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Tony Watkins

Subjectivity and Objectivity in Art

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I guess my problem might just be that your understanding of abstraction isn't that of my dictionary . . . which says that to abstract is to

consider a concept without thinking of a specific example

and that's basically what I was getting at above with my comparison to mathematical thought.

You might start by giving us a definition of "abstract" that is the same part of speech as the one we are discussing. We are discussing an adjective; therefore the definition of the verb can offer only tangential insight at best.

The first dictionary I checked offered this adjectival definition:

having only intrinsic form with little or no attempt at pictorial representation or narrative content

And a Bach fugue does not have "only intrinsic" form. It has the same form, more or less, as other Bach fugues. A fugue follows certain rules that govern all fugues and are extrinsic to any one composition.

A fugue doesn't TELL a story, a fugue IS a story. It has a main character, otherwise called a "theme." You hear the theme first in one section of the orchestra, or on one part of the keyboard; then later it enters in another section or part or register. It goes through several such iterations. It is developed, altered, extended, truncated, transposed, reharmonized, etc. There might be a secondary theme introduced. There's a buildup of harmonic tension. Finally there's a resolution. Just because a fugue doesn't make you think of enchanted brooms carrying water buckets doesn't make it "abstract."

One might relate my previous comments about Fantasia to the main topic of discussion by noting that the music for Bald Mountain and Rite of Spring does seem to "work" with the animations in the film, even if those animations depart from the composers' intent. Which would seem to argue for a certain amount of subjectivity, even with music that is more or less programmatic.

Edited by mrmando

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The first dictionary I checked offered this adjectival definition:

having only intrinsic form with little or no attempt at pictorial representation or narrative content

And a Bach fugue does not have "only intrinsic" form. It has the same form, more or less, as other Bach fugues. A fugue follows certain rules that govern all fugues and are extrinsic to any one composition.

One might relate my previous comments about Fantasia to the main topic of discussion by noting that the music for Bald Mountain and Rite of Spring does seem to "work" with the animations in the film, even if those animations depart from the composers' intent. Which would seem to argue for a certain amount of subjectivity, even with music that is more or less programmatic.

I think there is a crucial difference in the way that abstract is being understood and interpreted here. It seems to me that a Bach fugue fits the definition offered absolutely. Yes, it has the same form, more or less, as other Bach fugues. But I don't see why that makes it non-abstract. Don't all fugues have an essential fugueyness about them? There is some form which is intrinsic to all fugue which differentiates them from plainsong - it is contrapuntal to start with. The rules are extrinsic to any one composition, but they are intrinsic to the form itself - and a particular fugue is a member of the set of pieces of music which follow the rules. Fugues also make no attempt to be pictorial representations or to communicate narrative content. They are, to use the term previously mentioned, absolute rather than programmatic.

I wonder whether it's possible to see even programmatic music as having a measure of abstraction. We might say 'it paints pictures' but that's a metaphor. The music itself doesn't create an image of the scene, but rather we bring images to a composition that we know to be programmatic. I'm not sure that a listener who knows nothing of the background to Smetana's Ma Vlast, for instance, would be able to invest the music with the things that Smetana was trying to convey. The animations in Fantasia, as you say, bear no relation to the composers' intentions, which suggests that there is nothing inherently representative about it. Music becomes programmatic when the composer says so since notes cannot in themselves create an image in a representative way or communicate a narrative which can be immediately understood by a listener.

Now, I admit that I'm overstating my case in this last paragraph since we can infer moods from the music and so music which conveys a succession of moods can communicate something of a narrative, but clearly not in the sense of telling a story like literature, theatre, film or even a static painting. Music primarily communicates meaning in connotative ways, not denotative ways - it sets up certain associations in our minds rather than giving it to us straight. Since it is not a direct depiction, it must be, in some measure, abstract.

However, there is some music which is denotative - denoting not images but sounds. The cannons in Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture depict cannons. The bell in Mussorgski's Pictures at an Exhibition denotes a particular bell. And it can go further: Haydn's symphony no 83 is called The Hen because it denotes a hen's clucking. But truly denotative music is limited and therefore I would argue that the majority of music is, to some extent abstract. Not formless, but not directly communicating meaning.

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Well, see the paragraph I added. Let's not confuse subjectivity with abstraction. A story told in Serbo-Croatian is still a story and not an abstraction, even if we don't speak Serbo-Croatian. The same is true of a story told in music, be it in fugue form, sonata-allegro form, or twelve-bar blues form.

There is some form which is intrinsic to all fugue which differentiates them from plainsong - it is contrapuntal to start with. The rules are extrinsic to any one composition, but they are intrinsic to the form itself - and a particular fugue is a member of the set of pieces of music which follow the rules.

