No Exit

A while ago I wrote a paper exploring the inapplicability of international law as a justification for colonial Spanish-Indian relations. Francisco da Vitoria’s point hinges on the universality of Natural law; all persons who operate through reason implicitly join the covenant of jus gentium—which is “what natural reason has established among all nations” (Anghie, 325). Vitoria’s error here lies in his disregard for explicitly expressed consent binding participants to the covenant, as well as his assumption that all Law (if we assume all law to have led from Natural Law) is enforced in the same way. I argue that jus gentium cannot possibly be universally applicable due to variations in regional practice and that participation in the covenant of jus gentium cannot, as in domestic law, be considered consent into the international legal scheme, as its very universality impedes participants from exiting it.

francisco-de-vitoria“What natural reason has established among all nations is called jus gentium … whose rules may be ascertained by the use of reason” (Anghie, 325). Francisco da Vitoria claims that because Indian and Spanish societies are set up similarly, that they all explicitly abide by the jus gentium. This law of the people however, differs according to locale. There are as many differences as similarities, and while these differences might seem particular to one society and inconsequential to the adherence of the general principles outlined by jus gentium. But the rules differ based on different localities—there’s no way for Vitoria to argue that the rules between European states and kingdoms do not vary, despite the jus gentium. This is not a difference due to religion, as they are all bound and governed by the Pope, but the rules vary according to sovereign. This guise of universality is the exact error as pointed out by Anghie (Anghie, 326). While the Indians may “seem to participate … as equals”, equals can come together from completely different perspectives. Reciprocity does not mean identicality of law, and it is absurd to assume that because the Indians are participants that they are fully aware of Spanish law (as European law is not even standardized across the continent, despite being based upon principles of Natural Law).

Additionally, express consent to the system must be given, and this consent can never be given or exited as Natural law is meant to be universal, and one cannot exit the universe. Socrates’s standard for living within a legal scheme follows. Prior to his death, Crito implores Socrates to escape his imminent execution. Socrates explains that he has bound himself to the laws of the City and therefore cannot illegally escape his prison, nor his fate.

We fathered you, brought you up, educated you, gave you and every other citizen a share in ever good thing it was in our power to give. And even then, if there is any Athenian who when he comes of age takes a look at his city’s constitution and at us, the laws, and finds that we are not to his satisfaction, then by granting him permission we make a public declaration to anyone who wishes that he may take what is his, and go wherever he pleases. … But we do say that anyone who chooses to remain after seeing how we reach verdicts in the courts and how we make our other political arrangements, has in effect come to an agreement with us to do what we tell him … We make him a fair offer—not harshly demanding that he do whatever we order, but allowing him a straight choice, either to make us change or minds or do as we say—and he does neither. (Plato, 129)

And Socrates is guiltier than most men, for he has participated more than most Athenians and never travelled outside his city. He did not even offer an alternate punition—he chose to enter and live within this framework, he expressly consented to live within these rules.

But this cannot be applicable in all cases, and especially not in international law, as there is no exit from the international system. Indians did not agree to live within the jus gentium, and so when there is a call for punition, there is no way to wage a just war against them as the only measure that can be undertaken is one of mediation and discussion.

no exit!

Interestingly enough, which is where Anghie finds his criticism of Vitoria, Vitoria never bothers determining whether the Indians have consented to being a part of this system—he assumes that because they seem to live like the Spanish and have set up a sound society with similar laws, that they are followers of the same law (Natural Law) and that by “breaking” that law, just war can be waged against them.This conclusion brings us to the same one reached by Anghie in his paper: the establishment of international law is tied to the marginalization of foreign nations, in history, the Indians of North America. Vitoria “displaces divine law and its administrator, the Pope, and replaces it with natural law administered by a secular sovereign” (Anghie, 323). This is an issue because it means that the establishment of international law is concurrent with the establishment of the legal status of Indians (ibid).

According to Anghie, “Vitoria does not interpret the problem of Spanish-Indian relations as a problem of creating order among sovereign states” but as a problem of determining what is sovereign. The conclusion reached by Vitoria is illogical, then. Although Anghie and Vitoria concern themselves with the definition (or, as per Anghie’s criticism, the lack of definition) of sovereignty, the crucial aspect is the inapplicability of Vitoria’s judgment onto separate nations who have not explicitly consented to this framework—regardless of whether they are sovereign or not. Vitoria’s argument hinges on implied consent, based on the idea that the Indians live in a society with a similar socio-hierarchical framework as that of the Europeans. Because that consent is not expressed, Vitoria makes a fatal error in logic—and the implications on international law follow in Anghie’s stead, as well as colour our future relations and international legislation.

This logical flaw however, is still the idea that shaped our international legal system. As well, I wonder about the implications of this argument–if the openness of the system means that we cannot leave, how does this bode for adherence to particular international agreements? What effect does this have on non-state participants, who cannot enter into agreements (indigenous peoples, of course, but also individuals, or those outside of democratic institutions). In fact, I think we might come across some problems even in democracies, given that unlike Athens, representation and participation internationally is indirect.

Anghie, A. “Francisco De Vitoria and the Colonial Origins of International Law.” Social & Legal Studies 5.4 (1996): 321-36. Print.

