Take a piece of music
that you abhor,

with no aesthetic
or subjective charms.

And critical possibilities
all thrown to the wall.

Still some people like it.

They commit
and treat it like a person.

In Music Discomposed, Stanley Cavell set himself the task of grappling with the problem of avant-garde composition in the 1960s where, according to Gerald Bruns, “what young composers are trying to compose proves unintelligible not only to audiences but also to one’s fellow composers, so that no one can say who legitimately belongs to the music world and who does not.”[1] Cavell named this problem “the burden of modernism”[2] and stated that if there is uncertainty within the music world as to who is composer or not, then it should not be considered remarkable “that we outsiders do not know”[3] either. The rationale being that if all criteria for judging whether something counts as music, let alone good or otherwise, has been stripped away in the process of composition, then one can no longer judge at all.

Continuing on from this critical impasse, if one is not Cavell, could appear impossible because the road seems to vanish along with the traditional elements of composition. Cavell, however, understood that if all criteria, in terms of reason and aesthetics, are removed then the one who is left willing to listen must listen not with an aesthetic ear but with an ethical one.

The spectator can no longer rely upon aesthetics, because these values have been ripped asunder, and they must now turn to that most uncertain of governing principles: trust.

Consequently, by only having recourse to trust, in that the art work might be rewarding and maybe truthful, the spectator has to assume responsibility for their own experience and enter into the relationship as a genuine participant. No longer will the experience be given by the artwork alone, and no longer will the spectator be able to hover above the work observing its aesthetic charms. The “burden of modernism” grounds the spectator in an ethical relationship with the work where intimacy, and not critical authority, is the only potential avenue for achieving understanding. Of course, the relationship when based on trust and intimacy, rather than critical observation or aesthetic consciousness, turns upon our treating the art work, as Cavell wrote, “in ways normally reserved for treating persons.”[4] The import of this realisation rests upon the word ‘treating’ because, as Bruns reminds us, “the work is not a person or any sort of subjective communication. The point is rather how we are with the work.”9 If we treat the work in ways ‘normally reserved’ for other persons then it is our attitude, our intention, our responsibility as spectators that has altered, not the work of art itself. This is because we own how we treat it.

The over-riding lesson here is to steer us away from the disinterested, self-involved or critical individuals of old and make us realise that we are the owners of our own experiences and that artworks or other people are not there to serve our pleasures by being observed from a ‘god’s eye’ position, they are there to be engaged with, given to, and respected. We need to give our time, effort, and trust. A quite considerable requirement, but necessary, if we genuinely want to have any new experiences.

Real learning and growth happen when we commit to having a relationship with an author, an artwork, or another human being. As long as we enter into it with commitment, and even if it only lasts a few seconds, it can stay with us for years. We need to stop being aloof and watching disinterestedly or critically. We need to jump in with both feet and trust, as Cavell states, to that or whom which we stand before. By so doing we can discover some of our lost humanity. One of the most defining aspects of being human, surely, is the ability and desire to form relationships.

We need to relate to the world around us and each other so that we can actually live rather than merely exist – such as an ethereal spirit that occupies space but is, to all intents and purposes, hollow, pointless and dead.

[1] Bruns, G. ‘The Hermeneutical Anarchist: Phronesis, Rhetoric, and the Experience of Art’ included in Gadamer’s Century: Essays in Honour of Hans-Georg Gadamer. Edited by Jeff Malpas, Ulrich Arnswald, and Jens Kertscher, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2002, 69.

[2] Cavell, S. ‘Music Discomposed’ included in Must we mean what we say?, Cambridge University Press, 1976, 187.

[3] Ibid., 188.

[4] Ibid., 189.

Published by Dr Jim Walsh

CEO of Conway Hall Ethical Society and author of 'Ethics Starts With You'.

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