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Robert Colescott, 1925-2009

Post #1364 • June 12, 2009, 11:34 AM • 51 Comments

I learned this morning from Artsjournal that Robert Colescott has died. Colescott developed a wild, cartoonish style indebted somewhat to Guston and used it to make mincemeat out of the histories of black-white relations in America. He produced a fair number of insipid scions—Colescott is one of the reasons I can't get excited about Kara Walker—but his legacy deserves better remembrance. He studied with Leger, looked hard at Renaissance painting, and riffed on race and sex by insouciantly packing lumpy figures into large canvases like wallets full of gnocchi.

The New York Times elicited the reason for his artistic success.

When asked if he didn’t feel an obligation to serve “the black community,” Mr. Colescott replied, “The way that one serves is to serve art first,” adding that “the way you serve art is by being true to yourself.”

Richard Lacayo has an appreciation.

I attended an informal talk that Colescott gave to a classroom of RISD students a couple of decades ago, and I remember his affability and consummate lack of pretense. He avuncularly encouraged us all, and I thought of him gratefully thereafter.



Oriane Stender

June 12, 2009, 11:16 AM

Colescott came and talked to one of my undergraduate art classes at UC Berkeley. (His son was in the program.) I too recall him as very down to earth and not concerned about being fashionable or fitting in to any particular school or genre. And you're right; he paved the way for people like Kara Walker, but he didn't make big pronouncements about the importance of his work. He just did it. Although to be fair to KW, I think it's more other people (critics, curators) than the artist herself who are making the big pronouncements.



June 12, 2009, 12:26 PM

Like Walker, Colescott used all kinds of black stereotypes in his subject matter, but the work was so much more all-out and don't-give-a-damn and full of rough humor.

Walker's work is just too arch and full of cutesy upscale irony for my taste. And unlike Colescott's it is not very interesting to look at.



June 12, 2009, 2:44 PM

Well, OP, it all depends on who you're trying to impress or win over, or on what your aim is. A certain approach is more likely to "get" a certain crowd, and some artists are at least as interested in winning that crowd as they are in the work itself. I believe it's called career issues.



June 12, 2009, 4:52 PM

I don't dislike Walker and don't find her work especially calculated in the way Jack describes, but I think she's gotten stuck inside a very limited visual problem. I prefer Colescott's inventiveness and raucous energy.



June 12, 2009, 6:02 PM

Calculation does not necessarily start out as such. However, once a certain approach generates a certain response from a certain audience, and both the response and the audience are desirable to the artist, there is a tendency to stick to or milk that approach for all it's worth--even if its scope is very limited and/or limiting.



June 12, 2009, 6:14 PM

There is nothing wrong with "calculation", as such, just as there is nothing wrong with any specific method. The problem with the Walker kind of art is that it is designed to evoke a response which is provided by the visual material but targeted not toward visual delectation but toward the production of a certain kind of intellectul response, and it gives us little else. In a sense it is a one-liner.

Colescott is piled high with stereotypes and take-offs and bizarreness but it is all packed unto a rich, full-bodied painterly package. It's like a steak dinner versus a petit-four.



June 12, 2009, 6:15 PM

Jack has described, essentially, the role/trajectory of an entertainer. Frank Sinatra. The Beatles.

Artists with a capital A don't seem to consider the values, desires, whims, etc. of an audience at all. If an audience gets it, well, that's icing on the cake, but never the motivation.



June 12, 2009, 6:27 PM

Opie, re Colescott, what you are calling rich, I would've called loud. I have a really hard time with use of rudimentary artistic means to promote notions.



June 12, 2009, 7:14 PM

There are, of course, different kinds of calculation, aimed at different ends, which is what OP alludes to re Walker's work, and I agree with his assessment (I would have said one-trick pony instead of one-liner, but it's the same idea).

As I see it, the validity or respectability of calculation, if such it be, depends on what it aims to accomplish (and how well it does so). Mozart was no doubt a "calculating" opera composer, and so was Verdi, but that's obviously not the same qualitatively as the calculation of a commercial musical hack.



