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Saturday, April 29, 2006
A text as a world or a text as a text.

In a previous post, I issued a normative call, directed mostly to my younger colleagues, to profit from what I perceived to be an opening -the capacity to absorb new levels of abstraction- in audiences generally considered to be outside our own "new music" constituency (see "A discipline that leads nowhere is a dead discipline"). In general terms, my comments were -quite appropriately- greeted with no more than a generous dose of skepticism. All of them, that is, except for one. Because when I was so reckless as to suggest what to me seemed rather obvious, namely, that there are fundamental differences between “music-as-art” and “music-as-entertainment”, the pens started flying, the hearts pumped up and the horn of battle was heard in the distance. Apparently, my hardly unique observation was evident proof of an antediluvian frame of mind. To those brave bearers of a progressive, "democratic" standard, there was no meaningful difference: since all forms of expression can be pleasing or diverting to someone -given a particular set of circumstances- they must all be considered "subsets" of entertainment. To think otherwise would reveal an incurably elitist, nay, a positively reactionary disposition. It follows quite naturally that Beethoven's "Grosse Fugue" and Madonna's "Material Girl" are members of the same family -entertainment- differing only in style (and perhaps in quality too, although I fear that even that statement could be construed as antiquated and/or biased). So, fastening my trusted "cilice" around my temples (the thigh is for wimps), I am going to venture another post, one that will almost certainly be taken as confirmation that I do indeed belong to the Stone Age.

I will try to outline the reasons why I believe that there are differences between a work-as-art and a work-as-entertainment. But before we go into it I'd like to make a brief point about "categorization". A common complain is that the question of categorization does not seem all that important. This is eminently true when the object of it is "archival" in nature, when there is no real purpose other than "where do I file it?" This type of categorization is purely practical. But categories such as "art" or "entertainment", built around a dialectic relationship, are relevant in that they define a priori conceptions applied by the mind to sense essential attributes. One of the points I will be making -about entertainment pretending to afford an artistic experience- is one that ultimately has a real social implication: it leads away from clarity and it encourages leaving things as they are.

A work-as-art and a work-as-entertainment differ both in the way in which they are conceived (their mechanics) and in the functions they serve (their proper uses). This last point -the one about "use"- is inseparable from a larger question, one about the limits of interpretation. In essence, if one is willing to accept the premise that projecting any desired meaning into a text is a valid form of interpretation and therefore, that the "secret" of a text is its emptiness, then the distinction will collapse. If, on the other hand, one thinks that interpretation must speak of that which is to be found somewhere (more on this point later), and that that, in some way, must be observed or at least not actively disregarded, then I think one will find that the distinction holds up. (This discussion will purposely not address matters of intrinsic quality, at least not directly.)

Before we go into the matter of interpretation, the real core of the argument, I will try to delineate the two basic concepts we are using. I will leave out the transcendental nature of the aesthetic experience, only because it is both contentious and elusive and will inevitably lead us away from the main subject; art's "transcendent function" is indeed significant, but since there are other ways to establish sufficient differentiation, we will put that one aside.
From a mechanical point of view, in a work-as-entertainment we can observe several tendencies that present themselves in direct opposition to a work-as-art. A work-as-entertainment is interested in its presumed effects rather than in itself, while in our times, a work-as-art is mainly concerned with the process that leads to both work and its effect. A work-as-art means to discover a reality, often characterized by the absence of a univocal meaning. On the other hand, a work-as-entertainment aims at the production of an immediate effect (for consumption use) and therefore it favors redundancy of structure, that is to say probability over ambiguity. It may, and often does, assume the formative procedures of art but its standard is popularity, while in a work-as-art, the individual forms for the sake of forming in the hope that his inventive activity will eventually resolve the laws of the instruments of his art (the obstacles) into those of the work itself.

Still, the clearest evidence that a work-as-art and a work-as-entertainment are two different things is their "intention". If entertainment were nothing more than messages produced by the culture industry to satisfy a given demand there would be no dialectic relationship to speak of. The fact that such dynamics exist is the result of an inherently dishonest process: that of entertainment masquerading as art. To be sure, not all entertainment does that: twenty-four hour news channels are unquestionably a form of entertainment with no pretense to artistic value. But there is a substantial industry that is constantly processing ideas from "art" sources according to commercial standards, redirecting the audience's attention from their causes to their effects, prescribing directions for their use as well as the reactions they should provoke. It is a falsehood designed to satisfy a primitive need to recognize ourselves in the aesthetic experience, affording an escape from the responsibilities involved in the interpretation of art. At the center of this distinction is the conflict between creative thinking and acceptable adjustments, the perpetual betrayal of the former leading to the audience's belief that it is enjoying innovation when in fact it is experiencing a ready-made effect.

