During my time at McGill University I spent many interesting hours next to my good friend Felix Del Tredici. Our long discussions have been a highlight of my life, and I always look forward to the next time circumstances put us in a coffee shop to resume our never-ending conversation about life and art. One day we were drinking a coffee at our usual spot (the Humble Lion in Montreal) speaking about the upsetting trend of many of our colleagues in new music whose unmistakable desire was not only to innovate in their art, but also to obliterate the past altogether.
He asked me if I was familiar with the work of the American artist Mark Tansey. I confessed ignorance on that subject, so he showed me two breathtaking images by the man entitled: Triumph Over Mastery and Triumph Over Mastery II. The first is an image of an ambiguously anachronistic woman with two modern children playing over the ruins of Ancient Greek splendor, fairly apathetic about their surroundings: a bleak reminder of the fragility of humanity’s cultural accomplishments. The second is an image of a man on a ladder painting over the Last Judgment of Italian virtuoso Michelangelo, the massive fresco over the altar of the Sistine Chapel. [I have attached a picture of the painting in this post for your enjoyment.]
The Triumph of Mastery II has an easily ignored detail. As this man is paining over the work of Il Divino, his own shadow is also disappearing. Works of art can be interpreted in many ways, and like any interpretation Felix and I landed on one that most conveniently suited our principles and partialities. As we saw it, anyone who triumphantly obliterates the past, loses their own identity. The title itself seemed paradoxical, like a warning against triumphalism.
To those who think perhaps we dug too deep with our interpretation, it might be sensible to recognize that the shadow has been a crucial element of global mythologies for the better part of human evolution. Like most things in nature, habitually dual by default, it should not surprise us that cultures throughout history have ascribed either positive or negative connotations to what the shadow represents. It has been typically perceived as the root of the duality between the mysterious and our very souls, between light and darkness. Throughout mythology and literature, objects and beings lacking a shadow caution an absence of soul and life, something to be distrusted.
This unique easily missed detail in Triumph Over Mastery II (of a man erasing his own shadow) is the element that has so haunted my thoughts for the better part of a decade. It effortlessly captures my distaste and distrust for those artists (rather faux-artists) who intend to convince the world that the accomplishments of the past are but nuisances on the path to some untold artistic cabal (which conveniently only they can lead us to like a modern-day Moses), which will one day finally absolutely contain all the things humanity has ever tried to express.
These people I so detest are not entirely mistaken in supposing that by eliminating the wonders of the Greek playwrights, the verses of the Rumi, the line and form of the Italian and Spanish Schools, the entirety of Russian, French and English literature, the haunting presence of Bach, Monteverdi, Coltrane, Mahler, Boulez, Schoenberg and Stockhausen (so many phantoms to exorcise to little time), etc. society might finally have no other choice but to surrender themselves to often unoriginal and unenthusiastic performances, installations, and projects. I am glad, however, that their attempts at producing a mass-induced amnesia have and will likely continue to fail.
I do not wish to be misinterpreted. Those of you who know me, recognize that I am a fierce advocate and promoter of new music myself. I spend a great deal of time learning the music of our time, and I have written before about the importance of promoting living composers in order to guarantee the continuity of culture. I often debate detractors of new forms of art, and am always happy to change people’s minds about their distaste for anything with that “new car smell”. But I am not by that definition the antagonist of the accomplishments of the past. This duality is why Mark Tansey’s astounding piece has stimulated me all these years.
Just like hating new art forms has become a religion in many centers of traditional education, I am also painfully aware that a similar cult has slowly been built on the opposite end. There are people willing to die on the altar of Brahms (who they consider being the last true composer…god help us), and also those willing to be sacrificed on the altar of whatever work was most recently premiered (hopefully only a minute earlier to be sure to avoid judgment by the Grand Inquisitors of the new). I disdain all cults, all absolute statements, and all modes of life that could possibly restrict me from experiencing the cultural accomplishments of the greatest of the African apes: Homo Sapiens.
In my view the richness of the past can only make the promise of the future deeper and more varied. The literature of Salman Rushdie is only made deeper by my access to the works of Proust, Milton and Shakespeare. The lush textures of Rebecca Saunders are more so by the deep memories of Beethoven in my bones. The colors of Goya and Velazquez are somehow ever-present in Picasso. Dismissing the past means giving up on the accomplishments of anyone but ourselves: it is a deeply selfish desire.
