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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Jazz and the great divide of Christian thinkers

Here is a link to a clever little bit on Donald Miller and "Blue Like Jazz" by Mark Coppenger:

The reason I link to this is not because I have a strong opinion about Miller. I don't find him threatening, but I haven't really had too much exposure to him. I've read Blue Like Jazz and listened to Miller when he was in town a few months back.

What is interesting about the above link is this: The huge gap I see between the "modern" and the "postmodern" Christian thinker. I hate to use the labels "modern" and "postmodern" because they mean so many different things to so many different people.

I actually find myself somewhat sympathetic to Coppenger's points, although in several of them he obviously misses the point of what Miller is about. In doing so he misses the point about what many of us younger believers are trying to do in this generation. Coppenger complains that we are so casual about his generation's fight for inerrancy, but he fails to see that this isn't a battle that is really all that important, anymore because nobody in our generation (believer or non-believer) really cares anymore whether the Bible in its original autographs (which we do not have) was "without error" in what it asserts. It's just not a concern!

But back to my point, which is that there is a huge gap in understanding between Christian thinkers from this generation to the one before it. The link to the article reveals a lot of the suspicions.

Maybe we can put it this way: Coppenger and the older set look at jazz and see how it operates within structure. The younger, postmodern love jazz for its freedom and improv, and the ability to for jazz not to hold so tightly to a rigid structure.

Will we ever see eye to eye??? Will we ever realize that we are all listening to the same music??


samlcarr said...

All that jazz! the arguement about form/structure/freedom is as old as jazz itself. i think there are quite a few of the older gen who will make the effort to understand emerging and will like what they see. on the other hand, 'died in the wool' inerrantists can't see 6" beyond their glasses' focal points so that may be a lost cause...

ktismatics said...

A definitive characteristic of modernism is the sense of progress -- that each generation isn't just different from its predecessor, but improves upon it. The older generation of evangelicals holds to the opposite position: the good old days are fading fast and we're holding the line against further decline. Perhaps the new generation is finally embracing modernism. I get a sense that the emerging types see themselves as a kind of avant-garde for where the evangelicals are heading. The whole concept of avant-garde is definitively modern.

Jonathan Erdman said...

A side note on your thoughts on avant-garde.....

I pulled this from Wikipedia:
The concept of avant-garde referred exclusively to marginalised artists, writers, composers and thinkers whose work was not only opposed to mainstream commercial values, but often had an abrasive social or political edge. Many writers, critics and theorists made assertions about vanguard culture during the formative years of modernism, although the definitive statement on the avant-garde was the essay 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch' [1] written by the New York art critic Clement Greenberg and published in the journal Partisan Review in 1939. As the essay’s title indicated, Greenberg conclusively showed not only that vanguard culture had historically been opposed to ‘high’ or ‘mainstream culture’, but that it also has rejected the artificially synthesised mass culture that has been produced by industrialisation – the pervasive commercial culture of popular music, Soap Opera dramas, pulp fiction, magazine-illustration, and B-grade movies. Each of these media is a direct product of Capitalism – they are all now respected Industries – and as such they are driven by the same profit-fixated motives of other sectors of manufacturing, not the ideals of true art. For Greenberg, these forms were therefore kitsch: they were phoney, faked or mechanical culture, which often pretended to be more than they were by using formal devices stolen from advanced or vanguard culture. For instance, during the 1930s the advertising industry was quick to take visual mannerisms from surrealism, but this does not mean that 1930s advertising photographs are truly surreal. It was a matter of style without substance. In this sense Greenberg was at pains to distance true avant-garde creativity from the market-driven fashion change and superficial stylistic innovation that are sometimes used to claim privileged status for these manufactured forms of the new consumer culture.

So, I guess from that perspective the emergent types would fit the mold of avant-garde. But I don't know if that is necessarily something "modern." Avant-garde seems to have come about as something that was oppossed to the Modern ideas.....But I guess the ambiguity here is tied to the trouble with using the "modern"/"post-modern" lables....

ktismatics said...

The essay by Greenberg is a good reference. It's also an example of why it's better to read original sources than secondary summaries. Greenberg more or less treats avant-garde and modernism as interchangable terms. He sees it as high art, refined taste, high culture, dating from the mid-19th century as a reaction against the nostalgic sentimentality that European Romaniticism degenerated into. Kitsch, by contrast, is "democratized" art, which Greenberg associates not just with capitalism but also with fascism and communism, all of which build on and manipulate the tastes of the masses. See Adorno and Marcuse as late-modern Marxist critics of kitschy popular culture.