Plato, Tom Griffith, and Jane O’Grady. “Crito.” Symposium and the Death of Socrates. Ware: Wordsworth, 1997. 115-32. Print.

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Part iii- Reflection on Artistic Openess -the role of the culture industries


The sheer size of the culture industry makes it an interesting model to examine these ideas of art aesthetics. Through this comparative process we will be able to understand something about arts current diminishing role in modern culture. Because mass communication (let’s take the film industry for example) has to appeal to as large an audience as possible to ensure maximum profit its message has do be reduced to its lowest cultural denominator (LCD). Its purpose is to entertain but not necessarily to inform, and as a result the quality of the content is not the principle concern of its producers. Let’s use an example; the newspaper. Umberto Eco in his famous lecture on the state of communications “towards a semiological guerilla warfare” suggests that it matters very little who owns the newspapers for when the content is dictated and controlled to such an extent the medium does greatly control the message:

When someone everyday has to write as much news as his space allows, and it has to appear readable to an audience of diverse tastes, social class, education, throughout a country, the writer’s freedom is already finished.(Umberto Eco) 

-Umberto Eco

This homogenization of culture and information is often seen as an apocalyptic cautioning by cultural critics. Jean Baudrillard in his seminal book “Consumer Society” arrived at the conclusion that in its endless search for greater profits, capitalist media has created a “monopoly concentration on the production of differences”. That is to say, that consumers are marked not on their differences (as advertising would have you to believe) but on their lowest common difference —- that is their ability to fit within a consumer model. So much of advertising is focused on personalization; ironically this only creates a cult of difference which leads to a rejection of the differences they seem to be advocating. This is similar to religious institutions; although their very formations are marked by differences, following their establishment they eventually become very homogenous entities and reject such difference. (Baudrillard, Ch 6, Consumer Society)

This encroaching homogenization is evident all around us. Let’s take the very modern example of cell phones: only five years ago there was a massive variety of cellphones on the market — you had your flip phones, your razor thin phones, your retractable keyboard phones, your one piece phones etc… Now the market is incredibly saturated with the smart phone, which regardless of brand, are all remarkably similar: They all have the same touch screen, roughly similar proportions, sleek design etc.  I am using a consumer goods example but this idea of “differentiation” can be applied to all the mass art industries such as the film industry, the popular music industry, and the visual art world. These industries perpetuate and commoditize these differences through significations and signs. Ads don’t sell you things, they sell you signs: “These significations are never personal: They are all differential; they are all marginal and combinatorial.”(Baudrillard, Consumer Society, Ch 6) As a result the products that these culture industries create are also never personal. They too are like brands of clothing that have to respect increasingly similar models of consumption. They inadvertently pull down art to the lowest common cultural denominator, and although there may be some objective global idea behind this, ultimately this force hinders art and its appreciation. It is not some grand equalization, “but the fact of having the same code in common, or sharing the same signs which make all the members group different from a Particular other group”. (Baudrillard, Consumer Society, Ch. 6)

Baudrillard’s entire analysis views consumerism as you would a language, and as I have said, it is through understanding language that we know (and relate) all knowledge systems. Baudrillard’s theory of differentiation requires social analysis to be looked at semiologically, that is via a system of codes, structural relations, and systems of signs” that are all related (and this is the important bit) negatively(Baudrillard, Consumer Society, ch 6). Indeed Swiss linguist Ferdinand Saussure’s entire theory of semiotics is hinged on this fundamental quality of all language forms, beaten into a triumphant aphorism by Yale professor Paul Fry; “I don’t know language positively, I know it negatively”. Simply this means; I know that something is what it is, because I know what it is not. This may seem contrary to how we perceive the world around us: We want to believe that we know things as they are, objectively and independently of each other. But unfortunately this is not the case, and to demonstrate this principle I will provide the most obvious example I can think of: If you are trying to explain the colour red to somebody with no knowledge of any language, your easiest course of action would undoubtedly be to show the person several identical objects (say toothbrushes) that are not red (maybe blue for example) next to a single red toothbrush. What this tells us is that no sign exists in a vacuum, its significance and meaning is only gained through its relationship with other systems of signs. This also suggests that there is no objective/universal meaning to the signs or symbols that constitute our reality and our knowledge. Each sign’s significance/meaning depends on our collective subjective experiences.

The nature of perception and our logical conclusion

-John Dewey


At the root of these inquiries on the aesthetic values of art is the psychology of perception. Modern Psychology has moved away from the views of classical associationalism, which asserts that “perception is the reception of physical stimuli… that already possess an objective organization”. (Umberto Eco, the Open Work) Most post Freudian psychologists view this explanation of perception as being overly simple, and have adopted views more in line with transactional psychology, which emphasizes that our modes of perception are a more interconnected process:

It represents a relationship in which my memories, my unconscious persuasions, and the culture I have assimilated (In other words, my entire acquired experience.) fuse with exterior stimuli to endow them with the form and the value they assume in my eyes according to the aims I am pursuing. (Eco, The Open Work, P. 72) 

This psychology of perception echoes the aesthetic of the open work. Like semiotics it suggests that the significance is in the interpreter. They both see reality as languages of signs and symbol’s whose significance and meaning is endowed by our ability or inability to understand and relate them, for these languages are not objective or natural, they are human constructs. In other words a sign is not a sign in less we understand it has a sign. In the same way; our ability to understand and appreciate art is dependent on this ability to connect it to these webs of sign systems. Kris Merino says it well:

“This idea of such an intimately interactive relationship between reader and text, listener and music, viewer and art, is truly at the core of how we meaningfully experience the world around us… this constant dance of thought and change, affecting later interpretations and experiences, a process, that if we keep our minds open and alive enough, can last throughout our lives.”(Kris Merino, My intelligent life)

Enlightenment philosophy has been concerned with seeking out objective truths; viewing reality has having “a purely objective existence which is independent of human interpretation.”(Daniel Chandler, beginners guide to semiotics) Because it seems all human knowledge is inherently subjective, the search for any total knowledge, whether in political society or in the microcosm of Art, seems like a fruitless process.

