Morton Feldman on Art vs. Craft (etc.)
Give My Regards to Eight Street
Here’s a view on the role of “craft” and “culture” and “imitators” in artistic production and reception. It’s about musical composition mostly, but it could easily be made about any artistic creation, especially, for my purposes, poetry (With a grain or several of salt.). In other essays, the “professionals” here, becomes “academic artists” or simply “academics.” If I were going to make a grand claim about the mid 50s through the early 70s, I’d say that it was the moment when the last of the Modernists (Feldman & Pollock, say) blended—often in sympathy against the reigning conservative culture—with the first of the postmodernists (Cage & Guston, perhaps). Take that, also, with grains of salt.
From The Anxiety of Art (1965)
For ten years of my life I worked in an environment committed to neither the past nor the future. We worked, that is to say, not knowing where what we did belonged, or whether it belonged anywhere at all. What we did was not in protest against the past. To rebel against history is still to be a part of it. We were simply not concerned with historical processes. We were concerned with sound itself. And sound does not know its history.
[. . .]
Our work did not have the authoritarianism, I might almost say, the terror, inherent in the teachings of Boulez, Schoenberg, and now Stockhausen.
This authoritarianism, this pressure, is required of a work of art. That is why the real tradition of twentieth-century America, a tradition evolving from the empiricism of Ives, Varèse and Cage, has been passed over as “iconoclastic”—another word for unprofessional. In music, when you do something new, something original, you’re an amateur. Your imitators—these are the professionals.
It is the imitators who are interested not in what the artist did, but the means he used to do it. This is where craft emerges as an absolute, an authoritarian position that divorces itself from the creative impulse of the originator. The imitator is the greatest enemy of originality. The “freedom” of the artist is boring to him, because in freedom he cannot reenact the role of the artist. There is, however, another role he can and does play. It is this imitator, this “professional,” that makes are into culture.
This is the man who emphasizes the historical impact of the original work of art. Who takes from it and puts to use everything that can be utilized in a collective sense. Who brings the concepts of virtue, morality, and “the general good” into it. Who brings the world into it.
Proust tells us the great mistake lies in looking for the experience in the object rather than in ourselves. He calls this a “running away from one’s own life.” How many of these “professionals” would go along with this kind of thinking about art? They give us continual examples of looking for the experience of the object—in their case, the system, the craft that forms the basis of their world.
The atmosphere of a work of art, what surrounds it, that “place” in which it exists—all this is thought a lesser thing, charming but not essential. Professionals insist on essentials. They concentrate on the things that make art. These are the things they identify with it, think of, in fact, as it—not understanding that everything we use to make art is precisely what kills it.
This is what every painter I know understands. And this is what almost no composer I know understands.
[. . .]
The painter achieves mastery by allowing what he is doing to be itself. In a way, he must step aside in order to be in control. The composer is just learning to do this. He is just beginning to learn that controls can be thought of as nothing more than accepted practice.
[. . .]
Of course, the history of music has always been involved in controls, rarely with any new sensitivity to sound.
[. . .]
The revolution is over.
[. . .]
A close and valued friend once became annoyed at my persistent admiration of Cage. “How can you feel this,” he said, “when it’s apparent that everything he stands for negates your own music?”
This was my answer: “If anyone negates my music, it is, say, Boulez. With Boulez you have all the aura of a right or righteous gesture. It looks like art, smells and feels like nothing but art, yet there is about it no creative pressure that makes a demand on me. It lulls me to sleep with its easily acquired virtues.”
[. . .]
The anxiety of art is a special condition, and actually is not an anxiety at all, though it has all the aspects of one. It comes about when art becomes separate from what we know, when it speaks with its own emotion.
Where in life we do everything we can to avoid anxiety, in art we must pursue it. This is difficult. Everything in our life and culture, regardless of our background, is dragging us away. Still, there is this sense of something immanent. And what is immanent, we find, is neither the past nor the future, but simply—the next ten minutes. The next ten minutes . . . We can go no further than that, and we need go no further. If art has its heaven, perhaps this is it. If there is a connection made with history, it is after the fact, and can be perfectly summed up in the words of de Kooning: “History doesn’t influence me. I influence it.”