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Art at the End of its Tether

Man’s Range for Chaos: Biology, Behavior and the Arts

by Morse Peckham
Chilton Books, 339 pp., $6.95

Etonnez moi“—the famous words which Diaghilev is said to have spoken to the young Cocteau conveniently sum up the theory of art proposed in this book. Stripped of its involvement with transactionist psychology and translated from a rather polysyllabic terminology into simple language, Professor Peckham’s hypothesis amounts to the assertion that are is an institution to which we turn when we want to feel a shock of surprise. We feel this want because we sense that it is good for us once in a while to receive a healthy jolt. Otherwise we would so easily get stuck in a rut and could no longer adapt to the new demands life is apt to make on us. The biological function of art, in other words, is that of a rehearsal, a training in mental gymnastics which increases our tolerance for the unexpected. In the author’s words: “There must…be some human activity which serves to break up orientations…to prepare the individual to observe what the orientation tells him is irrelevant, but what very well may be highly relevant” (p. xi); “…art is the reinforcement of the capacity to endure disorientation so that a real and significant problem may emerge” (p. 314).

It is clear from the whole tenor of the book that it was his encounter with contemporary avant-garde art that gave the author this shock of disorientation that set him in search of a new and significant problem. To accommodate it, he had indeed to break up the aesthetic orientations on which he had been brought up. “The artist,” he came to conclude, “is the challenger; his role requires him to create unpredicted situations” (p. 76). As an example of what he calls “the inarticulate insight into exactly this way of defining art,” he quotes John Cage’s notorious concert-item entitled “3 1/2,” which consists of so many minutes of non-performance at the piano. Any decision that governs the artist’s choice of the surprises he wishes to offer the public, the author infers, “is determined by the values, both implicit and explicit, of his cultural environment. If he is a New York artist of the 1960s, those values tell him that, to be a successful artist, he must make a great innovative leap; if he can, he must start a whole new artistic fashion. If that is beyond him, he must make as much of a discontinuity as he can in the current fashion” (p. 262).

It has often happened that the innovations of contemporary artists have helped critics and historians to look at the past with fresh eyes and to discover new values in previously neglected styles. True, these rediscoveries were often accompanied by certain distortions of the historical truth, but even when these were corrected and adjusted by subsequent generations enough remained to justify such an exercise in projection. I was therefore very ready to go along with the author of this book and to test with him how far his generalizations may take us in that revision of aesthetic orthodoxy that he demands. It is indeed a radical revision. His emphasis on surprise makes him contemptuous of the traditional idea that art should be in any way concerned with order. He has a point when he insists that order is something we impose on any perception and that the picture of a chaotic world of experience is untrue to biology and psychology. “Whatever the world of an amoeba or an earthworm may be like”—I myself once argued against Malraux—“it certainly is not chaotic but structured. Where there is life there is order.” I also gladly hailed the author as an ally when I found him attacking and dissecting the approach to period styles, popular with survey courses, which looks for a common structure in the poetry, the music, the paintings and architecture of a given period. His insistence, mentioned above, that art is not a peculiar kind of structure but rather an institution demanding a type of behavior also strikes me as fruitful. Moreover it is always fun watching a gifted critic demolishing tired old orthodoxies. Like the artists from whom he takes his cue Professor Peckham is out to astonish by innovatory behavior, and in his first chapters he succeeds remarkably well. I particularly liked his pages on the dramatic metaphor (p. 49-59), in which the sociological concept of role playing is vividly presented and illuminated. Altogether I would not hesitate to recommend his opening chapters as a subject for any seminar in criticism and the arts for, whether one agrees or not, they contain many excellent debating points.

IT IS ALL THE MORE disappointing to have to confess to a feeling of letdown as soon as the author attempts in the subsequent chapters to build up a theory of his own that could be successfully applied to the arts and styles of all times. Stimulated, as he says, by the experiments of abstract art, notably by the theories of Kandinsky and Malevich, he first goes in search of what he calls “primary signs” in the arts, those aspects, that is, of sensory experience like loudness and softness in music to which we can respond physiognomically. Strangely enough he believes that “little study has been devoted to them” (p. 101). He is quite unaware of the tradition that reaches back from Kandinsky to the Romantic painter Humbert de Superville’s Essai sur les signes inconditionels dans l’art (1827), the content of which Charles Blanc had passed on to Seurat.

