Spawn of Mars
Don't worry. If you like your religion, you can keep your religion.
A Bee Contemplates Buzzing
The Definition of High Art
Sunday, January 8, 2006 8:46 pm
Despite having been a writer for decades now and having had the unsurprising and frequent inclination, as a producer of art, to contemplate the nature of art, it was many years until I realized something that I think is very true.

Let me begin by stating the obvious: All works are not substantially equal. However much the academics might want to de-privilege the canon, there remains a qualitative difference between high art and low art. This, to be sure, is not news. If you think I am merely about to scoff at academics who overpraise hip-hop or graffiti, you would be wrong. Such academics, however much they perdure, have been adequately ridiculed already. My question is only this: Given the obvious fact that some art is high and some low, what is it, in the end, that distinguishes high from low? And my answer is this: Depth of information. 

This is not entirely my idea. I heard a man use "information content" to explain, in passing, why concert music is higher than popular music. But I believe "information content" — or, as I prefer to put it, "depth of information" — applies to all art and is, indeed, sufficient to distinguish high from low. Notice I am not saying "distinguish good from bad." "Good" is an aesthetic judgment, valid enough but not enough to make a work high. And "bad" does not mean a work is not high. "Information" applies, obviously, to content, but perhaps not as obviously to form. That is, a work of high art is presented in a form that itself invites contemplation and rational elucidation. A work of high art is elaborate in content and form. Its information is deep.

That may seem to be a truism, but what I am trying to get across is that "deeply informed" is the complete definition of high art. Yes, of course, we would argue about what constitutes "deep." But by defining high art as "deeply informed" we don't become sunk in questions of aesthetics or culture — or origins. Thus even masters can produce low art — art that is well-made, enjoyable, memorable; yet for all that, lacking depth and therefore not high. Just because it's Mozart doesn't mean it's higher than Metallica.

And, as an added bonus, my succinct definition finally makes it clear to me why so much art that is supposedly high has always struck me as anything but. With my definition in hand, one can finally banish the freeloaders from the house of high art. For example, like him or not, value him or not, Pollock is not high art, because there is nothing elaborate or deeply informed about his work. Nothing intrinsic, that is. You can read all you want into Pollock's paint spills; they're still just spills. Deep information cannot be imputed to the work but must subsist in the work for the work to be truly high.

Marriage Isn't a Lark, After All
The Carter Family Gets Incendiary!
Monday, May 30, 2005 6:49 pm
When I was a teenager and I started to read Great Literature, I read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. You know what struck me then more than anything else? That a book written in the 1860s should be about an axe murderer. My miseducation to that point had not prepared me for the idea that past ages might just know a thing or two about horrible, sad, or sordid things — and, more to the point, that past ages might be unafraid to talk about them.

Mankind has been doing the same blasted thing for thousands of years. Yet it is an annoying conceit of this era that, until now, man has been naive about his own circumstances. Because civilization once aspired to better circumstances and once celebrated ideals, it is supposed that civilization was once ignorant of all our shortcomings and squalor. In fact, our civilization has simply despaired of ideals. 

I was watching PBS a week or two ago. Normally I don't care much for PBS. It is, after all, the television station that believes the history of America — of every blessed little thing in America — is fundamentally the history of The Oppression of the Black Man. You can be watching a show about the development of the hot dog and PBS will manage to remind you that in America before the 1960s black people were not even allowed to eat hot dogs! — or some darn thing. PBS insidiously dwells on the bad. Talk about despairing.

Still, when you don't have cable, as I do not, you sometimes have to settle for PBS. Besides, there is some interesting stuff to watch, now and again. Must give PBS its due. Just recently I watched an American Experience special about the Carter Family. I had known nothing about the Carter Family before then. As a TV special it was fair enough; but it did compel me to start streaming some of their music. Boy, it's good. I've even bought a CD.

The Carter Family, back in the late 1920s, more or less founded recorded country music. Most of their work was arrangements of old folk songs, gathered from among the people. Thus many of the songs are probably very old indeed. One I particularly like is Single Girl, Married Girl. I haven't been able to find out how old this one is — I mean, how much older than its recording by the Carters in 1928.
Single girl, single girl, going dressed fine,
Oh she's going dressed fine.

Married girl, married girl, she wears just any kind,
Oh she wears just any kind.

Single girl, single girl, she goes to the store and buys,
Oh she goes to the store and buys.

Married girl, married girl, she rocks the cradle and cries,
Oh she rocks the cradle and cries.

Single girl, single girl, going where she please,
Oh she's going where she please.

Married girl, married girl, a baby on her knees,
Oh a baby on her knees.
The contrast between the single and married girls is bluntly made. Sure, it's a cynical song; but it works. It was the Carter Family's first big hit.

Now, as the PBS special plays this song in the backgound, the following luminaries speak.
Barry Mazor: That was pretty potent stuff then as it is now for a woman from the city let alone from the country to be singing about. "By the way, this marriage thing is no bed of roses," this was pretty incendiary stuff.

Gillian Welch: As a single woman singing it, it always seemed like a little bit of a taunt, you know a compassionate taunt, you know to be flaunting your freedom.

Mary Bufwack: Sarah didn't want to go out and sing songs. Sarah didn't want to go down and record music, but it brought money into the family coffers and that was what, was her obligation was to do.
Oh, please. By the way, this marriage thing is no bed of roses. Yeah, Barry. No one until then had even an inkling about the difficulty of marriage. Why, goodness, had people only realized how hard marriage could be, they might have — I dunno — written a folk song about it, or something. They might, indeed, have responded enthusiastically to a popular recording of such a folk song. Or something. Incendiary? Hardly. It was confirmational. The sort of thing that makes you smile wryly or nod your head sadly. Did Single Girl, Married Girl bring about some sort of revolution? Ah, yes: the great Marriage Implosion of 1928... Barry only wishes it had. Barry and his ilk relish the demolishing of ideals — and a happy marriage is the preeminent ideal.

Gillian Welch is welcome to her spin on Single Girl — that is, she may well regard it, when she sings it, as a taunt of the single girl against the married. Frankly, though, I think it is more effective and likely as a lament of the married girl. Even then, I don't think it somehow demonstrates that being single is superior to being married. A married girl who longs to dress well, go to the store and buy, and go wherever she pleases, and who thinks of her marriage as drab clothes, drudgery, and burdensome babies, is simply trapped in adolescence. When Mary Bufwack clucks about how poor Sarah Carter simply felt obligated to record these songs, she implies that marriage is without obligation; that Sarah, by fulfilling her obligations, is pitiable rather than noble. I suppose Sarah should have been dressing fine and going where she pleased — especially shopping — instead of caring for her impoverished family.

Oh, foul marriage, that compels women to grow up and work hard for their children!

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