A purist point of view: What art is - and isn't

Thursday, April 25 2013 @ 09:05 PM JST

Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto

[A tradition], which was born early and stubbornly refuses to die, despite all the evidence to the contrary, regards jazz merely as a product of noble savages - music produced by untutored, unbuttoned semiliterates for whom jazz history does not exist. This myth was invented by early jazz writers who, in attempting to escape their American prejudices, turned out a whole world of new cliches based on the myth of the innate ability of early jazz musicians. Because of these writers' lack of understanding of the mechanics of music, they thought there weren't any mechanics. It was the ''they all can sing, they all have rhythm'' syndrome.
- from July 1988 New York Times article written by Wynton Marsalis, trumpeter, jazz critic and educator, under the title of What jazz is - and isn't.

The Upper Paleolithic painting in the Cave of Altamira

Toilet graffiti in an unknown U.S. city

When I launched this website nine years ago, I was still hopeful that I would make a bit of difference to the political discourse in and between the United States and Japan. But now that the implosion of America, to be followed by or to follow, the inevitable collapse of the American Empire looks to be a matter of time, anything we say or do will make little difference. I think it's about time to have disengaged myself from politics.

When it comes to the quantitative measurement of my web traffic, I've had to rely on Google Analytics because the built-in statistical functions of my blog tool (Geeklog) are quite limited. But as any GA user may agree, the brains of system designers at Google are all empty, or worse yet, filled with spaghetti. As a result, all I can tell is that my Key Performance Indicators are not that bad. The number of hits has topped 5.4 million in the last 104 months while the number of page-views is roughly estimated at 300,000 in the same period. But now I know that doesn't mean my efforts have been paying off.

At the beginning, I wanted to make my blog a venue for "interactive" discussions on political issues because I thought I would be able to attain my goal only by touching off dialectical debates. I had no intention to play the role of a catalyst, which by definition acts unilaterally as a change agent. A debate in the Platonic or Hegelian sense should be fought "without gloves" so a thesis is directly met with an antithesis and led to a synthesis through "sublation." It, therefore, takes both sides readiness to change along with some intellectual prowess that very few among my audience have. They are too used to the slapstick-type of talks such as ones they saw when the last leap-year farce was going on in the U.S. Now it looks all the more true that exchanging non sequiturs over this and that issues makes little sense.

Maybe I'll upload a small piece or two to follow up my last post on the Pacioli Revolution if and when time permits. But afterward I will focus more on nonpolitical issues such as culture. In fact, though, I am not very sure at this moment if we can discuss culture without using the dialectical method. For one thing, appreciation of art is quite different from consumption of goods. You buy a piece of goods, use it until you use it up, and throw it away. On the contrary, when you appreciate a piece of music, for instance, it should involve a dialectical interaction among all the parties involved: the composer, the musicians, and the audience, although you treat the medium, be it a CD or DVD, the same way you treat a commodity.

Four months ago, a Japanese man in his 50s contacted me from the northernmost island of the archipelago. He said he wanted to remote-interview me on what he thought was a big issue of our common concern. At the beginning I was reluctant to accept his offer because I know I have nothing to share with Japanese men. But since he was very serious about seeking an answer to his problem, I temporarily accepted the offer on certain conditions. I suggested that we make it a two-way interview in which nothing should be presumed a real issue, let alone the conclusion, before we talk it out.

Soon after he agreed to my counter-proposal, he sent me a copy of his privately-published autobiography which depicts an extraordinary story about an ordeal he had to go through in his childhood and adolescence. I thought I could expect from this guy something I couldn't expect from an ordinary Japanese. Perhaps I was wrong; he turned out to be yet another Japanese man.

We started off our mutual interview by defining the keywords to his problem. It seemed he had borrowed all these words, arbitrarily or opportunistically, from someone else's contexts. We had to redefine them so they fit into the particular context behind his personal tragedy. I thought that only by doing so, we could identify the real issue. When translating his super-high-context language into low-context one, I realized we had to discuss, first and foremost, various ways of communication before addressing the issue he had wanted to talk about. Quite naturally, that brought us to the very intriguing question: What art is - and isn't.

