Archive for August, 2009

In disparate superhero narratives where there exists a surfeit of characters with extraordinary powers, someone eventually chimes in something to the effect that once everyone is special, then no one is. Devaluation of special status exists elsewhere, notably with grade inflation in schools and the refusal to keep score in kids’ sports. Both are perversions of the egalitarian instinct. (I’ve also heard it put that we’ve mistaken education for an exercise in affirmation, but that’s another diatribe for another time.) The example that really chaps my ass, however, is the automatic standing ovation.

Public performance is usually regarded as having three components: the creative content, the actual performance taking place on stage, and the audience response occurring both during and immediately after the performance. The creative content might be in a fixed form having existed for decades or centuries, it might be partially mediated by reconstruction or reinterpretation (e.g., a modern setting for a Shakespearean play), or it may be improvised in the moment of performance based on structures and ideas worked out in advance (e.g., improvised jazz and comedy shows). The quality of the performance is ideally what elicits a response from the audience, whether the audience’s emotional resonance sensed by the performers or mere applause. Accordingly, the audience must do its part by attending to the performance, being in the moment, and exercising some critical judgment at the conclusion. Yet audience response in many performance venues has become calcified and mannered. The audience no longer performs its role: providing feedback. Outdoor summer concerts are probably the worst. The sound is usually inferior, and most of the audience treats the on-stage activity as wallpaper while some other activity — talking, eating, reading the newspaper, or merely soaking in the atmosphere — is the real focus of their attention. (This behavior might be an implicit answer to Milton Babbitts’ infamous challenge, “Who Cares if You Listen?”, the answer being yet another question posed by the audience: who cares if we listen?)

Worst of all, at least for this cultural critic, is the automatic standing ovation at so many concert performances. In many performances, despite a high level of execution, the performers appear to be “phoning it in.” Yet someone is sure to leap immediately to his feet (it’s usually a man) and spark a lazy, rambling ovation that has become as inevitable as it is meaningless. It’s impossible to assess whether the standing O is in response to the performance quality, the performer’s stature, or an irrational need to validate one’s own experience. Maybe it’s a foregone conclusion simply because the audience is rising to see over the other goobers standing in the rows directly in front.

What the audience may no longer realize, if in fact it ever did, is that there is considerable power in disapproval. If excellence is a value worth exercising our critical faculties to reward, then the audience can’t simply award virtually every performance its stamp of emphatic approval in the form of a standing ovation. Withholding applause following an on-stage train wreck where someone is revealed, for example, to be lipsyncing or talentless (or both), might be a hole gaping enough to shame the performer. But that’s really closer to damning with faint praise. Once in a while, I’d like to witness full-on booing and heckling the way performers used to expect when they failed. Those behaviors still occur in comedy, where racist jokes or jokes simply told too soon can dampen a room very quickly. We need some of that responsiveness in the concert hall.

I saw this YouTube video of a piano concerto written for a cat and my head just about exploded with all the mixed emotions and conflicting ideas it caused.

First of all, the concerto is fairly craftily written around video that was undoubtedly assembled out of sequence from different bits to create a “performance.” The scare quotes are purposeful, since the cat at the piano would never be able to reproduce the performance. While the composer’s skill is evident, the cat’s skill is equivalent to that of elephants, monkeys, and earthworms that “paint” abstracts, which is to say, there is no skill at all beyond having figured out (accidentally?) the basic mechanism for applying paint to a canvas or making noise at the piano. The immediate, positive response of the audience is to be expected, I suppose. It’s the same sort of pandering stunt as the robot conductor that everyone liked about a year ago.

It bugs me, obviously, that the technical skills to produce the video or program the robot make decidedly crass artistic choices inevitable. Such decisions are made all the time by promoters and marketers trying to attract audiences. But the core audience for classical music has been shrinking for decades. So how effective is it, really, to debase the art just for a cheap stunt? It’s quality that’s compelling.

Things I Just Don’t Get

Posted: August 4, 2009 in Culture, Idle Nonsense

Many aspects of the dominant culture confound me. Why do people still chase money as an end unto itself? What makes watching sports (as opposed to doing sports) so compelling? Why are so many people so lazy and incurious that they settle for lifelong intellectual feebleness (probably without realizing it). Why are people so desperately afraid of boredom and/or being alone? The list goes on and on. Still, there are a few questions that for me rise above these mundane examples.

Identity Politics

The very natural tendency to identify with some group(s) on the basis of ethnicity, sexual orientation, lifestyle, religion, nationality, political orientation, etc. is sensible in the respect that we all feel most comfortable amongst other like us. Preserving the unique culture of a group, especially folk cultures developed over many generations, is also worthwhile. Yet the lines of division between rival groups have become so hardened over time, each staking competing claims to victimhood and right to protection under the law, that the whole notion of belonging to a group has morphed into a liability. Many groups also have by now rigid dogma that makes membership forbidding rather than inviting.

The Cult of Celebrity

Why should anyone care who is sleeping with whom, who gained or lost weight, or what someone wore to a show? Why is there a whole industry (blogs, magazines, tabloids, paparazzi, etc.) devoted to tormenting celebrities just to keeping us informed of the latest jiggle of some starlet or utterance of some dude whose strongest claim on our attention is typically having won the genetics lottery? And considering that each newsbit is replaced by the next at a rate that makes it difficult to keep pace even for those with the attention span of a gnat, is there some point to this endless idol fascination?

Reality TV

There is very little reality reflected on TV in general, and perhaps even less in so-called reality TV. Most are showcases of human trainwrecks, parades of people in pointless cycles of competition, or at their most compelling, a combination of the two. The manufactured storylines and excessively long, pregnant pauses and locked stares make daytime soaps look like Shakepearean drama by comparison. Sure, reality TV is cheaper to produce than most other programming, but why are people tuning in?


The underlying structure of consciousness as narrative is increasingly clear, but the ancient and enduring fascination with heros, or more recently, superheros with superpowers, gives me considerable pause. According to Joseph Campbell, the short form of the hero story goes like this:

The hero is introduced in his ordinary world, where he receives the call to adventure. He is reluctant at first but is encouraged by the wise old man or woman to cross the first threshold, where he encounters tests and helpers. He reaches the innermost cave, where he endures the supreme ordeal. He seizes the sword or the treasure and is pursued on the road back to his world. He is resurrected and transformed by his experience. He returns to his ordinary world with a treasure, boon, or elixir to benefit his world.

The bastardized version we typically see today, stripped of most of its formerly robust formal elements, is an antihero winning the day through superior force of arms rather than skill or persuasion — totally ignoring that victory can’t be justified through deployment of superior power alone. An argument can be made that skill and persuasion are simply more subtle versions of power than brute force, but it’s that very subtlety that truly informs narrative, not the bullying of a thoughtless barbarian.

Support of the Military

This is the one certain to piss off more people than any other. Why does the U.S. military (or any foreign military when not handily redefined and dismissed as enemies) deserve our automatic, genuflecting respect? Is their service more valuable than that of firemen, police, and teachers simply because the military responds to threats to the state, whether real, perceived, imagined, or created out of thin air by venal government officials? Further, the military draws its personnel from the same general population as other labor groups, except that many who join the military do so because it’s a refuge of last resort for those unable to do anything but offer themselves up as cannon fodder. And because normal, civil behavior is frequently suspended in theaters of conflict, the conduct of rank-and-file service personnel (no longer just servicemen) often descends into a moral abyss, as evidenced by the steady stream of stories of rape, pillage, profiteering, and torture. It’s certainly not my contention that the military does no good on balance. Rather, it’s more nearly a dirty job that someone has to do.