Yet, the essential aspect of the "intention" argument is the matter of "interpretation", and that can't be properly understood without considering the dialectics between the rights of texts (being musical or otherwise) and those of their "readers". It seems to me, that in the last few decades, the right of the interpreter -the "intentio lectoris" to use the proper semiotic jargon- has been greatly overemphasized. As it was previously suggested, if a reader is entitled to project any meaning into a given text and call it an interpretation, then there is indeed no difference between a work-as-art and a work-as-entertainment. Mercifully, even the most radical post-modern thinkers (well, most of them at least) would agree that the concept of semiotic drift does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that there is no object to -or criteria for- interpretation; nor that the same is an exercise for its own sake. To say that there is no single objective meaning in a text, does not equate with saying that every act of interpretation is valid, or will be successful. The fact that the "Grosse Fugue" may please and/or divert some listener is not evidence that its "intention" is to please and divert. And I mean the work's intention, because I assume no one will be so perverse as to suggest that Beethoven's intention was to please or divert. Still, some readers may want to assert that the only "existence" of a text is that given by the responses it elicits or, as Richard Rorty would say -and I only paraphrase- 'that its only meaning is that beaten into it by the reader to serve his own purpose'. But even if one accepts the validity of this sort of interpretation -this "over-interpretation"- all one can really say is that its semiotic mechanism is recursive and therefore its limits can't be identified in advance. This is not actually an absence of limits. Therefore, meaning is not the free creation of the reader.

In this context, the debate over music-as-art and music-as-entertainment echoes the distinction between literary and everyday texts, as well as a much older one between those who understand texts as representations of the world and those who see nature itself as a text to be interpreted. The question becomes one of intention: but who’s? … The author's intention? … The reader's? … Or perhaps the text's? To accept the argument that art is but a subset of entertainment -and, by extension, that Beethoven's Grosse Fugue's intent is ultimately to please and/or divert- we would first need to determine that the reader's intention is sufficient to validate that claim, as both the author's intention and the text's internal evidence -its mechanics- would not support that conclusion.

When a message is distributed among a community of readers -as is often the case when we formalize for an aesthetic experience- it is interpreted according to a complex set of cultural conventions. This social "treasury" is a matter of consensus: the message will be read "sensibly". This notion implies moderation, that is, a limit or measure set by a standard, and it is, by extension, causal. Unilinear causal chains form the basic pattern of Western thought, they presuppose a number of logical principles such as identity, non-contradiction and excluded middle, and eventually lead to the "modus ponens". Whatever we think about the virtues of Western rationalism, its pattern of thinking has provided us with a social contract: we can't function in everyday life if we refuse to accept, for example, that it is impossible for something to be X and not be X at the same time (that is, unless you are GWB). The contract goes even further: the logical validity of an argument alone is not seen to guarantee that its conclusion will be true. For that, we must also ascertain that all the premises are true. Basically, these tools, inherited from classical thinking, are what still allow us to form consensus today. If, when confronted with a piece of music -or indeed any text- we decide that the way we listen to it -the way we choose to "read" it- and only that, determines what the message is, then we are making an exception to that social contract. Beethoven's dedicated listener does not bear the responsibility of speculating about what was going on in the composer's head at the time of creation, but he does need to take into account that which is knowable, the state of the musical vocabulary around 1825. The listener may "use" the text in any way he pleases but if he hopes to "interpret" Beethoven's work (and have a meaningful discussion with others) he must respect, for example, the work's cultural and musical background. An interpretation of a certain portion of a text is valid (for social exchange) if it is confirmed by another portion of the same text. But, conversely, it must be rejected if another portion challenges it. Only the internal coherence of a given text can be trusted to afford a chance for consensus by controlling the reader's inherent urge to drift. Otherwise an interpretation will inevitably fail to find outside resonance -to be socially meaningful-; in fact, it will be no interpretation at all, only a reading appropriate for personal "use". If we hope to share our reading in a meaningful way with others, then rigor and discipline are required. Not use, but interpretation. Just because I can laugh my head off while listening to the "Grosse Fugue" it does not make it "entertainment" (it just makes me "strange"). If Beethoven's piece is not entertainment (and I assume nobody will dispute it is art), then that makes art and entertainment distinct categories.

We may use art as entertainment. In an increasingly grim geo-political reality, we may even succumb to spells of laziness or escapism and use a certain piece of entertainment, free of guilt, as if it were art. But that won't make them the same thing.
To quote G.K. Chesterton, "art consists in drawing the line somewhere".

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