[I]t’s music you dislike in theory and get off on in fact that keeps you growing—everything else is spiritual maintenance.
Making [an experience] seem beautiful is a little more than just prettying it up. In fact it’s something much more than that. It’s trying to make it acceptable…[and] most truths are unpalatable. You know what a boa constrictor does if it has something to eat that’s unpalatable? It sort of covers it with the boa constrictor equivalent of saliva until it can slide down easily. Well, I think that’s really what I mean by beautifying. If you have a rough truth like ‘life is first boredom then fear’ you’ve got to somehow bring the reader’s mind round to the point where that is the only possible exit from this particular situation. That’s what I mean by making it beautiful. It’s like Shakespeare making _King Lear_ beautiful. _King Lear_ is beautiful but it’s very painful.
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…’The Perfect Kiss’ makes no attempt to hide what a limited vocalist Sumner was and is, but it’s that fragile non-voice that keeps New Order on the side of the angels, and away from candied perfection, where pop music so often dies.
“Despite Stravinsky’s denial that music expresses feeling, the naive listener cannot see it any other way. That is music’s curse, its mindless aspect. All it takes is a violinist playing the three long opening notes of a largo, and a sensitive listener will sigh, “Ah, how beautiful!” In those three notes that set off the emotional response, there is nothing, no invention, no creation, nothing at all: it’s the most ridiculous ‘sentimentality hoax.’ But no one is proof against that perception of music, or against the foolish sigh it stirs.”
— Milan Kundera, in Encounter. He borrows the phrase “sentimentality hoax” from Carl Jung, who wrote that we in the West “are involved in a sentimentality hoax of gigantic proportions… Sentimentality is the superstructure erected upon brutality.” Stravinsky, for his part, asserted that the “foolish sigh” of emotion in response to music was, essentially, bullshit:
“For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention – in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being.”
That we react emotionally to music, to art in general, to nearly everything we encounter is a quality of our species with which we’re all familiar, against which we sometimes struggle but which we at other moments celebrate; Kundera elsewhere describes much of European civilization as being driven by “Homo Sentimentalis…the man who has raised feelings to a category of value,” which leads, in his view, to the falsification of feeling, tacitly competitive emoting, and other grotesqueries.
Whether one accepts Stravinsky’s argument, or Kundera’s rather more gentle variation, there is little doubt that part of developing one’s sense of an art is learning to disambiguate whatever feelings it provokes from its formal qualities; very bad art, after all, regularly precipitates tears, joy, fascination, amusement, longing.
The question remains, of course, whether good art can fail to do so. If art can succeed without any appeal to the intuitive faculties of an audience, it does so through referentiality, through some essentially essayistic commentary on the history of its medium or style or content; I have at times argued that what is essayistic, what requires an essay on a wall in a gallery to explain itself, its raison d’être, ought to have been an essay itself, as opposed to text encoded in the visual, structural, or musical. But I am unsure.
In any event, it is an arresting idea: that “music’s curse” is “its mindless aspect,” its capacity to move us without creative justification, to strike at us without any formal sophistication or even compositional intentionality. It is a curse because we respond emotionally to what is familiar, to what we’ve associatively learned to consider moving –”unconsciously or by force of habit”– and as such we favor what is clichéd in music, or what is only very slightly inventive: a new way of producing the 1-4-5 of rock, a new way to process the banal harmonies of the singer, etc. It is a curse because it rewards the derivative and repackaged and punishes the novel, the creative, the bold.
It is a curse, too, because it is a wonderful quality which only a composer like Stravinsky could deny, a quality which all other forms of art must envy; a real curse must also be a gift, because it then becomes impossible to abandon or combat; and thus: music remains the most affective of the arts, the most universal, the most beloved, the most dynamic, yet as often as not the most foolish, if not in its essence than in the sighs it cannot but seek to stir.
Since the sublime remains primarily an aesthetic category in Kant’s work, he maintains the idea that ‘safe distance’ characterizes the experience of the sublime. When viewing a painting of a turbulent storm at sea, one can contemplate the superior force of nature while remaining comfortably assured that one is safely in a museum and not at sea! Friedrich Schiller, in contrast, takes things one step further and ‘liberates’ the sublime from the safe cocoon of aesthetic experience. The political terror under Jacobin rule following the French Revolution had deeply impressed him and shaped his view of the sublime, as elaborated in a series of essays.
In the era of converging technologies, it is technology itself that gains a confounding character in its battle with nature.
In order to accomplish this liberation, Schiller rephrases Kant’s distinction between the mathematical sublime and the dynamic sublime. In a 1793 text called On the Sublime (Vom Erhabenen), Schiller argues that the mathematical sublime ought to be labeled the theoretical sublime. The immeasurable magnitude of the high mountains and the night sky evoke in us a purely reflexive observation of infinitude. When nature shows itself to be a destructive force, on the other hand, we experience a practical sublime, which affects us directly in our instinct for self-preservation. Still, in Schiller’s view, we need to make yet another distinction. When we view life-threatening forces from a safe distance – for instance, by observing a storm at sea from a safe place on land – we might experience the grandeur of the storm, but not its sublime character. An experience can only be truly sublime when our lives are actually endangered by the superior forces of nature.
And yet, for Schiller, even that is not enough. Human beings have an understandable urge to shield themselves both physically and morally from the superior forces of nature. He who protects his country by building dykes attempts to gain ‘physical certainty’ over the violence of a westerly gale; he who believes his soul will live on in heaven after death protects himself by means of ‘moral certainty.’ He who manages to truly conquer his fear of the sea, or of death, shows his grandness, but loses the experience of the sublime. According to Schiller, truly sublime is he who collapses in a glorious battle against the superior powers of nature or military violence. “One can show oneself to be great in times of good fortune, but merely noble in times of bad fortune” (“Groß kann man sich im Glück, erhaben nur im Unglück zeigen”). (Schiller 1962, 502). Schiller’s work transforms the sublime from an ambiguous aesthetic category into a no less ambiguous category of life.
Fraught and self-involved with no time for jokes, not asexual but otherwise occupied, and never ever common, [Thom Yorke’s] is the idealized voice of a pretentious college boy.
Helvetica is a product of the times because it is a deconstruction of pretense. In previous centuries the most popular fonts were those that exhibited fine detail and evident craftsmanship, and those were a reflection of the culture in which they were made. Helvetica’s success lies in its versatility of uses for a culture where people are bombarded by many different and competing images and styles.
Jose Ortega y Gasset in The Dehumanization of Art writes, “I no longer believe in any ideas except the ideas of shipwrecked men.” This seems to have something to do with the idea that people speak deeper truths when they are wrestling with the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs rather than tweaking things at the tip-top of the pyramid. Grudin’s Design and Truth seems to be written almost exclusively for people at the top of the pyramid, people who worry most about which refrigerator will best reflect who they are as an individual, people who see flimsy remotes as examples of true evil in the world. This is a book for people interested in maximizing their daily routine and getting increased performance out of their desktops. This design theory will not save those who actually need saving.
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