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February 28, 2008


Hilary Wade

Clearly, the sensible way to resolve this argument is to look at the neuron firing patterns of the brain when it is (i) doing Art, and (ii) forming an opinion, to see if there is any correspondence.


The solemnly delivered platitudes ('Art is independent of politics. We can make sense of a work of art only [sic] in its own terms') reminded me of another recent posting on contemporary music.

Not long ago Mr Kamm's rubbishing of Stockhausen climaxed - by way of Q.E.D. - with the account of a particularly hapless London performance; those of us interested in the opinions of Stravinsky and Boulez had to look elsewhere.

I wish Mr Kamm didn't undermine his reputation of a scholarly commentator by raiding areas alien to his expertise.


Had you heard of the Beatles?

Miv Tucker

Indeed, it is a sad spectacle when Oliver Kamm turns into a David Aaronowitz-like know-all - thin on knowledge, thick on opinion.

Oliver Kamm

I believe the Beatles are a now-disbanded group of popular entertainers.

Shostakovich, who died in 1975, is not a contemporary composer (except in the sense of being contemporary to someone else, e.g. Britten). Likewise Stravinsky, whose work I admire more than I do Stockhausen's (or for that matter any other twentieth-century composer's). I'm sure David Aaronowitz would agree with me, whoever he is.


"we can make sense of a work of art only in its own terms, and not by inferring from it the intentions of the composer, author or artist."

If the intention of the artist is to give the work political content or a political subject, and they succeed, then the work's own terms are in part political.

This needn't be an authentic reflection of an artist's biography or politics. To take the example of Banksy, whether he's a subscriber to soft-centre idiot leftism or not that is the politics recoverable from his art and it is therefore part of the work's own terms.

That said there is very little art in which the artist's politics are anything other than an embarrassing distraction, and even less in which the political impact of the work has anything to do with its aesthetic stature.

Oh, and you have a typo: "not always with the intentio to deceive " :-)

Oliver Kamm

Typo corrected; thanks for pointing it out.

David Duff

I would suggest, tentatively, that the effect of all art is always primarily vicarious, and any 'intellectualising' of art that has given pleasure is always 'post hoc' and peripheral. To be told, years after it blew away what passes for my mind, that the last movement of 'Shosta's' 5th was bombastic irony aimed at pleasing Stalin after the criticism of 'Lady Mcbeth' is of slight but marginal interest and takes nothing away from the pleasure I derive from it.

What I think is more interesting, and enjoyable if you have a taste for irony, is my theory that 'Shosta' would have been a worse composer without Stalin's heavy fist, that is to to say, that left alone his drift into the swamp of atonal modernism might have proved terminal from a musical point of view quite apart from anything the Party might have done to him.

But then again, I wouldn't know a crotchet from a quaver, so what do I know?


Finkelstein is right. Revolution in the Head is a wonderful book that makes a very strong, and convincing, case for The Beatles as Very Important Artists Indeed.

I like what Kurt Vonnegut (before he descended into insanity) said: "I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, 'The Beatles did'."


I do not care about Ian MacDonald so much. In those rosy perestroika years in Moscow we definitely thought that Shostakovich was a tragic figure since ... he had his measure of trouble with Stalin ... but deep in his heart ..also deep in his music.. etc etc ... .
Are you saying that's not true, or not proven????


Do you really think the 5th Symphony is "bombastic"? Cerrtainly the first 2 movements aren't. The last is, but most symphonies have a last movement that is meant to bring the house down. Did you mean the 7th symphony by any chance?


Shostakovich's death in 1975 didn't change the status of his music as contemporary in the subsense listed in the OED (1998 edition): 'following modern ideas or fashion in style or design: contemporary art'. Or, perhaps, Mr Kamm insists that Ligetti's last opera was 'contemporary' a week before his death but not a week after?
It is clear that Mr Kamm disagrees with Stravinsky on Stockhausen (and with Richard Taruskin on music and politics) but does he think that schoolmasterly sloganeering belongs to musical criticism?


A work of art is the embodiment of an intention. To realize an intention in language is the function of the writer. To realize from language the intention of the author is the function of the reader or the critic, and his method is historical or philological interpretation. For Philology, in the older sense of the term, is concerned with the relationship of expression and intention; it revivifies the letter by ascertaining its spirit. And when Philology has accomplished this task, there remains not even the appreciation of the spirit, since the task cannot be accomplished without this.

For whatever be the case with the other arts, the arts of language consist of statements, and a statement means what it says. We look at what a work says to find out what it means, and the apprehension of its meaning is the work of art. Insofar as the meaning is not expressed or is not recoverable from the statements, the work is deficient. Furthermore, it is a simple principle of ethics, provable in daily conversation, that the meaning of a statement is not what anyone chances to attribute to it—how hurt we are when we are misconstrued—but what it was intended to convey. The intention is the intention of the author as expressed in the language which he used and qualified by the circumstances under which he expressed it.

—J. V. Cunningham, 'The Ancient Quarrel Between History and Poetry', Collected Essays (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1976), 120 & 126


It's an excellent book with lots of background and detail. It had me lining up tracks on the CD player with one hand whilst holding the book and reading the corresponding text with the other. Also encouraged me to check out the Incredible String Band (cited as influences a number of times) for which I'm grateful.

Oliver Kamm

Szeni, the name is Ligeti, not Ligetti, and - bar a few early works - Shostakovich's output was no more "contemporary" (or experimental) than that of Cesar Franck.


"A work of art is the embodiment of an intention."

The Rothko room in Tate Modern contains a series of large paintings known as the "Seagram Murals". They were intended to decorate a restaurant in America and give the diners indigestion (see Rothko's correspondence). But they hang in an art museum in London and give gallery-goers transcendental aesthetic experiences.

What intent they may be established as having been intended to embody they signally fail to. And yet they are wonderful artworks.


Antastan, I dunno about - "A work of art is the embodiment of an intention." That seems to deny aesthetic appreciation outside the confines of the author's intent. But then I'm not familiar with your source. I tend towards the functionalist reductivism thesis which states that anything which can secure an Arts Council grant is automatically disqualified from being art.


Apologies for 'Ligetti'; my Hungarian is rather rusty. That some of Shostakovich's early music was radical even by today's standards is obvious. I can't imagine Franck writing the 24 Preludes and Fugues (op 87) though (or why anyone would insist that Stravinsky's music is not contemporary).

Oliver Kamm

Well, because you'e confusing - whether deliberately or not I cannot tell - a term in musicology with a term in common speech. Contemporary music is usually taken as a synonym for what John Cage termed experimental music. Stravinsky's output (which with no evidence you inferred I was dismissing, whereas I in fact regard it as the greatest body of work of the last century) covered numerous techniques, each with great facility (my great favourite is the neo-classicism of The Rake's Progress), but it certainly doesn't fall in the category of Musique Concrete.

Michael Brooke

Ligeti was once in the same room as Shostakovich, but refused to shake his hand because he regarded him as a mouthpiece for the same Soviet regime that had driven him out of Hungary in the wake of the 1956 revolution.

Ligeti later conceded that he might have been over-hasty, but this was of course long before Solomon Volkov made his contribution to the debate.

Mick Vaar

It's a little bit cheeky of Oliver Kamm to accuse Szeni of causing confusion while himself substituting (when no-one was looking?) 'musique concrete' for 'contemporary music'. Professional cards players have a word for it (and a punishment).

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