In Praise of Dilettantery

By Michael Lewanski

It was first Nietzsche, then Thomas Mann, who accused Richard Wagner of what seems to us an unobvious charge.  As the latter wrote in the “The Sorrows and Grandeur of Richard Wagner”:

Wagner’s art is a case of dilettantism that has been monumentalized by supreme effort of will and intelligence—a dilettantism raised to the level of genius.  There is something dilettante about the very idea of combining all the arts, and without success in subjugating them all, by a supreme effort, to his own immense expressive genius, the whole notion would never have got beyond the dilettante stage.

This is a lacerating critique, all the more so because of that ways in which it praises Wagner.  On the one hand, Wagner is praised as a genius; on the other, it is only because of this genius that Wagner’s art had any success.  His music works not because Wagner is sophisticated or cultured or appropriately educated; it’s because he’s talented.  No wonder Hitler, himself a dilettante par excellence[1], a failed art school student, took offense to this comment—it hits close to home precisely because the führer’s leadership style was based on charisma and demagoguery, not on being “cultured,” while it self-consciously tried-too-hard to be the latter.  All of which prompts me to consider the cultural context in which Nietzsche and Mann (and Hitler, actually) are working: a German society that had produced some of the best things European culture had to offer.  However Mann and Nietzsche may differ each other, and however they may differ from, say, Nazis, they share a cultural tradition in which being a dilettante is bad thing.  The concept of “dilettantism” presupposes that its opposite, specialized skill maybe, or refinement, or expertise, is what drives culture.

Put another way: Urban Dictionary[2] defines “diletantte”[3] as “a person prone to become mildly involved with or superficially interested in various subjects instead of developing any specific skill or knowledge to its fullest. Often used to describe amateur or wanna-be artists.”

More to the point: we do not live in the cultural context of German intellectuals, philosophers, and politicians of the last century.  Though some individual ideologues may want to pretend otherwise, our (American) society does not have the wherewithal to make a rigorous claim to culture as a unified thing.  

So given our cultural context—Trump vs. Hillary, Black Lives Matter, Star Trek: Beyond, Pokemon Go, the new Lady Gaga song that I don’t know the name of[4], the beginning of football season—what I want to do here is theorize irresponsibly that dilettantery[5] is a key mode for artistic production in Chicago new music.  I mean this in neither a positive nor a negative sense, and perhaps not even in an analytical sense; actually to make a truth-claim about the ontology of an arts scene requires more specialization than I have, and I am a dilettante.  I do not have a privileged critical position from which to make make a judgment.  I have a dilettante’s position of the aforementioned irresponsible theorization: of dabbling; and I have only anecdotal evidence from a group of friends, colleagues, collaborators, fellow artists, performers, composers, and audience members.  

We live in a sublimely[6] confusing world, in which we struggle to make sense of politics, culture, art, psychology.  Many of us who make artistic work find ourselves seeking a sense of authenticity even while having plenty of reasons to doubt the integrity of authenticity as a concept; wondering what an actual authentic interaction with the world would look like, but also wondering whether our wondering about what it would look like makes any sense.  This desperation leads us in a lot of directions.  While working on a computer, we are distracted by, say, the New Yorker article about Trump’s battle with his ghost writer not because we have no attention span, but because perhaps that information might be part of something that leads us to understand why our political situation is so deeply fucked up.  During breaks from practicing our instrument or composing, we check Instagram; and we do so not because it’s a mindless pursuit, but because it is actually some experiment in group art-making, and we may learn something from others’ fragmentary views of the particularities of their existence.  All this we may do while feeling some pressure to decide on a compositional voice, to create a niche for ourselves as performing organizations, to get really good at playing the cello, and, most scary and anxiety-inducing of all, to make a sustainable living.  

I want to make some suggestions, and I use the word “suggestions” in multiple senses.  I want to suggest that a lot of our new music in Chicago is an expression of this fundamentally dilettante-ish impulse, I want to suggest that this is not a bad thing (and neither claim that it is a good thing) (nor predict that it will be a constant thing), and I want to suggest that we could stand to go a bit further in this direction.

I should make one thing clear.  I am not making an argument for a lack of rigor.  I may be suggesting that something called “rigor” may not actually be possible, but I don’t really know.  What I want to emphasize is that there is an aspect in the dilettante’s impulse that wants to know for the sake of knowing.  The dilettante, traditionally, is not a specialist.  More dilettante-ish googling reveals adictionary.com[7]definition of the word that involves “a person who takes up an art, activity, or subject merely for amusement”.  A more generous way of phrasing this would be to suggest that the dilettante’s interest comes from a genuine place (whatever that might mean) rather than a pretense of being a disinterested professional.  Another echo I detect in this definition of a dilettante is a certain lack of unity of perspective, and, actually, an implicit awareness that unity is not a reasonable goal.  Reasonable goals might include “amusement,” or its more increasingly-serious-sounding cousins “entertainment” and “enjoyment” and “aesthetic pleasure”; or the pursuit of a sense of curiosity, the scratching of an intellectual/artistic itch.  Also important: I do not take as a necessary criterion for “amusement” or pursuit of curiosity that a high level of technical execution is not desirable or achievable.  I suggest, rather, that a festishistic self-sacrificing and exclusionary chasing of technical execution as an end in itself—the super-ego run wild[8]—tends not to be part of the dilettante’s M.O.  

