4/40 Art and Language

I’ve recently been perusing the book “The Conspiracy of Art” by Jean Baudrillard. His famous declaration in the late 1980’s was that “art is dead”, and that it was “confiscating banality, waste, and mediocrity to turn them into values and ideologies”.

This is a topic that I’d like to tackle more fully at another time, but there is one aspect of the argument that I would like to talk about today. It is that art, when talked about, is often very difficult to justify, to understand, to grasp, to appreciate, to care about. Music especially is subject to this because it is even less tangible than visual art, and takes longer to absorb. That is, you can look at a Rothko painting in it’s entirety in 1 second, notwithstanding how long it might take to really come to be in relationship with it. But, it takes a full hour to sit through all of Beethoven’s 9th or Eno’s “Neroli”. Further, you can’t put Bach, Iron Maiden, and Ryuichi Sakamoto all in the same room playing simultaneously and hope for acceptable results, though museums do it frequently with visual art.

Human language is a particularly interesting and destructive tool from the viewpoint of shared experience and creativity: it is absolutely necessary in terms of allowing communication, and yet in the very act of that communication it destructively edits and invalidates the experience. By nature, language quantises the subject, jamming a continuum of experience into a single word, chopping away much of the subtle and fine details. Consider talking about colour as an easy example: it’s very easy to say “blue” and yet it can mean thousands of shades. Imagine how much more complex this can be in terms of describing the effect of music in engaging what we usually call “feelings” but which are actually a huge range of physical, psychological, and emotional responses.

The issue is further complicated by songs, because they use language to communicate meaning, using music as a means to strengthen the emotional impact of the words. Without getting into the question of whether music is a human invention, it does beg the question: do the words serve the music, or the music the words?

I haven’t even touched on poets – masters of building clouds with bricks.

I myself struggle in writing even this blog as I feel I am quantising my experiences of music and living as I clumsily force words to try to effectively convey what I know I feel. How do you describe “home”?

We have to be careful to protect the non-verbal aspects of our artistic and creative experience. There is a reason why so-called esoteric schools reference the ineffable with such manipulative playfulness. Not being able to explain our art is a strength. Some mystery is good. Good art is mysterious. Why? Because it addresses and expresses aspects of our experience that contain true wealth but cannot be grasped, controlled, catalogued, or spoken about, and yet can be shared. This is the great gift of art for an intelligent species. It is the communication of all the parts of our being that the narrow frequency band of spoken and written language cannot touch. Where language begins, there marketing aka “incomplete truth” begins also. To paraphrase the philosophers: life places on man the demand for harmony while providing none of the conditions for it.

If this posting sounds confused and contorted…well, it is. But that’s what happens when you decide to talk instead of play! Surely this is the moment when the ecstatic mendicant points a finger to the moon, stumbling drunkenly along and laughing as I look down and struggle with words.

3 thoughts on “4/40 Art and Language

  1. Very interesting post, Tim, and thank you for the link to Baudrillard’s well-written Wikipedia page.

    I was struck by your reverence for poets and look forward to a post wherein you do expand on them. The idea that they build clouds with bricks fits nicely with the idea of language being destructive; I like the image of poets picking up word-bricks, after we have chopped off the detail and finesse, and building cloud-like structures that float above us.

    I wonder if the destructive nature of language stems from a totally different kind of evolutionary necessity than the development of music and art. Perhaps these are the roots of “work” and “leisure”.

    Your choice of “home” is particularly evocative, because it comes packed with such rich meaning for each person. When you say “home” to me, you have naturally chopped off all the detail of what home means to you, but you hand it over with assumed symbolic value, as Baudrillard might say. I have a different experience for my version of the word “home”, but when you say the word to me, I don’t simply call up my own experience and assume that is what you mean. To make sense of what you say I need to call up what I know of your experience of “home”, too, and also what the general population agrees is a sane interpretation of the word. And there is the shared experience, resurrected through the efficiency of language as a tool to a higher end. Even the mendicant has to reduce his thoughts to a gesture (sign language!) that he hopes can be interpreted as he intended.

    Art may or may not be dead (its largely cannibalistic diet can’t be healthy) but the shared experience still continues to surprise, unite and feed us if we put as much attention into absorbing as we do into producing.

    I didn’t mean for this to run so long, but you packed a bunch of very interesting ideas into that post! Keep up the great work, Tim.

  2. Great counter points, Keith. Thank you for these.

    I should have been a bit more specific, because I meant “word” language. You are quite right to point out the mendicant is also using a language, and obviously any musical or visual artist is also using a language. It’s the quantisation of *words* that I was trying to point to. The reason I felt this was important is that we seem to live in an age where the words seem to be becoming more important than their subjects. “We have become menu eaters” as Alan Watts said. Signifiers becoming more important than the signified.

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