I find a sort of comfort imagining my personal, subjective experience mingling with the work I am absorbing. It is through the openness of a piece of Art that I embrace my modes of perception.


Reflections on artisitc openness Part II- Mass Media, the communication chain and the nature of language


What I have tried to show in the first part of this paper is that the life of a work of art lives in the interpreter. For example it is in the mind of the addressee that a fictional character exists and can live a life that is outside of the work they originate from. It is in the work’s multiplicity, its openness, that we find its aesthetic value. Surely we seek greater enjoyment from the multi-dimensional poem “Le front aux vitres” by Paul Eluard than we do from a traffic light. The red traffic light only conveys one very simple direction: stop! Well the experience of reading the poem is an experience that grows richer with each additional reading — each time we uncover additional meaning and make new correlations. Its openness allows us to relate our entire acquired experience to the poem and as this acquired experience develops and changes throughout our lives so does the way we relate to the work and thus the poem becomes something of a living entity in our minds. But to truly understand this dichotomy and how we perceive and appreciate Art we must understand something about information, the study of communications and the foundation of all forms of communication; language.

Let us begin with what is commonly referred to as the  communication channel  and its various components. Understanding the separation of these components is essential to understanding all forms of media. This is the Channel as it is commonly displayed:


The Source – creates a Signal — which travels through a Channel — and is received and processed by the Addressee through a Receiver.

This simple diagram is ignoring two crucial elements:

1.) It is ignoring the complex or simple codes that enable the Addressee to process the information he his receiving.

2.) It does not demonstrate that as the signal travels through the channel it is disrupted by large or small amounts of outside disturbance called Noise.

Let’s start with the first point: communication scholars such as McLuhan, Adorno and Horkheimer, overlook the importance of the addressee’s interpretation of the message — thus their grand claims regarding mass media are hegemonic, that is they see the power residing with the source and the people who control the source. What they are not recognizing is that the addressee’s ability to receive and interpret information is dependent upon preconceived codes. It is not dependent on the channels or sources of communication themselves or even the information they convey but rather our ability to understand them and relate them to our personal experience. That is to say (somewhat contrary to McLuhan’s famous aphorism) it may be the medium that dictates the message but the final factor rests in the interpretation of the Addressee. If the Addressee fails to understand the code of the message in the way the source intended, the control the medium exerts is inconsequential.

It is undeniable that all communication mediums dictate content. The medium of radio certainly does prescribe certain perimeters on the people who utilize it. This said, it may be oversimplifying to view such mediums as “wholly autonomous entities with ‘purposes’ (as opposed to functions) of their own”. (Chandler, Beginner’s guide to semiotics) The channel’s (the medium’s) impact on its message is a relationship. Rather, the content of a message and its medium are in constant dialogue, the power may shift at times in the direction of one or the other but the process still must be looked at as an interchange rather than domination. This process is what anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss called bricolage. I am reminded of the rising popularity of music notation software. This software allows music to be written out, edited and processed far quicker and more clearly. These programs even come equipped with midi instruments that will even play your music back for you. But there is a risk in using these, because the midi library’s make visualizing and mapping out the music you are recreating so easy, there is always the temptation to over rely on them; thus your musical imagination and your aural ability suffers, becoming limited by the capabilities of the software. Before long it may be possible that the software is creating more of the music than you are!

Let us move on to the issue of Noise: The link between ambiguity and communication runs contrary to the basic functions of language; yet humans have been playing with this relationship throughout our collective history through all forms of art. In order to ensure that a message is received and understood through any coded system it must be wrapped in high levels of “redundancy”. This is because these systems, language being the most prominent example, are highly organized systems that exist amongst high levels of Noise. Eco explains:

Languages are “organized systems governed by fixed laws of probability and likely to be disturbed either from within or from without by a certain amount of disorder, of communication consumption- that is to say, by a certain increase in entropy(meaning the loss of information) commonly known as noise.” (Eco, Ch 2, The Open Work) 

Some linguists suggest that the English Language is 50% redundancy, which just means that only 50% of a given message actually conveys the specific content of the message. An obvious example of this is the telegraph message which attempts to convey only the bare necessities’ of communication; it is generally devoid of syntax and grammar. Redundancy is entirely necessary to ensure apprehension when outside factors constantly infringe on a messages comprehension but “the very order which allows a message to be understood is also what makes it absolutely predictable—that is extremely banal.”(Eco, the Open Work, ch 2.) On first thought, this seems contrary to how we naturally perceive communication as we spend so much of our time trying to communicate clearly, but art is a different form of communication. That is why Art of value does not prescribe; it informs and reacts with each individual interpreter’s subjective person.

