Saturday, February 07, 2015

Harold Boatrite : “Art and Its Replacements“ ”

I would like to introduce the readers of NLM to an American composer, a native Philadelphian, and a great friend of sacred music, Harold Boatrite. Dr. Boatrite’s article, “Art and its Replacements,” appeared in the most recent issue of "Sacred Music."

Harold Boatrite was born on April 2, 1932, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After early studies with Stanley Hollingsworth, he was awarded a fellowship to the Tanglewood Music Center where he studied composition with Lukas Foss and took part in the orchestration seminars of Aaron Copland. In 1961 he was invited by Rudolf Serkin to be composer-in-residence at the Marlboro Music Festival.

He received an honorary doctorate in 1967 from the Combs College of Music and subsequently was appointed to the faculty of Haverford College, where he taught theory and composition until 1980. During that time (1974 to 1977) he served on the music panel of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

In honor of his fiftieth birthday in 1982, a series of concerts devoted exclusively to his music was presented by the Pennsylvania Alliance for American Music. Among the participants in the series were the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, the Thomas Jefferson University Choir and the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia. Boatrite has written in a wide variety of media ranging from solo and chamber pieces to large-scale choral and orchestral works. His music has been heard throughout the United States and in Europe, most notably, at the Prague Autumn International Music Festival.

He has received many commissions including a concerto for piano and orchestra for the National Association of Composers USA, a concerto for harpsichord and strings commissioned by Temple Painter, Fantasia on a Gregorian Tune for string orchestra, harpsichord, celesta and boy choir commissioned by the Samuel S. Fels Fund, and a ballet, "Childermas," for CBS-TV which premiered on national television in 1969.

In 1992 Boatrite was appointed composer-in-residence for the Conductors Institute at the University of South Carolina. He served for many years as new music consultant to the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. His chamber music is recorded on the Capstone label and his orchestral scores are housed in the Edwin A. Fleisher Orchestral Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia.

Dr. Boatrite has written various sacred pieces. His “Ave Maria” has been used many times at Mater Ecclesiae, Berlin, NJ. His work “Benedicta Filia,” was premiered at the 2009 Mater Ecclesiae Assumption Mass. He has dealt with the philosophical battle concerning beauty and form in music for many years. In this battle as a composer, he has had to resist and fight against many bizarre musical theories. I gladly post his thought provoking reflection.

Art and Its Replacements
Copyright 2012 Harold Boatrite

Art is a slippery word that lends itself readily to equivocation and confusion because of its many possible meanings: the art of medicine, terms of art as found in law, the liberal arts, art as workmanship, and so on. We are concerned here with the particular kind of equivocation that occurs when the word is applied to painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and poetry.

While any number of critics and scholars have engaged in obfuscations of varying complexity, Morse Peckham has said simply that " . . . the term art at this point appears to be an empty category. . . ."[1] This is a statement intriguing not only for its apparent simplicity but also for its striking resemblance to a conjuring trick. ""Art [now you see it] . . . appears to be [this is the abracadabra] . . . an empty category" [poof! art vanishes].

Like actual conjuring tricks, this statement seems to present us with a paradox: How can something be simultaneously nothing? Moreover, the statement offers us limitless possibilities for creative expression. If art is an empty category, the artist is free to explore and exploit the uncharted land of whatever and to fill the empty category with anything at all. Thus the illusion expands until, of course, we begin to examine it logically.

Categories are filled solely with the meanings of the terms by which they are named. The category horse, for example is filled with the denotation and connotations of the word "horse." Thus, if "art" is an empty category, "art" is an empty or meaningless term. But if "art" is a meaningless term, then the statement "art is an empty category" is equally meaningless, and what we thought was a wondrous paradox turns out to be just another self-contradictory proposition. (Logically speaking, the only empty category is the category nothing.)

But we still have not discovered how the conjuring trick is done. Let us look more closely at the "empty category." Lo, we find that it is not entirely empty. Glimmering subtly in the background are the connotations of the word "art"; it is only the denotative meaning that has disappeared, and its disappearance creates the illusion of an empty category.