The artists that promote the destruction of the past often offer themselves as the revolutionary antithesis of the aesthetic conservatives who foolishly keep waiting for the clock to move backwards (preferably to a time before Wagner came and ruined their precious tonality). That conservative outlook gives up on the future, and bizarrely tarnishes the richness of the past. This regressive attitude would imply a culture in decay, which has given up on itself under the delusion that humanity has already given culture its best efforts, it is laziness of a sort that cannot and should not be excused by anyone with a pulse, a brain, or a sense of awe. Ironically both regressive and faux-revolutionary artists would perhaps make the best of friends if one could only entice them to share a beverage of their liking. After all, prejudice of any type is typically the same face under a different mask…if only they believed in the malleability of opinion.
Would-be artist-priests, who claim to manipulate elements too mystical to be fully grasped by mere mortal audience members, promote the erection of the new-art religion. It brings with it the charming crimes of apostasy and heresy. The public is terrified of seeming ignorant or intolerant. Fear has cost the art world innumerable potential art lovers, who see no other solution but to shun art in frustration, or worse still to keep quiet and accept trash where there could be treasure. Expressions like “I don’t get this type of art” or “oh that’s far too advanced for me” have become standard codes for the obvious reserve of a public that is not pleased by what it is forced to endure. Moreover and perhaps more disheartening still, those who have come forward to critique it are silenced or censored with a simple “you don’t get it” or “what an ignorant thing to say”, when in reality they express the thoughts of a great mass of educated people. All this in the hopes of protecting the fragile egos of artists with skins as thick as mountain air.
We can blame this in no small part to academia, where more often than not, artists with no real-world experience yearly “train” a hoard of people, wrongfully convinced that any work of art accompanied by a 20 page essay (ideally published in an obscure journal of self congratulating bores) is miraculously palatable. Such people foolishly believe that their unpopularity is not due to their own lack of a voice but rather the fault of their (fictional) enormous intellect that dwarfs that of the common man. (I cannot imagine being so self-congratulating and foolish!) It is common knowledge in the art world that most Universities and Conservatories would give a degree to a donkey for the right price, and indeed often do. This has a dreadful consequence: audiences start avoiding new art, good or bad, tired of the seemingly endless lectures pointing out their illiteracy. Simultaneously, traditionalists dig their long heels as they infantilize audiences, simplifying programs and elevating artless composers to a pantheon where they clearly do not belong, in an attempt to make every performance “safe” and easy for their fragile audiences.
I am of course not advocating that art should bend to the will of the masses; pop culture already services them in such a way. The act of challenging aesthetics is the whole principle behind the development of new and exciting artists. I am, however, a strong believer that art should be in constant dialogue with its consumers. Many promoters and creators of new art have come to disdain the public they serve. Contempt for those you are sworn to serve is vile: artists should love their audiences and challenge them out of love, not apathy. As artists we must also learn to discern the difference between experiments that fail, and those that are simply misunderstood. This takes humility, knowledge and conviction, qualities often lacking in people who seek to destroy the work of others. Despising and annihilating the masters of the past will never make the destroyer a better artist; it will just leave the rest of humanity the poorer for the loss.
To me (and I believe I can speak for Felix), this is the message contained in Tansey’s piece. Shadow is the byproduct of light, the brighter the light the more defined the shadow. To the chagrin of those who seek to eliminate our past, even minimal light forms shadow. In order to eliminate humanity’s shadow completely one would need to dim the bright light that the cultural prowess of our species shines into the abyss of time. If they should successfully turn off that light, they will indeed eliminate the shadow, and with it be left producing in the dark. It is infinitely more productive instead to use the past as a ladder to see beyond what our predecessors could.
As that greatest of enlightened geniuses Isaac Newton stated “Nanos gigantum humeris insidentes; If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Treat the works of the past as the proverbial silver spoon that we have all been so lucky to inherit, and use that wealth to further enrich the cultural accomplishments of our species. Let us never divorce ourselves from our shadows, lest after succeeding, disappointment leads us to desire reattachment, and distressed chase after what we have lost…perhaps less successfully than J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.