With his characteristic verve Professor Peckham seeks to disarm criticism by telling us that “if the reader feels annoyed and disgusted I will not blame him in the least.” But what if he feels bored and dispirited? What else can be the result of reading that “in painting and architecture verticality is a sign of demand, horizontality of acceptance” (p. 161)? Those, for instance, who entered Mussolini’s notorious audience chambers, in which the dictator sat at the distant end from the door, did not report that they experienced the vast horizontal expanse they had to cross till they reached the presence as “a sign of acceptance.” Here as always it has been shown long ago that there is no generalization of this kind to which a counter-example cannot easily be found. This does not prove that the quest is entirely useless, but it is useless on this level. The author is quick in accusing critics of what he calls ethnocentricity, the tendency to look at all art in the light of their own national tradition, but the ethnocentricity of his treatment of “primary signs” in poetry really takes one’s breath away. “In English poetry,” he observes, “comic verse is invariably rhymed, while double and triple rhymes are so throughly identified with comic verse that they are entirely excluded from serious verse” (p. 140). Rhyme, he therefore concludes, is a primary sign of “adequacy” and thus “rhymed tragedy flourished only briefly.” This may be true of England, but obviously not of France. His conclusion that this sense of adequacy belonging to comedy is achieved by short lines rather than long ones is equally refuted by Aristophanes. Goethe also often experimented with short lines and even with repeated rhymes in dramatic context of high seriousness.

It must be admitted, though, that the weakness of this chapter, of which the author is aware, is not fatally damaging to his fundamental thesis, which identifies art with the upsetting rather than with the creation of order. But the subsequent chapter on the formal aspects reveals, to my mind, such a fatal misunderstanding that little, if anything, can be rescued of his original hypothesis.

His starting point here is the correct observation that works of art do not generally exhibit mathematical order and that the form postulated as a rule would feel lifeless and mechanical if it were not broken and transgressed in a thousand ways. Great poems do not scan with relentless regularity, Renaissance Madonnas are not really arranged in triangles, and Bach’s fugues are not merely exercises in musical patternmaking. Here too the author may overrate the novelty of his emphasis. The Bergsonian philosopher Ludwig Klages stressed more than a generation ago that the hallmark of real music is not the monotonous beat (Takt) but the living flow of rhythm—not identical units in identical intervals of time but similar units in similar intervals. Nearer to our time Dr. Anton Ehrenzweig in his book on The Psychoanalysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing has drawn attention to the many elements of “disorder” that play hide-and-seek in art behind the facade of measured regularity. All this is true and important, but it does not suffice to establish Mr. Peckham’s central thesis that the work of art comes into being by what he calls “discontinuity,” the violation of form or more exactly of the receiver’s expectation. If this were all, Cage’s “3 1/2” would really be the supreme piece of music and the best stories ever told would be “shaggy dog” stories.

OBVIOUSLY THE SURPRISE which great art offers us is of a very different character. What we experience is not only unexpected, it is better than we ever managed to expect, a thrilling masterstroke which yet triumphantly meets and exceeds the perceiver’s expectation. It is true, of course, that the entirely expected move in art strikes us as trivial, boring, and lifeless. After a time it may even fail to register altogether and becomes mere background. Simple music moving regularly between tonic and dominant can have this effect. But if a deviation from the expected were all that was required to relieve the situation, any false note would do the trick. It may indeed wake us up, it may even train us painfully to face the imperfections of life in general, but it is not art. When we listen to great music of the classic period, every move arouses indeed expectations, we know of familiar paths by which the tension might be relieved. But we find to our delight that the master knows of a better, more unexpected and yet more convincing way to take us home to the tonic on an adventurous road. The same is true of literature. The rigid conventions of certain genres do not exclude surprise, they arouse it. Even where we know that in the end the lovers will fall into each other’s arms we may still admire the surprising way in which the author reaches and presents this expected consummation. Even our response to performance on the stage or in music depends not only on our being surprised but on our being convinced. It would be easy enough to stage Hamlet as a comedy or to open his monologue with a yawn. It would not be convincing. When we say that a performance has restored the freshness of the work of art we do not mean that it has upset the expected order, but that it has shown us much more of it than we ever knew.