But see here, you are talking about "form" -- about fugues as a whole and not any one fugue. According to the definition I posted, a single work is abstract if it has only intrinsic form. That would mean that the work does not have strong similarities in form to other works. A work is not abstract if it is part of a category of works defined according to form. A work of music can be abstract only if doesn't adhere to any particular musical form. Therefore a fugue is not abstract, simply by virtue of its being a fugue.

Fugues also make no attempt to be pictorial representations or to communicate narrative content. They are, to use the term previously mentioned, absolute rather than programmatic.
Well, of course they're not pictorial representations ... the definition I posted refers primarily to visual art. But a fugue by definition does have narrative content: as I said, it introduces a musical theme, i.e., a given sequence of notes, and then presents a story about that theme. Edited by mrmando

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Well, see the paragraph I added. Let's not confuse subjectivity with abstraction. A story told in Serbo-Croatian is still a story and not an abstraction, even if we don't speak Serbo-Croatian. The same is true of a story told in music, be it in fugue form, sonata-allegro form, or twelve-bar blues form.

But this is my point. What does it mean to say that music is telling a story - that is something we bring to the music. Story itself is not inherent in a sequence of notes.

But see here, you are talking about "form" -- about fugues as a whole and not any one fugue. According to the definition I posted, a single work is abstract if it has only intrinsic form. That would mean that the work does not have strong similarities in form to other works. A work is not abstract if it is part of a category of works defined according to form. A work of music can be abstract only if doesn't adhere to any particular musical form. Therefore a fugue is not abstract, simply by virtue of its being a fugue.

I don't see why the definition should apply only to a single work. But again, my primary point is that different definitions/interpretations of the word abstract are muddying the waters. Here's another dictionary definition of abstract used adjectivally:

not representing or imitating external reality or the objects of nature

You seem to be using the term within the confines of music - 'A work of music can be abstract only if doesn't adhere to any particular musical form'. But that's not what the definition that has been offered is saying. 'Intrinsic form' does not 'mean that the work does not have strong similarities in form to other works', but that it is form that characterises the work rather than representation. Within visual arts, the loss of representation in abstract art appears to many people to entail a loss of form, though it doesn't - form is all that is left. The point is not that it only has its own particular form, but that it does not represent. You could have many abstract canvases that share the same form, but each is an abstract. In music, there is not much representation (what there is is pimarily connotative, not denotative - a crucial point I think) and what is called abstract in my experience tends to be music which has jettisoned more established and shared forms. But that is an oddity of definition within the world of music. When looking at art as a whole, including music, it is the lack of representation that makes something abstract - a work or a form. And I still would argue that music is an inherently abstract art.

But a fugue by definition does have narrative content: as I said, it introduces a musical theme, i.e., a given sequence of notes, and then presents a story about that theme.

Hmm. Now we're into definitions of narrative and story. Music theorists may use them in a particular way, but these are not normal ways of using the terms. Here's some dictionary definitions:

a message that tells the particulars of an act or occurrence or course of events (onelook)
the representation in art of an event or story; also : an example of such a representation (Merriam Websters)
a story or a description of a series of events (Cambridge)

And for story:

a piece of fiction that narrates a chain of related events . . . a message that tells the particulars of an act or occurrence or course of events; presented in writing or drama or cinema or as a radio or television program (onelook)

I don't understand how a fugue has narrative content in that sense. Introducing a theme and developing the theme may be analagous to narrative but it isn't narrative in any strict sense.

This paper - Affect and Cognition in Art: Form versus Content - by Stevan Harnad at Princeton is interesting on this subject. (He wisely avoids using the term 'abstract' to refer to music :))

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You seem to be using the term within the confines of music

Well, of course. Why should music be judged according to the principles of another art form? One doesn't judge theatre by the standards of film and vice versa.

- 'A work of music can be abstract only if doesn't adhere to any particular musical form'. But that's not what the definition that has been offered is saying. 'Intrinsic form' does not 'mean that the work does not have strong similarities in form to other works', but that it is form that characterises the work rather than representation.

The definition I proffered says "only intrinsic form" -- i.e., an adverb plus an adjective modifying the word "form." In other words, whatever "form" an abstract work has is intrinsic to the work itself, and is not a property the work shares with other works.

You could have many abstract canvases that share the same form, but each is an abstract.

What can you possibly infer about form if there is no representation? You can talk about palette or mood or energy or technique, but those are hardly synonymous with "form."

In music, there is not much representation (what there is is pimarily connotative, not denotative - a crucial point I think) and what is called abstract in my experience tends to be music which has jettisoned more established and shared forms. But that is an oddity of definition within the world of music.