June 12, 2009, 8:08 PM

Tim, having an audience is more than "icing on the cake". It may be a very small, select audience, but it is part of the process, part of the cake, if you will. On the other hand, if you mean a mass audience, that is more complicated. It is not crucial. The only crucial one is the small selected audience, the one with the best taste, the greatest power of discernment.

That said, major artists (capital "A" you might say) are a sub-set of the larger group of entertainers in general because art is entertainment: an end in itself, to be enjoyed for itself.

To some extent the best mass entertainers do what you say the capital "A"s do: move outside the "values, desires, whims" of the audience to take them to a better place. Elvis did that. So did the Beatles and Sinatra, though perhaps not as well as Elvis did.

Pop culture is not the enemy. The ugly, the stupid, the trite, whether made up for the masses or the "enlightened", those are the enemies.



June 12, 2009, 8:58 PM

John, as I understand it, an entertainer's priority is to discern the audience's values and then affirm them by reflecting them back to the audience. If the audience "get's it," then the entertainer has a gig. Artists do what they do. If the audience "gets it," hurray. Whether or not an audience "gets it," artists work. The culling and discernment happens with time, making the audience.

I think we probably agree, just saying it a bit differently.



June 12, 2009, 10:13 PM

We certainly agree on a lot, Tim. But the best entertainers do not merely throw the audience's values back at them. Jack Parr, Dick Cavvett, and the great William Buckley expanded more than they "discerned and affirmed". The entertainer's priority is to entertain. Being entertained is a state that is complete in itself, absorption in a pleasurable way. Crap, my values often bore me. If all someone can do is affirm them, my attention quickly wanders.



June 12, 2009, 10:44 PM

Tim I don't think any successful entertainer "affirms the audience's values". That is rather intellectualiized and off the mark. They just do the best they can, see who goes for the act and plug away at it.

They all work very hard at what they do, and some go over and others don't. And there are plenty worth watching & listenting to and plenty who suck, and plenty of different audiences for them all.

Unfortuntely art has evolved in a way to limit the audience for the good stuff. This has a lot more to do with sociology than art - more to do with the audience than the product, maybe - but we are stuck with it.



June 13, 2009, 6:39 AM

"...more to do with the audience than the product ..." Right. After WWII the audience for art began to expand greatly as the number of participants in higher education skyrocketed and university art departments expanded. As the 60s developed, academics noticed that anyone who supported "traditional" styles over "radical" styles turned out to be wrong, so art appreciation courses began to explain "difficult" art more and more as having value just because it was difficult. Not that the education system was the sole cause of the expanded audience, rather it was also the result of the growing appreciation in society at large for art, an appreciation that suddenly could easily include bizarre things. Not everyone loved art, but the number who did grew by leaps and bounds and thus the resources available to the art system grew proportionately.

Individual members of this audience could not establish their own measure of the worth of this or that specific work of art, so they began to look more and more to what others seemed to like to learn what they should like, and herding behavior set in. Why are the drips on a Pollock worth more than the drips on a house painter's drop cloth is a question that is decided by the herd as an aggregate, rather than by each individual for him or herself.

Initially getting the larger audience behind Pollock seemed like a good thing. His appearance in Life was a great step forward in widening the resource base for emerging art. But it led to the creation of the monster opie says "we are stuck with".

And yes we are stuck. "The good stuff" has not been entirely shut out, but it seems that it must persist much longer than ever before to receive much acceptance. And the distractions in the art scene form an enormous "art glut" that Darby Bannard commented on in the 80s when it was, in fact, not that daunting, compared to what it has become now, 20 years later. It is impossible to hear great music if it must compete with the noise made by a jet engine at full throttle. But that is exactly the task before us. It doesn't bother me nearly as much as it once did. It can be dealt with., for instance, has become one of the major resources for coping. So is a kind of network of "up there" artists who maintain contact with each other via other aspects of the internet which, despite all the limitations intrinsic to "dots on the screen", have provided the means to make up for the lack of geographic centrality that weighs on this group.

