Parody Evolution
Some arts, such as pop movies and pop music, evolve by endless self-parody. Each new style is a parody of the one before. This is why it is so difficulty to parody them effectively, even though they may deserve it handsomely.

Conceptual Art
When the point of a work of art - be it a painting, sculpture or dance - is the idea behind it, why not explain the idea and skip the execution? I once saw a work of art in a San Francisco museum that consisted of a giant pile of thousands of fortune cookies. It took up a large room and was obviously intended as some sort of commentary on the Chinese-American experience. I would have gotten as much out of: "A giant pile of a million fortune cookies, filling an entire museum gallery to a depth of five feet, called 'Gold Mountain'."

Matter vs. Text
A painter/sculptor acquaintance of mine is in love with artifacts, things made out of matter. My first reaction is "how primitive and ephemeral! How crude to embody one's thought in physical objects rather than in pure information. None of this will last very long compared to written text." This is another form of the "atoms vs. bits" distinction so beloved by the digerati. But a little reflection reminds me that sculpture and architecture have lasted from ancient times just as well as text. The perfect infinite reproducibility of the digital medium of text didn't turn out to be such a big advantage after all.

The Human Form
We have an instinctive horror of malformed human figures such as the ones we see in horror films. The flip side is our sense of what's beautiful and attractive in the opposite sex, which is culturally determined, but always requires well-formedness. Behind this is our eugenic programming, compelling us to mate with the best-formed. How much of our sense of beauty comes from these evolutionary forces?

Art and literature are perceived in the context of what's currently fashionable in the arts. The workings of this kind of fashion are a lot like those of fashion in clothes — they're unpredictable, springing from some group feeling of the moment, often making no sense.
     A conscientious artist must evaluate this surrounding milieu. I call this metacriticism — criticism not of the art itself but of the background, assumptions, values, styles that go into it. The question is, does the milieu provide a basis for good art, art that will endure? Many times the answer is "no," but artists blindly follow the prevailing fashion, either because they can't see beyond fashion, or because, at some gut level, they know it's the quickest way to renown.
     The great periods in the history of art have occurred when the quality of the milieu was high, when the fashionable style was suitable for producing great art, in Renaissance Italy for painting, or the last half of the 18th century in Vienna for music, for example.
     The artist who rejects the current fashion faces stringent penalties. Critics and fellow artists often equate fashionableness with artistic quality. And the notion of progress in the arts is popular, and implies that the current style is an advance upon the styles that have gone before. Since very little is truly new in the arts, whatever's not in the style of the moment will be perceived as belonging to an older style, movement or school.
     What's a poor artist to do? The best course is to be metacritical, to evaluate the style of the moment and use it if possible. Otherwise, the artist can hope for an independent-minded audience, either now or some day in the future.

Art Resources
Fields of artistic endeavor differ in the amount and type of resources they require. A writer needs only pen and paper; a good one can produce a world-class masterpiece with these tools. At the other extreme, a filmmaker who doesn't have a host of collaborators and millions in the budget will be at a severe disadvantage in producing a world-class result. My ranking of the arts in this respect is:

  • writing text
  • painting
  • writing music
  • sculpture
  • dance
  • theatre
  • film

The resources required for some of these depend on genre. Getting a good performance of a solo piano piece requires far fewer resources than for a symphony. Small sculptures can be made in the garret but monumental bronzes need a foundry.
     Resource-needy arts demand that the artist obtain support from others, which requires deep pockets, outstanding salesmanship or a track record of commercial success. These prerequisites are sometimes barriers to the talented.
     I persistently wonder how much great art of the past has been lost or neglected. Perhaps a painter of a work we'd now consider a masterpiece never got his work displayed because it was out of synch with the prevalent styles. This is less likely the further you go down the above list of the arts, because, for the resource-intensive arts, just being able to work guarantees a fair amount of public notice. In granny's dusty attic we're much more likely to discover the manuscript of a great novel than the negatives of an unknown Citizen Kane.

