Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Because I hate being mischaracterized

I'll respond here to a comment that Johannes Goransson left on Uncanny Valley, addressing me:
The fact that Elisa rejects [surrealism] as essentially "privileged" is exactly the kind of dimissal I am interested in: because it's essentially the kind of rhetoric by which ART ITSELF is often dismissed
I don't reject surrealism. I love many surrealist poets. (Kathleen and I spent a while translating Max Jacob's Le Cornet Des.) I don't think the fact that something is privileged makes it bad or worthless as art. Classical music is about as privileged as it gets, I don't reject that either. Most of my hobbies are hopelessly bourgeois, and I think it's OK to acknowledge that. (I draw the line at skiing.)

I do think "surrealist," like "experimental," is a "problematic" term that gets used sloppily. As I wrote in a previous post, "Now that discursive, associative, free-verse lyric poetry is pretty much the norm, it feels like elements of surrealism (the definition is 'Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought') are pervasive." Also: I feel "surrealist staples such as dream logic, collage, collaboration, tragicomic approaches to human existence, and inventive syntax" are present in my own poetry, which has never to my knowledge been called surreal. Why? IDK, you tell me.
Elisa's comment that surrealism doesn't have anything "substantial" is standard expression of this rhetoric/ideology
I have no such ideology. My original comment was: "Unsubstantiated theory: Surrealism is what you write when you have nothing of substance to say." That "Unsubstantiated theory" preface should have been a tip-off that I was just bullshitting. Anyway, I think you can make great art without having "anything of substance to say." For example, I love and have taught Nathan Austin's book Survey Says as an example of conceptual poetry. It's the form alone that's interesting in this book; the text is found (it consists entirely of answers from Family Feud; the poetry is in the systematic arrangement). In conceptual art, the content is usually backgrounded. Most of the time, if you want people to focus on your message, you background the medium.

I think Johannes Goransson is one of the most interesting poets, translators, editors and bloggers in U.S. poetry, but I also think he's a little on the combative side. I am not the enemy, yo.

Update: Johannes reposted his comment on Montevidayo and called it his "usual schtick" [sic], which probably explains why I felt he was talking past me.

I just said on Twitter "Let's disagree to agree." Meaning I'm only arguing here because I don't think we need to argue.


  1. Why did Johannes remove his montevidayo post?

  2. Your book was probably as surrealist as I'll comfortably allow {on my nightstand}, for what it's worth. <3

  3. Interesting! The plot thickens, etc. ;)

  4. How is classical music privileged? That's a peculiar claim. Do you mean those who compose it, perform it, or listen to it are... what?

    In 2010 Alex Ross wrote an essay about the African American opera singer Marian Anderson who grew up in a poor household but became wealthy and famous during the height of segregation in America. (She performed on the National Mall, but was unable to wait inside a train station in Birmingham or eat in the restaurants in the hotels where she stayed while she toured the country.)

    Ross speculates why classical music is considered white people's music. He suggests--among other reasons--the near-total lack of music education in public schools (and in my experience, private schools, too) is a big part of the problem.

    In terms of access to classical music, tho... every person who watched Warner Bros. cartoons is familiar with at least a dozen classical pieces (even if they can't name them).

    The actual music is every bit as available as popular music, and, in fact, most libraries carry more classical music then popular, and since there were recordings there were budget labels for classical music, designed specifically so the "common man" could have access (see Naxos, etc.).

    Is the privilege you associate less actual, and more a matter of perception? (Conductors in tuxedos, baroque concert halls.) And why is Jay-Z able to rap about his watches, boats, stacks of papers, etc., and not be just as off-putting as a woman in pearls singing about murder, death, etc.?

    I'm really asking, not just trying to cause trouble.

  5. I meant composing it, not listening to it. Do you still think it's a strange claim?

  6. Classical music's privilege is embedded in its very name -- "classical," cuz then we must ask WHOSE classical? There is no way of separating the concept of classical from the "Western" canon and from Eurocentrism, cultural colonialism and colonial and imperial history.

    But arguably, current classical musicians, composers, etc occupy a somewhat more tenuous position, given that their work isn't super viable in a capitalist music marketplace, and is mostly supported by nonprofit institutions, albeit some of the best-funded most stable institutions -- all of the studies on philanthropy continually show that the vast majority of the big money from major wealth goes to the major institutions ie symphonies and the opera and such.

    But I would say that contemporary composers probably struggle just as much to fund their work and occupy just as complex a matrix of privilege and non as any other highly educated, avant garde or fringe art makers.

  7. Agreed, Tim, though music being composed now is only "classical" in a sort of inherited sense -- same as "surreal" in a way.

  8. I think composers today usually use the term "contemporary music" when talking about their stuff. "Classical" was cooked up during the Victorian age to describe the period between 1750-1830 or so, coming between Baroque and Romantic. I have a feeling most composers at the time (and at any time) just called what they did "music". Whatever it's called, it does pretty much require some education in music theory--even if you're a prodigy you still have to learn how to write the stuff down on paper.

  9. Right. I mean the general term for the whole class we're referring is "instrumental music." "Classical" is a subset of that.

  10. What Matt and Tim point to are unfortunate misconceptions, not actual matters of privilege.

    The term "classical" is burdened with associations. So is "jazz." Jazz is every bit as technically demanding as classical, yet it's viewed as a more populist form. Nina Simone called Jazz "black classical music" and Miles Davis studied classical music at Juliard.

    As for needing to "write the stuff down"--that's simply not true. Especially subsequent to the invention of the phonograph. Paul McCartney still can't read or write music, yet continues to compose classical music. That said, the ability to read and write down music is not unique to classical composers, and is a kind of literacy often learned in churches or at home by people who are otherwise not privileged. Also, many musicians have solved the problem of illiteracy by using simpler "languages" (see tablature for guitarists).

