Art as Scholarship

Jonathan Bellman

One of the most frequently quoted (and perniciously stupid) clichés in the arts is the famous “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Apparently authorless—inquiries have been made, with no success—the comment as much as proclaims not only the pointlessness of writing about music, but also of writing about any art. Would writing about painting or dance make more sense? Hard to see why, if so. That must make writing about writing, as in all literary criticism or appreciation, likewise pointless, since the art itself should presumably be self-sufficient, self-explanatory. No commentary at all is desired from the second line, sub-creators, commentators, whatever you will.

Or is the issue a mixture of the arts? Perhaps this: you can write about writing but not about music. This does not make sense to me either; it would mean that one can write about writing but only music (in the sense of musicking) about music, perhaps like Hans Keller’s functional analyses. This leaves dancing about dance. Again: stupid.

Obviously, I am invested enough in the enterprise of writing about music and anything else that I bridle at suggestions that it is a silly or unproductive enterprise. The greater scholarly project requires, at its very root, not the paleontological impulse or the propensity to pontificate but rather the simple joy of searching, finding, knowing, teaching. That is what writing about music or anything else in the scholarly arena should seek to be, and for glib practitioners or wannabes to imply that their art is somehow so [adjectival word or phrase: meaningful, obvious, self-sufficient, powerful, beyond mere quotidian nouns and verbs, whatever] that explanation and discussion is pointless is…well, as I said before, stupid. Of course, whether those of us who write about it have anything to say or not is quite another question, one to be settled on an individual basis. The enterprise itself, though, is a noble one.

This is much in my mind as I reflect on the idea of art as scholarship, creative work as a gloss on other creative work, or on history, in fact as homage of some kind. Zadie Smith has a short story in the new New Yorker (“Hanwell Senior,” issue of 14 May 2007), which is gloss on something or other (were I better read I’d know; all I pick up is her mannered and self-indulgent way of showing the seams, of having the author’s voice intrude on the story, that reminds me of certain nineteenth-century authors (but probably not the right ones.* She can also be blisteringly successful, though; her admitted homage to E. M. Forster, On Beauty (2005), has a beautiful passage toward the beginning that is a clear hat-tip to an episode in Howards End where the character Helen has an extended inner fantasy on hearing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Other examples that pop into my head are Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, which is a lifelong love-letter to his philological and historical studies of medieval England, Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, and Robert Nye’s The Late Mr. Shakespeare, a fictional work of superb scholarship and appreciation. To venture into film, Shakespeare in Love is the same sort of thing, even with all the sly jokes and anachronisms: a work of deepest love, appreciation, and homage.

Obvious examples of musicking about music would include Busoni’s majestic transcription of Bach’s violin chaconne for solo piano and his “completion” of Bach’s Art of Fugue, the Fantasia Contrapuntistica. One of my absolute favorites is Eugnène Ysaÿe’s Obsession, a delightful solo sonata for violin that evokes a violinist practicing Bach with an ever-increasing level of frustration. (Hmm. Those are all about Bach-the-Father. A pattern is emerging…) Many variation sets fall into this category, too: a series of meditations on La Folia or the Dies Irae or L’Homme Armé or Paganini’s 24th Caprice—itself a set of variations—is in a very real way music about music, an appreciation and gloss upon previous music. Music as scholarship, in other words: music created out of sheer love of and joy in other music, music that desires to investigate it further, to explore, and indeed to music about it and reveal more possibilities inherent in it.

It is one of the great oddities of cultural life that for all the eat-your-broccoli value placed on high art by its custodians, the natural explicative impulse is distrusted, indeed mocked and dismissed. (Just ask what the pre-concert lecturer is paid. Go ahead; ask.) All musicians have favorite horror stories about clueless, supercilious critics, pontificating blowhard professors, and other readily deflatable windbags, and the very insecurity that such commedia dell’arte characters seem to create and exploit makes revenge and delegitimization of the class as a whole that much sweeter. (The locus classicus here is the famous Marshall Macluhan scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall).

The very last thing I want to suggest is that people engaged in scholarly and critical pursuits deserve special pleading and protection, or that (in my favorite line from C. S. Lewis’s Magician’s Nephew, spoken by the odious old Uncle Andrew), “Ours is a high and lonely destiny.” But reflexive distrust and dismissal, particularly by artists who should know better, is a fearful, anti-intellectual reaction all too harmonious with the current and, indeed, eternal know-nothingism of the lazy-minded. For composers and/or performers to buy into this is beyond ridiculous; the survival of apparently arcane cultural practices like art music depends on such practices having relevance for later audiences. Such relevance, when expressed in an archaic tongue (the nineteenth-century symphony, say) is not communicated without explication, discussion, and reflection. Music does not long speak for itself, and the other arts likewise—or, when they do, it is an incomplete and fragmented speech. When we learn the artistic idioms, we appreciate and understand more and more. Whether the scholarship is words about music, words about anything else, music about music, or music about another art (Liszt’s Hunnenschlacht, for example, inspired by a painting), it is all still scholarship, and potentially a joy.

Fear of study is boring.

*Smith’s 2002 novel The Autograph Man, winner—I think—of a Man Booker prize), riffed in certain ways on Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. A note in the New Yorker informs us that she will soon publish a book of short stories called The Book of Other People, and I suspect that some element of appreciating/riffing on/theorizing through artistic creation may be the conceit of the book, or at least a common thread.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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4 Responses to Art as Scholarship

  1. I’ve never interpreted that quote as being so dismissive of scholarship. (Of course, the quote critiques itself in a recursive way.) To me, it’s just a reminder that there are, in any art, meaningful things which can’t be fully or satisfactorily explained in words. (I probably could have done better than the word ‘things,’ there; maybe I’m making my own point.) I think most writers about music sometimes have the experience of being unable to verbalize just how certain sounds can be so meaningful. (It happens to me more with Mozart than anyone.) I find the phrase “dancing about architecture” to be as apt as any to describe that feeling, but I don’t think the phrase is meant to be take too seriously; it just does a nice job of suggesting how blissfully inadequate words can be.
    As for pre-concert lecturers, I can only speak from my experience that far too few do a good job of helping a listener prepare for a performance. However, I think that’s less a “dancing about architecture” problem than it is a “getting lost in details and missing the big picture” problem.

  2. anon says:

    it was Zappa wot said it

  3. Rachel Lyon says:

    I like the quote precisely because although it can be interpreted as describing how futile it can be to try to describe the ineffable experience of listening to great music, writing and music share a medium (time) that is analogous to the medium shared by dancing and architecture (space). If architecture is the (literal) forum, dancing might be the articulation of the space within. Same goes for the resonant, wordless emotional space that is the interior of one’s very being when one listens to music. It exists, doubtless, but unless we write about it, it is inarticulable.
    I think of the job of the critic as tapping into this translative process. Critics are the messengers between the realm of the personal experience and its communication with another being. Our criticism itself may be merely an invitation (come join me in my experience of Beethoven’s 5th), but like the gestures of a great dancer, which themselves can imply great, open space, it too can be revelatory.

  4. Jonathan says:

    Bravissima. The close reading has a lot to offer beyond the facile dismissal I always took the remark to be. I suspect the original implication might have been closer to the dismissive–certainly, that’s the way it’s usually used–but ultimately that doesn’t matter. Thanks for the brain-opener.

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