A Total Critique of Culture
(c) 1993 Henry A. Flynt, Jr.
Chapter 6. Structure Art
6.1 Concept art as a pivot in the origin of my program
Of all the topics in FCTV, the topic which included
- structure art
- the "exact sciences" (logical linguistics, logic, mathematics)
- concept art
is the one that underwent the most development over the decades. My earliest surviving survey is "Concept Art," from 1961 (hereafter CA). In that document, my purpose in criticizing structure art, and in undermining mathematics, was to announce concept art as a new genre. Roughly, concept art explores the aesthetics of categorization, in works which serve as object-critiques of the exact sciences. (It was this last requirement which was never understood by the artists who adopted my phrase for their "word pieces.")
By the time I wrote "1966 Mathematical Studies," I had decided that the proper task was a total reorientation of the exact sciences. To announce this prospect far outweighed anything in the realm of art. This enterprise needed to be the province of new intellectual modalities. To conduct the exploration in the corrupt and disoriented arena of the art world would only have confused the issue.
My efforts in reorientation of the exact sciences grew to embrace many manuscripts, few of them published. The work evolved in a direct confrontation with conventional science. As the confrontation broadened and deepened, my treatment of mathematics in CA came to seem unacceptably terse. CA made one or two devastating points; but the exposition was abrupt, the intent was narrow--and I had based myself principally on Carnap's Logical Syntax of Language, a one-sided source. Today, the critique of mathematics in CA is of interest mainly in motivating the early concept-art compositions. (And as regards intellectual biography, in showing the original angle of my assault on the exact sciences.) My later treatments are far better positioned for the attention of a trained student of the exact sciences.
Eventually, as a tactical move, I revived concept art. Intellectual techniques invented in the course of the assault on logic and mathematics were split off, and turned into emblems. It seemed obligatory to resort to this device to publicize the ideas. Nevertheless, the ideas could be most expeditiously presented in expository prose. Be that as it may, I got significant statements on the new intellectual modalities published in conjunction with concept art.
Once we decide that the challenge to the exact sciences should unfold in that form--in expository manuscripts--then it is a side-issue to cast the results as art. The achievement of CA which holds up without reservation today is its negative analysis of structure art and text scores ("word pieces").
6.2 Pure mathematics reduced to a pastime?
In 1963-4, my early prospectus of concept art took an odd turn. At that time, I had not yet passed to a wholesale challenge to the prevailing cognitive culture via new intellectual modalities. I was willing to leave applied or pragmatic mathematics alone, treating it similarly to Marxist economics. As for claims of pure or abstract cognition, I took an absolutely negative view of them.
In the twentieth century, pure mathematics had begun to picture itself solely as an aesthetic and syntactical activity. That rationale was fatally undercut by Philosophy Proper. I had showed (again resorting to self-popularization as explained in Chapter 1) that
- "discovery of a theorem" was a mirage
- "validly derived" could not be an objective relationship.
The claims by pure mathematics that it attained objective knowledge were unwarranted.
I had conceived concept art as pure mathematics' proper replacement. But now I chose to insist that my own concept art was not objective knowledge either. Intellectual pattern could only be impressionistic and mirage-like (like an image seen in a Rorschach blot). Concept art was "neo-mathematics" displaced to the realm of art. As such, it was no different from a pastime.
So neo-mathematics came under the purview of the brend theory. This line of reasoning is much more understandable if one begins from Carnap's formalism, and the claimed analogy between mathematics and chess. Chess is a pastime which implicitly makes claims of objective knowledge. If you undercut the cognitive pretensions, you are left with a pastime: a pitting of players against each other intellectually without cognitive creditablity. Such a pastime cries out to be discredited by the brend theory.
To confirm what I hinted above, in 1964 I was willing to leave pragmatic knowledges alone: challenging only those knowledges in "bourgeois" culture which had moved to an non-pragmatic plane. My arguments could as well have been used to support the "civilization in one mind."
Anything that had been cognitively undercut by cognitive nihilism needed to be erased: because the only value it could still have was that of whimsy, and there was no reason to objectify whimsy. At that time, my highest priority was to defend myself from anything claiming to be formidible. The only intellectual achievement left to "culture" was the one-page "Primary Study"--or the three-word question `Is there language?'
This direction was not false, but it was needlessly skimpy, I would say now. Something can't be beaten with nothing. I was overlooking the opportunity for the "new intellectual modalities." The latter afford handholds for change, a palpable escape route.
