On bullshit

Art—oh, we’re not yet done with Art—is bullshit.

I rarely feel the need to justify my use of rude words, I enjoy them so, but in this case there is a genuine reason for this usage. I refer to an article by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt from which I take my own post title: “On bullshit.” Frankfurt seeks to set out the difference between bullshit and lies: the crux of bullshit, according to him, is not that it seeks to deceive. Bullshit may deceive, but it may also be accurate. The bullshitter, according to Frankfurt, is not interested in the truth values of his statements: he is solely interested in the effect that they have, and the desired effect is usually to impress, to elevate, to create a sense of worth.

Art is bullshit. Especially music, and specifically the Romantic aesthetic—that which many would assert is the only “true” aesthetic of music, that which claims that music has “meaning”  or somehow objectively “expresses” emotions—is bullshit. And if you buy into this, you are buying into the bullshit. I want to be clear: you are quite entitled to, if this is how you enjoy music. Really, I mean that. But I don’t really enjoy music that way, and I am sick of being told that this is inferior, unsubtle, or lacking in true understanding. I don’t do the bullshit, and I don’t see why I should.

Let’s talk about Beethoven, and that half-hour of bombast that ruins the previous three movements of his ninth symphony: the famous setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” “The symphony’s roots are in German poet Friedrich Schiller’s 1795 poem ‘An die Freude’ (‘Ode to Joy’), which has as a central theme mankind’s earthly happiness,” declares Terrence Hackett, and everyone tiresomely points out—and Bernstein tiresomely apotheosized—the claim that Freude (“joy”) here is a veiled reference to Freiheit (“freedom”). The ninth symphony, inspired by this hymn to liberty, was completed in 1824, and only a churl such as I would feel the need to direct your attention to the fact that this final movement bears something more than a passing similarity to the last movement of the 1808 Choral Fantasia—which not only does not use Schiller’s poem, but for which Beethoven composed the music first and then, only shortly before the performance, commissioned a poet (whose identity is still not certain, so minor Beethoven’s textual requirements at that point) to write words fitting the music already written. Enjoy the symphony if you must—I defend to the death your right to be wrong on this point—but if you persuade yourself that there is any “inspiration,” any “roots” of the music in the Schiller text—retrofitted to a melody written a decade and a half earlier—then you are indulging in bullshit.

Mahler’s sixth symphony of 1904—The Tragic, as it is called, though not by him—is an intensely personal work. The erratic rhythms of the third movement depict his two daughters playing: “the unrhythmic games of the two little children, tottering in zigzags over the sand,” as his widow later put it. Tragically, the elder daughter died and this, coupled with Mahler’s own diagnosis with a terminal heart condition, and the forced departure from his job as conductor at the Vienna opera house, formed a “triple hammer-blow” of fate—the three fortissimo timpani strikes which punctuate the final movement. Except … except this is bullshit. These interpretative nonsenses all stem from his wife Alma Mahler—a fascinating, extraordinary woman, but not one adverse to bullshit of her own. The third movement was composed before his younger daughter was even conceived; Mahler himself, as late as 1907, was of the opinion that his condition was far from a death sentence and merely prohibited over-exertion; and in his revision of the work he actually removed the final of these supposedly fundamental “hammer blows”—though so prevalent is adherence to bullshit that the majority of performances reinstate it. Once again: enjoy this music—it’s too long and over-the-top for my tastes, though it has some fine moments and the ending is, fairly literally, sensational. But why bullshit in pseudo-autobiographical silliness? If you enjoy the music, why do you need these justificatory crutches? Only to claim that the music is “deep,” that it is “personal,” that it is “Art.” Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.

These are only the most egregious examples: the cases where the bullshit happens to be exposable; but the principle behind them—the idea that music somehow carries meaning, or can somehow literally recreate (rather than emulate) emotion or personal connection—is the bullshit. I don’t reject the pleasure in the Romantic aesthetic, though I only indulge in small doses; neither do I say you are wrong to totally immerse yourself in it, if that’s how you get your kicks. But it is, in Frankfurt’s terms at least, bullshit.

“The English do not much care for music,” the waspish conductor Thomas Beecham is purported to have said, “but they love the sound it makes.” The delight with which this apocryphal bon mot is paraded around the internet and in columns by the great and good of music criticism demonstrates how much the Art snobbery that insists that this bullshit is necessary for true appreciation of music still permeates our culture. Less wittily the 19th-century critic Eduard Hanslick, in his magnificent demolition of the Romantic aesthetic On The Musically Beautiful, spoke contemptuously of the pathological appreciation of music, which—desiring, as he did, a return to classical aesthetics—he contrasted with the active, the analytic, the appreciation of form and structure. Though I have more sympathy with Hanslick’s concept of analytic appreciation, the value judgement he sets up between analytic and pathological appreciation is as elitist and unnecessary as the Romantic, Rousseauian worship of the emoting individual. It is also as illusory: who would listen to a piece whose structure they appreciated but the sounds of which they hated? Having myself performed Stockhausen’s Klavierstück IX—a piece intricately structured around the Fibonacci sequence, but which starts with the same discord repeated 229 times—I can tell you: very, very few.

Romantic, modernist, classical, jazz, pop—whatever your tastes in music, they start with Hanslick’s so contemptible pathological, with the sound it makes. And there is no shame, no inferiority, no lesser appreciation in staying there: the rest is bullshit.