Monday, December 3, 2007

Formalism vs. Contextualism, part two

In my last post, I was trying to clarify the point of contention between Arthur and me by distinguishing what I called formalism and contextualism and explaining how I thought Arthur had blurred the distinction. I'd also like to say a little bit about why I think I tend to fall on the formalist side of the divide.

The first point to make is that I don't always fall on the formalist side. There are some early songs of Bob Dylan's, for instance, that I would be hard pressed to defend on formal grounds but that frequently have a magical effect on me. That effect has to do with Dylan's possibly unprecedented way of singing, which owes something to Woody Guthrie--a loaded association for me already, since my dad was born into the same Oklahoma dust bowl that Guthrie wrote about--and which evokes something of Greil Marcus's "old, weird America," but which, because of Dylan's intimacy with the microphone, infuses the uncanniness of The Anthology of American Folk Music with a new human warmth. Where Dylan borrows lyrics from the folk tradition, that intimacy (which, by the way, disappeared very quickly, only to reemerge in the mid-1980s) recharges them with the romantic longing that must have animated them in the first place, and I associate that longing with the photo on the cover of Freewheelin', Dylan young and charmingly innocent with a girl on his arm, a photo that evokes the excitement of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s--which I also associate with my parents' youth, which coincided with Dylan's, and which I imagine now with the same fond nostalgia I feel when I remember my own, which like Dylan's was marked by musical ambition and coffee house performances and cheap apartments and long, late talks with people who seemed eccentric and brilliant and passionate. But at the same time, I can't look at that picture or listen to those recordings without imagining the haggard Dylan of today, who sings with such rue on Time Out of Mind, "I been to Sugar Town, I shook the sugar down," or without remembering the weird incense smell of the candlelit basement room in my freshman dorm where I listened to Dylan in earnest for the first time, sitting on the floor, and where the discovery of his music seemed like a ritual, a right of passage--all of which add to the swirl of sensations and emotions that the music elicits.

I could probably go on, but the basic point is that this is one case among many where what matters most to me about a group of recordings seems to be "what they mean culturally", in Arthur's formula. I treasure the experience of listening to those recordings for all their associations. But at the same time, I feel that tracing out all those associations will do me very little good. As Arthur put it in his comment, it's "not an intellectual pursuit he [me] is interested in".

That's because any particular, magical confluence of associations is very unlikely to occur in exactly the same way again, so it's not much of a guide to future decisions about what music to buy. I take it as axiomatic that the point of arts criticism is to (1) deepen people's appreciation of familiar works of art or (2) guide them to unfamiliar works of art that they will deeply appreciate. My appreciation of those early Dylan songs could hardly be deeper, so (1) doesn't really pertain. At the same time, I've found that a singer's proximity to the microphone, or the fact that he or she is roughly my parents' age, is not as reliable a predictor of a satisfying aesthetic experience as, say, melodies of wide range that feature lots of leaps and wander out of the diatonic scale.

I realize that this could sound like a circular argument: formal properties are better than cultural meaning at predicting what music I'll like, but that's only because, for some idiosyncratic reason, I'm more intrigued by music's formal properties than by its cultural meaning. If that's true, however, then Arthur and I may not really be disputing anything; we just appreciate different aspects of music. But then, I don't really see anywhere for the conversation to go. It doesn't do a whole lot of good for either of us to say to the other, "Care about this thing that you don't care about!" Caring is something that can't be done on demand.

But the reason I write lengthy blog posts instead of just shrugging and walking away from the conversation is that I think that, for most people, formal properties really do make a difference. I think that even the trippiest hippie at Woodstock, who just wanted to make the scene and feel the peace and love vibe, probably recognized formal differences between the music of Jimi Hendrix and that of Sha Na Na, and that those formal differences probably led to aesthetic discriminations, one way or the other. One of the reasons for this blog is to try to develop a more nuanced and precise critical vocabulary for discussing formal differences. The vast majority of pop-music criticism has, in fact, concentrated on cultural meaning; I'd like to at least try to nudge my seven or eight readers toward thinking more about the notes.