So far as cognitive creditability is concerned, the new intellectual modalities have a new epistemological status. They do not purport to establish stable affirmative truths. They accede to new mental abilities. They extend the boundaries of the conceptually possible. They rest on apparitional meaning. I had intimated all this in CA, bit it had then escaped me.
To summarize, my critique of the exact sciences, and my proposed reorientation of scientific subject-matter, are not topics for this chapter. They have been the concern of the balance of my life's work; and they are presented in hundreds of pages of published and unpublished manuscript.
An expansive exposition and justification of concept art will not be the topic of this chapter either. One reason is that I no longer envision concept art as the hub of the new intellectual modalities.
What that leaves, as a phase of a total critique of culture, is a more expansive and scholarly exposition of my objections to structure art.
6.3 Structure art
I used the phrase `structure art' for arts which claimed structure as their main achievement. In what follows, I will focus on music, which circumstantially became the arena for such developments in the Fifties and Sixties.
Actually, to achieve a focused commentary, we need considerable precision about what is claimed when structure is claimed to be a work's achievement. European music claimed an evolution of the medium which passed from monophony to polyphony and homophony, which propounded the tempered scale, and which culminated in dodecaphony. All these developments were claimed to be rigorous advances in a scientific sense. Nevertheless, the listener to Tchaikovsky was not required to think about the theory of the tempered scale, or even about modulation, say, as a theoretical issue. Technique was most effective when it went unnoticed, and the music washed over the listener.
In the course of the evolution of common practice, European music became notation-centered. Previous to the experimental music of the twentieth century, the notation had been a time-map of the tones for the performers' benefit. Let me introduce a new term, sonograph, for such a score. Notation's elements--scales, mensuration, dynamics etc.--were, in effect, alphabets and lexicons. There was also an analytical terminology for notated composites which was standard for all composers. A chord with the pitches C, E, G only was a C-major triad in every context.
By producing a score, a sonograph, a composer ordained the structure of the composition at the alphabetic level, so to speak. But while this was certainly important, and could become controversial, appreciation of structure concerned a different, more synthetic level.
When a composition is defined by a sonograph, the composer has stipulated the work's alphabetic syntax. The work has a curious double existence, in fact, as performed sound, and as alphabetic sonograph. When a work is defined by a sonograph, then a rudimentary level of structural appreciation is achieved by following the sonograph during performance. There are, in fact, pocket scores of the classics for that purpose.
Appreciation of structure properly begins with architectonics which are not explicitly ordained by notation. A fugue: one was expected to recognize and follow the fugue's subject in the different voices. A sonata-allegro: one was expected to follow the development of the principal and secondary themes through various key-changes. Dodecaphonic music: the cognoscenti were supposed to peruse the sonograph, and identify the permutations of the row throughout a given movement. Only a dedicated student would recognize appearances of the row--even when the whole row was exposed linearly, i.e. melodically.
Interpretative appreciation of structure concerned a level beyond this last one. One debated whether Webern's music was motivic, or "serial in all parameters." One also perused composers' elaborate schemes for the compositions, such as Stockhausen's essay on Gruppen, "... how time passes ... ." A Cage composition which Cage wanted to be taken in this way was the String Quartet of 1950. The analysis of the work involved information and judgments which the ability to read staff notation was not sufficient to afford.
In general, the sort of computational mediation found in music did not appear in visual art--because the visual image was always static and typically iconic. Islamic tracery, however, was an exception. It lent itself to analysis in group-theoretic terms, very much analogously to interpretative appreciation of structure in music. The analysis is made by rationalists who claim that the group-theoretic structure is objectively inherent in the tracery.
To what degree does normative audition require appreciation of structure? Normative audition of a Bach fugue requires recognition of the fugue's subject, and linear hearing of the voices. In the case of a dodecaphonic work by Schoenberg, recognition of every appearance of the row in all of its allowed variants is out of the question for anyone who has not virtually memorized the musicological analysis. There is, then, a discrete and exhaustive combinatorial rationale which is not part of the experience of listening. One could say the same for the early total-serial works, Boulez's Structures, livre I (1952), Stockhausen's Kontra-Punkte (1953), Nono's Incontri (1955).
With the appearance of experimental music in the twentieth century, there arose the phenomenon of compositions defined by scores which were not sonographs--there was no sonograph correlative to the time-evolution of the performed work. Cage's Music Walk. Richard Maxfield told me in a conversation in 1961 that his tape pieces were mere tokens of the combinatorial manipulation which yielded them. It was the combinatorial manipulation which was the heart of the work; and Maxfield didn't care whether his music was ever heard or not. (Audible music could be composed by computers; he didn't care.) In this case, Maxfield did not circulate written schemes for his combinatorial manipulations, and so the schemes were only folklore--and in any case, could not have been inferred from the final tapes.
