Classification of Art and Pseudo-Art Forms

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The following are some disconnected thoughts and rambling on the subject of art, under the imprimatur of a constructive classification:

* Musical composition. One of the distinguishing qualities of musical composition is -- as in any form of higher analysis and synthesis -- to decompose conceptions into components, and ideas into component ideas (not literal components), in a more abstract manner. This is made possible by the formal rules of counterpoint and harmony established over a course of centuries… in fact it would be impossible without those rigid rules that make such "complexity" possible. At the same time, the basic building blocks are still the familiar melodies and tunes that appear in "folk" (orally transmitted) music - in that sense classical music should be more "popular" than popular music, since it makes an immediate appeal to what one is familiar to. The only obstacle is the complexity - of seeing how the simple parts form into a poetic whole. In contrast, it is popular music that forces one to get used to an entirely different kind of sound, timbre etc. with every different "genre". This is because popular music is a simple combination of two or at most three different "styles", without formalization - e.g., "rock" music was a combination of the "hillbilly music" genre formed by record companies slightly before WWII, and then negro "swing" that developed completely apart, but suddenly were heard together when radio broadcasted hitherto isolated styles of music to the same audience.

One of the myths about musical composition is the idea that the "genius" of Beethoven or Mozart lies in the final act of "synthesis" in which the whole is formed. But in fact, relatively simple algorithms ( like the program "Emmy" ) are able to compose new pieces in style of Mozart, to such an extent as to be indistinguishable from the actual composer's, so long as it is fed some of those component expressive devices (the "idiom") that Mozart developed. A student of composition can imitate Mozart's style so well that they can be passed off as "forgeries" (and in fact there were several works that were forgeries of Haydn). [ Edit: this is not quite true -- it is true for the lesser works, but not the greater ones.] The actual "genius" of composition consists of developing those component conceptions themselves - of the long and laborious process in which a composer develops, accumulates and filters out extraneous elements to shape a particular "idiom". In this way, musical composition is almost entirely like musical performance, in that most of the work consists not of generating combinations but filtering them out. What distinguishes Dvorak from mediocre Viennese Waltz composers (e.g., Strauss II) is not even "creativity" in terms of combination, but the ability to see what component ideas and tunes are promising and which are tedious or idiotic. It is in other words the ability to feel music and to emotionally react to it, to see one's own experiences reflected in it, which is why nothing of importance is ever made by composers who grew up in a city and who never had any real contact with nature or meaningful relationships with humans - i.e., something outside of oneself. (Also, I find it funny that Chopin's scribblings are most easily imitated by that program in the book above.)


(Other important sources: Hindemith's remarkable series of textbooks on musical composition.)

* Rap "music". A misnomer of course, since rap is not music. It is just (bad, I would think) poetry read aloud. This should be taken with a grain of salt, since I stopped listening to this a long time ago. But the affinity of rap with poetry should be a reminder that poetry is not somehow "less popular", it was always more popular than pure music.

* Dance. The problem with this is exactly the opposite of rap "music" - dance is a combination of actual dance and music, but it seems like the music is not dependent on the dance while the dance would lose all its effect without any music. Some more examination of this topic is warranted.

* Theater and acting.
Theater and opera tends to be an vulgar art form that combines idiotic music, idiotic acting and visual spectacles - none of which can stand alone, but that "together" (because the audience is thrown into a seizure) is supposed be so "spectacular" and distracting. The best thing about it is that it inspired (provided an excuse for writing) a great deal of first-rate music, e.g. by Wagner. The one exception is Jazz, that seems to lend itself very well to musical theater e.g. Chicago .

There are two forms of acting: the acting of an emotional reaction, and the generation of a "personality". The second is extremely rare and only done (it seems) by Daniel Day-Lewis, especially in Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood . If you closely observe what Day-Lewis does, he simply fixes his face in approximately the same kind of grimace or facial expression all the time, and then makes tiny variations in the movement of the eyes, tilting of the head etc. If his facial expression were not approximately frozen, we would never pay attention to those "nuances" … What is behind it is, of course, not some genius of "expression" but the simple idea of fixing something, so our attention is drawn towards the nuances.

