Thursday Thoughts: “Popular” and “Serious” Art, or What’s the Purpose of Making Art That Only Other Artists Will Understand

Who Cares if You Listen, an essay by Milton Babbitt, might have been written 57 years ago about music, but it is just as applicable today to any form of art making. He is not the best writer and many of his sentences are unnecessarily dense, but his ideas and observations are spot on and with a little bit of creative thinking this essay can be applied to any of the fine arts. I highly encourage reading the entire essay, but here are some of the highlights.

Babbitt discusses the divide between contemporary “popular” music and the unintelligible-to-the-layman experiments of “serious” composers. He explores the place of music that the average man has, at best, little to no interest in, and, at worse, outright loathing towards. He says music has long since evolved past the days where there was one mode of making that everyone understood and appreciated. Now there are a myriad of ways to compose and express concepts through tone and many composes experimenting with those possibilities.

Although in many fundamental respects this music is “new,” it often also represents a vast extension of the methods of other musics, derived from a considered and extensive knowledge of their dynamic principles. For, concomitant with the “revolution in music,” perhaps even an integral aspect thereof, has been the development of analytical theory, concerned with the systematic formulation of such principles to the end of greater efficiency, economy, and understanding. Compositions so rooted necessarily ask comparable knowledge and experience from the listener. Like all communication, this music presupposes a suitably equipped receptor.

Deviation from tradition is bound to dismiss the contemporary music of which I have been talking into “isolation.” Nor do I see how or why the situation should be otherwise. Why should the layman be other than bored and puzzled by what he is unable to understand, music or anything else? It is only the translation of this boredom and puzzlement into resentment and denunciation that seems to me indefensible. After all, the public does have its own music, its ubiquitous music: music to eat by, to read by, to dance by, and to be impressed by. Why refuse to recognize the possibility that contemporary music has reached a stage long since attained by other forms of activity? The time has passed when the normally well-educated man without special preparation could understand the most advanced work in, for example, mathematics, philosophy, and physics. Advanced music, to the extent that it reflects the knowledge and originality of the informed composer, scarcely can be expected to appear more intelligible than these arts and sciences to the person whose musical education usually has been even less extensive than his background in other fields. But to this, a double standard is invoked, with the words music is music,” implying also that “music is just music.” Why not, then, equate the activities of the radio repairman with those of the theoretical physicist, on the basis of the dictum that “physics is physics.” It is not difficult to find statements like the following, from the New York Times of September 8, 1 957: “The scientific level of the conference is so high… that there are in the world only 120 mathematicians specializing in the field who could contribute.” Specialized music on the other hand, far from signifying “height” of musical level, has been charged with “decadence,” even as evidence of an insidious “conspiracy.”

For some reason man feels superior to the arts in a way that he does not towards a field like science. When faced with an unintelligible equation on a blackboard the average person would assume the solution is beyond him with little to no feelings of animosity towards the man who wrote it. However, when faced with a difficult work of art or music that he can’t understand he immediately dismisses it as invalid (“That’s not art!”) and is angered at the “declining” standards in the art world. Babbitt observes the same thing and says,

It often has been remarked that only in politics and the “arts” does the layman regard himself as an expert, with the right to have his opinion heard. In the realm of politics he knows that this right, in the form of a vote, is guaranteed by fiat. Comparably, in the realm of public music, the concertgoer is secure in the knowledge that the amenities of concert going protect his firmly stated “I didn’t like it” from further scrutiny.

He argues that this separation from the general public is not only not a bad thing, but that it should be encouraged just as we encourage theoretical research in other fields. He observes,

I say all this not to present a picture of a virtuous music in a sinful world, but to point up the problems of a special music in an alien and inapposite world. And so, I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition. By so doing, the separation between the domains would be defined beyond any possibility of confusion of categories, and the composer would be free to pursue a private life of professional achievement, as opposed to a public life of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism

Babbitt ends with,

I doubt that scientific research is any more secure against predictions of ultimate significance than is musical composition. Finally, if it be contended that research, even in its least “practical” phases, contributes to the sum of knowledge in the particular realm, what possibly can contribute more to our knowledge of music than a genuinely original composition?

Granting to music the position accorded other arts and sciences promises the sole substantial means of survival for the music I have been describing. Admittedly, if this music is not supported, the whistling repertory of the man in the street will be little affected, the concert- going activity of the conspicuous consumer of musical culture will be little disturbed. But music will cease to evolve, and, in that important sense, will cease to live.

Special thanks to my musician wife (who has recently started blogging here) for sharing this essay with me.



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Filed under Art, Jacob Rowan Studios, Music, Quotes, Thursday Thoughts

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