Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Various types of absurdity

“If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” (Albert Einstein)

This does not mean that ideas should be absurd to be able to be realized, but that ideas which are conventional, would not have the potential to really contribute to the world. This means that utopias have to be tested both on their constructive potential, whether they would - if realized -  contribute to the common good, and to their being unconventional, all in the context of their time and circumstance.

If we think of the history of art, we see that the best ideas were uncommon in their time and place. The building of large, entirely impractical spaces for worship in the Middle Ages, which developed into the truly insane gothic cathedrals which even transcend the wildest utopian dreams, was not only impractical and unnecessary but also had something absurd about it. Their greatness which still stuns us today, had not been possible if their builders and patrons had not cultivated some absurd wish and insane longing. The same with the idea of reviving the culture of Antiquity in the Italian Renaissance, or the merging of the old baroque counterpoint with the modern classical style as we find in Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Of course, Wagner's symphonic operas are 'absurd' from all angles, which ensures their enduring success. Debussy's transferrence of some techniques form the impressionist painters into his orchestral scoring was another absurdist idea, as was his complete discarding of all the compositional rules as were generally accepted and learned in his days, and as was Stravinsky's transforming of primitive folk music and 'circus music' in his ballets. And so on.

The creation of an entirely new art based upon pure sound patterns, the atonal modernism of the fifties and sixties of the last century, was also such an absurd idea, and a more nasty one because it claimed to be a continuation of the European musical tradition - complete with falsifying historic trajectories projected backwards to Wagner's 'Tristan'. The entering of pop into 'new music' of later decennia is another absurd idea, but showing that absurdity alone is no garantee for artistic quality or cultural understanding.

As the phenomenon of change in the musical language became a standard of artistic quality, the unconventionality of explorations for their own sake became a standard as well, with the result that these factors became the basis of music with the exclusion of anything else, and it all resulted in a sea of absurdist conventionality and stagnation. So, we should be looking for another type of absurdity, and hark back to that of the Italian Renaissance artists who dreamed of an utopia of nostalgic revival to create a fertile future.

“Let some holy ambition invade our souls, so that, dissatisfied with mediocrity, we shall eagerly desire the highest things and shall toil with all our strength to obtain them, since we may if we wish.”
― Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man

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