A characteristic of postmodernity is the blurring of distinctions between high and low art. For example, is Quentin Tarantino avant-garde or kitsch? It's interesting to contrast what passes for avant-garde in Hollywood with the late modernist Italian and French films. Fellini, for example, sees the end of the high culture as inevitable and lamentable, but he's attracted to the glitzy surfaces of pop decadence.

Jonathan Erdman said...

A few interesting quotes from the above cited essay (http://www.sharecom.ca/greenberg/kitsch.html):

The avant-garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms, in the way nature itself is valid, in the way a landscape -- not its picture -- is aesthetically valid; something given, increate, independent of meanings, similars or originals. Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself.

The attention of poets like Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Valéry, Éluard, Pound, Hart Crane, Stevens, even Rilke and Yeats, appears to be centered on the effort to create poetry and on the "moments" themselves of poetic conversion, rather than on experience to be converted into poetry.

As for the other fields of literature -- the definition of avant-garde aesthetics advanced here is no Procrustean bed. But aside from the fact that most of our best contemporary novelists have gone to school with the avant-garde, it is significant that Gide's most ambitious book is a novel about the writing of a novel, and that Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake seem to be, above all, as one French critic says, the reduction of experience to expression for the sake of expression, the expression mattering more than what is being expressed.

First of all, doesn't this line of thinking kind of discourage you from your project of communicating meaningful experiences across culutres - spanning thousands of years - through literature?? Hasn't this been your project in recent posts??? (see http://ktismatics.wordpress.com/)

Or perhaps the desire to dichotomize epxerience and art goes to the points that Greenberg makes later:

Kitsch is a product of the industrial revolution which urbanized the masses of Western Europe and America and established what is called universal literacy.

Prior to this the only market for formal culture, as distinguished from folk culture, had been among those who, in addition to being able to read and write, could command the leisure and comfort that always goes hand in hand with cultivation of some sort. This until then had been inextricably associated with literacy. But with the introduction of universal literacy, the ability to read and write became almost a minor skill like driving a car, and it no longer served to distinguish an individual's cultural inclinations, since it was no longer the exclusive concomitant of refined tastes.

The peasants who settled in the cities as proletariat and petty bourgeois learned to read and write for the sake of efficiency, but they did not win the leisure and comfort necessary for the enjoyment of the city's traditional culture. Losing, nevertheless, their taste for the folk culture whose background was the countryside, and discovering a new capacity for boredom at the same time, the new urban masses set up a pressure on society to provide them with a kind of culture fit for their own consumption. To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.

and then also...

The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends. It borrows from it devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes, converts them into a system, and discards the rest. It draws its life blood, so to speak, from this reservoir of accumulated experience. (The bold emphasis is mine)

Another interesting aspect of this essay is the view of Greenberg that kitsch is something that is produced, made or "machine-made" as he puts it: Naturally, machine-made kitsch can undersell the native handmade article, and the prestige of the West also helps; but why is kitsch a so much more profitable export article than Rembrandt? One, after all, can be reproduced as cheaply as the other.

If this is the case, then does something like kitsch exist today?? In the age of the internet is not some of what passes as pop culture being produced by the masses, themselves? Think about the UTube phenomena. Here any creative shmuck can put a video up and if it gains a few hits and then a few more it can snowball into a success. Not because it was produced by a corporate marketing plan, but simply because the masses appreciated it for some reason or another.

One more interesting quote:
Superior culture is one of the most artificial of all human creations, and the peasant finds no "natural" urgency within himself that will drive him toward Picasso in spite of all difficulties. In the end the peasant will go back to kitsch when he feels like looking at pictures, for he can enjoy kitsch without effort.

ktismatics said...

As to whether Greenberg's description of avant-garde aesthetics makes me question my project about understanding writings across thousands of years, I think that the last bit you quote is most relevant. Avant-garde modernist writing is purposely artificial, as opposed to "natural" writing. Natural writing, and natural understanding of writing, has always dominated human culture, so people could naturally understand one another. Besides, even James Joyce is comprehensible if you work at it long enough -- or so I'm told.

Kitsch tugs at the unconscious heartstrings of the community. People are drawn to it out of a sense of nostalgic belonging rather than aesthetic reasons. As Greenberg points out, people will buy mass reproductions of kitsch even if mass-reproduced high art is available at the same price. Books are mass-produced by definition in the modern age, and Shakespeare doesn't cost any more than Garrison Keillor or John Grisham. Same with CDs: John Coltrane doesn't cost any more than Madonna. Or blogs: Theos Project is just as free as Jesus Creed. So I think for Greenberg kitsch is more about mass tastes than mass production.

Anonymous said...