The average Japanese man is an avid music lover whose types of music range from classical music to Enka (see NOTE below), and every thing in between, be it jazu, J-pops, K-pops, Russian folk songs, American folk songs by Bob Dylan and the like, American country music, traditional Japanese folk songs, European pops by the likes of Sara Brightman, continental tangos, canzoni, or chansons. This guy is no exception. I said: "I'm glad to know you share the same value system with everyone else. But now I'm at a loss over what makes you feel so persecuted by or excluded from the community." He showed the guts to say, "You think most Japanese are hooked on Enka. But on the contrary, we Enka lovers are a small minority. Even so, I have difficulty understanding why you feel so disgusted at Enka that it almost nauseates you. There's no point, after all, in discussing personal tastes." He was just glossing over his self-deceptive attitude toward life by saying Enka lovers are a small minority as if he had conducted a nation-wide opinion poll, and by going back and forth between values issue and the matter of tastes.

NOTE: This video shows one of the most popular Enka singers singing an Enka classic. Although the musical scale, chords, orchestration, instruments, and wardrobes are all borrowed from the West, though with a lot of Japanese twists, the whining melody and narcissistic, self-pitying lyrics are the representation of the "real Japanese soul" as they always say. The singer looks to be a man, but the words are those spoken by a geisha or bar hostess missing the guy who has run out on the disposable woman. The perverse inversion of sex is commonplace in Japanese "art" as you can see in Kabuki where male actors play the roles of women.

In my second last mail to him, I summarized how I define art as against rubbish:

"The Upper Paleolithic paintings on the walls of the Altamira Cave are an invaluable heritage of the civilization, whereas graffiti on the toilet walls are nothing but its excrement. You are absolutely right when you say there's no point in discussing personal tastes. If you have a propensity toward scatophilia, a mental disease also known as coprophilia, that's it, it can't be helped. But let's not call it a form of art."

I added: "I think you store books, from Manga to Goethe and CDs/DVDs from Beethoven to Enka in neatly compartmentalized shelves and racks. But I can't visualize the inside of your brain that has to be modularized in the same way as if you are a cyborg. For your information, I don't have such a problem because Bach, Brahms, Bartok, Schoenberg, Prokofiev, Jazz from the Big Band Era (1935-55), bebop, and even traditional pop music of America all belong in one and the same family. It's only after the Woodstock Music and Art Fair of 1969 that something that has very little to do with music started to bring 'impurities' from the contexts of the African and Hispanic traditions into American music."

In the total absence of dialectical response from the guy, I challenged myself, on his behalf, saying: "He has a good reason to deny my art theory because I have yet to clarify the fundamental difference between art and toilet graffiti so he is convinced Enka has more to do with excrement than with civilization." I don't think I can define art after so many philosophers and artists have attempted to do so. But I think any commonsense definition serves our purposes. According to the website of "The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy," Immanuel Kant, for one, defines art as "a kind of representation that is purposive in itself and, though without an end, nevertheless promotes the cultivation of the mental powers for sociable communication." This is enough for our purposes except I wonder what German word SEP translated as "sociable."

To pursue something which is "purposive in itself" in this world, you've got to be very different from ordinary people. And yet, a mental aberration is not enough for artistic creation. The social climate along with its historical background is the key to the development of an innate talent.

Wynton Marsalis, who is often called a "purist," wrote in another paragraph of the NYT article quoted on the top of this post: "That myth [about the innate ability of early jazz musicians] is being perpetuated to this day by those who profess an openness to everything - an openness that in effect just shows contempt for the basic values of the music and our society. If everything is good, why should anyone subject himself to the pain of study? Their disdain for the specific knowledge that goes into jazz creation is their justification for saying everything has its place." All in all, Marsalis wanted to say that in a cultural climate where due respect to genuine artistic creation is replaced with fanatical flattering to noble savages, musical art is doomed to die down. The same applies to any other genre of art.

Take Mozart, for example. I don't want to talk about his operas, not just because The Marriage of Figaro or Don Giovanni is not to my personal liking, but because we see little trace of purification of his innate property in these operatic works. He is known for his scatophilic bent, which should be interpreted as the sign of developmental failure, shown not only in his private life but also in music. That means his talent came into full bloom when he could "sublimate" his mental aberration with the help of musicians, conductors, and most importantly audiences including his patrons from the nobility of the 18th century. If these people surrounding him had tried to suppress his socially unacceptable trait, instead of helping him sublimate it, he might have ended up as a restroom painter. I see a certain similarity to the sublimation of the mental aberration of Mozart in the process of dialectical sublation in our debates. To borrow Karl Marx's way of explaining the dialectical process of the value-creating chain, we can say, "a musical piece which no one appreciates is potentially a musical piece but actually it's nothing more than a string of notes." The only difference lies with the fact that unlike an industrial product, music is "purposive in itself."