Can an audition of a performed composition which only hears sound, without analytical recognition or appreciation, can be a normative audition? For Tchaikovsky, Cage, and Maxfield, the answer evidently is yes. For Bach, Schoenberg, and Stockhausen, the answer is probably no.
After this rather lengthy clarification, I can now characterize the European musical practice at the beginning of the Sixties which provoked the critique of CA. The notion that music underwent a strict technical evolution to polyphony, the tempered scale, homophony, and finally dodecaphonic structure was a tenet of Serious Culture, and attracted my condemnation for that reason; but it was not the priority of the present critique. Nor were the claims of cerebrality made for a Bach fugue, or a sonata-allegro, the priority of the present critique. The present critique was provoked by the practice of the die Reihe composers (including Cage), by Maxfield, by Babbitt. These composers claimed that the sound programs which they presented to the public exhibited an achievement like that of a mathematical theorem.
For the aficionado of the fugue, following the treatment of the subject in listening was part of a unified aesthetic experience. After the middle of the twentieth century, serious music became so pretentious that the cognitive claims no longer referred to relationships accessible to audition. The composers said that they cared only about the hidden structural relationships, and not about how the experience of listening felt. They had witlessly drifted from one discipline to another--and were presenting "pieces" which were combinatorial sculptures, not music.
I struck back at all this with the sledgehammer of cognitive nihilism. Mathematical theorems were mirages; and so the pretensions of structure music were hoaxes. But there was also a creative side to my appraisal. Freed from a mechanical conception of pattern--and from the preposterous vestiges of concert performance--structure or category could be elaborated in ways rationalism had never dreamed of.
Let me expand on my objections. The structure imputed by a listener to a composition in the course of hearing it is a mirage, an apparition which is the listener's responsibility. (E.g. recognition of the fugal subject in listening to a Bach fugue.) Moreover, the paper analyses made by musicologists are mere imputations. A vivid example was provided by Stockhausen's disovery of a hidden serial structure in Nono's Il Canto Sospeso, which was vehemently repudiated by Nono.
Beyond that, all claims of derivational profundity for structure music are delusions: since the objective connection of rule to instance is a mirage. In short, composers such as Stockhausen and Babbitt (and Cage or Maxfield if it mattered) do not establish any objective knowledge. There is no objective cognitive accomplishment in being a Bach initiate.
From the other side, suppose we take Babbitt or Maxfield at their word and view their acoustical programs simply as diagrams-of-structures, such that the latter are supposed to be cognitive achievements. If you never perform a Babbitt score, if you just treat it as a diagram, what you have left is a pathetically mechanical and rudimentary vision of structure. (Combinatorial crabgrass!) "Let us have works whose only dimension is pattern, and let us break with the mechanical conception of pattern to which classical music's arithmomorphic premises have confined us," I said.
6.4 Cerebration in non-Western art
As in other parts of this critique, closer attention to non-Western culture placed the topics in a different light. For the sake of example, let me observe that old-fashioned musicology said that glissando could not be an element of melody, because it fell in the cracks between the piano keys. A segmentation peculiar to the European mind had the effect of rendering thousand-year musical traditions non-existent.
I must now address a far more profound and inimical prejudice of this sort. At the foundation of European culture is a strict and irreconcilable separation of reason and feeling. This dichotomy is so intransigent that it is now the basis of brain science (as the division of left and right brain). But it so happens that long before modern European culture arose, non-Western cultures had discerned and cultivated a human faculty which, on European principles, should not exist. That is the faculty of finding visceral, kinetic excitement in the the intricate experienced demarcation of temporality. Europe's most sophisticated term for this phenomenon: jungle rhythm. The term is an obscene misrepresentation, not least because "jungle rhythm" is found in Hindustani music, which is not performed in jungles. European culture places cerebration and feeling at opposite ends of a scale; but in "jungle rhythm," these extremes had been united for thousands of years before European culture separated them.
In Hindustani music, the performers improvise on set patterns, and the listener is intellectually enticed by the rhythmic duel between melodic instrument and drummer, for example. The specific outcome is not known in advance, but actualizes the performers intentions. That duel, that competition to demarcate experienced temporality, is a contributing facet to the musical excitement. It poses issues in music as a communicative medium which European musicology has never broached.
