The Role of Boundaries in Art

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In a conversation at Llangollen back in July, one of the Westminster Chorus guys made a throw-away remark that got me thinking: ‘Oh good, you’re a progressive,’ he said. It rather surprised me, and I had to stop and work out why. It’s not that I think of myself as not progressive, and frankly I’d be happy to accept any compliments on offer from good-looking, nice-mannered young men who can sing as well as they do.

I’m very well acquainted with the debates of progressive versus traditional values in barbershop: it’s something I’ve published on, and as a result found myself doing a rash of newspaper and radio interviews on the question in summer 2008. But I don’t tend to think of myself as having a strongly-held position. This is partly because of my scholarly relationship with the subject – I’m more accustomed to theorising than proselytising – but also because of the British barbershop organisations’ dependence on the American. It’s their bat and their ball and so we get to play by their rules. And I’m (usually, mostly) comfortable with that.

But the conversation got me thinking about why we have these discussions, and what purpose might be served by the stylistic boundaries they define.

First, I think such debates are inevitable in any genre or artistic tradition that is self-aware about its own identity. Brass bands and male voice choirs for example have a clear sense of what constitutes core repertoire, and what is innovative/new-fangled (pick your adjective according to your position). Wagner dramatised the same basic debate in Die Meistersinger. But as soon as you articulate a sense of ‘this is us and this is what we do’, then you open up questions of who exactly ‘we’ are, and how you can recognise a valid artistic act.

Traditions need both a sense of continuity of practice and renewal of membership to survive. And the power to define what counts as valid is a key part of really feeling that the tradition is your own (something which I don’t yet have with barbershop, it seems). People do this by locating the current boundary between valid and not-valid, and taking a position one side or the other to define their relationship with it. What one person thinks is progressive, another will consider transgressive. What one person values as traditional, another will regard as fuddy-duddy.

So the boundaries are an essential part of how a tradition maintains its sense of identity. And I tend to think that so long as the debates are happening, the tradition is probably in good health, since the controversies provide evidence that both continuity and renewal are taking place.

But I also think that the boundaries serve artistic purposes. Constraints channel creativity. Schoenberg understood this: once he had emancipated dissonance, it became very hard for him to make musical decisions and he had to invent a new structure to work within in order to compose at all. The discipline that rules provide also forces you to develop technique, offering a clear, largely objective way to judge when you really have control over your material.

And without the rules, there would be no way to subvert them. The kind of artistic behaviour that most upsets a traditionalist and most delights a progressive is finding imaginative ways of obeying the letter of the law to produce something that the law-makers never dreamed of.

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