable manner. Such devices are not
>> neutral in that they delineate via their reasoning and rules (guide-lines)
>> what the task is to which they are to be applied, and the objectives to be
>> achieved. In this the user ­ whose real desires may have originally brought
>> the apparatus into being ­ now gives over some aspect of their self to it ­
>> their being.  In this exchange the apparatus effectively creates a separate
>> sphere, or territory over which it has domain.
>> Subsequently, it is still necessary to identify the role that art as
>> critical apparatus,  that is  as a self-critical practice which plays a role
>> in the reproduction, replication and distribution of the existent logics
>> that order social knowledge and its attendant subjectivities. In other words
>> how  art as social and cultural practices is always already an apparatus of
>> subjectification in that it seeks the replication of its own truths rather
>> its own emancipation from them. As such, art as an apparatus of critique,
>> cannot be thought of as merely a means to present ones analysis of how
>> values, standards, criteria, and aesthetics become tools (apparatus) of
>> social control, or how they inhibit our ability to engage in effective acts
>> relative to the division and the exercise of social power and wealth.
>> Relative to this it is important to take into account how art as an
>> apparatus even that of social or critical change may contradictorily order
>> our experiences, and understanding and therefore must be dealt with
>> cautiously, perhaps even in cynical manner, that is in all good faith
>> continue to explore it as a social practice, with the intent to acknowledge
>> its failings, or limitations as a mechanism of social change. In doing this
>> art might reveal what role it is to serve in the constitution of a
>> conception of being that is in keeping with the present conditions of our
>> existence, and as such would no longer necessitate the preservation of the
>> present organization of large-scale social production and exchange under its
>> present terms.
>> _______________________________________________
>> empyre forum
>> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
>> http://www.subtle.net/empyre
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
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