Again, what's wrong with that? Let's use musical standards/terms to judge music.

When looking at art as a whole, including music, it is the lack of representation that makes something abstract - a work or a form. And I still would argue that music is an inherently abstract art.

Wrong. "Lack of representation" equals "abstract" only in VISUAL art, not in art as a whole.

I don't understand how a fugue has narrative content in that sense. Introducing a theme and developing the theme may be analagous to narrative but it isn't narrative in any strict sense.

Of course it's analagous. Music doesn't use words or images; it uses tones and notes and timbres and such. But a composer arranges these in ways that are analagous to the way a painter arranges images in a portrait or a writer arranges words in a story. Or, the composer tries to arrange them in ways that are pointedly NOT analogous to narrative, and in so doing creates an abstract work. Fugue is analogous to narrative, and therefore it is not abstract.

In high school, my orchestra director once told us about a paper he wrote, explaining sonata-allegro form by way of analogous comparison to the plot of a John Wayne film. Made perfect sense.

Edited by mrmando

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You seem to be using the term within the confines of music

Well, of course. Why should music be judged according to the principles of another art form? One doesn't judge theatre by the standards of film and vice versa.

This is where the difficulty has arisen (and it's turned into one of those occasions where I wish I hand't joined the conversation in order to try to clarify when two other people seemed to be talking past each other :( ). I understood the discussion to be about art in general - including music and visual arts. I don't think it was a question of judging music according to the principles of another art form but of looking at the whole sweep of art - in that context all art forms are being discussed (not judged) according to some general principles. What got us into this, remember, was someone claiming that there was an immutable objective heirarchy to the arts.

In music, there is not much representation (what there is is pimarily connotative, not denotative - a crucial point I think) and what is called abstract in my experience tends to be music which has jettisoned more established and shared forms. But that is an oddity of definition within the world of music.

Again, what's wrong with that? Let's use musical standards/terms to judge music.

Nothing is wrong with that. Why are you inferring that I am attacking music in some way? I am probably more passionate about music than film. My point is simply that outside of the confines of the musical world itself, the word 'abstract' is semantically equivalent to non-representative. If someone is using the term in a narrowly musical sense they are likely to confuse others who understand it in the broader, more everyday sense. And therefore to avoid confusion, it's best to define terms carefully - and if, as here, 'abstract' turns out to have connotations that people stumble over, then maybe it's better to use some other term.

- 'A work of music can be abstract only if doesn't adhere to any particular musical form'. But that's not what the definition that has been offered is saying. 'Intrinsic form' does not 'mean that the work does not have strong similarities in form to other works', but that it is form that characterises the work rather than representation.

The definition I proffered says "only intrinsic form" -- i.e., an adverb plus an adjective modifying the word "form." In other words, whatever "form" an abstract work has is intrinsic to the work itself, and is not a property the work shares with other works.

We're reading the same words and understanding them to imply different things. It's not going to help us to keep debating the semantics of 'only intrinsic form'.

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I can't make any real reply at this point, I've got to head out. But I'd just like to note that I've found this discussion very thought-provoking, and I hope that others have as well. I'd also hope that we can keep trying to move forward, because as Tony says we're tending to talk past each other. I'll try, when I find the time to post next, to address the question at hand in as fair a way as possible, and that's all I ask of anyone else. :)

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Well, there may certainly be more than one sense of the term "abstract." If we want to look for a macro-level definition that applies to all the arts, we can certainly do that. But we have to accept that there will be some limits on its usefulness -- particularly if it leads us to the conclusion that nearly all instrumental music is abstract. There may be some benefit in thinking about music that way, but we are doing ourselves a real disservice if we do not also ask ourselves whether abstraction means something entirely different on a "micro" or "granular" level within the field of music.

And music may, in fact, be a good deal more representational than the average listener realizes. A composer may say to himself, "This theme represents how I feel about Clara Schumann," or "This theme represents how I feel about being kicked out of my college fraternity because I'm homosexual," or "This theme represents how I feel about what Stalin has said about my work," and then work that theme into a composition. The resulting piece is certainly representational from the composer's point of view, whether anyone else understands it or not. In the third instance, musicologists still don't entirely agree on exactly what Shostakovich meant by his Fifth Symphony, but it clearly does mean something. In his biography of Mozart, Maynard Solomon finds the composer's suppressed rage at his father welling up in the left-hand part of a piano sonata, and explains it so clearly that you can see it, right there in the notes on the page.