I don't know if this can work, but right now it appears to be one of the stronger parts of anything resembling a solution. Like always, artists making some "good stuff" are the only necessary part of the core. The rest changes as the times change.



June 13, 2009, 7:28 AM

", for instance, has become one of the major resources for coping"

Indeed. And, quite selfishly, let's hope Franklin keeps it going.



June 13, 2009, 9:51 AM

Individual members of this audience could not establish their own measure of the worth of this or that specific work of art

Why not? What was stopping them?

so they began to look more and more to what others seemed to like to learn what they should like, and herding behavior set in

Why? Was there no other option?



June 13, 2009, 9:57 AM

As the 60s developed, academics noticed that anyone who supported "traditional" styles over "radical" styles turned out to be wrong

Wrong, or "wrong"? Either way, according to whom? On what or whose authority? Was the authority legitimate or bogus?



June 13, 2009, 12:11 PM

Hi Jack. Good questions.

Why not? What was stopping them?

Contemporaneous art is the hardest to sort out, even for those who are extremely talented at it. Clem once related to me that he could not get a handle on Pollock's work the first time he visited his studio and hence he, Lee, and Jackson sat in silence for 45 minutes during that visit. His taste expanded as a result, though, and so he was able to see it later. People can't do what they can't do.

Was there no other option?

All the newly enlisted soldiers in the great radical art project can't be expected to do as well as Clement Greenberg. They just can't see what they are looking at but they can learn what the other members of the herd are doing about it, and follow along. That probably is the only option for many of them, most of them. This is one of the effects of expanding the audience for contemporary art and so a different sociological model applies to it. It is a far different mix than the Medici.

About "wrong": the academics might have based their judgment on seeing for themselves that the impressionists were better than their highly touted contemporaneous competition - because enough time had passed for collective taste to open up to the difference. And from the herding point of view, "everyone" loves the impressionists now so that is another source of who was right and who was wrong at the time of their emergence. At some point the pattern of "traditional=bad" and "radical=good" takes the dominate place and judgments are based on that. Along with literal content being elevated to the level of being the major component of "advanced art".

About "authority": in a democracy a large group that is skilled in the process of gaining control acquires authority, even if they are not the majority. In the case of the art system, a group that started out without a majority but a lot of moxie has leveraged itself to the point where it is also the majority - a large majority - and hence possesses all the more authority. I don't concern myself much with whether or not it is legitimate. It's power is certainly real, damn real, too damn real. That's our situation, the one we must cope with.



June 13, 2009, 12:23 PM

One solution to the "power of the majority" in the art system is to just ignore it. I think that is what Tim was getting at. While I would not go so far as to say there is no need for any audience whatsoever, it is necessary to narrow that audience down to the very few that can see what the hell is going on. Those individuals are seldom placed very high in the art world.

Paying too much attention to the system as it now is configured probably contributes to its hold on cultural resources. But it is still hard to ignore them. I seem to remember Cezanne spent his entire life trying to get into a salon show, didn't he? We all have our obsessions.



June 13, 2009, 1:27 PM

We have to remember that we're never dealing with a perfect monolith. I did the Chelsea gallery rounds back in April, and while I saw a lot of silly garbage, I also saw great shows by Leon Kossof, Thorton Willis, and Louise Fishman. As an alternative or a supplement to ignoring the system, one could work with the amenable parts of the system that evince sense.



June 13, 2009, 3:57 PM

So what does that make people like us, John? Aliens? Aberrant? Supranormal? Or does it rather make the members of the herd subnormal? And even if, as you suggest, many or most of the art herd cannot go at it alone, why don't they simply pursue something else, where they can function on their own and not as sheep?



June 13, 2009, 4:28 PM

Thanks for the Kossoff link, Franklin. That View of Hackney is particularly fine.



