Friday, August 21, 2009

The Primitivist Myth

A few months ago I wrote a blog dealing with adjectival criticism and music, complaining that many popular music writers—like the AMG sort, for example—have a limited repertoire, preferring to label rather than to critique or interpret. Part of the problem is in understanding music as an art, and part is that the writing is shallow. The fact is, most writing on popular music, perhaps unintentionally, has the effect of dumbing it down. It is difficult to translate sonic experience into definition, and the standard deployment for some writers is predication of names on (adjectival) descriptions.

One individual who came across my blog a couple of months ago wrote to me personally (I hesitate to mention his name because he wrote to me in a private email, not in a blog comment), largely agreeing with me, observing that there are, of course, some good writers on popular music: Peter Guralnick, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Rob Bowman, James Lincoln Collier, Gunther Schuller, and Nat Hentoff, to name a few. These individuals are all exceptionally good writers—learned, passionate, insightful, dedicated, who demonstrate a remarkably vast erudition. He also made the point—and I think he’s right—that some of the best writing on music is on so-called “legitimate music,” observing that the problems of writing about “legitimate music” (jazz, for instance) are intrinsically different than those of popular music, simply because the rhetoric, diction, style, and assumptions about audience are so different. Much of the writing about pop music is purposefully dumbed down on the assumption that its presumed audience views anything remotely intellectual with utter contempt. He mentioned to me that one of his favorite books happened to be Ted Gioia’s The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture (Oxford University Press, 1988), which he characterized as exploring jazz by channeling Walter Benjamin.

Two decades after the fact, I finally managed to get hold of a copy of Ted Gioia’s slim volume (152 pp.), and read it all in one sitting. For what it’s worth, I found it rich, learned, well-written, and—yes—thought-provoking. I was particularly taken with the chapter, “Jazz and the Primitivist Myth,” which explores how jazz was embraced as a modernist art form because its earliest and most enthusiastic writers (mostly European) were also immensely interested in the idealization and theorization of the primitive. He observes that primitivism was a source of modernist art, but also served as a critique. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “primitive” and “exotic” others of non-Western cultures started attracting the attention of Western artists and became sources of new ideas and new forms: Picasso’s “Cubism” for example, or Puccini’s “Oriental” operas such as Madame Butterfly and Turandot. (The plundering of so-called “world music” by many contemporary pop music artists is an expression of the same impulse.) In other words, primitivism and exoticism became a fashion and also sources for “high” art. Gioia points out that one of the distortions of jazz by its early theorists resulted from the treatment of jazz as “natural” and “primitive”: French theorist and jazz lover Hugues Panassie—the “Venerable Frog”—was capable of writing:

primitive man generally has greater talent than civilized man. An excess of culture atrophies inspiration, and men crammed with culture tend too much to play tricks, to replace inspiration by lush technique under which one finds music stripped of real vitality (qtd. by Gioia, pp. 29-30)

Such presuppositions led to critiques of Louis Armstrong, for instance, as a “primitive genius.” Robert Goffin was to observe about Louis Armstrong, in Jazz: From the Congo to the Metropolitan, that Armstrong “is a full-blooded Negro. He brought the directness and spontaneity of his race to jazz music.”

Thus primitivism became a source for modernist art, and an individual who claimed to be a “modern” embraced jazz, even if he or she didn’t quite understand what it was doing musically. The influence of African masks on Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907, pictured), for instance, is an illustration of the way primitivism influenced modernist art. The painting depicts five naked prostitutes in a brothel; two of them push aside curtains around the space where the other women strike seductive and erotic poses. But their figures are composed of flat, splintered planes, their eyes are lopsided, and two of them have masks for heads. Their faces were influenced by African masks that Picasso assumed had once functioned as a kind of apotropaic magic—protection against evil spirits. Indeed, he was to say later that this painting was his “first exorcism painting,” and a particular danger he had in mind was life-threatening sexual disease, a source of considerable anxiety in Paris at the time—after all, these were days before penicillin.

Of course, as Gioia points out, “jazz is not primitive art. Nor, like the works of Picasso or Modigliani, is it imitative of primitive art. The jazz artist could not achieve the naïve attitude of the Lascoux cave painter even if he tried. And far from trying to imitate such artlessness, the jazz musician has strived, from as far back as we can trace, to increase his level of sophistication and his knowledge of his craft” (p. 45) But such was the power of the “Primitivist Myth” to distort perceptions of jazz music. As Gene Lees (b. 1928, author for years of the monthly Jazzletter) observes in his review of Barry Singer’s Black and Blue: The Life and Lyrics of Andy Razaf (1992):

If the work of black songwriters and performers emphasized the torrid and wanton sexuality that was supposed to be a racial characteristic, it was because that was the way white publishers and producers perceived black people and because they demanded that black people be shown as lascivious exotics in entertainment designed for white audiences. Jazz as we know it emerged not as a black music meant for black audiences but largely as a black music for white audiences; blacks were barred from the audiences of Connie’s Inn and the Cotton Club.

No comments: