Trailer for December

Monday 30 November 2015

Coming up this week: three days of listening to music of extremes at Huddersfield last week. Also, I’m putting out some new music at last.

Visible cracks, real and illusory

Sunday 15 November 2015

(Originally posted on 6 February 2008.)

As has been proved many times before, it is foolish to pass judgement on a work of art before seeing it for yourself. I finally saw Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth at the Tate Modern.

There has been plenty of discussion about the artwork since it was first installed – what it means, how it was made, whether or not it’s any good – so much that it is impossible to not be aware of its existence, nor of what the work consists of. (It’s a crack running the length of the floor in the Tate’s Turbine Hall, growing wider and deeper as it descends from one end to the other.) You could picture the entire installation in your head, except for one little detail that I’ve never heard mentioned when people discuss their visits to see it. At close range, the crack is revealed to be an obvious fabrication, with no attempt to conceal the wire forms embedded in the concrete.

For the weekend crowds peering inside its depths, or hopping back and forth over it, Shibboleth may as well be invisible if its success depends on the interpretation given to it by the artist and the museum:

In particular, Salcedo is addressing a long legacy of racism and colonialism that underlies the modern world. ‘The history of racism’, Salcedo writes, ‘runs parallel to the history of modernity, and is its untold dark side’. … In breaking open the floor of the museum, Salcedo is exposing a fracture in modernity itself. Her work encourages us to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves with absolute candidness, and without self-deception.

Even ignoring the fact that the history of racism runs parallel to the history of everything, it’s hard not to read this as a fatuous piece of funding-speak. You don’t have to doubt Salcedo’s personal background and beliefs that support her art to see that her public interpretation of her own art reduces Shibboleth to a one-liner, simplistic and ineffectual. The installation is as much a tourist attraction as the building that houses it. Salcedo may be “keen to remind us” of “the existence of a huge socially excluded underclass”, but Shibboleth, in this context, utterly fails to fulfil her intention.

(Strangely, for all her talk of schisms and exclusions, the only interpretations I’ve seen of the formative mesh in the crack have been either abstractly structural or overly symbolic. I would have thought it made an obvious point that apparently natural divisions in race or religion turn out under closer scrutiny to be artificial, human constructs. Then the art could at least function in its own way as a neat little metaphor, if little more.)

In fact, Salcedo makes out her installation to be less of a work of art than it really is, although its true power may be of a type she did not intend, or even recognise.

The immediate image conveyed by Shibboleth when seen plain, beguilingly forging its path of destruction through the crowds inevitably wandering the Turbine Hall, is not one of division but of entropy. Starting almost undetectable at the high end of the hall, it is allowed to progress, or rather deteriorate, along the floor unchecked until it has opened up into a real tripping hazard for visitors. The image of a cultural institution whose foundations have been permitted to shift, and so decay, is potent; but in the Western World of the early 21st century it speaks to a different dilemma than the artist intended.

The Tate’s claim that the crack “encourages us to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves” isn’t exactly true. In truth, its presence embodies our culture’s current readiness to doubt itself, and to question its own origins, validity, and integrity – with little or no outside encouragement. The entropy was built into the system. This self-examination and picking apart of the social assumptions that underpin our culture could lead to renewal, or to disintegration. For a jaded society of sophisticates, the threat of destruction and disaster is extremely seductive. (As one reviewer says, “Salcedo’s cut is always varied and pleasurably violent. I’m not sure the pleasure is intended.”)

Salcedo’s professed aim to expose the dark side of modernity began within modernism itself in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. In 1949, Charles Olson reflected on the inability of modernism to cope with the fragmentary nature of reality – it is no coincidence he had invented the word “post-modern” the year before – and wrote in his poem “The Kingfishers”:

When the attentions change / the jungle
leaps in
               even the stones are split
                                                       they rive

Postscript to John Cage and Counterpoint

Sunday 1 November 2015

I’ve made a small but vital amendment to yesterday’s post. I should have said “John Cage sucked at counterpoint,” not that he “sucks at counterpoint”. It may have been one of his personal weaknesses, but it did not carry over into his music. Thanks to Philip Thomas for pointing out this error, by tweeting to me that “I think almost all the music since 1951 is great counterpoint. Stuff on top of other stuff.”

I pretty much agree, and this actually gets to the point of what I was trying to say. Just going back to the Morton Feldman interview I quoted. Feldman also recites the “no feeling for harmony anecdote” and adds, “but like anybody else who had no interest in harmony, he found that which freed music from harmony. He found his Zen for polyphony” (my emphasis). Peter Gena replies, “The rhythmic structure aspect which allows sounds and silences” (ditto). Soon after, their exchange continues:

GENA: So if Duchamp really did free the mind from the eye, to that extent he moved away from craft and picked on ready-mades.

FELDMAN: Especially if you had two left hands, like Duchamp. I mean he was better with a ruler. Once he took up a ruler, he was fine.

GENA: Yes, he was interested in mechanical drawing. Accordingly, Cage talked about his terrible ear for harmony, and once he took up the ruler, as it were, which was time grids and rhythmic structures, it was wonderful. So Cage freed the sounds because he wanted to put them outside of the harmonic context.

FELDMAN: I didn’t bring up Schoenberg’s remark about John’s lack of interest in harmony to imply what you’re trying to say. I said that Duchamp picked up the ruler, not Cage.

GENA: What did Cage pick up?

FELDMAN: He picked up the eraser! He’s bluffing. He’s a Duchamp in Cagean ears. He’s bluffing. He has impeccable ears.

They continue talking about traditional harmony, but something doesn’t add up. Philip Thomas’ observation is that Cage’s counterpoint improves around the time he allowed fewer of his personal choices to determine the finer details of his music, through impersonal means and then through chance. As Cage commented in one of his lectures, “giving up counterpoint, one gets superimposition and, of course, a little counterpoint comes in of its own accord.”

This is also the time when Cage talked frequently about letting sounds be themselves, i.e. putting sounds “outside of the harmonic context”. By then he had been using his above-mentioned time grids and rhythmic structures for nearly 15 years. His mature works begin in the 1930s with his radical use of rhythm as a structural principle, instead of harmony. By the 1940s he had become known as “the percussion composer” (as he himself reminded us in his anecdotes). It would be a neat deflection, to focus people’s attention on harmony, or rather the lack of it, if you didn’t feel too secure in your ability to organise your sounds and silences in your stated rhythmic structure.

The ruler that Cage picked up, like Duchamp’s, was “giving up” and accepting that the less say they had in the detail of their work, the better it was. The best type of aesthetic decisions are not aesthetic decisions at all.