Sleight of word is found also in modern political propaganda, which frequently removes denotative meanings with their limitations and responsibilities in order to capitalize irresponsibly on the connotations with their limitless possibilities--for example, National Socialism, in which the denotative meaning of "socialism" is removed in order to promote fascism, the very opposite of socialism; or People's Republic, in which the denotative meaning of "republic" is removed in order to promote dictatorship. The retention of the connotative meanings in both these examples is the key to their success as propaganda. The illusion that the words somehow mean what they meant before is successfully effected because the connotations remain, even though the substantive meanings have been changed.

Now it is obvious from its selective use historically that "art" is a term so rich in meaning and with such cachet that almost anybody would like, so to speak, to get his hands on it, and "anybody" is an extraordinarily large number of people, so there are thousands upon thousands currently claiming the category art for their products, regardless of how distantly, if at all, related to art these products may be. Such claims are made possible by the same sleight of word found in Peckham's "empty category" and in the examples of political propaganda cited above.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "art" as "the skillful production of the beautiful in visible forms." This is its denotative meaning. Among its myriad connotations are importance, creativity, significance, mystery, transcendence. Removing the denotation makes it possible to call anything art, ascribing to it all the connotations of the term. The magical word is pronounced, and --presto!-- a gouge in the wall, several minutes of silence, drop cloths, fecal matter--all become works of art.

But this transformation is not without its difficulties. Convincing people that a gouge in the wall is sculpture or that several minutes of silence are music takes considerable political skill, for these things must be presented in an art environment in collusion with officials of an art establishment. The gouge must be in the wall of an art museum; the several minutes of silence in a concert hall with a musical instrument and a would-be performer standing by. Elaborate explanations in the form of catalogues or program notes play a necessary role in persuasion and mystification. Indeed, the very existence of these products as art depends on advertising and presentation. But no matter how clever the propaganda--and despite the mountain of books, catalogues, program notes, and critical reviews--the two perennial questions continue to be asked by the general and the not-so-general public: Is it art? and, What is it?

These questions are usually parried with the assertion that the public is ignorant and uneducated in these matters. This idea is then put forth as the reason for the issuance of all the above-described verbiage, i.e., the public needs to be informed and enlightened about the new "art." Nevertheless, since these questions perdure, one suspects that the answers already exist in the minds of the questioners. "Is it art"? The unstated answer is, "No." "What is it?" The unstated answer: "Whatever it happens to be." A gouge in the wall is just that and nothing more, even when it is in a museum wall. Silence, albeit in a concert hall, is certainly not music.

In the past, defacing a museum wall or mounting canned feces on a pedestal in an exhibition would have caused scandal or outrage--or perhaps, among the more cynically minded, amusement; but lately, the ability of these things to shock has diminished to such a point that they evoke scarcely a shrug. The attitude of the public now ranges from mild annoyance and boredom to indifference, and so our would-be artists have resorted to religious desecration in order to regain active public attention. And regain it they have, but perhaps not quite in the way they intended. People are not reacting to the alleged works of art as art but rather to the blasphemy or sacrilege they engender. Thus, any effective existence as art that the works might have had is cancelled. But the gouge in the wall and the drop cloth have no such distractions: they simply replace art.
Therefore a new category must be invented to describe more accurately these phenomena and perhaps to define more clearly their purposes. Since they are not art but insistently claim to be art, let us call them non-art. The silence, the feces, the hole in the wall are obvious examples chosen for the sake of clarity, but they are not extreme cases when compared to the non-artist who had himself crucified atop an automobile, or the fellow who "sculpted" himself nearly to death as he recorded his progress on film.

Non-art ranges widely, from the very obvious examples just mentioned to more subtle œuvres like so-called action painting, certain kinds of atonal "music," and various post-modernist fabrications. The more subtle types employ traditional art materials such as paint and the framed canvas or conventional musical instruments. The use of traditional art materials makes it somewhat more difficult to discern these types for what they are. Non-art objects often bear little resemblance to each other, and it is therefore necessary to introduce several sub-categories in order to provide a framework for critical analysis. 

Hegel, in his theory of dialectic, posits that every idea gives rise to or contains its opposite. Let us enlarge somewhat upon this by adding that every idea can give rise also to its imitation and its substitution. Many examples of all three of these processes can be found in the natural world as well as in human endeavors: the opposition of predator and prey, the imitation of poisonous by non-poisonous snakes, the substitution by birds of their eggs in the nests of other species, and so forth. The presence of these processes in human activity is so pervasive and obvious that we need cite only examples in the field of art.

