Celebrity logic

When you look at the classical-music repertory, you can’t really complain that a bunch of mediocrities have crowded out the composers of real talent. If you have Monteverdi representing the late Renaissance and early Baroque, or Haydn and Mozart representing the Classical era, or Beethoven, Schubert, Verdi, Wagner, and Brahms standing in for the nineteenth century, you get to feast on a tremendous body of work. Posterity has been more or less right in its judgments. The problem, though, is that Mozart becomes a brand to sell tickets, and there’s an assumption that any work of Mozart is worth scrutiny. In fact, he wrote a fair amount of music that doesn’t radiate genius in every bar. Meanwhile, there are composers of his era— Luigi Boccherini, for example— who produced many fascinating and beautiful pieces, even if you can’t quite claim that they rise to Mozart’s level. Ultimately, the repertory operates on a celebrity logic. These happen to be celebrities of thundering genius, but we’re still giving in to a winner-takes-all mentality. There’s a basic human reason for this simplification: it’s difficult to cope with the infinite variety of the past, and so we apply filters, and we settle on a few famous names.

— Alex Ross

An Elvis future, a Dylan future

As I write this sentence, the social stature of Elvis and Dylan feels similar—perhaps even identical. But it’s entirely possible that one of those people will get dropped as time plods forward. And if that happens, the consequence will be huge. If we concede that the “hero’s journey” is the de facto story through which we understand history, the differences between these two heroes would profoundly alter the description of what rock music supposedly was.

If Elvis (minus Dylan) is the definition of rock, then rock is remebered as showbiz. Like Frank Sinatra, Elvis did not write songs; he interpreted songs that were written by other people (and like Sinatra, he did this brilliantly). But removing the essentialism of songwriting from the rock equation radically alters the context of its social value. It becomes a solely performative art form, where the meaning of a song matters less than the person singing it. It becomes personality music, and the dominant qualities of Presley’s persona—his sexuality, his masculinity, his larger-than-life charisma—become the dominant signifiers of what rock was. His physical decline and reclusive death become an allegory for the entire culture. The reminiscence of the rock genre adopts a tragic hue, punctuated by gluttony, drugs, and the conscious theft of black culture by white opportunists. But if Dylan (minus Elvis) becomes the definition of rock, everything reverses. In this contingency, lyrical authenticity becomes everything: rock is galvanized as an intellectual craft, interlocked with the folk tradition. It would be remembered as far more political than it actually was, and significantly more political than Dylan himself. The fact that Dylan does not have a conventionally “good” singing voice becomes retrospective proof that rock audiences prioritized substance over style, and the portrait of his seven-decade voyage would align with the most romantic version of how an eclectic collection of fifty autonomous states eventually became a place called “America”.

These are the two best versions of this potential process. And both are flawed.

— Chuck Klosterman

The flaw he mentions is not only with the false dichotomy we face, but that the thought experiment itself may be wrong. For example, it’s just as likely that people of the future will decide what rock and roll music ‘was’ first, and then choose a representative artist to be the archetypal rock musician.

Limitations

Milton was a genius that could cut a Colossus from a rock but could not carve heads upon cherry-stones.

— Samuel Johnson

Self-evaluation, youthful priggishness

When I was a boy of about fifteen, I decided to look into all my beliefs, and discard them if they seemed to have no foundation except tradition or my own prejudices. Being a good deal of a prig, I intended to face one painful possibility every day; I began with the possibility that it might have been better if the English had lost the battle of Waterloo. After pondering this hypothesis for a long time, I found out one argument on Napoleon’s side: that if he had won, England would have had the decimal system.

— Bertrand Russell

Imagine

Imagine the problem is not physical. Imagine the problem has never been physical, that it is not biodiversity, it is not the ozone layer, it is not the greenhouse effect, the whales, the old-growth forest, the loss of jobs, the crack in the ghetto, the abortions, the tongue in the mouth, the diseases stalking everywhere as love goes on unconcerned. Imagine the problem is not some syndrome of our society that can be solved by commissions or laws or a redistribution of what we call wealth. Imagine that it goes deeper, right to the core of what we call our civilization and that no one outside of ourselves can affect real change, that our civilization, our governments are sick and that we are mentally ill and spiritually dead and that all our issues and crises are symptoms of this deeper sickness … then what are we to do?

— Charles Bowden

Posterity, Confusion

The only thing one can be proud of is of having worked in such a way that an official reward for your labor cannot be envisaged by anyone.

— Jean Cocteau

Design and Art

Design is the process of going from an existing condition to a preferred one. Observe that there’s no relationship to art.

— Milton Glaser

A second definition of design, with helpful commentary. See also Tolstoy, answering the question What is Art

Popularity; foolishness

Those who wish for popularity should bear in mind that people do not want generally to be made less foolish or less wicked. What they want is to be told that they are not foolish and not wicked. Now it is only a fool or a liar or both who can tell them this; the masses therefore cannot be expected to like any but fools or liars or both. So when a lady gets photographed, what she wants is not to be made beautiful but to be told that she is beautiful.

— Samuel Butler’s Notebook

Ars Brevis

The destruction of great works of literature and art is as necessary for the continued development of either one or the other as death is for that of organic life. We fight against it as long as we can and often stave it off successfully both for ourselves and others but there is nothing so great — not Homer, Shakespeare, Handel, Rembrandt, de Hooghe, and the goodly company of other great men for whose lives we would gladly give our own — but it has got to go sooner or later, and leave no visible traces, though the invisible ones endure from everlasting to everlasting. It is idle to regret this for ourselves or others. Our effort should tend towards enjoying and being enjoyed as highly and for as long a time as we can, and then chancing the rest.

— Samuel Butler’s Notebook

Adolescence and Maturity

Adolescents are simply those people who haven’t as yet chosen between childhood and adulthood. For as long as anyone tries to hold on to the advantages of childhood—the freedom from responsibility, principally—while seeking to lay claim to the best parts of adulthood, such as independence, he is an adolescent.

— Gene Wolfe