June 13, 2009, 5:02 PM

Whatever we are, we are not members of the herd as far as current trends in art go. If, by coincidence, we happen to follow along with the herd, it is not because we let it be our guide.

I don't really know much about it, but I've read that a certain part of the brain called the "limbic system" or some such is instinctively called upon when we are uncertain about the right course of action. This part of the brain is said to be responsible for instigating herd behavior. When we don't know what to do, look to our fellow humans for clues. Maybe it is something that was once useful for survival, but no longer is. On the other hand, there are situations where I am unsure about how to act - formal dinners, for instance - and I find it useful to do what everyone else is doing. Or other unfamiliar social circumstances. Going along to get along has its virtue.

It can get you into trouble, though. In October 07 the highest percentage of bulls ever recorded amongst professional market advisers was reached, something like 98%. That was not a good time to join that particular herd.

Stocks, like art, don't lend themselves well to easy measurements of value. Investors (gamblers, really) buy them in the hope that other investors in the future will pay a premium to own them. But the future is always uncertain, and so the herding instinct is easily aroused in the vacuum this uncertainty creates, generating at least the certainty that everyone else is taking a specific action or attitude.

The monetary value of current art especially is deeply involved in a similar uncertainty. And for most people, so is its value qua art, its aesthetic value. So they follow the trends or they cease involvement at all. Might be better for art if more of them got out, but there is no way to control that in a relatively free society.

As Franklin points out, I am not talking about a pure monolith. There are exceptions here and there and it is probably better use of our time to seek out the exceptions than try to change the mainstream.



June 13, 2009, 6:09 PM

Hypothesis, theory, or what you will:

Art (especially with a capital A) is not a necessity, however desirable or rewarding it might be. That means "getting it" is not essential. Only a minority of people ever do get it, though perhaps more would under different circumstances, but they would probably still be a minority.

The same is true of any number of pursuits, but with art there is greater pressure to appear or pretend to get it, with a concomitant temptation to take advantage of the pretenders (which can be very profitable indeed, in a variety of ways). No doubt this has always been the case, but the situation has escalated to such a degree that it has become a grotesquely bloated travesty.

The real problem is not bad artists, even if they proliferate like rabbits, or lousy dealers, no matter how venal, or useless art critics, or corrupt institutional types, or fraudulent academic "authorities." The real problem is the art audience or public that cannot or will not call out the emperor/s for being naked and refuse to play along. It's not like being a non-Christian in medieval Europe, or being a homosexual in Victorian times, or being pro-democracy in a totalitarian regime. It is perfectly doable, yet the sheep are legion, and evidently bound and determined to stay that way, as if their life depended on it. This is ultimately irrational, which is not to say it cannot be explained. But that, the sheep syndrome among those who effectively maintain and sustain the system, is the root of the problem.



June 13, 2009, 9:28 PM

By the way, John, in the last sentence of #17, I initially wrote real where I subsequently used legitimate, precisely because, as you note, the authority or power of the current art system is indeed real. However, like the power of the loon who runs North Korea, it is not legitimate, even if the art herd is all too happy to be thus led (or manipulated).



June 14, 2009, 7:34 AM

There are exceptions here and there and it is probably better use of our time to seek out the exceptions than try to change the mainstream. and its commenters have done a rather thorough job of pointing out infirmities in the art world and speculating on their causes. I assume at this point that taste is a talent, less rare than the talent for making art, but far from ubiquitous. So many people are involved in art who don't have good taste that we're more likely to see mediocrities on exhibit in contemporary spaces than not. I believe this has happened in music as well, and that I belong to the unwashed masses interested in music but lacking really fine taste. So it goes.

The unsolved problem here, and the one that could use the analysis, is how to create opportunities for the good stuff. Personally, I'd like to figure out how the good stuff can create its own support network. I'd like to figure out how to nudge the people so inclined to demand more of art. Solving those problems would make life a lot more tolerable for the people involved with better work either as makers or aficionados.



June 14, 2009, 10:15 AM

I don't have the solution you seek, Franklin, at least not all of it, since the solution is probably multifactorial. Also, since I am not an artist, my solution is unlikely to suit those who make art or are more dependent on or beholden to the damn system. However, I expect my solution, or some version of it, is probably a necessary or basic element, even if not the only element.

I did my time (too much of it) as a serious, even compulsive contemporary art person. True, we're talking Miami, not London or New York, but I doubt the outcome would have been different in a bigger-league location--I might, in fact, have burned out faster. The point is that, though I took the whole business considerably more seriously than it merited, to the point I came to have a decent grasp of what masochism must be like, there was a limit and, when it was reached, I did the only reasonable thing: I bailed.

I emphasize that my overriding concern was the quality of the art as such, not the various possible fringe benefits or peripheral considerations that attract so many to the scene and keep them in it. In other words, I'm a very focused customer, the sort that goes to the opera almost exclusively for what transpires onstage in the performance, and if that doesn't satisfy me, the experience is automatically a disappointment, not to say a failure.

I really tried to make it work for me, but it seldom did, and seldom doesn't cut it. Nobody, assuming s/he can help it, should waste precious time and energy on any pursuit that fails to satisfy well enough, consistently enough. There are alternatives. Plenty, actually. Two that I have found eminently suitable are Japanese prints and, more recently, Japanese ceramics. I love the stuff, and it only seems to get better. Again, Miami is hardly Tokyo or Kyoto, but I just got some gorgeous books on ceramics, and the pictures alone are good enough to eat. If art, any art, wants my attention, it has to earn it. Period. I've already wasted enough time.

So, I'm done chasing after the unworthy and beating my head against the wall. All of the bunk and nonsense out there will have to do without me, as it no doubt can--there's no shortage of suckers, opportunists and people satisfied with various kinds of secondary gain. I have better things to do.

The short version: reject what doesn't work for you and find something that does, on your terms. The power of the system depends entirely on followers or adherents.

Step 1: Stop following.



June 14, 2009, 1:27 PM

Taste is a talent, which improves with cultivation. It is randomly distributed.

Many people involved with art do so not from native taste but for reasons which have nothing to do with taste. Art is very popular now, and these people are a wide majorty.

The only way to get them to like the good stuff (or act as if they do; they will never really like it) is to make the good stuff popular, or otherwise accepted, by "expert" opinion, or some other factor, such as the weeding out of time, but this seems not to be happening now.

Back when the audience was rich and aristocratic art was realistic and evolving. What was better was more coincidental with skill and facility and it was not hard to see.

The same thing is true today in activities that are truly focused and skill-based, like athletics, or carpentry, or computer ability. But today the more ambitious and talented artists usually don't do straight realism but instead do stuff that takes a good eye to see, and thereby seal their fate. Politics and fashion take over and monsters bloom.

It 's all quite consistent with human nature.



June 14, 2009, 1:28 PM

Taste is a talent, which improves with cultivation. It is randomly distributed.

Many people involved with art do so not from native taste but for reasons which have nothing to do with taste. Art is very popular now, and these people are a wide majorty.

The only way to get them to like the good stuff (or act as if they do; they will never really like it) is to make the good stuff popular, or otherwise accepted, by "expert" opinion, or some other factor, such as the weeding out of time, but this seems not to be happening now.

Back when the audience was rich and aristocratic art was realistic and evolving. What was better was more coincidental with skill and facility and it was not hard to see.

The same thing is true today in activities that are truly focused and skill-based, like athletics, or carpentry, or computer ability. But today the more ambitious and talented artists usually don't do straight realism but instead do stuff that takes a good eye to see, and thereby seal their fate. Politics and fashion take over and monsters bloom.

It 's all quite consistent with human nature.