So we have established that the clearer a piece of information is the less meaningful (or less substantial in terms of its interpretation) is its content. Perhaps this again illuminates the value and pleasure we receive from Art possesses a multiplicity of meaning. A Hallmark greeting card is very easy to understand, yet it tells us very little information. It is competing against a sea of other greeting cards, all with a very similar message, which must be understood by a wide array of people. It is a message that presents very little information and is thus very clear in its interpretation. In comparison, the above mentioned “Le front aux vitres” displays a channel of communication which is far more complex and thus shaded in levels of ambiguity.

Le front aux vitres comme font les veilleurs de chagrin

Ciel dont j’ai dépassé la nuit

Plaines toutes petites dans mes mains ouvertes

Dans leur double horizon, inerte indifférent

Le front aux vitres comme font les veilleurs de chagrin

Je te cherche par-delà l’attente

Par-delà moi-même

Et je ne sais plus tant je t’aime

Lequel de nous deux est absent.

With my brow against the windowpane like those who keep sorrowful vigil

Sky whose night I’ve left behind

Plains so small in my open hands

In their double horizon inert indifferent

With my brow against the windowpane like those who keep sorrowful vigil

I seek you beyond the waiting

I seek you beyond myself

And I know longer know, so deeply do I love you,

which of the two of us is absent

— Paul Eluard

Again Eco explains how Eluard is able to wrestle so much content into two small stanzas:

In Eluard… it is obvious that the intention is precisely to draw as much poetic meaning as possible out of the very ambiguity of the message: the poet produces emotional tension by suggesting various gestures and emotions from which the reader can choose the ones that, by stimulating his own mental association, best enable him to participate in the emotional situation evoked by the poem.”  (Eco, The Open Work, ch 2.) 

As I mentioned in the Introduction, the way we are trained in school to analyze works is with a quantitative approach. We know this approach does not necessarily lead us to any objective truth; “just because an item occurs frequently in a text does not necessarily mean it is significant” (Daniel Chandler, A beginners guide to semiotics). Rather, a text’s meaning and significance lie in the interconnectedness of varying elements to each other. That is; the work evokes rather than proclaims. This type of poetic openness is the opposite of quantitative. It says a lot while being shaded in ambiguity. Unlike the greeting card, or the traffic light, or a piece of Keitche art, the open work does not rely on a univocal message: It embraces disorder and does not fight against noise. In this regard it cannot serve a utilitarian function like the road sign, and cannot be marketable in the same way as the Kitsch Art.

-Paul Eluard

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Reflections on Artistic Openness- part i

Too often a piece of Art is approached with the notion that its entire meaning and significance exists within its self. This approach is what I remember of reading Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson poems in high school English class. The poem was presented as a conglomerated mass of metaphors and smiles, rhyme scheme and allegory that we were told formed a secret code. We were rarely expected to rely on our own experiences and ideas in our interpretation. No, the poem already had a finished concept of what it was supposed to mean. We were humble sleuths trained to detect simple poetic devices. If we were surreptitious enough to piece these together and crack the code we were rewarded with the prize of validation. What this process amounted to was bored teenagers and what might have been a good poem (had I discovered it elsewhere) being reduced to the status of a riddle. This type of analysis rests on the conviction that the piece of art must be understood exactly as the artist created it–that when the pencil is set down, so is the work. By doing this we are ignoring the inter relationship between author and addressee. Understanding the nature of our perception and interpretation of Art is essential to understanding any communication channel or knowledge system. These systems can take the form of any coded system such as language, banal signs like traffic lights, or even the tonal system of western music.  It is possible to cry for fictional characters—to cry for the death of Ana Karenina as if we personally knew her. In the same way that a fictional character has an existence of its own (albeit not a physical existence) so do our channels of communication, such as a language or a piece of art. These things are alive, they affect all of us on a personal level, their life is not final and we should treat them as such.

This initial inquiry concerning the channels of artistic interpretation has led me to speculate on the nature of human knowledge and communication and how that affects artistic aesthetics. I believe understanding this aesthetics of artistic openness can be useful and applicable to a study of mass forms of communication and the phenomenon of “mass art” in an attempt to understand arts diminishing role in society.



There has been an aesthetic change in recent decades where the openness of a work of arts interpretation has become increasingly valued by audiences. The openness that I am talking about here is in regards to the channel of communication between the Artist and the Addressee. A closed work is something that has limited channels of communication between these two players, and in that sense is limited in its interpretation. Semiologists love the example of a traffic light to describe a closed system, because a traffic light is very fixed in terms of the ways it can be interpreted, and if this interpretation stops being fixed in the mind of some imaginative driver then the object merely stops functioning as a traffic sign. This semiological notion of openness is based on the realization that we perceive and communicate reality through a system of signs and symbols that are a result of our acquired subjective experience. The role of the addressee is always present in this open stream of communication. As described by Umberto Eco in his book “Opera Aperta”:

As he reacts to the play of stimuli and his own response to the artist’s patterning, the individual addressee is bound to supply his own existential credentials, the sense conditioning that is purely is own, a defined culture, a set of tastes, personal inclinations, and prejudices.” -Umberto Eco, the Open Work. (P. 3) 

