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Art makes truth, three things

September 18, 2012

For the last year or so I’ve been obsessed with Igor Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps,” and have not been quite sure why. This article in the New York Times does a bit to clarify things for me, though it also muddles things a bit more.

There has always been resistance to the troubling, antihumanitarian scenario. Stravinsky gave permission to detach the work from its subject when he wrote, in a late memoir, that seeing Diaghilev’s post-Nijinsky revival, “I realized then that I prefer ‘Le Sacre’ as a concert piece.” That is how the New York Philharmonic will celebrate it on Thursday, as will the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Sept. 28. Stravinsky’s later claim that his first thought of “The Rite” took place not in his mind’s eye (imagining the sacrifice, as he originally said) but in his mind’s ear in the form of a musical theme was typical of a man who spent the second half of his life telling lies about the first half.

This sort of lying about one’s artistic past sometimes seems unavoidable, especially when the artist undergoes a profound shift away from earlier sensibilities. I’m thinking here of T.S. Eliot’s later comments on The Waste Land–comments I don’t think unwarranted, but which he probably wouldn’t have agreed with when he first wrote the poem. Other parts of the article on Stravinsky make me want to see La Sacre as akin to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. So, while I’m still not sure what to make of the ballet, that bothers me less–after all, I’m not sure what to make of the two other works mentioned in this paragraph either.

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Speaking of artists telling the truth about themselves, I also recently came across a (rather ancient) article about Bob Dylan’s “wonderful inauthenticity.” The basic idea is that Dylan was able to be a great musician because he was beholden only to his music, not to who he was “personally.” He did not pledge allegiance to any cause other than greatness:

Dylan’s life has been a series of inauthentic moves. It was fake for young rocker Dylan to become a folkie, fake for folkie Dylan to become a rocker, fake for rocker Dylan to become a country squire, fake for protest Dylan to become a poet of amphetamine-driven Beat wordplay and internalized reflections on romance, fake for superstar Dylan to become a vagabond minstrel with his 1975-76 Rolling Thunder tour, fake for secular Jew Dylan to become a vengeance-spouting born-again Christian, fake for that born-again Christian to return to secular pop and tour with the Grateful Dead, fake for rock star Dylan to return to acoustic folk-blues roots in the early ’90s, and fake for a washed-up zombie to release one of the most vital records of his career, Time Out of Mind (1997), after knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door with a heart infection.

Because of this, attempts to lay bare the “real” Bob Dylan inevitably feel strangely insubstantial. You can’t touch this Dylan guy. He’s not there, he’s gone, as Dylan once sang of himself. Then again, he’s easy to find: This summer, for instance, he toured state fairs across much of the U.S., at last the ramblin’, gamblin’ man he pretended to be as a clean-cut kid hanging in Greenwich Village 40 years ago. Dylan knew all along, if often only instinctively, that nothing fresh, new, or startling comes from being “authentic.” It comes from change, growth, evolution, electricity, and “selling out” to the wide world that exists beyond any blinkered, limited conception of proper culture.

What I find fascinating in this is how both this wonderful inauthenticity and the authenticity that it repudiates are quintessentially American. America is the land of second chances–but you only ever need a second chance because you strayed too far from your origins. If you just go somewhere new and try again, this time, you’ll be able to be who you really are. Americans always want to be reborn but don’t ever want to really change.

The article draws a dichotomy throughout between the “authentic” folkies and the “inauthentic” Dylan who left them behind, but in the end they don’t seem that different. They’re equally inauthentic, only Dylan is more self-aware. And they’re equally authentic, only the folkies have defined themselves through Bohemian politics and Dylan has defined himself through his art. Talking about this sort of thing the authentic/inauthentic dichotomy starts to feel useless. We should just talk about art versus life and be done with it.

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If we let ourselves look at an artist’s life as itself a work of art, for him to retell as he sees fit, can we evaluate anything he says as true or false? Can art be true or false?

Errol Morris is an interesting guy. In this interview, the documentary filmmaker is obsessed with the way photographs can lie, or, at least, the way we want to make them speak, and then get frustrated with them when what we make them say is a lie:

Yes. The fact that there is no such thing as a true or a false photograph. Truth and falsity properly considered are properties of language, not of images. I believe that we’ve gotten into all kinds of trouble by talking about images as though they were true or false.

Well, I don’t know that our just wanting to call them true makes photographs that special. (We’ve never been satisfied to let “true” be true only of sentences, even if they’re actually, literally, really, truly, very much the only thing that can be true.) But Morris may be on to something. Photographs are special, after all, in that they don’t just represent the world, they recreate it. Morris elaborates:

Ultimately, why do people care about reference? Because… let’s put it this way. If you care what our connection is to the world around us, then you care about basic questions. Questions of truth. Questions of reference. Questions of identity. Basic philosophical questions. So go back to the Fenton photographs for a moment. I want to know what I’m looking at. I think photographs have a kind of subversive character. They make us think we know what we’re looking at. I may not know what I’m looking at, even under the best of circumstances here and now. But I have all this context available to me. I know you’re Ren Weschler. I’ve met you before. We actually are friends. And I have this whole context of the world around me. But photographs do something tricky. They decontextualize things. They rip images out of the world and as a result we are free to think whatever we want about them.

It’s a long interview, but the whole thing is worth reading.

*

These three things may seem unrelated, but they all relate certain themes–themes of authenticity, skepticism, modernism, technology–that I associate together, largely on the authority of Stanley Cavell’s philosophical and literary ramblings. I associate these themes with Cavell, but when push comes to shove I think my take on them is rather different than the Cavellian one. The different might start with artistic (self)-definition, to which I think Cavell gives insufficient attention; it would probably end up talking about the importance of faithfulness to the past, when Cavell often seems more interested in solving the problems the past causes for the present. (Cavell is a liberal, I’m a conservative.) I’d want to write a story about the war modernism wages against itself, and the way its victim-soldier-artists somehow managed not to destroy themselves. This is where people like Stravinsky and Dylan (and Eliot and McCarthy and Melville and many others) would play a role. But for now, that story is unwritten, and these three things stand mostly as another three notes in my personal journal of Cavell studies.

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