Granted that order may be something we impose. There are limits, both logical and psychological, to this relativism. It is not meaningless to say—as Professor Peckham seems to think—that an order can be discovered. There is an objective difference between crystals and clouds. It is true that our ability to see order differs and that it can be trained and extended to take in greater complexities. Nobody has ever denied this. But the introduction of greater complexity, which has indeed been traditionally connected with stylistic developments, surely differs from that discontinuity Professor Peckham sees as the dynamism behind any change in art.

If he were entirely right that the sole function of art is to teach us how to cope with unsettling experiences, there would be no point in ever returning to a work of art we have encountered before. This may be true of Cage’s trick, for it loses its point once we know what he is up to. Mozart is more durable. Indeed one of the psychological mysteries of artistic surprise is that it does not wear off. A thriller may not be worth re-reading once we know who dun it. But we can read the Odyssey any number of times and look forward to the vicarious surprise Penelope will feel when the hero reveals himself at last. We can even wait with keen anticipation to a certain modulation in Schubert which we know by heart.

A THEORY OF STYLISTIC CHANGE based on such insecure foundations is bound to disappoint. Professor Peckham’s idea that the dynamics of change are allpervasive in art and apply to the styles of all cultures is fundamentally mistaken. He emphasizes (p. 261) that the immutability of Egyptian art is a myth because Egyptologists are able to date Egyptian artifacts with some confidence. Yet the discussions concerning the dates to be assigned to some famous products of conservative cultures—Chinese scrolls, Byzantine ivories, or Russian ikons—certainly show that such confidence is not unlimited. Moreover—and this is decisive—there is a vital difference between stylistic drift and a desire for change. Language too changes with time but vowel shifts do not occur to perform the biological function of disorientation. Where art is bound up with ritual, as it is in the majority of cultures, its social function is preservation rather than change. Ritual, religious or secular, should reinforce expectations, not disappoint them. Its consoling and edifying character lies precisely in its relative immunity to change. Even in times of stress and disintegration people will try to hold fast to ritual, to celebrate Christmas and to sing the old songs which give them the reassurance of stability. Historians may discover that the Christmas tree is a comparatively recent innovation, but surely it was not introduced to provide a shock of novelty. Change in social institutions is not always due to the search for originality.

Professor Peckham chides academic critics who believe in the rules inherent in certain forms and who debate, for instance, whether Tschaikowsky’s Sixth Symphony deserves to be called a symphony. In calling it so, the author argues (p. 237) that the composer intended the listener to relate his work to the tradition of the symphony from which he departed. The point is well taken where the arts of the last hundred years are concerned, but it would be unintelligible to members of more ritualistic cultures. It would be senseless to say that any poem one chooses to call a haiku thereby becomes a haiku. The form demands the arrangement of words in a certain order just as it demands the competition in haiku to follow certain ceremonial rules. These rules may drift but they are not revolutionized.

IT MAY BE ARGUED, even, that the subtlety and refinement that develop in the arts of a stable elite, where connoisseurship learns to appreciate the slightest nuance, are unattainable in rapidly changing styles. Compared to Chinese bamboo paintings, European art may always be coarse-grained. Be that as it may, the author’s proposal for the explanation of the relationship of the arts rests entirely on combining his ideas about primary signs with his interpretation of discontinuity. In other words, what the various arts of an individual period have in common is not a particular structure, but a certain preference for primary signs of adequacy or the reverse coupled with a given tolerance for rule-breaking and for change. It is clear that this solution is also derived from a contemplation of the contemporary scene. The attempt to apply it to the traditional sequence of Baroque, Enlightenment, and Romanticism lands the author unfortunately in the same kind of vague generalization about periods he had promised to banish. Even his verve and wit almost desert him in a chapter that recalls the worst sins of Spenglerian historicism. Thanks to the emergence of science (we are told), “Baroque artists were governed by an orientation that gave a high value to problem exposure…their art showed an unusually high level of discontinuity” (p. 265).

The direct influence of science is also seen in the emergence of a lucid prose style (again a very ethnocentric observation); the fugue emerged from the ricercare which means “research” and the “plunge into depth of the Baroque landscape…is exposure without the defenses of recession in planes and successive reduction of color iconicity…”; “the essence of Baroque architecture is spatial disorientation and the dissolution of solids and screens” (p. 269). We are thus back with our old friend the “essence.” In contrast to the “cognitive tension” experienced on the top of the cultural pyramid during the period of the Baroque, the pleasures of cognitive harmony descended on the intellectual leaders of the Enlightment leading to a reduction of tension. Thus, while “the melodies of Bach in the 1740s are jaged…those of Mozart ripple up and down the scale of the triad” (283), in Tiepolo’s ceiling frescoes “the proportion of figures to sky becomes steadily smaller” (p. 283), and English poetry declines into prose. It is only too easy to recognize in these characterizations the old clichés about the shallowness of the Age of Reason.

BUT IT WOULD BE UNFAIR to concentrate too much on this attempt to apply the author’s theory to the history of the arts. For even here, as I have said, this somewhat misguided exercise springs from his wish to generalize on what he has found true of the contemporary scene. There must be something that unites the arts, his argument runs, for the same break that is visible in painting with the rise of Cubism is noticeable in music with the emergence of atonality, and in literature with its various forms of experimentalisms. If all these exhibit these discontinuities, if all these, moreover, show the same preference for primary signs of tension and inadequacy, the same unity must be observable in previous stylistic breaks. The argument looks plausible, but it overlooks an important novel element in the twentieth-century situation that was absent from earlier epochs. This element is the degree of historical self-consciousness that governs the behavior of both the producers and the perceivers of art. It was the philosophy of Hegelian historicism (to use Popper’s term) which reacted back on the arts to an ever increasing extent and led to that self-fulfilling prophecy of a “new art for a new age” which the various forms of futurism had postulated. The historiography of art history had its share in this self-consciousness that aimed at continuing the sequence of styles which had allegedly expressed the changing essence of past ages. If this experience is any guide, Professor Peckham’s book in its turn will speed up the Rage for Chaos and the craving for novelty “at the top of the cultural pyramid.” It would be a pity if this happened. For the author himself is shocked by what he considers the “arrogance and indifference…of artist and perceiver…so perplexing, so monstrous”; his human compassion is outraged by what he sees as the “cruelty of art” (p. 307’.

The sentiment does him credit. But instead of trying therefore to justify the ways of art to man by inventing a new theory that fits the contemporary scene, he could also have looked at it with more critical detachment. It may be true (as I myself have recently suggested) that “today the conviction is almost universal that those who stick to obsolete beliefs and who refuse to change will go to the wall…that we must adapt or die.” Hence the eagerness of those who want to stay on that “top of the pyramid” to jump on the bandwagon (for which there always seems to be room on the top). But to equate this strenuous exercise with art is really an illicit extrapolation.

Quite near the opening of his Preface the author tells us how he sat in a concert some ten years ago and found it increasingly astonishing “that a couple of thousand people should sit quietly in a darkened auditorium while another hundred people made carefully predetermined sounds.” It was right that he wondered, but he would not have done so in a ritualistic culture, nor—dare one guess?—in a concert that everybody really enjoyed. If today those thousands are ready to submit to the cruelty of art in a ritualistic celebration of progress, a painful initiation ceremony into the priesthood of change, this is indeed an interesting phenomenon. Whether it is also as healthy as Professor Peckham thinks is a different matter.

Letters

Art or Behavior November 17, 1966

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