Thursday, June 17, 2010

jottings, chiefly on visual + musical egalitarianism*

So I'm working on a short little flurry of a paper about what I'm calling "visual egalitarianism" in Jackson Pollock and his Abstract Expressionist colleagues. Thinking critically about the lack of a focal point or any sort of representation** in their work brings me back to this idea of equality and absolutism expressed in artistic forms. Considering the former, a few examples come to mind: Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, Kandinsky, the AbEx'ists, Boulez, and Cage. With regards to the latter, I'm thinking of the First Viennese School, and the general "academic" style of Western Europe (anyone from Michelangelo to Titian to David, even Gerome).

Indeed, before we get to Kandinsky and the Second Viennese School [of Rock] and their descendants (Boulez/Pollock et al), we have to first look at their predecessors: the First Viennese School [of Rock]. The musical forms and aesthetic of the eighteenth century really offer a fantastic aural analogue to the socio-political milieu of the era. I'm specifically thinking about the disparity between the aristocracy/ruling class and everyone else. Essentially, musical hierarchies in the form of tonality (ie the tonic, dominant, and leading tone are the "important" scale degrees. An oversimplification, but you get the idea) mirror social structures (class). I'd really like to know a whole lot more about the French Revolution, but for now I'll just say that it is completely compelling the way that strict musical forms and harmonic structure begin to erode around the beginning of the nineteenth century, following various political upheavals (the French Revolution being just one example). Beethoven's Eroica is actually a great example of this in that the sonata form of the first movement is, well, jumbled. By reorganizing a then-familiar form, the composer challenges our expectations, thus subtly implying social change. Maybe. This is all pretty speculative.

So with this in mind, Schoenberg's Pan-Tonality (that is what he said) takes on a new social meaning. When he literally refers to it as an emancipation--how can we not read a kind of "liberation narrative" into the work? Considering also what we know about fin-de-siecle Vienna, Schoenberg's musical freedom-fight gains more complexity. At once, the composer is a member of the political minority (Christian socialist Lueger is in power) while also participating in a (sometimes violent) patriarchy. That is not to say that he was a misogynist (as far as I know, he wasn't), only to note the often complex relationship of minority to majority(ies). In a very real sense, the emancipation represents not only a break from the musical past, but also implies a kind of Utopian ideal--not surprising given Schoenberg's own biography and what I can imagine would be a hell of a time living in Vienna around 1900.

With regards to the visual arts, I'd like to discuss Kandinsky and the AbEx'ists. Taking the example of Kandinsky, we can notice a break down of visual hierarchy, something like Composition IV (1911) is tottering on the brink of non-representational art.
Figure non-representational: Kandinsky's Composition IV
Although that is a sort of "well, duh" analysis, the aforesaid connection between abstraction and equality is what makes this sort of thing compelling. Recently, I was speaking with one of my mum's friends (a visual artist) about Schoenberg and this idea of pantonality as a representation of equality; being an awfully sharp tac, she brought up Kandinsky's work--for her, the musical analogue in that when art is non-representational, all shapes, colors and lines are equal. This conversation still fresh in my mind, I began to mull over the notion of representation as being inherently unequal with regards to the AbEx'ists.

These guys were, in my mind, both ideological and stylistic descendants of Kandinsky. Similarities abound, the most obvious being the non-representational style and a sort of spiritual relationship between artist, canvas, and material (the material being much more important for the AbEx'ists). However, more intriguing is the American public's reaction to Pollock and his pals. Upheld as arbiters of a quintessential American art, their works and personae were used as a cultural weapon in the cold war: they were celebrated as visual symbols of democracy. Certainly, you can discuss the movement of the avant-garde from Paris to New York; the American adoration of the "new," but from my perspective the notion of visual egalitarianism is the most "American" aspect of their work.
Figure visual egalitarianism: Pollock's Autumn Rhythm

*that is a little Aristotle jokey-joke(!) Yay Poetics!
**I'm thinking here about formal hierarchy: there is an inherent value judgment in notions of foreground versus background. Indeed, one might argue that a line that implicates contour is more important (valuable) than one that participates in say, a cross hatch. The main idea being that in representational art, one line can have more meaning than another.

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