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Sunday, February 08, 2004


This week-end I re-read Dave Hickey’s short, provocative, brilliant book of art criticism, “The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty.” He doesn’t go very much into dragons -- in fact, he mentions them only once, in a metaphorical aside. It’s an original and nice metaphor -- you’ll have to read it -- and I can see why he hung the book’s title on it.

Beauty is one of those things that one knows when one sees or hears it, even if one has difficulty explaining it or why or how it does that thing it does. Which means, it’s the key. If we’re talking about music. Which is what I want to do.

Hickey’s talking about the visual arts, but a lot of his insights translate to music. Writing in an art-critical-historical context in which beauty had been neglected and even shunned for several decades, Hickey insists: Without beauty, art loses its point. In an introductory parenthesis, he says he includes the actively ugly and disturbing in his definition of beauty, since both beauty and ugliness are vividly opposed to what so much contemporary institutional art seems to aspire to -- inoffensive visual blandness mixed with humanistic social critique (and the search for an original stance on the stage of art history, which Hickey doesn’t talk about). I’m with Hickey here, though he enjoys the actively ugly and disturbing more than I do.

Institutional music is not nearly as strong a contemporary phenomenon as institutional art -- museum shows devoted to contemporary art far outnumber concerts and symposia devoted to contemporary institutionally supported composers. And so some of the particulars Hickey talks about don’t apply to the music world. Which doesn’t diminish their interest, only their applicability.

Hickey persuades me: Allied with the shunning of beauty is a tough guy attitude toward art that posits the critic and consumer of art as someone butchly masculine who will not be ravished by art’s seductive powers. In music, an aversion to the sentimental is a hallmark of jazz criticism going back at least to the ‘50s.

Beauty is contextual, certainly. A singer with a pretty voice will always have a pretty voice, but if he or she doesn’t convey the words of a song convincingly, and if the words of the song are important to my experience of it, the performance won’t strike me as beautiful. And if I’m at a party, as I was last night, and people are singing songs, as we were, and someone asks to sing “Moondance” and whether anybody knows the chords, as one acquaintance of mine asked and another knew the chords, and we played it, well, I found the vocal rendition to be beautiful, because I like the guy who sang it, and he was singing it because he loved the song. He even made me like the song, which I hadn’t before.

I first read Hickey’s book a few years ago, and he turned me consciously onto the beauty kick, and I’ve been grateful.

In the middle of writing this I stopped to pick things up around the house, and eat some dinner, and put laundry in. I switched the Grammy Awards on while eating. I did not find the Warren Zevon tribute beautiful. A bunch of people singing -- live -- the background parts of a song he recorded while he was dying, while the video monitors showed a montage of scenes from Warren Zevon’s life and his recording played. “Keep me in your heart for a while” was the matter-of-fact tag line, sung matter-of-factly. He was dying and he knew it. Joey Ramone sang “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me” and “It’s a Wonderful World” when he was dying and knew it -- Joey was worrying about us and singing his love for the world. Warren Zevon was worrying about whether we’d forget him after he died. OK. I’ll remember you; I’ve never been a particular fan, but that Werewolves song has a cool piano riff.

Keats said something similar more honestly, in an untitled poem that runs in its entirety:

“This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life would stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed -- see, here it is --
I hold it towards you.”
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