    To say classical music is privileged still doesn't make sense to me, because classical music is a thing. To say that people who listen to classical music are privileged may be true--it is a privilege indeed to hear Bach, but it is not a privilege only available to the few.

    I guess a question this raises is what do you mean by privilege? I think that term is our problem. To be "privileged" has the negative connotation of "to have something without earning it" or "to have an advantage not necessarily earned." For some reason, no one wants to be accused of this, even tho every human is born with a set of traits they did not "earn."

  11. I'm just talking about class. Money.

    I don't feel like I'm saying anything all that controversial. Education is a class issue. Having money usually gets you a better education and better access to fine arts. This is true now, it was true 300 years ago. I'm not placing any value judgment on it or talking about who has earned what.

  12. I've known that about Paul McCartney for a long time, and I'm curious as to how the musicians who perform his classical pieces know what to play if they're not looking at a written score...

    Anyway, I never said it was unique to classical composers, nor did I say that jazz or other music is any less difficult. I'm a former musician in both classical and jazz saxophone, so my experience with this is firsthand. It's true you don't *need* education to be a great musician, but having education, which you are more likely to have the more money you have, certainly helps--helps you be a better musician and also helps your career.

  13. Right. Also, maybe when I say "privilege" you think I mean, like, top 1%, but even being middle class is a privilege.

    The fact that Nina Simone called jazz "black classical music" shows she was aware of the class difference. She didn't say "jazz is classical music."

    Anyone can be a composer, just like "anyone can be president," but if you look at who actually gets to be president and who is actually considered a "great classical composer" you'll see a whole lotta sameness.

  14. I basically agree with what Elisa is talking about, although I was also trying to talk about something else beyond class, and also beyond individuals' inherited privileges, I was talking about cultural imperialism. Nina Simone would not need to call jazz black classical music were it not for a privileging of white supremacy and the colonizers' culture as superior and the norm against which all other practices are distinguished as in some way "other." This isn't just about misconceptions, it is about history, entrenched systemic and institutional power and dominant discourses and ideologies.

    Like Elisa, I don't think acknowledgment of privilege should be a negative, it is simply a diagnostic statement, it makes me sad that so many people still hear it as a judgment. I don't get frustrated and start judging people until they become super defensive about privilege and refuse to think about why it might maybe be a good idea to commit ourselves to solidarity with one another's struggles and to transforming these systems, which is probably long haul and multigenerational work. If we understand race (white supremacy), gender (patriarchy), class (capitalism/imperialism) and sexuality (heteronormativity) as intersecting and not parallel, there are very few of us who do not experience privilege as well as oppression in some aspect of our identities.

  15. Very well said Tim -> "If we understand race (white supremacy), gender (patriarchy), class (capitalism/imperialism) and sexuality (heteronormativity) as intersecting and not parallel, there are very few of us who do not experience privilege as well as oppression in some aspect of our identities."

  16. I'm sure it's my own fault, but something I wrote seems to have been misunderstood--and so your comments don't have much to do with my main point: classical music (and surrealism, for that matter) is not "privileged" because it is a thing. Is a cup privileged? Or, closer to our topic, is a book?

    I think calling art privileged doesn't make sense and worse--because it sounds like it makes sense--suggests that art is inherently unavailable. That thinking, in turn, makes it unavailable.

    Saying that every American has the chance to become president, when obviously many cannot, is better than the alternative, which is to declare that, say, only white, Protestant males can become president, which must have seemed true before Kennedy (Catholic) and Obama. I don't think I'm being naive, tho I admit to being idealistic.

    (This isn't really important but Nina Simone called Jazz "black classical music" because she hated the term Jazz--she considered it to be a white term in a way that "classical" was not. She claimed that Bach led her to music, that he was her teacher.)

  17. Hi Adam,

    I dont think it's me misunderstanding you, I think Im just operating with a different definition of privelege. I think privelege can be conceptual and about dominant values and ideas (cultural) as well as being material. And we absolutely apply our values to objects all the time. A veil, for instance, has no inherent meaning, but think about all the different values and assumptions various folks project on to women when they see them wearing those. Constructed categories (which is I guess how I think abt ''classical' can also be privileged. A canon, for instance, could be privileged in the Academy. I guess we are also disagreeing on origination. I am saying privilege is already there we are more likely to address it and gradually dismantle it, you are saying that by saying it is there, we perpetuate it and that we can create a different reality through lamguage. So if I am understanding your argument correctly, the discourse of colorblindness could eventually produce the "colorblindness" it purports to describe.

  18. You live in Colorado and don't ski? What else is there to do there? That's like going to a bar but never ordering a drink.

  19. bjdubbs, it's pretty awkward. I have to ride a ski lift to get to the grocery store, and just jump off in my regular shoes.

    Adam, I was speaking metonymically (or something like that); what I meant, more precisely, is that classic music (specifically its composition, not the ability to listen to it) was largely the realm of a privileged class. The artform itself is not literally privileged. And I use "classical" in the historical sense, so I don't include jazz and contemporary music.

  20. My google reader saved the MV post... just another reason to bring back Reader Community!!!

    My main problem with the original MV (here) was the absence of women writers in the conversation, both as participants and as objects of the discussion. I counted a grand total of 6 women.

    My secondary issue was with the term surrealism. I find it to be a simplification, an easy to apply moniker, of a complex poetic. It's a term for people to easily place poems and poets into an easily understood aesthetic school, whether or not the poet wants to be a part of said school. Style and effect (what I believe people are describing when they say "surrealism") might not reflect process and intent.