When you look at a painting and you can recognize that it shows a group of cows in a field, then you know it is not abstract, it is a pastoral landscape. If it's a decent painting you can find variations or differences among the cows that were put there intentionally by the artist. If it's a really good painting, you might even be able to infer some kind of narrative from what certain cows appear to be doing or looking at. If you hear a piece of music and you can recognize that a certain theme is repeating and overlapping itself at various points within a given harmonic structure, then you know it is not abstract, it is a fugue. If it's a decent fugue, you can hear variation and development. If it's a Bach fugue, you can hear reharmonization, secondary themes, transposition, tension and relaxation all arranged in a way that flows very much like a narrative. You can learn to recognize these components, just as surely as you can learn to recognize a cow, or even distinguish one breed of cow from another.

...

Later, after some thought, a Guinness, and some fish and chips:

I'm afraid I must reject the macro-definition of "abstract art" as "non-representational." All art represents something, for crying out loud, whether it's a wheelbarrow, or the King of France, or your fear of aging, or your frustration with being an alcoholic, or the joy of getting your first commission from a major orchestra. Just because a work of art represents something we can't see or touch doesn't mean it is "non-representational." Then again, there's at least a sense in which every work of art exists unto itself. Prints of Persistence of Memory and Starry Night are on my wall right now, not just because they represent the sky or melting watches or the ravages of time, but because I have always appreciated the works themselves. One can enjoy Pictures at an Exhibition without having seen any of the drawings that inspired it ... and in fact, the drawings look pretty drab next to the music. So even a representational work of art also functions non-representationally. Some poets are notably sensitive about this, and insist that their work ought to be appreciated for what it is rather than what it stands for.

We might find a way forward by refining the general definition somewhat, and proposing that the degree of abstraction in a work of art corresponds to the degree to which it represents abstract concepts

Edited by mrmando

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Gosh. That's a great post, mrmando, and there's only a few things, maybe just nitpicky things, to disagree with. But first to express my agreement with the central point:

We might find a way forward by refining the general definition somewhat, and proposing that the degree of abstraction in a work of art corresponds to the degree to which it represents abstract concepts
Edited by David Smedberg

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It's worth noting that this new understanding of "abstract", while valid, is moving past ordinary usage - I mean, heck, even you've contrasted the word "abstract" with the word "representational here, when you said:

Brooks' style is hard to peg
Edited by mrmando

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But - most "abstract" art is based on real-life forms and shapes (often subjects), whether they're natural or man-made. Even Jackson Pollock's "drip" paintings. (For the Pollock thing, see the NGA's feature on his "Autumn Rhythm".

[::sprints out back door::]

I would think Rorschach's work proves there's no getting around this! Another reason I think it's useful to think of abstraction in art as a spectrum rather than a line in the sand. (Hm... line in the sand... sounds like something Goldsworthy might do.)

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I'm speaking as a documentary producer, and you may be surprised that my own opinion is that story is important but not necessarily the most important element - in terms of connecting directly with the viewer. Has anyone seen Kooyanisquatsi (I'm probably not spelling that right). If you haven't, rent it. Here's a magnificent visual/aural journey with absolutely no story or narrative that nonetheless delivers a very powerful message about the state of the world.

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Spam, spam, spam, spam! Reported to moderator.

Edited by mrmando

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NPR had a wondeful spot on taste and aesthetics yesterday. A brief synopsis on my blog.

I heard this on my way home from work last night and thought it was fascinating.

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I listened to this segment and thought the commentator made some very good points, though I think you can only push this kind of psychological analysis so far without starting to misjudge.

Really, I often think that people (including me) like certain things simply because they like them. :) (Like spaghetti, compact cars or dogs vs. cats.)

Very true. Throughout the piece I kept thinking, "Well what about me? My own tastes have been a combination of minimalism and more ornate and decorative stuff for years now. Am I just all messed up?" ;)

I would guess that De Botton would admit that these are generalizations to some degree, maybe to a large degree. Nonetheless, it was still a fun piece. And I still think it's a good point when he says "The two great dogmas of aesthetics

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Really, I often think that people (including me) like certain things simply because they like them. :) (Like spaghetti, compact cars or dogs vs. cats.)

[Taking break from work]

From this point of view I don't even want to think of the potential implications of liking spaghetti. I would prefer to, like you, simply like the things I like.

[Late to this conversation] Just to add to your post about "abstract", Rothko, apparently, did not consider his later work (the more known works of colour) as abstract. He considerd himself working with pure colour. Where as artists like Klee and Kandinsky both seem to consider some importance to abstracting from natural or recognizable forms. All three considered what they were doing to be working toward or inspired from what music achieves "without the help of representation" (to touch lightly on another thread).

I don't know where any of this fits into or implications to this discussion, but what I've read here about abstract made me think of some of the things I've been reading lately and I thought I'd share.

[/back to work]

Joe

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