The deskilling of the arts is a symptom of a new dystopian era of ignorance and bliss (and probably the end of modern civilization)
by Xerxes Praetorius Horde
A recent buzzword in the world of fabricated news items designed to illicit inflammatory responses to generate traffic (aka – “clickbait”) has piqued my interest. It also harkens back to a beef I’ve had with the fine arts world for nearly 2 decades. It just now has a name, thanks to e-marketing admeisters creating content to attract “likes” and comments and thus sell ad space for diet pills and other horseshit on their misleadingly named wordpress blog sites (aka – “worldnewsthatmatters.com”). Alright – enough of picking on content creators (hey, it’s a living) – and yes I’m getting to the point. This concept has been labeled the “deskilling of the arts.”
I experienced this FIRST HAND when I was studying to complete my music degree in the 90’s. It was frustrating and made me feel like the value of my education was being undermined. In a strange twist – instead of an obstacle, this same phenomena was a welcome crutch for most of my peers. It has continued to grow and infest the fine arts community both academically and on the street level.
So what is the deskilling of the arts? I’ve heard it well explained in terms of visual arts in the past, but what does that mean to me as a musician?
Here’s a true story to illustrate –
While in university I studied theory & composition, history, and performance. In the end I had to decide which was my major despite having given equal weight to all three – I thought a “performance” major made me look the most accomplished (not so sure now). In my third year composition class I started to get a sense of time slipping away, and opportunities wasted.
We were not studying any sort of standard composition techniques.
We were not learning from anything that had come before.
We spent no time analyzing or appraising what made Mozart’s melodies so damn catchy or why Stravinsky’s “Sacre du Printemps” had become the 20th century standard for epic cinematic scores.
(Stravinsky’s “Sacre du Printemps” – sound familiar? Like from a galaxy far, far away?)
One day I suggested to our small group that we all write a three chord pop song as an assignment. I was positive of the six people in the class only two or three would even be able to do it. Sure enough, two of the others protested bitterly proclaiming that such a simple task was a waste of time and that they were not here to learn how to write the music of the past – that is to say, music based on the traditional tonal system (major and minor keys). They wanted to create music in the footsteps of the 20th century futurists, serialists and surrealists. They talked about Stockhausen and “total serialism,” they talked about Cage and the idea of music as a concept and not organized sound…they blabbered on about not repeating the boring music of the last several centuries because “it has already been done.”
“So…” I said, “No problem then, right? We all write a three chord pop song for next week. Should be easy since everyone here has long since surpassed the need to write simple tonal music. It’ll be fun!”
I need not tell you, it didn’t happen.
Everyone kept on writing weird lazy crap that was difficult to listen to but provided endless hours of conversation and topics to debate.
Don’t get me wrong – art should provoke, but it is my own humble belief that it should also be able to engage, entertain and generate an emotional response WITHOUT the listener having to be academically schooled in the compositional techniques.
Not so long ago a local visual artist received a sizeable amount of grant money (that they justified was necessary) to compress a giant cube of garbage (plastic recycling) and have it dumped on a corner of a downtown pedestrian walkway reserved for sculptures commissioned by the city. It succeeded in terms of provoking a reaction and conversation, but just like the clatter of noise my classmates were obsessed with creating, it failed completely as any sort of purposeful creation that could aesthetically engage the observer. It was a cube. Of garbage. Made in a compactor, I think. To add insult to injury it was publicly displayed at the edge of an economically struggling neighborhood.
This is the deskilling of the arts at work.
The golden rule of modern art – “do not imitate the work of the masters” – has been twisted into “do not LEARN from the work of the masters.”
That is why we had a cube of garbage on our street corner, and that is why my upper year composition class mates would never be able to write a simple tune as well as the Ramones or the Misfits or any other band that could not count higher than four or change key mid-song to save their lives.
Somewhere during that time I recorded the first New Jacobin Club studio release (“A Lesson in Mortality”) for a small American record label. It was my exercise in tonality, the project my classmates all scoffed at. It was my tribute to Mozart. It was my “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” It was a new beginning for me as a musician and composer, and I intended to start at the beginning.
Since then the New Jacobin Club has progressed far beyond the 3 chord punk anthem style of our early years. On “Wicked City” in 2006 we mixed Latin Rock Fusion with gothic metal and made use of atonal concepts like whole tone scales.
(Debussy’s “La cathedrale englouti” – “The Sunken Cathedral” – inspirational use of the whole tone scale)
Then in 2009 I composed and recorded a number of instrumental tracks for the Angry Teeth Freakshow as well as an independent short film. They employed many traditional orchestration and compositional techniques – Mozart’s use of parallel 4ths in French horns, the traditional device of trombones blasting power chords to symbolize the opening of the gates of hell, Ravel’s slowly evolving bolero, Ligeti’s micropolyphony, and even the traditional Viennese waltz.
(probably the world’s most famous example of micropolyphony – Ligeti’s “Requiem”)
The following year, our self-produced album “This Treason” married some of those orchestration and composition techniques with the ever-evolving sound of the band. The title track from that album is still the New Jacobin Club’s most watched, listened to, downloaded, and purchased single of all time. Well over a decade after the fact, I finally felt like I had broken the chains of the ignorant fashion in which I was encouraged to create.
I see bands now that warble on one chord for 20 minutes at a time, professing their disdain for traditional songwriting techniques. Singers that sound like children throwing tantrums, claiming that practice and ability dilute their emotional delivery. These musical devices are not bad in and of themselves, but when there is nothing more…when won’t play another chord becomes can’t play another chord…that’s when it becomes a farce. And still, there is no shortage of critics and ultra-hip fans who will support it…but I am almost certain it will not make a lasting mark.
We may never have another Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Igor Stravisky, or David Bowie for that matter.
The art and culture of the human civilization is at an incredible crossroads right now – absolute freedom to create, absolute freedom to share, and for what? Are we actually supporting and rewarding the artists whom we want our generation to be remembered by?
What films, paintings, photographs, and music will we be remembered for in 500 years time? Are we entering a technological anti-renaissance?
Think back to our strongest impressions of ancient civilizations – how we as a species remember humanities past. We see the sculptures of the Greeks, the architecture of Rome and Egypt, the paintings of Michaelangelo and DaVinci, the literary works of art by Homer, Chaucer and Shakespeare. We as a species define our existence by what we create, and we long to create that which will be enjoyed by others – our living peers and the audience of the future to come. Humanity is art.
As always, love to hear your comments – or shoot me a message anytime!
(The band’s first studio release “A Lesson in Mortality” as well as a special collection of all the orchestral music talked about in this blog is included in the New Jacobin Club “Mega Box Set”)