On Artistic Freedom

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On the same day I was having my revelations about feeling under the artistic thumb of over-interfering editors, a colleague/friend posted this on his Facebook timeline:

How can I put this without seeming unkind?. Putting aside my own paltry efforts in this field it was my misfortune to attend the worst piano recital today I've heard in 55 or so years of concert going; playing which would make Cherkassky and Pogorelich seem models of pianistic rectitude. Half a dozen or so (lost count) Chopin Nocturnes followed by Prokofiev's mighty 8th Sonata - a consummate display of pianistic and musical incompetence, the id always to the fore, the music merely a vehicle for a display of a grotesque psychotic disorder. Inner voices ('look how smart I am') which go nowhere except up cul-de-sacs, a musical narrative nowhere to be seen or understood; special 'effects' by the bucket load. And all accompanied by penetrating glances into the audience just to check how 'appreciative' we were of his extraordinary individuality.

It struck me that this is about as clear an argument as I’ve ever seen against the concept of ‘artistic freedom’.

Discourses of classical music (and indeed other aspects of human culture) often posit a dichotomy between the ‘classic’ and the ‘romantic’, the former characterised by formal propriety, balance, clarity, the latter by emotionality, expressiveness and individuality. You get people writing histories in terms of the alternation of these two tendencies. You also get different names for the same ideas: decoro vs sprezzatura, Apollonian vs Dionysian. They all have elements of the rule-bound vs the rule-breakers.

And like most analytical dichotomies, it is a useful distinction up to a point, but only up to a point. These are clearly two opposed imperatives, each of which have their value, but which are essentially and eternally mutually exclusive. Like all dialectics, they only exist as logical opposites, and in real life always collapse back into each other.

(They are particularly fatuous as a vehicle for historical narrative in my view, but given that the point of most music-historical narrative is actually to provide a framework for a shared stylistic understanding rather than actual historical information, they don’t prevent people brought up on them from being good musicians.)

Anyway, the problem with the real-life application of such categories is nicely articulated by my friend. An ideology of romanticism allows self-indulgence to take root; ‘freedom’ becomes a self-serving excuse for not doing things properly. You can toss your hair and announce you are doing things through ‘feeling’ as a way to short-circuit the process of thinking.

(I should note that I did not hear the concert described - so I can’t tell you if the criticisms are ‘justified’. But it’s the discourses I’m interested in - clearly the concert was perceived in these terms, and found to be problematic in this way.)

At the same time, you couldn’t claim that a rule-bound, subservient, obedient approach is the route to the artistic excellence.

The problem, I suspect, is in the terms of the debate: rules vs freedom. And this is why I rather liked the notion I happened across by accident when considering the editor’s impositions upon a performer: that of agency. It is not that I want to be ‘free’ to do whatever I like with a piece of music, it’s that I want to be in control of the process by which its interpretation is developed.

I like the notion of artistic agency, because it preserves that sense that the practitioner is entitled to direct their own actions, to make their own decisions. But it doesn’t indicate a free-for-all. The context of expectations - what constitutes good form, traditional values, artistic integrity, entertainment value - still provides the framework in which we operate. If we break rules, there will be consequences; if we produce performances that offend, we can expect blistering commentaries in response.

Agency entails both the capacity to use your powers, and the responsibility to use them appropriately. The individual still gets to do their thing, but without breaking loose from the social and artistic context that nurtured them and will be the audience for what they produce.

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