[Milton-L] Re: Books, documents and texts

Schwartz, Louis lschwart at richmond.edu
Tue Dec 14 10:55:05 EST 2004


In response to Jesse's elegant question regarding Peter's wonderful
post:

 

I don't think Peter means to exhort us to avoid censure so much as avoid
censure when in certain fundamental ways we don't know what we're
talking about.  People who understood the forms and traditions, the
techniques and modes of expression, representation, even argument that
Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, and Miles Davis, et al,
were (or are still) working with and within had no trouble recognizing
from very early on that these were artists of deep seriousness and
considerable achievement.  Those who censured them were either people
who rejected those forms etc. out of hand or who refused to see one
mixed with another in ways that violated their sense of decorum.  Many
who did the censuring, however, were only themselves dimly aware of just
why they were censuring and tended to simply say the stuff was bad.  But
it wasn't bad, it simply required different sets of expectations to be
appreciated.  History tends to bring people around on that, sometimes
(hence Peter's hopes and warnings about the future).  

 

It might be possible to censure an entire form or tradition or to note
its limitations and advocate that they be ignored or their rules be
broken.  Each of the above artists did that in their own ways, but their
implicitly censorious acts required mastery (in practice) of the forms
they were altering.  And any critic who wants to say anything of value
about the works they produced at any stage needs to have mastered (in
reception) all the relevant materials as well.  Such a critic could
credibly censure an artist for failing to pull-off what the work seems
to implicitly promise, or for technical failures or incoherence (or too
much coherence, one could go on and on.  Such a critic could also
censure particular works (each of the above artists has certainly-with
the possible exception of Davis, for me, but that's of course, a matter
of debate-produced their share of less than powerful material), but
that's not the same thing as dismissing their entire projects, or
dismissing, for that matter, Jazz or North American folk and popular
musical traditions as not capable of producing great art.

 

To give an example of the sort of distinctions I'm trying to make:  I've
never thought it was legitimate for critics to take Miles Davis to task
for abandoning his acoustic ensemble for an electric one in the late
'60's and into the '70's.  This is because the criticism was tantamount
to saying that Davis was abandoning something that these critics liked
and understood for something that they didn't like and didn't
understand.  Now, they had the right to not like and to refuse to
understand, but not to claim that the move was illegitimate because
Davis had abandoned a high art form for a low or bastardized one (one
that they sometimes said was too crude and white [rock and roll], too
crude and black [funk or soul], or-worst of all, and in some cases
incoherently-too "European" [classical avant garde]-that it was, in
fact, all of these, but subtle rather than crude, despite its violent
swings between poles of aggression and meditation, was something that
either couldn't see or couldn't understand the value of).  For the
advocate, of course, the burden is to show how and why this project has
interest and how Davis succeeded in making something of it.  In Davis'
case this has been done, and the process has itself entailed some
internal censuring and judgment.  I do think, for example, that it's
possible to claim that only some, not all, of Davis' work in this period
actually realized its full potential-one could censure "On the Corner"
as a failure or claim that the music recorded for that album only
realized itself fully in the concert performances of the last ensembles
Davis toured with before he stopped performing for a while in '75. But
to make this kind of argument, again, requires full mastery of the
relevant materials (traditions, forms, biographies, history,
discography), a set of clearly articulated definitions (what do you mean
by "potential" in this context?), a working vocabulary of musicological,
theoretical, and technical terms (what's a flatted 5th? How are you
defining "performance culture" in this context? What do you mean "the
guitarist was plugged directly into the board?").  

 

As far as Milton is concerned, I think Jesse's quotation from
Areopagitica is interesting in this context, but what it gives us
license to censure is not the works of artists so much as the works of
those critics who want to fix our canons of judgment in such a way as to
keep us from the truths we might find in unexpected places (like in the
sound of the Pete Cosey's guitar tearing out of the hum of his amplifier
in response to a strangled note from Davis' trumpet).  

 

Let's hear it for "charitable and compassionate means to regain the weak
and mislead!"  I wouldn't advocate forcing anybody to appreciate art
they don't like or don't understand, but I've never really understood,
myself, why anyone would think it a waste of time to try....   It's not
like I was born to or raised to appreciate or understand Milton, after
all.  Glad I did make the effort to do so, though (and not just because
I can make a living at it, such as it is....)

 

 

L. 

 

===========================

Louis Schwartz

Associate Professor of English

University of Richmond

Richmond, VA  23173

(804) 289-8315

lschwart at richmond.edu

 

 

 

-----Original Message-----
From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu
[mailto:milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] On Behalf Of Jesse Swan
Sent: Tuesday, December 14, 2004 3:38 AM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Re: Books, documents and texts

 

With regards to Peter's nicely humanistic response, which I do quite
love, and concentrating on the concluding two sentences, which I will
perversely latch onto in order to criticize myself in my love of the
post much more than to criticize Peter, which I do not wish to do, I
wonder if we should forbear censuring an expression just because some
future critic might come to appreciate or even love the expression?

 

Margaret Atwood gives a deliciously keen indictment of such an impassive
attitude, I believe, in the epilogue to her _The Handmaid's Tale_.
Manuel Puig gives a similar criticism of me in my hesitation to censure
and/or in my erotic pleasures in new genres in his _The Kiss of the
Spider Woman_.  In both of these works, I understand something of the
Miltonic freedom advocated in _Areopagitica_, where Milton makes room
for censures as much as he champions freedoms:  In freedom of
publishing, "I mean not tolerated popery and open superstition, which,
as it extirpates all religions and civil supremacies, so itself should
be extirpate, provided first that all charitable and compassionate means
be used to win and regain the weak and the misled."  Not a simple
statement, if one thinks about it, but one that does provide for censure
in a free, academic (to say nothing of a righteous, as Milton would hope
for) society.

 

There are dangers, variously material and supernatural, in refusing to
censure, even as there are very, very good reasons to wonder why one
wishes to censure, as Milton seems to suggest, doesn't he?

 

Jesse

 

 

===========================

Louis Schwartz

Associate Professor of English

University of Richmond

Richmond, VA  23173

(804) 289-8315

lschwart at richmond.edu

 

 

 

	 

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