June 14, 2009, 3:46 PM

If people (meaning the audience or potential audience) stopped bothering with bad art like they stopped bothering with bad "serious" music, the current art behemoth would shrivel up to a pitiful, irrelevant, insignificant nothing. I know that's sad, but when things aren't good enough, they shouldn't be treated as if they were. My personal solution, which does work for me, could also work for a great many people in my position, and as I've said, people in my position, as a group, are the critical factor in the equation. No support means no power and no revenue. Very simple. Shape up and deliver the goods as wanted or go the way of "art" music. Those with the real power in their hands should use it, just as I'm doing. Trouble is, I appear to be highly, uh, atypical.



June 14, 2009, 4:10 PM

Wish I could present an approach that seemed like it could be effective to gaining more acceptance for the good stuff. Instead I have to settle for a somewhat haphazard approach, looking for the places and circumstances were it is valued.

Artblog provides one of those places; so does From the Mayor's Doorstep. The internet and digital imaging have made it much easier to share reproductions of art works with friends who know what they see. While reproductions in general are not a perfect way to see things, a JPEG is actually better than the 35mm slides of the past. They are better than most images printed in art mags, too.

The Edmonton group is notable as well. I don't know exactly how much interaction they have with each other, but assume it is of some strength. Gallery One in Toronto has its eye on the ball too, as does Jacobson-Howard in NYC.

On a number of occasions I have been pleasantly surprised by midwestern art students who clearly respond to the good stuff if it is shown to them. For instance, I sponsored a show of pictures by Darby Bannard a few years ago that did not include a lecture by the artist or anyone else about the work, nor was the artist invited to campus for "interaction". My proposal was very unusual for the school I worked at, so unusual that the show was initially opposed on the grounds that it had no "curricular value" by the esteemed committee assigned to develop exhibition priorities. As if without the artist hanging around to explain the work, art students had nothing to gain from it.

I wrangled myself onto the committee and pushed its approval through anyway. So one fine day there they were, a group of "scallops" hanging on the walls without an artist statement, without a CV on the wall, with no lecture, no opening reception, just plain good art displayed in silence. The majority of students loved it. That said something to me.



June 14, 2009, 4:14 PM

Jack - good idea in #30 to stop bothering with bad art. Good advice for all.



June 14, 2009, 7:33 PM

while i don't have it all figured out, as usual, a big part of the problem and solution revolves around $. $ commingled with marketing.



June 15, 2009, 9:42 AM

It seems to me that the 'salon' gets its support from the aristocracy, who don't really care what the particulars of the status quo are: they just want to make sure that those particular particulars stay the same. It's the defense of the status quo for its own sake, for the sake of conservativism, if you like.

SO, rich mucky-mucks get on boards of art museums, etc., and sure, they like good stuff on their own walls, maybe, but they know that for their museum, they need to be 'cutting edge' so they hire top-gun academic curators to fill the places with 'cutting edge' junk. They wouldn't put this stuff in their own homes, of course, but they know that's not what its about, if you want to be the President of a 'cutting edge' museum...

I think this is the heart of it: folks with a passing interest in art get involved, get 're-educated', or maybe better, 'converted' by the missionary zeal of the 'cutting edge' curator, art writers, etc., and just join the team, all too happy to defer to these 'experts'.

After all, the President of the board probably made his money in potash, or something. He's certainly not going to be the one to out his own incompetence regarding the fine fabrics of the emperor.



June 15, 2009, 10:22 AM

Opie and John, whether the entertainer intends it or not, being entertained means to be given pleasure, relaxation. Elvis, the Beatles and Sinatra innovated by treating some social issues with some popular musical styles. It gave (gives) people pleasure, and, some would argue that it expanded awareness (I wouldn't argue that.). Entertainment per se goes where audiences are and stays there with them, for the most part. Entertainment can't function without an audience. Entertainment is entirely based on the subjectivity of the audience. If you agreed with Wm. F. Buckley, you were entertained; if you didn't, you were dyspeptic.

