May 11, 2007

Canon perpetuus

The reading-the-western-canon-randomly project is going really well for me, so naturally I thought to apply the same technique to other cultural lacunae.

We had some discussion about doing this for the visual arts but that becomes difficult twice over – 1) because apart from some blatantly commercial “The 10,000 Grrrrrrreatest Paintings Ever!” compendiums, there don’t seem to have been many attempts to articulate an Objective Master List of important artworks; 2) because it’s not clear what degree and depth of exposure ought to be considered satisfactory.

I was coincidentally thinking about this while thinking about jigsaw puzzles. The kind of intimate feeling I get for the geography/personality of a jigsaw puzzle image, while solving it, is a depth of engagement I rarely if ever reach at the museum. Solving a jigsaw engages the analytical/creative side of aesthetic perception – sort of a cheap and stupid way to simulate the process of painting the picture yourself. In sifting and sorting the pieces you end up having to recognize color relations and their significance, formal relationships, proportion, detail, etc. This is not the case with paint-by-number or tracing or any other common crypto-creative task I can think of. Art-school-style copying by sight obviously gives valuable access to the thought and craft behind the painting. But I think maybe jigsaw puzzling, being utterly non-technical, requiring no thought about paint itself, might actually have a more direct relationship to the task of viewing and understanding the finished art.

Maybe not – anyway, so the visual arts are still a bit up in the air.

Movies would be easier to manage systematically, of course – and god knows there are enough lists out there to work with – but 1) I don’t feel like my movie intake needs any kick in the pants like this, and 2) I’m not as convinced as I am in the case of literature that my experiences of “great” “important” movies have been genuinely more valuable to me than my experiences of the lesser stuff. This is odd, come to think of it. With literature there’s really no question that my sense of whether something is “good” and whether I’m glad to have it in my life are basically linked and proportional. Movies I’m less sure. It may simply be that my exposure to “art” movies has been too limited, in proportional relationship to multiple viewings of Back to the Future, to affect my overall sense of what movies are and ought to be.

Also came across this when I was looking into the issue, wherein Paul Schrader says he started to write a film canon book and then got disenchanted with the idea that it should exist at all. Eh. I’m not gonna get into it here, but despite my distaste for Bloom’s idea that his canon is “for real” in any sense, lists are valuable, as my exercise shows, and a well-made list of film worth seeing would be appreciated.

Okay, anyway, so the one that I am, in fact, currently taking on, is music, by which I’m talking about classical music – by which I’m talking about, if you insist, “Western” classical music, which is what you absolutely already knew I meant.

There are a bunch of “canon” type lists out there about classical music, but many of them list recordings rather than works, since these books are written for the “just tell me what to buy” market. As far as I can tell, the only pretentiously high-minded Bloom-style effort is David Dubal’s The Essential Canon of Classical Music, which satisfies me in terms of being both grandiose in its claims and also attempting to be evenhanded in representing the long-term cultural consensus rather than anything snootier. I.e. it includes Carmina Burana.

Of course if you look too close at any such list, the arbitrary nature starts to become apparent. So, having looked it over initially, I’m not going to evaluate any more. I have a list, and it has 750 works on it – which is a nice big round number.

Beth’s joining me on this one, by the way.

The rules are: once a piece comes up, we have to listen to it attentively, in its entirety, at least 3 times. That may seem easygoing but it’s nothing to snort at in the case of Parsifal and the like. But I’ll be honest with you – that’s just there so that Beth can stay in the game and so that I can move on fairly quickly in case of something really desperately unappealing. My actual personal goal is to listen to a piece until I know it and get it to my satisfaction. In my case I’ve found that this generally requires at least 9 listens.

What with ipods and the subway, though, this is actually a snap. Much easier than reading German poetry on the subway, which I have found is impossible.

The first Essential Canonic Classical Musical Work has been completed and will be written about someday soon, now that I got this intro out of the way.

I make a lot of hurdles for myself.