No word, no concept, no experience

From Charles Rosen, “Freedom and Art“, New York Review of Books of 5/10/12, p. 28:

The critical problem of the battle between conventional meaning and individual expression was best laid out many years ago in Meyer Schapiro’s apparently controversial insistence that the forms of Romanesque sculpture could not be ascribed solely to theological meaning but were also a style of aesthetic expression. What that meant at the time was quite simply and reasonably that the character of the sculptural forms could not be reduced only to their personification of theological dogma, but possessed a clear aesthetic energy independent of sacred meaning.

The fallacy that Schapiro was attacking has reappeared recently in musicological circles with the absurd claim that music could not be enjoyed for purely musical or aesthetic reasons until the eighteenth century since the word “aesthetics” was not used until then. (This naive belief that independent aesthetic considerations did not exist before 1750 without social and religious functions would strangely imply that no one before that date could admire the beauty of a member of the opposite sex unless it could be related to the function of the production of children.)

Odd forms of extreme Whorfianism turn up in the oddest places.

Then, out of the Whorfian forest, Rosen continues:

… The partial freedom of, and from, meaning that is the natural result of aesthetic form is made possible by the exploitation of an inherent fluidity, or looseness of significance, naturally present in both language and social organization. This is a freedom often repressed, and attempts at repression and conformity are an inevitable part of experience. That is why aesthetic form—in poetry, music, and the visual arts—has so often been considered subversive and corrupting from Plato to the present day.

Conventions are the bulwark of civilization, a guarantee of social protection. They can also be a prison cell. Of course, any art has its conventions, too, just like every other activity, and an artist is expected to fulfill them. Traditionally, however, for at least three millennia and possibly longer, the artist is also expected paradoxically to violate conventions—to entertain, to surprise, to outrage, to be original. That is the special status of art among all other activities, although it may indeed spill over and make itself felt throughout the rest of life. It is the source of freedom, prevents the wheels of the social machine from locking into paralysis. From our artists and entertainers, we expect originality and resent it when we get it.

… The ambiguity of spoken or written language is far less than the ambiguity of musical meaning, a disconcerting ambiguity powerfully described by Denis Diderot in his Lettre sur les sourds et muets

A semanticist might object to the term ambiguity being used to cover all sorts of multiplicities in interpretation.


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