Friday, July 25, 2008

Musicology for Art's Sake

Last weekend brought to Ann Arbor the annual Art Fair. For locals, it's an excuse to leave. For me, it was an excuse to take a different path to work, although Friday morning I took an alternate alternate path through the art fair, before the heat and crowds arrived. It was quite enjoyable. I always love looking at pottery and glassware, mobiles, and photographs. Paintings depend on the style; this year, I found myself drawn toward the sparsely abstract variety. But like when I go to museums, it rekindles the path I didn't take, the path where I would have gone into art history.

But as was reading through these books the other day on collage, I got even more absorbed, specifically by a collection of essays on Picasso's collages. I'd read at least two of them—the Robert Rosenblum and the Rosalind Krauss—in undergrad, and that memory brought back what fun those classes were, especially the modern art seminar. The joy of looking at something and unravelling it, and rereading these articles, it helps clarify my own work, that each of these isn't a right or wrong way to read the paintings, but another piece of the puzzle. The formalists argue that collage was meant to emphasize the flatness of the canvas while acknowledging precisely what was wrong with painting, that it could no longer pretend to be an illusion of something else. Rosenblum points out the puns in Picasso's stenciled letters, Patricia Leighten looks at the content of the newspapers clipped out (fascinating it took so long to pay attention to something right there), while Christine Poggi prefers to look at the newspapers more symbolically as the opposite of high culture, something interchangeable and disposable, unlike art. The infamous question of authorial intent inevitably creeps in. But when Poggi points to it as an attack on art, prefiguring the Dadaists, does it really matter if Picasso intended it? No. The Dadaists were inspired by it, perhaps, and began their own movement.

In music, I've always been amused by Schumann's role in the absolute music's camp, amidst the attention Anthony Newcomb and others have given him as someone interested in literary programs and theories of narrativity. Neither side invalidates the other, but each side has a point in that Schumann was an important man in both movements. To deny this is bad musicology.

So, these art history articles have gotten me fired up about my work, but rather than fire up my what ifs, they've fired up my current path. It may have taken me a while to figure this out as clearly as I have now, but what I learned in art history can and should influence my work as a musicologist. I should read more art history, I should keep up with current happenings. If Schumann and Picasso can be read and understood in multiple ways without contradicting, it's time I understand myself that way. To quote my man Sondheim:

And without any guide,
You know what your decision is,
Which is not to decide.
You'll leave him a clue:
For example, a shoe

Note to self: include shoe in dissertation.


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