All History Is Art History

Leon Wieseltier has a heartfelt essay in the latest issue of The New Republic in which he denounces the constant drive for the "new and improved" as a nefarious bit of "Google marketing." He counters with the very low-tech concept of the nostalgic, which, like the sentimental, is an unjustly maligned concept with a perfectly respectable history. He suggests that, under certain circumstances, nostalgia can be an effective tool for a critique of the present. "One method for exposing the inadequacies of the present is to
hold it up against the past," he writes. "And in the event that the present should be found lacking in comparison
to the past, this is not nostalgia. It is critique."

Admitting to feeling nostalgic about something is a capital offense in some circles, but without nostalgia there’s no way to express the experience of loss within the concept of progress. Nostalgia may appear to be a delusional human residue, but that’s precisely its critical value. It forces us to ask, What gets left behind? Or, to put the question in more properly Benjaminian terms, What historical desire has been frustrated once again?

But in his haste to rehabilitate nostalgia, Wieseltier glosses over one of its problems: that it closes off its suffers from experiencing anything new or different. The other problem with nostalgia as a critical concept is that its scope is limited to lived memory. This isn’t necessarily a disqualifying objection, but deploying nostalgia doesn’t mean one should succomb fully to its myopia.

Take, for instance, Wieseltier’s anecdote about finding a CD copy of a rare 1970 Dizzy Gillespie recording. He’s overjoyed to discover that the CD transfer preserved the scratches from its vinyl record source.

And the sounds of the scratches were beautiful to me. They were the
traces of human use, of human ardor. They restored me to the liberal
age that preceded the frigid perfectionism of the new technologies of
reproduction. The more you listened to a record, and studied it, and
deployed it as a soundtrack for intimacy or interiority, the more scars
it bore, and they were the scars of true feeling.

Wieseltier’s sentiments are common enough, but they’re also indicative of a particular generational experience. Considered from a broader historical perspective, the "original" 1970 recording carries with it a vexed history. The advent of vinyl records in the mid-twentieth century was partly responsible for the marginalization of jazz from American popular culture. Rock music eclipsed jazz (and classical music) in the culture market because rock’s brighter and more distinct sounds came across better on records, especially when the records were broadcast to car radios or spinning on portable record players. To this day the core audience for jazz is affluent male audiophiles. After the arrival of mass market vinyl records, jazz developed a more subtle, intimate sound. At the same time, it de-emphasized certain other qualities, most notably sonic power. Even on record the power of the 1940s Count Basie Band in full flight is startling.

Wieseltier’s point isn’t simply that vinyl is better than digital, but that things don’t always get better even though we’re compelled to buy into that belief. (And, by the way, we’re not always compelled only by corporate marketing; a quick tour of technology blogs will induce technolust in the most hardened Luddite.) However, Wieseltier’s litmus test for historical developments–does a technology preserve the traces of ardor?–is too limited, too myopic. A less idiosyncratic way of assessing historical experience is to view all history as if it were art history. Only a philistine would apply standards of linear progress to developments in artistic techniques and principles. The result, inevitably, would be a history of steady decline from painting’s representational peak in late-eighteenth-century Neo-Classicism. A more effective way to regard the history of art–a way that allows one to really see modern and non-Western art–is to look for what has been lost with each new development, and what has been gained. Or even better: what elements of art have been de-emphasized, and which ones have been stressed. The history of line becomes much more varied and complex–a revelation in Giotto, mere scaffolding in Monet, but the star of the show in Mondrian.

As for vinyl LPs, I couldn’t care less about the warmth of their sound or the way they preserved the traces of their use. I like how digital music allows me easy access a much wider variety of music than was available in the suburban shopping mall record stores of my youth. On the other hand, I miss the liner notes and the great album art.


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1 Comment

  1. If a change resulted in something inferior, couldn’t we go back to the (better) way it used to be? We certainly could. So, Leon can enjoy his scratchy, nostalgic LPs, and the rest of us enjoy the pristine sound and picture of CDs and DVDs.


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