According to many literary theorists, works actually gain their “aesthetic validity precisely in relation to the number of different perspectives from which they can be viewed and understood.”(Eco, the open work) This perspective is analogous to how the human brain forms thoughts and categorizes knowledge. Based on the conclusion that our thought processes are not strings of knowledge rather then they are fields of knowledge that we are constantly interacting with. Or to put it differently; our interpretative perception is not structurally ordered with an axis of hierarchy, instead our modes of perception is an interconnected web that allows for multiple interpretations and developments. I am reminded of a famous New Yorker illustration that express this idea: In the cartoon a man is looking at a painting while the thought bubble above his head diverges gradually from thinking earnestly about the art work in front of him to the most unrelated and random of thoughts, like: should I do laundry tonight or did I leave my hat at my sister’s?

I believe the apex of this openness in Art can be found in the world of music, as the channels of composer- performer- listener are constantly receiving and giving information to each other to a greater or at least more obvious extent than the channels of writer- reader. Even if a piece is entirely composed and planned to the smallest detail the performers’ individual interpretation filters in and reacts to the ideas of the composer.

Eco points to the “indeterminate music” movement of the 50’s and 60 for examples of this aesthetic. Indeterminate music (or chance music) can be defined by music that leaves at least some of its elements to chance. That is to say the piece as the composer writes it is not complete; he presents only the bare materials, the rest is decided by the environment the music is performed in and the performer himself. In other words these outside forces collaborate with the artist to complete the conception of the piece. The composition is in flux, what Eco calls “works in motion”.

Eco’s focus is on composers who come from the linage of the European concert music tradition, composers like Stockhausen, Berio, and John Cage. Although these composers’ works provide good examples of the “work in motion”, I think he fails to address a much more obvious example in music; the world of improvised music and specifically Jazz.  A Jazz composition is never fully complete; it is a harmonic and melodic sketch- a grounds for development, interpretation and musical dialogue. Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Women” is arguably more open in conception then Stockausen’s “Klavierstuck”. The former is a group improvisation around a simple melodic framework, besides this melodic outline the improvisation has the potential to venture into endless abstractions or melt into complete simplicity. Each time the song is performed by any of Colemans groups, the individual personalities and styles of the various musicians as well as the venue all impact the conception of the piece.


My first music history professor once tried to summarize for our class the aesthetic differences between the Enlightenment and the Romantic eras. He pointed to a chair at the front of the lecture theatre with a jacket draped over it.

If I were an Enlightenment scholar, I would look at this chair and talk about the various ways we can perceive the chair… the beautiful symmetry of the image… how the sunlight enhances the image etc… if I were a romantic scholar I would stab myself and throw myself upon the chair and slowly bleed to death. 

What this anecdote demonstrates is the obvious difference in interpretation of cultural eras.  As Milan Kundera explains in his book of essays Testaments Betrayed, modern society still connects to a romantic 19th century aesthetic. He explains that it is as if the development of the European novel and the parallel development of European music are separated, “like two halves of a football game” (Kundera, Testaments Betrayed).  Being children of the “the second half” we still have an affinity for the subjective emotional experience that was so ingrained in the Romantic aesthetic  — the tragedy of joy and sorrow and passion. This aesthetic preference often makes us unable to relate to Art before the enlightenment. We are alienated by the early European novel like Cervantes’ Don Quixote, or even the mathematical precision inherent to a Bach fugue. Even an erudite individual like Nabokov cannot accept Don Quixote’s unbearable objectivity: calling it “overvalued, naïve, repetitive, and full of unbearable and implausible cruelty”(Quixote in Kundera, Testaments Betrayed). In a similar dichotomy, any piece from Chopin’s Nocturnes is instantly recognizable as being “melodic”, in the sense that it fulfills our preconceived expectations of what constitutes something melodic.  While a Bach Fugue with its calculated extractions of one single kernel of motif does not fulfill this expectation to the same extent. These early works seem so totally measured and impersonal that we hastily label them as being devoid of emotional substance, because they do not “gush forth from the heart”. I believe that this binding emotional subjectivity is an example of a closed interpretation. By assigning strong emotional connotations to music or literature we severely limit its levels of interpretation and the aesthetic pleasure we can gain from it.

It seems that this binding 19th century romanticism as given rise to a very particular phenomenon in mass culture often referred to as Kitsch. Kitsch is often characterized by an excessive use of easily packaged emotion passed off in the guise of art: It is charged with generalities, objective meaning, and redundancy. Essentially it attempts to provide the effects of art while promising immediate effects. But it is more than just “junk art” (or art de pacotille as it is translated in French) created in bad taste, it function is to suppresses and robs art of its identity, and we have seen it used to detrimental effects in the propaganda films of the Nazi regime. Umberto Eco explains:

Given the way in which it articulates itself, like any other artistic communication whose project is not that of involving the reader in an act of discovery but that of forcing him to register a particular effect (in the belief that therein lies aesthetic pleasure)… or has Hermann Broch puts it, ‘the elements of evil in the value system of art.'” (-Eco, The Open Work, p. 183) 

Kitsch provides a bridge in this discussion; it shows the division of art aesthetics and mass media in contemporary culture. In the last century the world of “high art” as engaged in a poetics of openness that is reflected in the forms of serial composition, abstract painting and post-modernist literature. The mass culture industries reject this poetics of openness in favour of “ready-made effects” that can be sold to a “generic mass of consumers”(Eco, the open work, p185). As a result Art has a diminishing role in modern times; becoming increasingly insular and metaphysical, that is increasingly concerned with its own process’s.