Today, this painstaking process is all gone everywhere. If you are one of those dupes, you will say marketers of consumer goods are still willing to listen to their customers so they stay attuned to the market and can develop a new product or a new version of the old product that meets their changing demand. In theory, that should be true. But in reality, you are absolutely wrong. The fact of the matter remains that consumers' demand is artificially created by manufacturers. In the industrialized world, consumers addicted to allegedly new products always remain consumers without getting involved in the value-creating process.

This is especially true with Japan. As I have repeatedly pointed out, the propaganda about 和魂洋才 (Japanese spirit and Western learning) drove the Japanese people into the causeless and unwinnable war. But since the war defeat, the same mindset has taken another devastating toll on the Japanese culture, if it still deserves to be called one. There's no sign their enthusiasm to "learn" from the West will subside anytime soon. They keep importing art pieces from the West only to put them in practical use. There is a German word Gebrauchsmusik which means music for practical use. But to the Japanese, every musical piece falls on this category. A good example is the 4th movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. In the last half century, they have been substituting it for the second national anthem, especially in December, although they don't understand a word in the lyrics written by Friedrich Schiller. Nothing is "purposive in itself" in this country.

In other words, they are just consuming Western art the same way they consume commodities. There are no appreciation, no dialectical interaction, no feedback, no sublimation, no sublation. As a natural consequence, these conformists have turned their country into a cultural wasteland, which is full of shit.

If you have used public restrooms on both sides of the pacific, you are impressed to know the walls in Japanese restrooms are as clean as white snow when compared to those in U.S. cities. There are two reasons.

The first reason is the national disease, germophobia. I think all Japanese are pathologically obsessed with cleanliness because of the myth of homogeneity and their xenophobic fear that foreign visitors may notice they remain uncultivated despite their appearance like modern citizens. Besides, no other nation has a more suppressive culture than Japan. Day and night throughout the year, people are practicing the old wisdom that goes, "The nail that sticks out must be hammered down." This way, they try to nip the slightest sign of aberration in the bud. But it's an unattainable goal to purify the nation of all germs. Actually, the population of lingerie thefts and voyeurs is enormous here. And believe it or not, a good part of these perverts are well-educated people like university professors or company executives. But take it easy, every city across the nation retains a big crew of professional toilet cleaners. If you draw an obscene picture or calligraphy on the toilet wall, it will be wiped out by the end of the day.

Another reason public restrooms in Japan are relatively clean is because people don't have to vent their perverse frustration in the restrooms. This cultural climate always embraces un-sublimated mental aberration on the condition they act as noble savages who observe the basic rules of this society.

These are how I distinguish art from crap. In his last mail, the other end of our non-dialectical discussion wrote: "I assure you I'll come back as soon as I find time." I don't know if he finds time before I die. But I don't really care because if he will have realized by then art is something that "promotes the cultivation of the mental powers" and that Enka doesn't help him break his fixation to the traumatic past, that won't make any difference to the imperial shithouse we live in. I will feel contented, though, as a self-styled shrink, because what else could I have done?

I used to be a bookworm, but not anymore because my eyesight is quickly deteriorating. That only leaves me with music. That's why I'm extremely fussy about music. When I was younger (19 to 70 years of age,) I sang songs, played them on the piano, the guitar, and some other instruments, and danced to them. Now the only way I can derive enjoyment from good music is to listen. If I have a problem in that respect, it's the fact I can't afford to buy a CD or DVD, or have the broken removable-disk drive of my computer fixed.

A surprisingly large number of people say they want to die listening to Mozart, Oscar Peterson, or the like. It's laughable because love of music is love of life. Music is one of the few things that made my life worth living or will make my last days more tolerable. It has absolutely nothing to do with death. I'll stop loving music one day before I die. But until then, I'll look for good music.

Several weeks ago, I accidentally hit performances of a contemporary group of "Western swing" named "Hot Club of Cowtown" when I was doing video-mining on YouTube. (Look at the video embedded below.) I hadn't heard the name before, but it was a pleasant surprise to know that there still are a small number of people who carry on the tradition of the American music 44 years after the Woodstock disaster. Aside from the unparalleled virtuosity displayed by the fiddler, the guitarists (including Frank Vignola as a guest,) and the "slap" bassist, I was deeply impressed by their "zero-impurity" music. Each of them is enjoying the music, nothing else, while sharing the joy with other members and the audience. And the audience doesn't have to be urged to applaud. Real spontaneity we can never expect from noble savages and their followers is what their music is all about.

I think I will further talk about Hot Club of Cowtown in a separate post in comparison with "AKB48", Japan's most popular group of supposedly cute girls who sing and dance exactly as they are schooled.



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