Perfection, Imperfection, and the Usefulness of Dialectics

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mozbeetAs I threatened in my recent post in which I had a somewhat tangential rant arising from Deke Sharon's defence of imperfection, I have also had some thoughts about his central point, that a cappella has become too obsessed with tuning.

Now, this plugs into well-established discourses of musical taste, which I have written about before. The unfinished, the unpolished acts as a signifier of honesty and authenticity. A perfectly-schooled facial expression and impeccable etiquette can hide secret thoughts - it may be diplomatic, but is it to be trusted?

This is the aesthetic that pits the roughness of Beethoven's manners and orchestration against the be-wigged poise of Mozart in the public imagination. It is the aesthetic by which effortful Rock asserts a moral superiority over the commercially-attractive sounds of pop.

It is a great position from which to make a charismatic rallying-cry. It has a worthy cause in authentic emotional communication, populist in its appeal both to performers and audiences: never mind all that fussing with technique, what we need is meaning! And it's never going to be wrong - there will always be, in any artistic community, those who need to loosen up about the detail and refocus on what the point of the exercise is.

Equally, it will never win the argument (except maybe temporarily at the end of an operatic narrative). The counter-pole of the dialectic will always need to be there too. The side that calls for beauty, for attention to detail, to dedication. The side that decries the carelessness and sloppiness of imperfection. The side that loses patience with the self-absorbed egos who defend poor technique on the grounds that 'that's how I feel it'. Without the Karajans to uphold the value of the exquisite, all this letting go would just produce an unholy racket.

Two thoughts emerge from this on themes I like to mull about round here:

  1. The learning process is often a matter of visiting the poles of an artistic dialectic like this in turn: you spend a while focusing on technique, then it is time to spend some time focusing on expression. And this process occurs both at the level of individual development, and the development of an artistic community.

    As a teacher and a coach, I envisage this as rather like the process of walking. If you only move one leg forward, there is a limit to how far you are going to get. Sooner or later you need to put your weight on the leg you have been moving, and start moving the other forward. It is possible to propel yourself forward by moving both ahead at once, but it is much harder and not really a suitable method for sustained progress.

  2. Eternal and inherent dialectics like this make great causes for charismatic leaders. The two poles of the dialectic exist in a cultural homeostasis, providing an essential stability to each other. The expansionist impulse of a charismatic movement feels dangerous in part because it is unstable - left unchecked, it leads to kind of ideological Malthusian catastrophe. (You can read the stories of both Genghis Kahn and the Jonestown Massacre in these terms.) But the inbuilt resistance that each pole of a dialectic offers the other keeps both in check, allowing both to survive, even while providing each with the substance of their critique.

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