Literary acting is just an extension of literature, except it is microscopic and one paints every little detail of someone's emotional reaction to an unexpected event, instead of describing it. The best example of this is Marcia Gay Harden in the film "Pollock" (a film about a despicable character). This is, however, a very low-brow kind of tinkering. The nuances don't matter, and the addition that it makes to anything is correspondingly little. (And what we mean by this, is that you can make any little change at all to any particular part, and the effect on the whole will be correspondingly little, instead of unexpectedly large)

* Films. This falls into "storytelling" (e.g., One Thousand and One [Arabian] Nights , which is completely different from great literature. There are two components of it - the cinematography and the dialogue, and neither has anything to do with what makes Nabokov or Tolstoy great, which is the laborious working out of the psychological dimension… This explains why film adaptations of novels fail (or if they succeed, it will be for a different reason).

* Novels and short stories. The most important distinction is between psychologically complicated novels (e.g., Tolstoy, Mishima, Nabokov) and then purely "interpersonal" novels that depend on creating some appealing character - e.g., The Once and Future King by T. H. White, and juvenile fiction in general. Literature is a purely empirical art - abstract music was done by Hauer and Schoenberg, abstract painting, but abstract fiction seems to be a contradiction in terms.

(To be continued.)


I will qualify the statement about rap slightly, since I guess poetry read aloud can be seen as a sort of percussive "music" (due to the presence of rhythm). It would still be radically different from all other kinds of music however, due to the predominance of the verbal component. This is the entire point: "genres" are not a classification , since there is no criterion of classification specified - you might as well just talk about "areas" of music. One criterion can be "style"; another is how one's attention is shaped in listening music. The fundamental difference between "classical" music and "pop" is in terms of the second and not really the first, even - the fact that different aspects of the sound it are paid attention to (but more on this below).

* The 'detailed' arts: representational painting, instrumental musical performance. Representational painting obviously has to appeal to the familiarity that the viewer has with the kind of scene painted, usually in nature. One does not have to have an encyclopedic knowledge to appreciate Turner's paintings, but just the ability to keep in mind two things at once: what is being depicted, and then how the painter is "seeing" this or filtering out information. The nuances of painting consist of all the deviations from the actual object that was painted, which can be extrapolated just by looking at it (e.g. slight discolorations of a sunset).

Classical musical performance is similar to (representational) painting in some respects, not others. The late H. L. Mencken - whenever he tried to tackle a topic more complicated than basic arithmetic (and he didn't even understand that) - simply talked nonsense whenever he touched this topic[*]. The analogy is drawn to, IIRC, a "painting of a painting" or a "painting of a building" or some such kind of decoration that cannot possibly affect the original idea - except this is just a false analogy, since an original building already filters out the visual information: this is more like the "filling in" of an outline of a landscape (not the painting of a painting). Also, whether the details of arrangement affect the overall impression is quite different depending on what kind of outline it is: it does not matter for buildings, but it does so for the outline of human faces, say.

The second point is more subtle: performance can also *be*, not merely decoration with a certain observed effect that is higher than decoration in other cases, but an actual act of original construction. That is, one can (by fixing an expressive idiom) form a gradual language on top of the nuances of expression, although this has been done only very few times in the history of such performance.

The other difference is that performance shapes the rhythm and dynamic changes in volume which is an aspect of the original composition itself which cannot be notated completely. This alters the shape of the 'expression' -- that is, a composition is not merely an outlined structure, but a structure for the purpose of expression. And so performance addresses a different features of the structure itself -- it is like one can alter the exact shape and size of the rooms in a building, but without changing the overall arrangement (that the rooms are placed in such an order).

The idea that performance is a "distraction" from composition only applies if the composition is not about expression at all, but pure cleverness of construction. If it is viewed, however, as part of the larger system (one *for the purposes of expression*), then both enter into the final effect.