Progress in the Arts
No, there has been no progress in the arts. What literature since can beat Homer or the Greek tragedies, written 2,500 years ago? Can modern sculpture beat their sculpture? Philosophy might have advanced, but this is mostly because parts of it have been replaced by science. It's still hard to top Plato for insight and enjoyment. Greek music is lost to us,but the great western classical music is vastly superior to what's being written today. What will the future verdict be on all these children's songs?

Do We Need More Art?
A tremendous amount of art and literature — thousands of books, paintings, photographs and pieces of music, hundreds of films — is published every year. There's hundreds or thousands of times as much material as any human being could take in in a lifetime. Do we need more? Only if it raises the overall quality level or fills an unfilled niche.
     It's like the question of whether bringing a child into the world benefits the world at large. There's no shortage of children — in fact, overpopulation is one of the biggest problems facing our planet today. But raising the quality level by adding a new person with good values and skills is still a significant contribution. Adding another average person is not.

Small Numbers
Melody and harmony, the horizontal and vertical relations of pitches, are the warp and woof of the musical fabric. The pitches that define this matrix are related by ratios of small numbers such as 5/4, 4/3, 3/2, 2/1. This last ratio is the octave, a sort of musical identity (all notes named "C" have frequencies related by powers of two).
     Five is about as high as it gets: 5/4 is a major third, and 6/5 is called a minor third. Six doesn't count since it's made up of a 3 and a 2.. 7/4 is the smallest-integer ratio that's not represented in our perfectly spaced equal-tempered scale. It's the most natural interval that we never hear.
     Rhythm in our western music is very heavily based on powers of 2, with 3 playing second fiddle, and 5 and 7 used only for exotic spice. Six is common, but it's two threes or three twos (the musical term hemiola describes the possibility of ambiguity between the two). Elevens and thirteens are found, but they're heard as additive combinations of 2s and 3s.
     What is it about these small numbers thatappeals to our brains on such a basic level?

Is Music for the Ears?
Children of a Lesser God, a movie about a romance between a speech teacher and a woman who was deaf from birth, raised the issue of how to convey the feeling of music to a deaf person. Beethoven composed his ninth symphony when he was deaf. And I, who have good musical training and perfect pitch, but am not a musical genius like Beethoven, can read musical scores (as long as they're not too complicated) and "hear" them in my head. I could enjoy music this way if I went deaf now, but I can't think of any way to teach this to a deaf person who has had no aural experience of music.
      When we send music CDs in time capsules into space, how can we expect them to be understood? In addition to the problem of deciphering the arcane layers of coding on the disc, the aliens would need to have very similar auditory systems, which is unlikely. Even if we could get beyond these problems, music is a mirror of human emotion. Extra-terrestrial aliens are more likely to differ from us emotionally than intellectually. We're likely to have much common ground in mathematics, little in music.

A Vehicle for Performance
The aria that Isabella sings with a cello in Rossini's opera L'Italiana in Algieri can be very beautiful, even though it's fairly mediocre music. It's just a vehicle for the two performers and depends totally on their artistry for its effect. This happens a lot in dance as well: ballet choreography is often designed simply to show off the dancers' skills, without contributing much value itself. The opposite is Bach's music, which is often beautiful even when played badly on the wrong instrument.

I look out the window in this resort dining room toward the pelican-shadowed pink-and-blue crepuscle and wonder at the arbitrariness of our human sense of beauty. The chance is small that an extra-terrestrial being would appreciate the scene. Could there be any truly universal beauty?

What will future ages think of our popular music? These rock and pop songs we produce by the thousands, that I, brought up with the complexities of classical music, have no taste for? Their genres are so close together in the spectrum of musical styles, differentiated more by social and consumer elements — you are what you buy — than by purely musical factors. This could be the golden age of popular song, a thousand plebeian Shuberts producing great democratic art, or it could be another period of trashy fecundity, making nothing worth keeping.

Copyright © 2001-2005 by Dean Wallraff. All rights reserved.