Novelty in the Age of Criticism

Lower Manhattan Panorama because I am in Jersey City, NJ tonight.
Lower Manhattan panorama because I am in Jersey City, NJ as I write this, with an awesomely aesthetic view.

Gary Cutting from Notre Dame and the New York Times knows how to incite an intellectual riot, as demonstrated by his most recent The Stone piece, Mozart vs. the Beatles. “High art” is superior to “low art” because of its “stunning intellectual and emotional complexity.” He sums up:

My argument is that this distinctively aesthetic value is of great importance in our lives and that works of high art achieve it much more fully than do works of popular art.

But what makes up these notions of complexity and distinctive aesthetic value? One might try to enumerate those values or create a list. Or, alternatively, one might instead claim that time serves as a sieve for the values that Cutting is claiming make one work of art superior to another, thus leaving open the possibility for the enumerated list approach to be incomplete but still a useful retrospective system of valuation.

I previously argued in a 1994 paper (published in 1997), Complexity Formalisms, Order and Disorder in the Structure of Art, that simplicity and random chaos exist in a careful balance in art that reflects our underlying grammatical systems that are used to predict the environment. And Jürgen Schmidhuber took the approach further by applying algorithmic information theory to novelty seeking behavior that leads, in turn, to aesthetically pleasing models. The reflection of this behavioral optimization in our sideline preoccupations emerges as art, with the ultimate causation machine of evolution driving the proximate consequences for men and women.

But let’s get back to the flaw I see in Cutting’s argument that, in turn, fits better with Schmidhuber’s approach: much of what is important in art is cultural novelty. Picasso is not aesthetically superior to the detailed hyper-reality of Dutch Masters, for instance, but is notable for his cultural deconstruction of the role of art as photography and reproduction took hold. And the simplicity and unstructured chaos of the Abstract Expressionists is culturally significant as well. Importantly, changes in technology are essential to changes in artistic outlook, from the aforementioned role of photography in diminishing the aesthetic value of hand renderings to the application of electronic instruments in Philip Glass symphonies. Is Mozart better than Glass or Stravinsky? Using this newer standard for aesthetics, no, because Mozart was working skillfully (and perhaps brilliantly) but within the harmonic model of Classical composition and Classical forms. He was one of many. But Wagner or Debussy changed the aural landscape, by comparison, and by the time of tone rows and aleatoric composition, conventional musical aesthetics were largely abandoned, if only fleetingly.

Modernism and postmodernism in prose and poetry follow similar trajectories, but I think there may have been a counter-opposing force to novelty seeking in much prose literature. That force is the requirement for narrative stories that are about human experiences, which is not a critical component of music or visual art. Human experience has a temporal flow and spatial unity. When novelists break these requirements in complex ways, writing becomes increasingly difficult to comprehend (perhaps a bit like aleatoric music?), so the efforts of novelists more often cling to convention while using other prose tools and stylistic fireworks to enhance the reader’s aesthetic valuations. Novelty hits less often, but often with greater challenges. Poetry has, by comparison, been more experimental in forms and concepts.

And architecture? Cutting’s Chartres versus Philip Johnson?

So, returning to Cutting, I have largely been arguing about the difficulty of calling one piece of what Cutting might declare high art as aesthetically superior to another piece of high art. But my goal is that if we use cultural novelty as the primary yardstick, then we need to reorder the valuations. Early rock and roll pioneers, early blues artists, early modern jazz impresarios—all the legends we can think of—get top billing alongside Debussy. Heavy metal, rap, and electronica inventors live proudly with the Baroque masters. They will likely survive that test-of-time criteria, too, because of the invention of recording technologies, which were not available to the Baroque composers.

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