-Milan Kundera

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Eternity Reflected in Form -Part II

Part II –A Comparison of Tintinnabuli and the Isorhythmic Motet

In continuation to my last post I will now show a few instances of this eternal represented in music that is important to me by examining two separate compositional devices that have become significant tools in 20th century music; the first being the Isorhythmic motet as used by French Composer Oliver Messiean, and the second being the Tintinnabuli system, developed by Estonian/German composer Arvo Part.

The 5th movement from Messains celebrated “Quartet for the end of time”; “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus” has always stood out for me as the most striking. It is an eternal island amidst a sea of storm and stress. The piece is preceded by “Abime des Oiseaux” which is meant as a lament to the sadness and “weariness of time”, and followed by the explosive “Dance of fury”, which is supposed to incite the feeling of the apocalypse. In contrast, the 5th movement is a subdued and strange interlude reflecting on the beauty of eternity. Messiean’s score directions describe the intent of the Music:

Jesus is considered here as the Word. A broad phrase, “infinitely slow”, on the cello, magnifies with love and reverence the eternity of the Word, powerful and gentle, “whose time never runs out”. The melody stretches majestically into a kind of gentle, regal distance.

The piece employs the technique of overlapping Isorhythms; a musical structure popular in the 13th and 14th century in which a fixed melody or harmonic sequence is paired with an unequal repeating rhythmic sequence. The two non symettrical musical units spiral onwards, playing against each other in new ways. Isorythms were originally employed to alter and morph a pre-existing Gregorian Cantus firmus melody[2]: often as part of a Catholic Mass. In the Messiean piece, the cello and the piano carry two distinct Isorythms that never in the scope of the piece recon verge. The cello line is a simple 5 note melody arranged in two rhythmic palindromes[3]that add up to 15 beats, the first 3 beats and the second 12 beats. The piano part consists of a long dissonant chord progression, 29 chords over a 17 beat rhythmic pattern. Its complexity is a harsh juxtaposition against the cello. Michael Linton explains in his article “Music outside of Time”:

“Messiaen had rediscovered a medieval device called “isorhythm,” in which unequal patterns of chords, pitches, and rhythms revolved around each other… By avoiding metrically defined phrases and patterns of stressed and unstressed beats, these isorhythmic “wheels within wheels” destroyed any sense of meter, and thus created a piece of music outside of “time.” Their two Isorythms take approximately 2 hours to re converge; creating a suspended meditative quality.  Because the re alignment of the two instruments never occurs in the piece of music some assume this phenomenon to suggest the end of eternity.

No two moments in this piece are identical yet the entire piece is constructed using the exact same materials in endless succession. The effect is cyclical, invoking a feeling of endlessness and continuity, and gradually as the ear settles and begins to ruminate on the slowly morphing patterns; a feeling of permanence and then finally, eternity.

Listening to the centuries older motets of Josquin Dez Prez and Machaut, I cannot help but feel their music is striving to the same effect. Not correlating this technique with its spiritual connotations seems impossible to me. Maybe it’s not surprising then that Isorhythms owe their origins to two distinct sacred musical cultures. As I mentioned earlier the technique as Messiaen is using it here owes its origins to the Gregorian chants of 11th century Christian monks. The technique is also utilized in a more improvisational way in Hindustani Music, where the melodies that are altered and played over are from sacred Vedic texts that are set to music.

-Josquin Dez Prez

This type of musical system is inherently predestined; that is after the composer selects the bare materials -the notes of the melody and its corresponding rhythmic cycle- the ball is set in motion and unless he chooses to intervene the music just is, and continues to be. Arvo Pärt’s Tintinnabuli system is incredibly similar in philosophy and design to Messiaen’s isorhythmic concept. In its essence tintinnabuli is the combination of two simple components: The T voice, a voice that endlessly circles around notes of a single Tonic Triad- and a M voice (melody) a voice that only ascends or descends upon notes of the tonic scale. Tintinnabulation literally means “the ringing of bells”.

It evokes the pealing of bells, the bells’ complex but rich sonorous mass of overtones, the gradual unfolding of patterns implicit in the sound itself, and the idea of a sound that is simultaneously static and in flux[4].

                                                -Morton and Collins

Pärt’s piece “Spiegel im Spiegel” or “Mirror in Mirror” marks one of the composer’s earliest forays into Tinnanabuli. The piece draws many similarities between “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus. For one thing it is also a slow and meditative duo performance, although in this case for Piano and Violin. But aside from the pieces similar instrumentation and tempo you cannot help but feel the pieces seem to be constructed from the same aesthetic cloth. “Spiegel” is powerfully simple, minimalist in aesthetic, but yet removed from the political connotations and pretensions that seem inseparable from the music of American minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. It is music scaled down to its essence, so mathematically simple in its design that it can be programmed into an algorithm. It invokes a primordial state, creating a world outside the anxiety of time, where you feel that nothing exists beyond the music sounding out at this exact moment. Part explains the essence of Tinnananabuli:

Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers – in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises – and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this the three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation[5].

