Within Culture

“…some of the mental equipment a man orders his visual experience with is variable, and much of this variable equipment is culturally relative, in the sense of being determined by the society which has influenced his experience. Among these variables are categories with which he classifies his visual stimuli, the knowledge he will use to supplement what his immediate vision gives him, and the attitude he will adopt to the kind of artificial object seen. The beholder must use on the painting such visual skills as he has, very few of which are normally special to painting , and he is likely to use those skills his society esteems highly. The painter responds to this; his public’s visual capacity must be his medium. Whatever his own specialized professional skills, he is himself a member of the society he works for and shares its visual experience and habit”

-Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz finds Baxandall’s this passage partically useful in discussing art as a cultural system. This does not sound off to our sensibilities. This connection is noted in music even.

In taking Baxandall’s ideas, we fall into an even more common thought. Art is considered to have the power not only to define but preserve or destroy our social relationships. Think of music, especially with its ties with revolution and upheaval. Geertz, however, finds this line of thought to be a trap. It is not art’s primary function. There is an alternative Geertz has in mind:

“Anything may, of course, play a role in helping society work, painting and sculpting included; just as anything may help it tear itself apart. But the central connection between art and collective life does not lie on such an instrumental place, it lies on a semiotic one…[Art forms] materialize a way of experiencing, bring a particular cast of mind out into the world of objects, where men can look at it”.

-“Art as a Cultural System” from Local Knowledge

Music is not mechanically connected to society. Instead of running it, music associates with society in a way Geertz deems “ideationally”; with how we form ideas. But such a way of thinking about music could leave us lost in the clouds. We would isolate music in its own ivory tower observing how we form ideas with it. Doing this, we circle back to the initial pitfall. Geertz notes this and responds accordingly:

“…these responses [to art] are caught up in wider concerns, less generic and more content-full, and it is this encounter with the locally real that reveals their constructive power. The unity of form and content is, where it occurs and to the degree it occurs, a cultural achievement, not a philosophical tautology. If there is to be a semiotic science of art it is that achievement it will have to explain” (emphasis mine).

Always putting music back in the realm of culture is the key. It cannot be in isolation to culture or its source of power. This is where music’s connection with our social relationships can be further noted and, perhaps, realized.


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