In deference to Hegel, then, we shall begin with opposition. This process produces a sub-category that we shall call anti-art. All those works that purposely cause an experience of ugliness are in this sub-category. In the case of discursive or representational work, we must distinguish the work itself from its message, e.g., a mediæval painting of the Crucifixion of Christ, in which the event portrayed is horrendously ugly, but the painting is sublimely beautiful. In contrast, a concerto for circular saw and orchestra, an exhibit featuring electrified barbed wire with cautionary signs, and a string quartet emitting twenty minutes of systematic and relentless cacophony all aim successfully at being as ugly as possible, explanations to the contrary notwithstanding. We should also place in this sub-category the canned feces, the religious desecration, the self-sculpture, and the automobile crucifixion that was not portrayed but actually happened. These examples of anti-art differ sharply in character. The string quartet uses traditional art materials as described earlier and could easily be mistaken for art, whereas canned human waste is merely disgusting.

The second process, imitation, gives rise to the sub-category we shall call quasi-art. As its name suggests, quasi-art is like art but differs essentially from it in that quasi-art retains only the features of this or that style and lacks the substantive character of genuine art. It is often difficult to define precisely what the substantive element is in many works of authentic art, although its absence in quasi-art is almost immediately evident. Gesture without substance distinguishes quasi-art, commonly known as kitsch.

"Decorator" paintings that stand in for authentic art fill many commercial galleries. Impressionist and post-impressionist styles lend themselves especially well to this form of quasi-art. The mass-produced Paris street scenes as well as landscapes with the inevitable flying birds in the background have been consistently remunerative. The endless procession of porcelain dolls and of illustrated plates has also proved lucrative. Much cinematic background music makes eclectic use of gestures from various historical periods without the essential ingredients of real melody and over-all form. The post-modernist collage of styles without synthesis is exactly the same thing, but because it is presented as independent music, it is seen, curiously, as a new development, even though it has existed in films for over eighty years. Post-modernist architecture that takes as its defining ideal the Las Vegas Strip must be regarded as kitsch par excellence.

Perhaps the most significant use of quasi-art in the twentieth century has been its role in political propaganda, specifically in the architecture, the painting, and the sculpture of the fascist states and the "socialist realism" of the Marxist regimes. Because quasi-art uses gestures from earlier periods, it has a familiarity that makes it appealing to large numbers of people. Since there is nothing in it to challenge the intellect and thereby to distract from the political message, it has been a powerfully effective medium for the dissemination of some of modern history's most irrational notions.

The process of substitution we shall categorize as pseudo-art, and it is nothing more than the replacing of art with relatively inoffensive things that would, under any other circumstances, never be recognized as art: the wrapping of public buildings, functionless walls and fences, blank canvases and empty frames, planks, slabs, a pile of broken glass, and again the silence in place of music. While anti-art is at least ugly, and quasi-art is at best pretty or cute, the principal characteristic of pseudo-art seems to be its sheer inanity--nothing presented as something, nonsense enthroned as art.

These sub-categories of non-art are in theory separate and distinct, and for this article the clearest and simplest examples have been chosen as illustrations: but in many "works" of non-art, the particular sub-category may not be obvious. Thus it is for the reader to apply to each case the principles outlined here and to decide for himself whether the work perceived is non-art, and, if it is, what sub-category it falls into, and also whether it has characteristics of another sub-category. For instance, a pile of broken glass might be displayed in such a way as to appear dangerous. The natural reaction would be to distance oneself or to be repelled. Hence, the pile of broken glass would have characteristics of both pseudo-art and anti-art. A wallpaper pattern framed and presented as art would have elements of both quasi-art and pseudo-art.

Non-art is a direct result of the modernist obsession with novelty. Endless experimentation in the frantic quest for originality has inevitably led to something essentially different from art. Once we understand that not everything presented as art really is art, it should be a relatively simple task to determine which sub-categories non-art concoctions fall into.