What we can also observe is this: detailed musical performance is "detailed" for a few reasons. If we fix the score itself, this draws our attention to the "nuances" of the rhythmic changes and the tonal color. (Not only the score is fixed - the instruments are also "uniform": all violins and pianos sound approximately the same, compared to human voices in popular music. Again, the entire point is that in musical performance, exactly because something (the score) is fixed , we pay attention to special nuances of the sound. This is in contrast to the other "performing" arts, in which the nuances don't matter at all (we can't keep in track of them), and the most that the performer can add is simple "color" or undifferentiated sensation.

[*] See the Second Mencken Chrestomathy , p.70-71. When satirists or "critics" say things that seem mentally retarded, they aren't worth attacking any more than defending. The attempted "defense" of something like this is based on a false premise: that X is a thinker at all, and so something is based on correct, or mostly correct *thinking*, when in fact it is not based on any thinking at all. It is only worth diagnosing, and in more clearly exposing someone's very simple techniques of anti-thought. Like a chimpanzee in human clothes, a "critic" can pretend to dress up in the language of actual thinking. And yet with any simple exposure like this, his costume is simply yanked off permanently.



I am not interested in "traducing" Mencken the man himself (as opposed to just some of his views), but in explaining him. Mencken, Karl Kraus, John Dolan and their like represent those who are masters of "rhetoric", or the art of trolling. I repeat:


Great thread Thoughts. It's the first time I read (and understand) about an objective way to asses the merit of musical performers.

It's not my intention to derail the thread, but would you be so kind as to comment on my artistic body of work? Here are some examples:

My films

My poems (I)

My poems (II)

My sculptures

Thanks in advance.


Continued from the original post:

The most important composers , who created their own expressive idiom, were: Beethoven, Bruckner (comparable to Beethoven in some ways - his only big weakness was the inability to synthesize "component" ideas), Monteverdi, C. P. E. Bach, Haydn, Schubert, Wagner, Bartok, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Alban Berg[*] (who achieved what Schoenberg merely attempted - the key is that serialism/dodecaphony has to "evoke" and appeal to tonality), Schnittke (the height of modern music - going beyond both the modern and classical), etc. To some extent, Shostakovich in his 1st symphony (but not afterwards). The single, most important criterion for greatness is the ability to originate a new expressive idiom , since ultimately all idioms (including the "romantic" ones) run out of steam. It also usually catches people by surprise when I tell them that very simple algorithms like "Emmy" can actually imitate Mozart so well to be indistinguishable from the real thing, and that basic students of composition can do the same with works of Beethoven, by simply recombining and developing the component ideas in a different way. But the real discovery comes with those "component" ideas…

Those who were masters at the later stages of "synthesis" (while originating no new elements themselves): J. S. Bach (the greatest master), Mozart and Brahms, mostly. Mozart's entire "stile" was mostly copied from C. P. E. Bach (who originated Mozart's idiom), as can be confirmed by just a brief comparison of the two. (The early Beethoven was similarly influenced by Haydn, but quickly grew out of it.) W.A. Mozart was the master of forming a body-language of the hands, eyes, and "control centers" (specialized brains) reacting every second telling the entire "body" to adjust its posture, and how these anthropomorphic actions are immediately interpreted as abstract ideas -- ideas which are then recorded into the manipulation of musical structures. The height of talent is to think in terms of the body -- not in terms of language, but how movements of the body (taking things apart, putting together, 'manipulations' and detailed fingerwork, balancing of the entire body, "going upstairs", descending) can be immediately re-interpreted as abstract thought. To a lesser extent (those who developed their individual style within the romantic mold): Schumann, Dvorak had personal styles. Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin, Rachmaninov etc. are examples of this with a "Russian" flavor.

Those who were good at writing basic melodies: Schubert, Hugo Wolf, some great moments in Schumann and Wagner, some parts of Rossini.

The most innovative in terms of musical form: Monteverdi (one of the single most important figures in the entire history of music), J. S. Bach in some ways, Czerny, Clementi of course, Haydn, Bellini, Schoenberg (or else Hauer).

Charlatans: most of Paganini, most of Liszt, almost all of Chopin (with the exception of the 2nd sonata, and I think the sonata for cello and violin), Stockhausen and most other "moderns" after Alban Berg, and finally: the hideously repetitive, incompetent and pointless music of Elgar, Britten and virtually all "English composers" after the Baroque, utterly incompetent in every possible technical and other respect, and yet also so admired by Englishmen afraid of "treason").

Not charlatans, just third-rate and emotionally hollow: the Viennese Waltz composers (like Strauss and Strauss II), a large portion of Tchaikovsky (though not the best of it), and hundreds of no-name composers who inhabited Vienna around the time of Mozart & Beethoven (Salieri, Hummel, Moscheles ... hundreds of others who are mostly forgotten), and Meyerbeer (the one who turned Wagner "antisemitic").

Underrated: Dvorak (sometimes he's lumped into the same category as Strauss II or other Viennese waltz composers!), C. P. E. Bach (the eldest son of Johann Sebastian and one of the best Bachs).

Notice how this gigantic distinction between the earlier and later stages of musical composition is completely missed by those who make another - completely useless - distinction between the composer's "emotional powah" and then their "technical ability" (sic) in general, like what (e.g.) Mencken does in his discussion of Schubert et al. One of the very many things obscured by this: the emotional power of Beethoven and Schubert is a result of the fact that both created a new idiom or "language" of stylistic devices that are used repeatedly (not even primarily that Schubert had "better melodies" (of course, Schubert and Hugo Wolf were the best song-writers) but rather, for example, the way that Schubert skillfully modulated between different keys) - whereas Mozart and Bach are simply not emotionally expressive , whatever else they may be, simply because they focus on recombining the same components over and over again. On the other hand, Schubert definitely had his incompetences, like for all large-scale symphonic works.

[*] Alban Berg was NOT JEWISH , contrary to the internet pseudo-"sources" that say so. Also: I think Schoenberg and pure serialists like Krenek, Webern and also Schnabel (who was also a composer) only achieved a "partial success" - since the music does not appeal to basic melodic components that everyone is familiar with, there is no real emotional content. Serialism is only interesting if it skirts the edge of tonality, like what Berg achieved. One last thing: Hauer, not Schoenberg, invented the 12-tone system (that used all 12 notes of the chromatic scale).


I'm not an expert on popular or vernacular music, since I think you have to understand how it "borrows" from various influences in order to really appreciate it. I will just say that most of genre music - rock & roll, or even metal - is a simple combination of various other genres of styles. They can keep on combining and recombining forever, which is how they develop. There are no expressive nuances whatsoever, but this is made up for by other features - the fundamentally new (in a jarring way) quality of sound, or effect of the whole.

Now, formalized (what is called "classical") music is also a combination of "styles", but the "style" involves not pure qualities (a monadic quality, like redness or the sound of a guitar, is appreciated in itself and not "in relation to" a second), but the way in which various components within a larger idiom are borrowed, or devices are borrowed. But a completely new idiom is possible even if all of the component melodic themes are borrowed - see Schubert again. So it does occur, but is of little relevance - whereas simple combinations of two "styles" actually make an entirely new genre, in popular music.

Jazz music lies between the two ("formal" and "informal"), since I think what "varies" is the possibility of improvised sections or wildly varying rhythms, which is made possible by modularity:


Archetypal popular music (notice the use of electronics and microphones, that are beyond direct manual manipulation - a complete no-no in the "classical" variety) - also note that the music is supposed to work in conjunction with a video in the background:


BTW, "Orchestral" music can definitely be pouplar music, if it's extremely repetitive (see John Williams soundtrack for Star Wars).

How a simple tune can be converted into "formal" music by fixing various things (the way her voice is trained) and varying others:


Niccolo and Donkey

Your criticism of various artists and artistic forms seems to consist in little else than a string of synonyms for "bad" ("idiotic", "incompetent", "pointless", etc). You'll have to add a little more of substance to your criticisms if you wish to pass them off as anything other than autobiographical expressions of personal opinion.

My comments on the relative worth of particular artists are personal opinion, unlike the comments on the relative worth (or classification) of entire art forms.