-the opening measures of “Spiegel Im Spiegel”

If eternity is like an endless ring of light[6], then the spiegel im spiegel reflects this idea. People are composite images; there is the image we have of ourselves, the image we project to others, the image others see of us and then there is the reality of us[7]. We aren’t only one aspect or one image—we are all of these things in different proportions, but we are them all combined. We never see any image other than the one we have of ourselves—we try to project one but we don’t know what it is because we are locked in subjectivity. We can’t see how others see us because we are locked in subjectivity. We can’t see ourselves as discrete entities because we are not separate from the world around us or the influence others’ images of us have on our own self image. One mirror is a magical tool because it shows us an image that we cannot see unassisted. It gives us a glimpse outside of ourselves, an idea of the Objective, which is divine because we are subjects locked in time. The spiegel im spiegel, the mirror in mirror, is that squared. Because we see the whole, we see Eternity because we are locked outside of time rather than within it, yet looking through a tool, the mirror, which keeps us within the circle of light.

We are given a glimpse of our entire composite image, seeing ourselves from outside and within, a contradiction of sorts because how can you be aware of yourself totally? It is Eternity because that glimpse is 1) outside of time and 2) mathematically discrete. This glimpse gives us an understanding that we can only have atemporally, and this method of viewing within a mirror/mirror can be applied to viewing other objects, as all the objects we view are viewed through our Subjective. To truly know or understand then, we require Eternity and it is the reason we create Art, so that we may grasp this knowledge and capture it in time, a concretization of the ineffable, a concretization of the contradictory.

We apply this method/schema: the object we see, the object as it seems to others, the object as it truly is. Art captures what is eternal and atemporal within time, as the creator[8] is locked in time. His tangible creation, his art, can be and is lost to time as it rusts or erodes, or as the paints fade or the musical notation is lost—but the idea remains. The piece of Art is a temporary capture of what is Eternal. This is the resolution to Part’s tintinabuli—the “complex and many-faceted” are part of a Unity.

These two systems, Tintinnabulation and the Isorhythmic Motet, are so complete in their design that they are serial.[9] They impose form and shape on the music in such a concrete and detailed way that the music can literally not exist outside of the system that created it. This is form on a microscopic level, far different than the grand forms that might structure a sonata or a sonnet-Music that attempts to conjure something as essential and complex as eternity cannot be concerned with a design so broad reaching. These systems require the composer to relinquish control of his creation after he sets it in motion, and I think it is this lack of control which attracted Messiaen and Part: The artist’s conventional approach at invoking the sensation of atemporalness would be too hands on, too involved, too human; concerned with what has occurred and what might occur. Just like the writers of the world’s spiritual texts, Part and Messiaen realized that man has to step outside of himself to experience the divine. He cannot attempt to perform God’s role, he can only suggest its essence, nudge himself in the right direction and maybe hope to experience it himself or help others experience it.

Pärt and Messiaen’s are devout Catholics, deeply dedicated to finding and representing their spirituality in their Art, but the music they create is relatable on a much greater level than Catholicism. Both “Spiegel im Spiegel” and “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus” are some of these composers earliest experiments into their respectice compositional systems and it is interesting to note that these experiments arose during times of great personal turmoil and change: During the time Part created and developed the Tintinnabuli system in the 1970’s he was engaged in an ongoing struggle with soviet officials concerning the censorship and control of his music (a struggle that eventually led to his emigration to Berlin in 1980). Messiaen composed “Quartet for the End of Time” while imprisoned in a Nazi POW camp to be performed by the only musicians and instruments he had around him; a violin, a cello, a clarinet, and Messiean himself on piano. These pieces in themselves functioned as a spiritual exercise for the composers. They seemed to extrapolate beauty from these systems as a way of reaffirming their faith during a time where that faith was challenged; a way to struggle against a world that was falling apart around them. This music does not sound like other music from the 20th century; indifferent to the societal and political times from whence it came. It is not music obsessed with becoming, with ideas, with history.  It is religious but it is non-prescriptive unlike so much of what 20th century religion has become. It sounds outside of time, outside of the history that binds it; it harkens back to some ancient pondering of the eternal, a pondering that seems out of place with the century of World War II and the Soviet Union.



[1] Anthony Pople, Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du temps, Cambridge Music Handbooks (Cambridge University Press, 2003

[2] Meaning literally “fixed song”, a Cantus Firmus is a pre existing melody, usually a centuries old Gregorian chant, which is used to form the basis of a polyphonic composition.

[3] A Palindrome is a Rhythm that is the same backwards as forwards. In its self this device is often used to invoke the feelings of perpetuity and continuity

[4] (2 Morton and Collins, eds., Contemporary Composers) 

[5] .“Tintinnabulation”.

[6] The World, Henry Vaughan.

I SAW Eternity the other night,

Like a great ring of pure and endless light,

All calm, as it was bright ;

And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years

Driv’n by the spheres                                    5

Like a vast shadow mov’d ; in which the world

And all her train were hurl’d.

The doting lover in his quaintest strain

Did there complain ;

Near him, his lute, his fancy, and his flights,                         10

Wit’s sour delights ;

With gloves, and knots, the silly snares of pleasure,

Yet his dear treasure,

All scatter’d lay, while he his eyes did pour

Upon a flow’r.

