Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Fear of Social Theory

Philip Ball disagrees with David Stubbs about why audiences generally don't "get" atonal experimental music, but do "get" avante-garde visual art.

According to Ball, Stubbs' book Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko But Don't Get Stockhausen  claims that "our responses to music are determined by our context and perspective, not by what we actually hear."  Additionally, music, unlike visual art, has no "'original object'" which we can "venerate or trade."

Ball rejects the social theory view  in favour of the perspective of evolutionary psychology.

In his review"Who's afraid of the avant-garde?" in Prospect,  Ball argues that cognition - what we actually see and hear -  plays the major role in what we do and do not "get."

Visual and auditory stimuli are both processed using "'Gestalt principles'" of continuity and contiguity, which help us to understand complexity. According to Ball, late twentieth-century avant-garde visual art retained these principles, while avant-garde music did not.

Ball does not elaborate about which principles visual art obeys. He does claim that the "fact we can see the painting at all as a coherent object gives our interpretive mind something to work on." Music, on the other hand, is
“organised sound.” Yet sound is structured into music not on paper, nor even in the mind of the composer, but in the mind of the listener. Music is sound in which the organisation must be audibly perceptible to a listener, not just theoretically present.

I find some problems with this argument. First, vision takes place in the mind of the viewer just as surely as hearing does. The only difference Ball notes is that with a painting there is an object and with music there isn't. Yet, one of his points about Stubbs is that the absence of an object in music "applies equally to Beethoven and Birtwistle." Westerners like Beethoven; Birtwistle, not so much!

Here, Ball seems to employ an argument that he takes Stubbs to task for.

Second, Ball claims that there are "universal principles" governing the cognitive processing of music - Gestalt principles regarding steps between high and low notes in a melody and rhythm, to name two. He further claims that "these cognitive aids...are found in other musical traditions the world over." And indeed they are, but there are traditions in which tonality, regular rhythms, and heirarchies of notes do not exist.

Therein lies the problem. The fact that there are traditions without these aids suggests that they are not evolutionary, but social.

It seems to me that we have come back full circle to what Ball claims is wrong with Stubbs' argument, only it doesn't seem so wrong after all. 

Perhaps people (Western people, that is) "get" avant-garde visual art more because they have an object to refer back to (even if we don't completely buy the "venerate or trade" idea). There being no such object with atonal experimental music, it's more difficult to process. Beethoven (also "objectless") is an ongoing "hit" because he follows the conventions  - context and perception - of the tradition which is familiar to its audiences.

Philip Ball is a science writer and author of many books. His most recent book is Universe of Stone.

I would like to invite Philip Ball and David Stubbs to my soiree.


Anonymous said...

Thank you! I have always wondered why someone like Jackson Pollock would prefer to listen to rock music when his art looks more like Elliot Carter. (Maybe it's because one process is more heavily involved than the other. Can you guess which one?) And I must admit, I kind of resent minimalism for giving a free pass to all sorts of arty types when it comes to new art music. Don't get me wrong tho, I love minimalism and totalism too.

Sorry for venting... thanks for listening.

ChrisJ said...


Vent away and thanks for commenting.

When I read your comment, I immediately imagined seeing a Pollock exhibit while listening to Carter's Sonata for Cello and Piano - not something I would like to do. One or the other is fine, not both at once!!