But none of these categories can have any real meaning without a clear understanding of what authentic or genuine art is. So we will start with a simple definition: art is the human creation of things of beauty. Of course, this raises the question of what is meant by the term beauty. The simple answer: beauty is an order indicating perfection. Basic examples of such an order would include the geometric circle in the visual arts; in music, the pattern of intervals in a fundamental chord; [2] metrical forms in verse; and, in architecture, the Roman arch in all its practical utility. While none of these models is perfect in itself, all point to or indicate perfection because they immediately approximate their exemplars. Mere circles approximate perfect circles. Basic chords approximate perfect chords. But viewing a bare circle or listening to a basic chord for any appreciable length of time would doubtless result in boredom for the viewer or listener (modern minimalism notwithstanding). Even though each of these examples is an order indicating perfection, all are but simple elements of what would be a larger or complex order indicating perfection. The idea of creating such an order necessitates a consideration of creativity. 

The modernist consensus is that creativity is originality. If this notion were true, it would have universal application, i.e., it would be true for all periods and styles everywhere. But a brief glance at history reveals a very different story. Painters deliberately copied from other painters. Composers built on the material of other composers. The same holds true for poets and architects. Through tradition, entire styles evolved from earlier styles. Originality in works of art was unheard of. Yet within any given style there were differences among the artists. As composers, J. S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti were Baroque in style, but in content, they were very different from each other. The contrast between Victorian poets Robert Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, is striking, although both used meter, rhyme, verse and the English language. Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and the cathedral at Cologne are two vastly different worlds, but both are Gothic in style. Artists worked within the parameters of a tradition because they knew that at least part of their purpose was communication and that without tradition there could be no language. Because each artist was a unique person, his creative work expressed his individuality as opposed to the endless fabrication of novelties for their own sake. 

Thus it is coherent self expression that defines creativity and not the pursuit of originality, which leads only to the dead end of non-art. This is by no means a condemnation of those artists in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries who have, despite the pressure of current trends, continued to add their unique contributions to the tradition, developing it and at the same time preserving it. Theirs is an often thankless task in a society devoutly committed to the latest fashions. For these artists, in the words of composer Walter Piston: "Fashion is the enemy of creativity." 

So the genuine artist expresses himself coherently when he constructs a complex order indicating perfection using the language appropriate to his medium. The ability to imagine such an order and then to make it a physical reality is known as creative talent. The word talent implies a certain exclusivity. Not everyone has it, and if the above description of it is true and accurate, creative talent must indeed be a rare phenomenon. This is, of course, in direct opposition to the egalitarian notion that everybody has creative talent and therefore anybody can be an artist: hence the innumerable composers, poets, painters, sculptors, etc., facilitated by the virtual disappearance of objective standards. 

But all is not lost. It is possible to recover those standards by a careful historical examination of all the factors that commonly occur in great works of art and to draw conclusions that would effectively function as criteria for the creation of new works as well as for critical analysis and judgment. This is, in fact, what contemporary artists who are involved in the creation of beautiful and communicative works are actually doing, though they may not be conscious of it in the terms described here. Perhaps the greatest difficulty for the creative artist is the very act of imagining a complex order indicating perfection. The notion of perfection itself is elusive and ambiguous. Thus an order indicating it, is, to put it plainly, hard to find. Like the sub-atomic particle, it could be here, and it might be there, but we know it exists because, unlike the sub-atomic particle, it has been located with certainty, in definite times and places, to wit: the aforementioned cathedrals, Michelangelo's Pietà, the paintings of Vermeer, Mozart's Jupiter symphony, the poems of Wordsworth, T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets, and in a multitude of other great works. 

In the complex orders indicating perfection, beauty is dynamic. It engages the viewer or listener. Indicating perfection is an action involving conflict and resolution. In music we hear it as dissonance resolving to consonance. We see it in the play of symmetry and asymmetry in architecture and the visual arts. In poetry, we see and hear it as enjambment in lines of verse and in the irregular tumble of syllables over the meter. Within the most turbulent works and in the very tranquil as well, the dialectic of conflict and resolution is always present, however subtle or hidden it may be. The examples given here are important but not exhaustive. We will not attempt to list the many other ways in which it occurs. Suffice it to say that conflict and resolution make beauty vibrant, and vibrant beauty is the essential characteristic of all genuine art.

[1] Morse Peckham, Man's Rage for Chaos [Chilton, 1965], p. 46
[2] The first chord naturally formed by the overtone series; the major triad.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: