Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Classical Guitar:
"The Other Profession




The Gadfly Bytes -- April, 2000

The Banalization of Genius

By Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside
www.igc.org/gadfly // gadfly@igc.org

  Garcia Lopez de Cardenas discovered the Grand Canyon and was amazed at the sight.  It can be imagined.  One crosses miles of desert, breaks through the mesquite, and there it is at one's feet.  Later the government set the place aside as a national park, hoping to pass along to millions the experience of Cardenas.  Does not one see the same sight from the Bright Angel Lodge that Cardenas saw?

Walker Percy
The Message in the Bottle


Confused as to his place in the scheme of a world growing each day closer yet more impersonal, more densely populated yet in face-to-face relations more dehumanizing; . . . today Western man has become mechanized, routinized, made comfortable as an object; but in the profound sense displaced and thrown off balance as the subjective creator and power. . . . [The] ties have snapped that formerly bound Western man to himself and to the world about him. . . [He] is rapidly becoming detached from nature, from his old gods, from the technology that has transformed his environment and now threatens to destroy it; from his work and its products and from his leisure; from the complex social institutions that presumably serve but are more likely to manipulate him; from the community in which he lives; and above all from himself -- from his body and his sex, from his feelings of love and tenderness, and from his art -- his creative and productive potential.

Eric and Mary Josephson (1962)
Man Alone: Alienation in Modern Society

It's springtime again - time for my annual celebration.

I walk over to the CD shelf and pull out Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony," and Stravinsky's "Sacre du Printemps." Every year at about this time, I go through this ritual.

Moreover, today is a convenient time. I have some routine desk work before me - typing and filing - for which Beethoven and Stravinsky would be soothing "sonic wallpaper." And so, as I boot up the computer, the cheerful opening theme of the "Pastoral" fills the room.

All's right with the world . . . . until. This time, unlike so many previous occasions, I am drawn away from the keyboard and into the developing themes of the Symphony. "Never mind that, Partridge," I reflect, "get back to work!" It won't do. The music has captured my attention. It has somehow broken through the surface of familiarity, and I can't shake it off.

So I decide to postpone Beethoven and Stravinsky until such time, later in the day, that they can be given the full attention that they deserve. I shut off the CD player, turn on an "Easy Jazz" satellite channel, and return to my typing.

This evening I take those two CDs upstairs to the living room for the exclusive purpose of listening to them. Though I have heard each of these masterpieces often enough that I can "run them" completely through in my imagination, listening to them once again, this time with the full attention, reveals still more nuances and aspects, and reminds me that an authentic work of genius can never be fully explored and experienced.

Still, I have often wished that specific items in my brain could, like files on a computer hard-disk, be selectively "deleted" so that I might once again be privileged to experience Beethoven's Ninth, Mussorgsky's Boris Gudonov, Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe, Orff's Carmina Burana, and so much more - "for the first time."

What a strange time we live in!
And a sad time as well, as works of genius become so commonplace that they recede into the background, and we lose the capacity to be enriched and elevated by artistic masterpieces. Just as, amidst the deluge of data in this so-called "Information Age," we are losing the capacity for critical reflection and creative insight. My computer "wallpaper" shifts randomly, every two minutes, among images by Renoir, Van Gogh, and Monet. Full-size, high definition prints of Picasso's "Old Man with Guitar" and "Three Musicians" adorn the walls of my living room. As the popcorn ads appear on the screen of the local cinema just before the previews, I hear something familiar, though barely audible. It's Debussy's La Mer.

The contrast between our experience of great works of art, with the experience of those who lived at the time of their creation, is beyond our comprehension.

Except for those rare individuals who performed with symphony orchestras in the Nineteenth century, very few people then had the opportunity to hear any given Haydn or Mozart or Beethoven or Tchaikovsky symphony more than a half-dozen times in their entire lives. Fewer still ever heard all of the nine Symphonies of Beethoven, or more than a dozen or so symphonic works of Haydn or Mozart. Schubert himself, never lived to hear a performance of his masterpiece, the "Great" C-Major symphony.

Between orchestra or operatic performances, all that the ordinary concert-goer had was his memories. Chamber works such as string quartets, piano trios, etc., and of course pieces for solo instruments, might be attempted by gifted amateurs. And, in the absence of recording technologies, composers such as Liszt wrote piano "transcriptions" of Mozart and Beethoven symphonies. But these were pale shadows of concert performances.

In those days before broadcasts or recordings, the concert hall was all that was available to the music lover. But today, my modest collection of CDs and phonograph recordings contain more great music than a hundred cultivated nineteenth-century patrons could ever hear in their lifetimes.

Yet I suspect that the single experience of hearing Mendelssohn conduct Bach's Mass in B Minor at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, or of Mahler conducting the premier of his "Resurrection" Symphony at the Vienna Staatsoper, may have been worth all of the dozens of times that we hear recordings of these works in "in the background."  Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then at least indifference. It is truly quite possible to have "too much of a good thing."

We live these days at the surface of life and art. Life has become too busy for reflection, and still worse, reflection is neither celebrated nor encouraged. Our individuality is lost as our personalities are dissected by polls and market surveys then reconstructed into "profile bundles" of surveyed data.. With the economization of politics and public opinions - the redefinition of the polity as a "market," and the citizen as a consumer -- we are defined, not by our reflective values, but by our "preferences." (See "20th Century Alchemy," this site). And as we come to be regarded by government and commerce as objects, defined by our possessions and our productivity, so too we come to regard ourselves in the same manner - as commodities. This is, as Herbert Marcuse termed it, a "one-dimensonal" view of human beings - a view of the surface, with a disregard of depth. Consider:

  • Last summer while in Rome, we did as the Romans do - had a leisurely dinner at an outdoor restaurant near our hotel. At the next table sat a stunningly beautiful signorina. Throughout the dinner, her escort talked into a cell phone. We could not imagine anything that could be more important to him than the company of that young woman. Apparently he could. (At this sight, Puccini would have wept bitter tears).

  • Early in my career, I taught at Hunter College in Manhattan and lived, for one year, on the East Side within walking distance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. During that year I visited that world landmark just twice - once to entertain a friend from out-of-town. And yet, last summer, we walked through miles of galleries in Europe: the Hermitage, the Tretyakov, the Tate, the Louvre, the d'Orsay - just as, as visitors to New York, we would not forego a visit to the Metropolitan or the MOMA. 

  • Complex plots and sensitive character portrayals ("mind stuff") are being displaced in the popular cinema with visual spectacles and action sequences.

  • The length of the average news item on the evening network TV news programs (Brokow-Jennings-Rather) has been halved in the past twenty years to about ninety seconds - with ever-fewer words and ever-more "visuals."

  • "Turning-on" to the Internet is aptly described as "surfing" - skimming along the surface. Before one can put three relevant thoughts together, far less draw conclusions, one encounters a "hyperlink" and is suddenly off in another direction. The trendy web-meister is advised to pepper his pages with animated images, navigation bars, hyperlinks, and other such digital bells-and-whistles. (It is advice that the Gadfly steadfastly resists).

  • Since the politicians discovered Madison Avenue during the Eisenhower campaigns, logic and evidence have been drained out of our political rhetoric, leaving us with "images." Attempts at cogent argument have been found to be a waste of time and effort as it has become transparently clear that one can persuade and motivate much more effectively with mere rhetoric and "visuals." Ten second TV "spots" have been judged quite adequate as vehicles for political campaign "messages."

And so we are immersed in a flux of experiences, without pausing to ask "experience of what?" No matter whether or not our life experience is grounded in an independent natural reality. "Virtual reality" will suffice - "virtual landscapes," "virtual wilderness," "virtual friendships," and even "virtual sex." The crowning absurdity of "virtuality" is in Las Vegas (where else?!), where, at this moment, and following the completion of a "virtual New York" and a "virtual Paris," a miniaturized Grand Canyon is under construction - to be completed in a matter of a few weeks. Never mind that the genuine article, "under construction" over hundreds of millions of years, is just a couple of hundred miles to the east.

The superficial, commodified, citizen-consumer is an ideally manageable "target" of the salesman, the PR expert and the purchased politician. To these same elites, cultivated, critical and thus autonomous ("self-motivated") individuals present a problem. They are more difficult to "calibrate" and thus to "manage." They have sales-resistance, both to commodities and to rhetoric and dogma. They take time out from their livelihood (economic production and consumption) in order to live - deliberately and reflectively, engaging in thoughts and activities that are off the economic indexes. Plato knew this full well, when he proposed that the poets and the musicians be banished from his Republic. Modern technology has come upon a neater solution: no need to ban the fine arts, just put Picasso in the wallpaper and Mozart in the supermarkets, and they will effectively disappear from the public awareness.

We are not born with "good taste" or critical intelligence or creative insight. The appreciation of great art, great literature, and profound ideas are acquired traits. And yet, art and music appreciation courses are disappearing from the public schools. (With tight education budgets, these are regarded as "unproductive frills"). And classical music, and even quality jazz, are disappearing from the air-waves, albeit both are readily available to those willing to acquire recordings from Borders or Amazon.com.

We are left with a paradox: the solution to the banalization of genius is both readily available, and yet elusive. It is all-too easy to put masterpieces into the background - to "save time" by simultaneously listening and doing light work. But all we need to do, now and then, is to resist the temptation. Study the work of art, and the life and times of the composer and the artist. Then set aside some time for the sole purpose of listening or viewing. And get out of the house now and then and go to the concert hall or the museum. Paying deliberate and informed attention to great works of art will yield a different experience than we are accustomed to. And in every aesthetic sense, it will be a better experience.

Copyright 2000 by Ernest Partridge


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .