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Saturday morning quotes 4.39: Innovation

February 7, 2015

We frequently despair why it should be so that we live in an age when the major focus of artistic energy is devoted to re-creation of ideals of beauty in music and art from the past rather than creating new forms of representational beauty. This leads us to wonder what has become of 1) the concept of inspired innovation, and 2) thoughtful emulation of standards of beauty. It turns out that we are not alone. As early as 1932, clear minded individuals were expressing informed opinions:

Now I believe that the manifestations of modern music are not the normal signs of health but the pathological stigmata of disease. Its pains are not the pains of growth but the pangs of dissolution. It is for the most part, restless, fretful, where it is not grim and unfriendly. It makes but scant concession to those canons of beauty to which the ear has been accustomed by the older masters. Its purgation of the emotions is cruelly drastic and leaves us not so much cleansed as exhausted. Its tragedy is a mere expression of despair or degenerates into an obscene goat song. Its comedy is cynical, heartless and unforgiving. Its thought is in a prison from which it can in no wise come out because its wealth is insufficient for the provision of the uttermost farthing. Thin worm-like phrases, neither alive nor dead, wriggle their way through its symphonies and sonatas. For inspiration, we have exhalation, for invention innovation, for originality a routine unexpectedness so expected that it fails either to surprise or charm.

– E. W. Adams,”Modern Music: An Indictment,” Music & Letters, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Jan., 1932), pp. 59-63.

So what defines worthwhile innovation in music and art, and exactly what presents itself as worthy of emulation?

“Innovation,” from the Latin innovare, innovatio, should signify renewal, rejuvenation from inside, rather than novelty, which is its modern meaning in both English and French…the word came into widespread use only in the 16th century and, until the 18th century, its connotations are almost uniformly unfavorable. In the vulgar tongues, as well as in medieval Latin, the word is used primarily in theology, and it means a departure from what by definition should not change-religious dogma. In many instances, innovation is practically synonymous with heresy.”

“During the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, as the passion for innovation intensified, the definition of it became more and more radical, less and less tolerant of tradition, i. e. of imitation. As it spread from painting to music and to literature the radical view of innovation triggered the successive upheavals that we call “modem art.” A complete break with the past is viewed as the sole achievement worthy of a “creator.”

“As early as the beginning of the 19th century, innovation became the god that we are still worshiping today…The new cult meant that a new scourge had descended upon the world-“stagnation.” Before the 18th century, “stagnation” was unknown; suddenly it spread its gloom far and wide. The more innovative the capitals of the modern spirit became, the more “stagnant” and “boring” the surrounding countryside appeared.”

“Real change can only take root when it springs from the type of coherence that tradition alone provides. Tradition can only be successfully challenged from the inside. The main prerequisite for real innovation is a minimal respect for the past, and a mastery of its achievements, i. e. mimesis. To expect novelty to cleanse itself of imitation is to expect a plant to grow with its roots up in the air. In the long run, the obligation always to rebel may be more destructive of novelty than the obligation never to rebel.”

– René Girard, “Innovation and Repetition,” SubStance, Vol. 19, No. 2/3, Issue 62/63: Special Issue: Thought and Novation (1990), University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 7-20.

And finally, we direct your attention to a worthwhile effort to draw attention to historical standards of beauty and describe why they should be studied and emulated. The first is a website hosted by an author whose life’s work is to “advocate a Renaissance humanist approach to art and architecture for the modern world. I believe this is not only possible, but essential to building a better, more beautiful world.”

The second is a weekly blog dedicated to the work of a sole artist of the 20th century who sensitively painted in a modern representational style and described in eloquent terms why he was moved to express his work as “the permanent symbols of eternity.”

Read, share and enjoy.

  1. David Lamb permalink

    Innovation has always been grounds for argument when people talk about art of any kind. The quotations you present are in line with the way I think about music. It is easy to be different and even easier to be outlandish. Real substance, on the other hand, is not so easy. Respect for and knowledge of roots is essential. Norman Lundin is a painter here in Seattle whom I admire very much. I have known him since he moved here in 1964 and have collected several of his paintings over the years. He has much to say about the meaning of art and the nature of innovation. Google Norman Lundin and go to a Youtube interview. At about 8 minutes in, he says something essential about approaching a work of art. He says (paraphrase) that painting is a visual art, and it should have a visual appeal first and foremost. If the first encounter with a painting is intellectual and requires explanation, then something is missing. He also reminds us about economy. When you have very little there, that which IS there is very important. My teacher said over and over: get rid of dead notes. This is not the same as saying: get rid of significant notes as well. I like to remember that music comes from song and dance just as painting has its roots in the representation of real things such as the animals painted on the walls of caves 35 thousand years ago. Let us remember who we are and where we came from. — David Lamb

    • Thank your for your astute comments, David. It always helps to receive reinforcing words from a composer whose work I so admire, and it makes me believe that if we continue to write about forgotten ideals such as intelligent choice, taste and common sense, perhaps we’ll beat Google at its own game and leave a lasting impression of what the world was like before music and art was free stuff stolen from “content creators.”

      Bitter words but nothing compared to the 1932 diatribe by E. W. Adams. I omitted one of his more colorful examples, reproduced here:

      “In one of May Sinclair’s books there is a terrible story of a locked door. Behind that door two people had been used to meet on earth to sin together and, after dissolution, their spirits revolve for ever around the orbit of an evil memory. At first they had struggled apart and turned about in wide circles seeking some avenue of salvation, but ever the circles narrowed until at last they contracted to a centre point behind the locked door of the room of shame. Imprisoned at that centre those unhappy people repeat their foul experience for eternity. And so it is with the tortured thought of a modern musical composition. Its tragedy is the tragedy of the locked door. Haunted by a dreadful memory, it is self-imprisoned. You can hear it pattering along the strings seeking a way out from the locked room. And you can hear it pattering back again from its fruitless search. Then the music gyrates glidilly, but with an ever lessening radius, until it ceases, not because it is ‘quieted by hope,’ but because further struggle is obviously futile. The end is where the beginning was: in the locked room.”

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