[7] A very loose summary of the ideas of Maria de Zambrano. María Zambrano, Delirium and Destiny. A Spaniard in Her Twenties. Translated by Carol Maier. Albany: SUNY, 1999.

[8][8] The creator here is the artist, and not to be confused with the Creator.

[9] Serialism is a movement in Art in which elements (in this case musical elements like pitches and rhythms) are mathematically organized in sets and patterns. It describes the process and not the result.

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Eternity Reflected in Form -Part I



Part I –Notions of the eternal reflected in art

In the Screwtape Letters CS Lewis, through the demon Screwtape, remarks: “Humans live in time but the enemy (meaning god) destines them to live in eternity.” Much religious and philosophical writing contrasts this notion of time on earth (our mortal reality) with an eternal or supreme version of reality that exists outside of time. Eternity is a prominent theme in most of the world’s dominant religious texts; the eternal kingdom of heaven, an abstract idea talked about at length in the gospels, the eternal covenant and the gardens of eternity in the Quran, the eternal reality of the soul from the Bhaghavagita. All of these notions of perpetuity regard eternity as something that man must strive to achieve, something that he must foster and create for himself; shaping and structuring his life through his actions in an attempt to either reach this eternity or experience glimpses of it.

Despite that living in time is on a basic level essential for the survival of any animal, ancient man was obviously quite enamoured with this abstract concept of eternity. These ideas of eternity can be traced to the ancient Abrahamic (and even older Zoroastrian) belief that man, created in the image of god is trapped in the earthly realm; halfway between angel and animal, he struggles to ascend to the heavenly realm, and constructs a ladder to this heavenly sphere. The construction of the allegorical Axis Mundi (connection between heaven and earth) has given rise to many great achievements in Art and the pursuit of knowledge.

Art in its origin is inextricably tied up in man’s spirituality and his belief in the Eternal. He attempts to experience glimpses of eternity on earth by imposing form on human life. Besides religion and philosophy it is through Art that humans challenge the conception of eternity and mortality. This is accomplished through the same processes; by shaping the content of Art and imposing structure upon it. In this way Art reflects a microcosm of life and it’s intellectual battles. Sometimes the only way to grab hold of something as infinite and incomprehensible as eternity is by prescribing form upon it. Umberto Eco expands on this concept in his essay Rhythm and the Poetic List. Explaining that when the artist is knowledgeable and familiar with the world he is describing he can “easily consign it to a form”. But when the “boundaries of an object represented are not known… when there is essentially no way to define something and therefore, to talk about it” the artist must look for other forms and methods. In Eco’s paper it is the poetic list as utilized by Homer and Antonio Porta that encapsulates this unknowingness, for my paper I look specifically at musical devices that strive for the same effect. whatever the art form, to express something inexpressible the artist must allow his chosen form to shape and structure the content of his art, guiding it, in the same way man’s faith structures his life. This thought goes against the more conventional aphorisms that form is merely an extension of content. I personally think that different artworks play with this relationship to varying degrees (in the music that we look at the form controls the content on almost every possible level).

So if Art is supposed to exhibit a reflection of Life it must possess some ability to alter the plane in which life is experienced; time. Music provides the most obvious example of this; specifically because it is experienced in time but also because it has the capacity to shape and morph how we feel time in a very literal way; through tempo. The development of the novel echoes this as well; it too is obviously experienced in time but more importantly the novel creates its own world of rhythm and time. Just like a sonata the novel plays with the juxtaposition of contrasting atmospheres and emotions, more specifically it is concerned with the same thing music is concerned with, tempo and pacing. In an interview published in “The Art of The Novel,” novelist Milan Kundera explains that the tempo of a particular section of a novel is determined “by the relation of a part and the number of chapters it contains, but further determined by the length of a part and the real time of the event it describes.”  Kundera takes this comparison so far as to assign musical directions such as allegro or largo to his chapters! Although all artists are invariably concerned with how their art is experienced in time, Music possesses a detailed and exact language to describe this. These Italian terms are intriguing enough in themselves as they describe a plethora of details. For example Largo indicates a slow tempo between 40 and 60 beats per minute, but more than that it implies that the music is to breathe (that there is space between the beats). And if you dig even deeper this word also conveys a specific style, indicating that the music should be performed in a stately and dignified manner!

So to recap; both literature and music can and do play with the conception of time. They can speed through life lines, or slow down completely on a single great moment. Perhaps it is this slowing down that attempts to suck us (the experiencer of art) into the present moment: It is not hastily pushing forward to some future development or remaining reflective and recapitulating some prior material or even boldly presenting new expositional material. It is merely ruminating on the moment. And as Cs Lewis and the worlds numerous spiritual texts tell us, it is this present moment that is supposed to bring us closer to the divine. But how can the artist, the grand causer of his creation (to borrow from Aristotle), focus on the present moment entirely in his art, isn’t he supposed to have at least some notion of the “big picture”? Of course the Artist usually does often have some sort of architectonic design in mind. But as he tries to create a feeling of the atemporal this is not where his attention lies: instead he focuses on the ever changing details of the present moment. To do this he must remove his ego from his work and approach it not as a creation or a statement but as a reverie.

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