African percussion introduces another possibility. Africans acquire a faculty which is absent in European culture: the faculty of cognizing clashing rhythms holistically, in music which is not only not written out in advance, but does not have the explicit "alphabet" found in Hindustani music.
There was a jazz drummer who must be mentioned in this connection: Elvin Jones. Unlike the previous examples, Jones' contribution embodied a dedication unique to him: it was not common in jazz.
Something needs to be said also about Islamic tracery. Islamic tracery is an example of my notion of the artwork as combinatorial sculpture. But the decorative art does not appeal to, or demand, conscious analytical apprehension. The latent pattern results in an image which communicates on a non-analytical plane: more like the aesthetics of a starry sky. The effect resides in the phenomenal quality. The operation of the rationale is sensed, not parsed.
In 1961, it did not occur to me that the notorious emotional barrenness of serial music was anything other than a failure to realize one of music's customary aims. I might compare serial piano pieces to Memphis Slim, for example; I would have found the serial pieces deficient, and concluded that the European composers had simply made a mistake. Only years later would I consider that there was something worse than a mere deficit in the European works. They were eminently successful in conveying the scientific dehumanization and concentration camp-like barrenness which are the upshot of the European tradition. They were eminently successful as rituals of self-hate and defilement.
What one finds in non-Western arts are practices in which cerebration is unified with the aesthetic (and visceral) joy afforded by the performance, or by the architectural surface. As a generality, European culture did not cultivate these practices. European culture, after all, wanted no part of anything which was intelligently exciting, holistic, wondrous.
Very little of what I said in CA is invalidated by these considerations. Moreover, it would be foolish to place the Third-World avenues on a pedestal, because they have not shown that they can endure as a living tradition. Third-World music is being rapidly transformed into a computerized Muzak produced in Paris and other metropolises. Techno-vulgarity--which has aptly been called cyberpunk--has the ability to edge out anything dating from a more sensitive era.
What is invalidated in CA is my conclusion that it is self-hindering for feeling-directed music to have a "cerebral" dimension. Again, human faculties which are not cultivated in European culture are the key. But the point of the other practices is that the contribution of the "cerebral" diminsion is complete in the aesthetic experience of the work. A claim of a mathematical, mechanomorphic accomplishment separable from the perception of the work is not made. (Actually, classical Indian culture may make such claims; but they are not obligatory for the audience.)
There is yet another avenue. One may employ combinatorial methods originally developed in structure music to get unique phenomenal effects. The result doesn't have to be clunky and dead. (The clunky and dead versions are known because they are the ones this culture has embraced.) The effect is that of asymmetrical corners, because the hidden combinatorics do not accommodate human intuitions of perceptual comfort. The viewer senses the operation of a rationale which cannot be divined impressionistically.
6.5 The logic of text scores
The career of structure music took a historically unprecedented direction with the appearance of "word pieces" or text scores. The generation of composers who had Cage as their mentor sought to go beyond him by composing short text scores which framed accidental events as music. Many of these pieces presupposed the ritual of serious music, and deliberately mocked it. (Performance required appearing on a proscenium stage at a grand piano, wearing a tuxedo.) At the same time--understanding intuitively that a musical composition was a formal system--word pieces sought to be formally transgressive: in a way which potentially was transferrable to any species of formal systems.
The word pieces manifested a sort of fantasy--paradoxical, and self-referential--which was philosophically challenging. A piece of concert music might require acting in expectation of an impossibility. Certain issues were tested as never before. When a structure depends on ordainment, how explicit does that ordainment have to be before the structure exists? What if the temporal order between ordainment and realization is reversed?
In order to review the logic of word pieces, we first need a definition of music as a protocol (a definition which ignores all aesthetic considerations).
Music is a communicative sound program which is specified by a performance script (the score).
A dichotomy is created.
A. The score is a body of instructions, a plan of action. These lend themselves to an adaptation of writing to pitch-time graphs. Hence the score may be a picture, a visible image.
B. The program only needs to consist of sound. All requirements for sense can be omitted.
Another division concerns roles in the creation of music.
a. The author of the score, the composer.
b. Those who realize the score, the performers.
c. Those who are entertained by the performance--usually passively: the audience.
In a concert, an audience assembles, expecting performers to realize a score. Sounds produced by the audience are distractions.
Many of the logical innovations in word pieces are covered by my term "constitutive dissociation." Assume a genre with a standard protocol--as I just spelled out in the case of music.
In the genre, situations are established by ordainments. (A reality exists because of somebody's rule.)
In the genre, situations have certain aims customarily.
A constitutively dissociated situation comes about because the instigator of the situation alters the aims of the genre from the customary aims, without declaring so. Since the traditional aims are foregone, the instigator can evade or replace standard protocol with an inscrutable protocol. There are a number of avenues of dissociation.
a. Features which, traditionally, participants in a situation can infer become inscrutable. (Cage; this feature preceded word pieces.)
b. The customary protocol assigns clearly differentiated roles to participants. The instigator may instruct the participant to act in ways which collapse those role differences. (Young)
c. Dependence of the situation on ordainment may be manipulated: the time-order of an activity relative to its announcement may be disrupted. (Young)
What I found unacceptable about word pieces is that they were preoccupied with the office of musical composer and performer--even to the point that "compossers" insisted that they were musicians when their compositons were precisely not contributions to music. Additionally, they were preoccupied with mockery of serious music and its protocol. As long as the works were chained to their impertinent purpose--as long as they were reactive--their departures remained pathetically rudimentary and clouded.
To me, it was urgently necessary to split off rule-paradoxes, if you will, from the doddering institution of concert music, so that the formal anomalies which the composers had verged on could be potentiated without hindrance. I proposed to develop the conceptual play as an independent activity. In that activity, if the structure was manifested in a phenomenal object or event, the latter was custom-configured to its role. It was not borrowed from a floundering institution such as symphonic music.
6.6 Concept art and the rationale of mathematics
in 1961, I proposed to develop conceptual play as an activity independent both of inherited art forms and of standard mathematics' protocol. Specifically, the elaboration of logical chain-structures which were object-critiques of exact science. If a material object or tangible event was provided to carry the structure, it was custom-configured to that particular role. (Thus, it was not an echo of prior art-forms.)
This enterprise, I said, should supersede all formal music, and replace all of mathematics. At the same time, I conceded that in lifting the conceptual play off of formal music, and calling that play "art," I disregarded the centrality of anthropomorphic and sentimental content in characterizing art. So, I said, "concept art" might best be positioned as an autonomous genre, divorced from knowledge and art.
CA began by wielding cognitive nihilism against the objectivity of a substantive expression's relation to its "meaning." Had I nullified concept art before it even started? (That was a point in CA which readers never noticed.)
The answer was that concept art relies on apparitional meanings. Apparitional meanings are enough, because the conditions or junctures which they produce in concept art are going to alter the boundary of the conceptually possible. So the result is important without needing a claim of realism: a new mental ability has been exhibited. (In other words, my results are supposed to come though even with Rorschach-blot semantics.)
Concept art is a synthesis-practice which pursues projects in
which break the framework of objectification.
The new uninterpreted networks satisfy conventional norms of intersubjective replicability, but cannot be assimilated in the ontology of natural science. This is because they employ hitherto unidentified interdependences of awareness and objectivity, and non-vacuous logical impossibilities.
These projects manifest their own aesthetic of structure, which stands in opposition to past doctrines of "mathematical beauty," to the objectivist aesthetic of structure.
As can be seen, I rigorously restricted myself to syntax, taking it as a proxy for the whole of mathematics. Even though that was one-sided, I cannot fault myself; there was a good reason for my approach. I had decided that the appeal to a game-like, chess-like character was the only plausible avenue of justification of mathematics. Mathematics had arrived at techniques which were effective for what they were, I granted. ("Pragmatic mathematics," let us say.) As for Platonism, it was virtually an invocation of the supernatural, and had no credibility. Thus, the substantiation of pragmatic mathematics couldn't depend on Platonism.
In taking this approach, I was intuitively invoking and adapting Carnap's Logical Syntax of Language and Wittgenstein's notion of language-games.
I was well aware of the "great debate" between Quine and Carnap over ontology in the late Fifties. Quine seemed to want to revive Platonism; and it was not plausible to me that the pragmatic effectiveness of mathematics rested on Platonism.
I cannot apologize for accepting Carnap as the spokesman of the profession when that is how his colleagues treated him. Anybody who thinks I should have laughed Carnap off had better explain that to the profession which took him as its dean.
Concept art was "flat," it unfolded entirely on the syntactical plane. But in the revived concept art of 1987 and afterward, that has not mattered. The genre is no longer restricted to "trees." Moreover, syntactical systems which break the framework of objectivity arrive at new phenomena which can be cast in semantic roles. That was already suggested in "1966 Mathematical Studies."
A further complication in this long and convoluted story was that the art world appropriated my term "concept art" for word pieces. That, however, is a matter of vulgar usage which has nothing to do with the substance of the topic here.