The Choices We Make

The Choices We Make

An article published earlier today in the Independent initially caught my attention because of the provocative headline that ArtsJournal used to link to it this morning—“Why Are Next Generation Artists So Conservative?.” Politicians are probably the only people who use and abuse terms like progressive and conservative more than folks engaged in aesthetic debates about the arts. Curiously, the author of this article, former editor Adrian Hamilton, writes about politics even more than he writes about visual art.

According to Hamilton’s assessment of the 2012 edition of the ICA’s New Contemporaries exhibition in London (which has been showcasing emerging artists since 1949 and which helped launch the careers of David Hockney and Damien Hirst), the young artists that were selected are more concerned with “craft and their ambitions to become professional” than with “being revolutionary.” I’ve heard the exact same comment made about many millennial composers. But such assertions are difficult to corroborate since determining whether something is “revolutionary” or “reactionary” at this juncture is as subjective an undertaking as determining whether something is “beautiful.”

MTAs Abstract Expressionism

Do you think the following visual image is progressive or reactionary? Actually, the answer is not so simple.

It has been more than 45 years since jazz composer/trumpeter/bandleader Don Ellis challenged the status quo of so-called musical progress in his polemical Downbeat magazine essay, “The Avant Garde is not Avant Garde” (June 30, 1966). Ellis claimed that musicians who were continuing the previous decade’s experiments were as reactionary as the musicians who were not experimental, if not more so. Now, more than half a century later, it’s hard to argue that recent music that sounds like early free jazz or Darmstadt-style serialism is any more contemporary than music that sounds like ’40s era Swing or romantic-era orchestral music. Even so-called post-modernism feels old-fashioned at this point. However, if the aesthetic directive of post-post-modernism, for lack of a better moniker, is that you can do whatever you want, terms like progressive and conservative ultimately no longer have any meaning. All of it is somehow both yet also neither.

But there are lots of other reasons why Hamilton’s critique generated a bit of cognitive dissonance for me. Hamilton hinted that this year’s equal gender balance among the artists selected (which already seems off since there were works by 29 artists exhibited, an odd number) might be because all three of this year’s judges were women. This was irritating on a variety of levels. While he might have been suggesting that gender parity tipped the scales in favor of women artists, the notion that anything besides gender parity would be acceptable at this point is somewhat ludicrous. Then again, I continue to see concert programs that unashamedly list works exclusively by male composers and I’ve yet to see a program that only included works by women that wasn’t somehow specifically designated as being dedicated exclusively to women. Perhaps more disturbing, however, was Hamilton’s suggestion that the fact that this year’s adjudicators were three women “may also (or may not) help to account for the fact that the majority of artists are concerned with the personal rather than public.” Does anyone have any idea what that actually means?

But the comment that gnawed at me the most was his explanation for why these artists did not meet his standards for progressive brilliance:

[T]here is really no reason why you should find your voice in your early twenties. It’s a 20th-century assumption that creativity comes before the craft rather than the other way round. Nobody in previous centuries would have signed up to that.

I’m now in my late 40s and every time I begin composing a new piece of music, I hope that a new idea emerges. The last thing I ever want is to be forced into patterns dictated by a voice that I was supposed to have found upon “maturing.” It is my hope that none of these artists “find their voices” but rather continue to explore in this wonderful environment where anything and everything is possible.

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6 thoughts on “The Choices We Make

  1. Kyle Gann

    Actually, I find this – “[T]here is really no reason why you should find your voice in your early twenties” – the only reasonable thing you quote from him. I would never, ever, generalize about the younger generation, because they’re too diverse and it will take decades to assess them; though I might conceivably generalize about the ones gaining the most visible success, because commercial success does tend to follow certain clichés around. But I am really tired of the assumption made in the meta-composition world (that is, not necessarily made by composers, but made by a lot of publicists, orchestra managers, critics, and so on) that anyone who’s destined to be really good will bloom in their 20s. I’ve written a lot about the varying ages at which composers “find themselves”, for instance:

    I think we need to admit that a lot of composers blossom in their 40s, even 50s. Scelsi began writing the music we know him for at age 54. Robert Ashley at 48. I feel I hit my stride at age 38. And, Frank, I think this is a very different issue from your wanting to feel a new idea emerge in every piece. I want that myself, naturally, and I’ve never liked the phrase “finding one’s voice,” because it does seem to imply that one is supposed to eventually stumble on a style and simply continue writing in it. Hogwash. But there does seem to be an age at which everything seems to come together for an artist, and that age can range from at least 15 (Mendelssohn) to 54 (Scelsi). The profession needs to be more attuned to those who suddenly figure out how to do it after their 20s.

    1. j899

      I also think that statement is sensible. One’s “voice” is not a style, but a critical understanding of one’s art that allows one to create works of real value (as judged by the artist). Someone with no voice creates aimlessly, with little conviction about what a work is trying to accomplish and little feeling for whether it is good, bad, a success, a failure. Someone with a voice goes about creating with a clear goal in mind, ideas as to how to accomplish that goal, and strong feelings as to the success or failure of the whole piece or aspects of it. Of course, just because the artist according to his voice judges a work a success, that doesn’t mean anyone else will feel the same way. Someone with no talent can still have a voice and vice versa.

      1. j899

        I forgot to complete my point. I think what Hamilton is addressing is the myth that great artists just find their “voice” in a box of Cracker Jacks one day. He rightly says that great artists often find their voices through mastery of craft (ex. cultivating a unique orchestral style by grappling with traditional scoring techniques). The larger idea, I think, is that artists develop their voices through unoriginal, unsexy, aimless creation coupled with a critical attitude to the process and other artworks. Gradually the artist’s perception is refined and he gains a firm understanding of the things most meaningful to him in his art (whether observed in other artworks and stumbled into in his own). That frame of mind, in which the artist is deeply moved by this or that idea and passionately believes in developing it, is having a voice.

    2. Mark N. Grant

      Bravo, Kyle, I agree with you 1000%, and thank you for linking your previous posts about this topic. I would only add that, in addition to your recent/contemporary examples of late bloomers, music history going back centuries has many such examples. Domenico Scarlatti’s 550 keyboard sonatas, upon which his reputation as a composer rests, were mostly written during his middle and even late middle years. Rameau’s greatest works were written after he was 50. Janacek was a productive provincial composer from youth but it is in the autumnal explosion of operas and other works of his 50s-70s that he found the mature voice that herald him as an international composer. I would argue that Busoni found his voice only after about 1908, when he was 42. Perhaps the most striking example of all is that of Debussy, who was really two composers. The one we revere emerged after he turned 30, but he wrote music in a variously Chabrier-Massenet-Faure idiom copiously before that date, most of which is not in the canonical repertoire. Even Chopin, whose style would appear fully formed at about 20 or 21, wrote earlier pieces (his First Piano Sonata) that don’t sound at all like Chopin.

      There are many more examples I could list. The mythology of Mozart, Mendelssohn, and a few other super prodigies is so entrenched that even educated musicians tend to assume that if a composer hasn’t found himself creatively and technically by his 20s he or she is not authentically gifted. It ain’t necessarily so. An interesting recent book I’ve read on the general topic of mature creativity among artists is “Lastingness” by Nicholas Delbanco.

  2. Phil Fried

    There is financial success and artistic success as well. Both can happen at once, yet, not too frequently. Its too easy to point a laser beam at a group of artists and call successful because they are conservative. That merely perpetuates the myth. The fact is there are many other successful artists outside that laser beam who are ignored.

    Phil Fried


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