'Art,' as I'm trying to use the word, gets done and exists whether an audience is there or not. "If a tree falls in a forest...," etc. Appreciation of art for itself requires getting beyond an audience's subjective reference point of whether or not one happens to like it, because often art reveals what wasn't seen before and so is not necessarily at least initially enjoyable or pleasurable. The way that art can undermine one's perspective can be initially, for instance, aggravating. Exposure is the way to get past the bothersome parts of art. So, a connoisseur would give Buckley the benefit of the doubt whether Buckley was pleasing or not. Audiences, on the other hand, as the term seems to be used in this thread, know what they like and like what they know.

Goya's 'May 3, 1808' and Grunewald's 'Crucifixion' (Isenheim Alterpiece), are stirring and horrific, but are they pleasurable? What I'm trying to say is that the worth of art goes so far past entertainment that entertainment is a tiny fraction of the experience. Renoir entertains to get us in the door, but then...

I guess you could say that a connoisseur is pleased to have an opportunity to discern and be part of that process. A crowd usually just wants, and is perfectly happy with, a goose. As the effects wear off and withdrawel sets in, the crowd is in line ready to pay for the next goose. So, from that viewpoint, what use is a crowd for an artist? But, John, I take your point in the first paragraph of #10.

The dumbers down of the crowd are the enemy. The situation wherein entire contingents of a population don't have the capability to discern the ugly, the stupid and the trite is the cause of all the concerns I've read on this blog. Yes, Jack and Opie, this is more or less the situation at any given time, but now, mon dieu...

Herding behavior has its day when independent thinking is frowned upon, as it is today. Of course getting the audience behind Pollock led to a monster, because the operation was false, promotional, and not genuinely enlightening. But absurdities like that have never stopped or even appreciably slowed the making of great art. I'm relieved to be ending this rambling on that note. I might add that I think this has been an exceptional thread.



June 15, 2009, 2:20 PM

Tim you are 100% right about being entertained. I always get a kick out of telling people that art is entertainment; "Cultured" people don't like to hear that because they have unfortunate associations with the word.

When one of my colleagues was challenged by a student declaring "but that painting is nothing but fun" he replied "fun is profound". Profundity is fun indeed, but first you must like profundity. (And stupid puns like "pro fun ditty").

However, the Beatles etc did not gain popularity by "treating social issues with musical styles"? What a dour observation! Sounds like something some acoustic guitar kid coming out of Pete Seeger would say. No, they were musically entertaining, that's all.

Initial displeasure at good art does not qualify our point here. I went through my teen years in a perpetual "shock of the better". The good stuff makes us bend, not the other way around. But once bent, the rewards are great.

Of course this has it dangers. Your typical culture vulture knows half the lesson, that is, good art demands that you like it, like it or not. So if they don't like it enough (and the :right people" do like it) they will declare they like it and often actually think they do like it. This is anarchy, of course.



June 15, 2009, 2:51 PM

Opie, "The good stuff makes us bend..."

How true, and once bent, always bent. No such thing as unknowing.



June 15, 2009, 4:08 PM

Opie, what I was trying to say about the Beatles is that they were more of a social phenomenon than they were great musicians. They did treat popular issues which until then were not in the pop arena, with popular musical styles. That was seen as a big innovation, giving them 'relavence' as well as more popularity, and people made a big deal about it. Of course it was all baloney, because what they were was ear candy for mostly bourgeois kids who wanted and could afford more more more. And the Beatles gave more more more with newer and newer flavors until everybody got tired of it and the law of diminishing returns set in. Nothing wrong with ear candy unless it's masking as something more, or unless that's all there is. Remember people going on and on about John Lennon, "the people's philosopher"?

As I recall, both Elvis and Sinatra actually dealt in being 'socially relavent,' but both left the idea behind.



June 15, 2009, 5:07 PM

I think we are seeing different musicians, Tim. All pop singers get into the kinds of themes their audiences are thinking about, but that does not amount to "social relevance", and it is mostly teeny love stuff anyway.

Musically, they all did something "beyond" just being popular. The Beatles were the last of the great songwriters of the tradition starting with comic opera in the 19th C through minstrelcy, Gilbert & Sullivan, Vaudeville, Jazz, and Musical Comedy. In my opinion song writing (and performing) since the Beatles time has descended into the pits. Much of it is just vile attitudinizing, and much of the rest is elevator music.

