I guess everyone has got a story in their head about how and why they came to hold their present aesthetic and cultural values. When Robert Hughes died last week it reminded me that my own formative experience was when I was a little kid and happened to see an early episode of The Shock of the New. I was sufficiently absorbed by it that my parents let me stay up late once each week to watch the rest of the series.
I’ve never owned a copy of the book or rewatched the series on video; in fact I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen the first episode or two. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the images and ideas from that show were imprinted in my memory, and formed the mould into which all my subsequent thinking about art have been poured.
Up until then, my understanding of art was no deeper than the popular caricature of High Culture. I wondered why every artist seemed to be dead. My folks had a Time-Life book of Great Artists I’d flip through, which had Picasso, Matisse and Chagall in it, but I couldn’t understand why their paintings were weird and kind of ugly. When Robert Hughes talked about Dada, I suddenly found a type of modern art where I “got” what they were saying about the world. It had a point which seemed clear but which couldn’t easily be put into words – and that’s how I learned what art was about.
Similar formative experiences came later in my mid-teens, but then I was on the lookout for equivalent models of modernity in music and literature. My parents had another series of books about artists which ended with Duchamp, so that became my supplement guidebook to what I’d seen on TV. In writing, I read a bit of Pound and Eliot in school and then searched out more for myself, finding Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, which opened up an entire alternative history of twentieth-century culture. Almost by coincidence, I got hold of Guy Davenport’s essays in The Geography of the Imagination, which set out a wider set of orientation points for modern writing and beyond. In one essay he observes that “all true education is unconscious seduction.”
I was looking around for “strange” music and picked up all sorts of odds and ends. The minimalists provided the most apparent style from outside the conventional tradition, but the real educational experience came from a series of radio programmes Edward Cowie made for the ABC, called Towards New Music. Later episodes focused on particular themes or composers, including one dedicated to John Cage and like-minded artists. At that time Cage was a person I’d heard of without really knowing anything about him other than that he seemed guaranteed to be fascinating. He was, and as a bonus Cowie played a few minutes of Paragraph 7 from Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning.
It was the first episodes, however, that got me hooked. Cowie attempted to start from first principles, discussing the nature and purpose of sound-making with an improvising orchestra of kindergarten kids, and critiquing how we are educated and socialised into a culture of music. It probably helped that Cowie is a painter as well as composer, allowing him to see a wider range of issues than the technical debates that clutter up too many histories of music.
However much I may have loved playing music, listening to it, reading or whatever, what truly caught up my imagination was these histories, showing how and why we had come to be doing what we do now, and how much more it is possible to do.