Sinatra is not a fave of mine, but he certainly had the ability to make a song "his",and I can understand his appeal. Elvis doesn't really grab me either, but he, more than anyone, brought the spirit of black music over to the white world. That has not been an unmixed blessing, but it was new and fresh at the time.

I suppose Bob Dylan and his ilk got into "social relevance". but again, it was all in the air - people wanted it back then.



June 15, 2009, 5:23 PM

Exactly, Opie. I didn't say the Beatles WERE socially relavent, but they were certainly ballyhooed as such, due in large part to the influence of Bob Dylan.

And, OK, if you want to place them in the tradition you mentioned, I'll give you that, though I don't see the Beatles as having the stature of a lot of others in that tradition.

Yes, songwriting and performing have gone into the pits, but that's where their audiences are. The Great Dumbing Down. Quality didn't go away; it just got squeezed to the outside. I'll see you there.



June 15, 2009, 6:03 PM

Again, I'll cite some of my experience the last few years with midwestern art students. They listen to some stuff that is basically noise. But they also strongly like some of the names that have been bandied about in this thread, including Sinatra, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Dylan, the Beatles, and so forth. "The times they are a changin'".



June 15, 2009, 6:29 PM

"The times they are a changin" That's the thing, John. Those names you mentioned don't have staying power. They pass with time. Mozart doesn't.



June 15, 2009, 7:03 PM

Sorry Tim, my point is exactly the opposite. Those names obviously have "staying power" when a current generation of 20 year olds adopt them.

The times are changing because this has begun to happen just when many were convinced that there must be "new music for the 21st century".



June 15, 2009, 7:17 PM

Well, John, I guess we disagree about quality. I'm betting that in a couple of hundred years all those names will be remembered as more to do with the passing parade than with important music of any kind, unless a composer comes along and weaves a Beatles jingle into a symphonic movement, or whatever, like so many popular tunes have been in the past, both distant and not-so-distant. I'm thinking of Dvorak, Sibelius, Beethoven, Brahms... They and many more all did that.



June 15, 2009, 7:29 PM

The issue Tim is one of levels, not quality. Your heavyweights are among the best in that division. Pop music is a different division entirely, but also contains some good stuff, along with the bad.

I would never say Elvis and Johnny Cash were heavyweights, just that they were good.



June 15, 2009, 7:55 PM

OK, John, but I think it's more like apples and oranges. Popular musicians get a rise out of me too. The dashboard in my car has served many times as my trap set whenever I'm squalling around on a freeway and a Jerry Lee Lewis tune comes on the radio. Who can listen to Brahms under those conditions? Plus, I can't dance (yet) to Brahms. Maybe that's what they do in Heaven.



June 15, 2009, 8:38 PM

I can't dance (yet) to Brahms. Maybe that's what they do in Heaven.

Dance is what my students would do when I had to leave the class for an extended period. They would quit painting, start dancing to the music I brought in, and video it with their cell phones. One day they even blocked the door with yellow tape lettered with "DANCE 101" that they whipped up for the occasion.

Maybe they like the "old" pop music because it has a beat.



June 15, 2009, 8:46 PM

I want to think that speaks well of you, John. That your students could be that confident of the situation. Did they get their work done? I'll assume yes if you don't reply.



June 15, 2009, 10:38 PM

Yes they did their work, eventually.



June 15, 2009, 11:25 PM

I like your idea of "divisions" John. There may be heirachies in art forms, but we don't have to sit around worrying about it. Not when there is so much good stuff of every kind out there.

Yes, there are some real simple things in music that help: beat, harmony, clarity, much else.

Jelly Roll Morton liked to say "sweet, soft, plenty rhythm"



June 16, 2009, 7:22 AM

You people are obviously quite out of it. The serious art music crowd (all 3 of them) would find you highly primitive in your tastes.



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