There appears to be a delicate balancing act I’m performing here.  On the one hand, it seems that I’m attempting to argue against specialization.  This is true, and it descends from a sort of garden-variety Marxism.  Generally speaking, it seems to me that specialization has been a great thing for many capitalist ventures.  You can make really great cars or medicine or watches if everyone does the thing they’re really good at and have been trained to do specifically—engineering or ball-bearing-making or welding or product-testing or report-writing.  The same is not obviously true for classical music.  While an education system that has given us oboe players and violinists who can play orchestral excerpts at a very high level, a consistent complaint about American orchestras is that their performances tend towards the same-y, the boring and the disengaged.  So specialized are many instrumentalists in the US that they often are not put in positions to develop and express their musicianship.  They are often forced to wait for, say, tyrannical conductors of questionable competence to tell them what to do; and years of this habit may not be conducive to a musician’s creativity.  But let’s not just blame conductors and administrators.  There's a psychological advantage to specialization; while difficult in one sense, it is easy in another; it is comforting; there are clear answers to discrete questions.  Specialization can be a reassuring and soothing force to a psyche that exists in a chaotic world, and this can slippery-slope its way towards the pacifying, the sedated and the complacent.  

If one recognizes all of these problems with specialization, one might be tempted to have a knee-jerk reaction in the opposite direction.  One might be tempted by, say, an anti-intellectual position: that knowing too much causes paralysis.  One might want to think that spontaneity is inherently good and that excessive study inhibits creativity.  One might imagine that practicing too much is a recipe for staleness and uninspired performance.  One might entertain the notion that rigorous application of rules produces compositions that are hopelessly boxed-in.  I reject these positions also.  I’ve seen too much art and too many performances that wasted my time with infantile self-indulgence to find such alternatives satisfying or plausible.

So I’m not suggesting either of the above polarities and I’m not suggesting a middle ground either.  What I’m actually saying is slippery; this is partially because of a curious rhetorical turn, that I write from a place of consciously self-undermined authority, an awareness (actually an embrace of the fact) that I am not an expert and that maybe you shouldn’t take what I write too seriously.  Dilettantery, as I’m proposing it and examining it, is a redefinition: an authentic critical/artistic position that is not actually a position at all, but a process; a response to the particular social and cultural circumstances Chicago musicians find themselves in, a resistance to a specialization that breeds sterility and stasis and that dulls the critical edge; but also a recognition that laziness, thoughtlessness and lack of rigor are not likely to produce work of depth.  What I see in myself, colleagues and friends is an earnest curiosity, a drive to towards experiences they may not have had before, and towards real engagement with such experiences.  Put another way, dilettantery is an affect, a feeling, a bodily sensation, a way of interacting.  There’s something a bit sad about it, tragic because time and space are limited.  One might encounter something new and say “wow, look at this cool thing that is a thing I’ve never seen before; I ought to learn more about this cool thing.”  Then one does learn about this cool thing, but there’s not time to learn everything about it; many other cool things are inevitably discovered in the meantime, creating a distraction from the initial cool thing of interest.  A dilettante may end up with 25 open windows in 3 different browsers; 40 books checked out from a library, piled up, bookmarked, open to the same page for month, strewn about in one’s living- and bed-room; Spotify playlists that you won’t get to because by the time you do, Spotify won’t be a thing anymore.  Dilettantery often produces the feeling that one is drowning—you’re working hard, intellectually and artistically speaking, but you just can’t keep up[9].

Here I wish to reiterate the weakness of my claim.  I’m not saying we should all behave like this all the time; and I’m certainly not making an argument about the relationship of this way of existing and, say, how artists make money in a confusing economic landscape.  And I’m not saying we do all behave like this all the time[10].  I’m merely saying that this appears to be a sort of artistic production that I notice in Chicago new music, and it often feels authentic to me.  If anyone can recommend to me a serious scholarly study of dilettantery in some historical arts scene, some literature that might help me refine my theory, I will definitely read, like, half of it[11].

I want to offer cursory, dilettante-ish analyses of a few bits of recent work that exemplify the productive nexus that I try to describe above.

One was Party 2016, an event thrown by Ensemble Dal Niente and Parlour Tapes+ in April 2016.  By way of full disclosure: I am the conductor of Ensemble Dal Niente, and the members of Parlour Tapes+ are all close personal friends of mine, thus I make no claims towards objectivity; but this is in keeping with a dilettante’s aversion towards specialization and eschewal of a privileged critical point of view.  The Party is a messy event.  It’s an evening-length[12] combination of European art music[13], a fragmentary, dilettante-ish arrangement of pop tunes[14], and a piece for instruments and video-game controllers[15].  The audience was a bit messy by the end and the location was definitely messy the morning after.  

Or take the example of Spektral Quartet’s performance of Dave Reminick’s Ancestral Mousetrap, which I saw them play a few times earlier this year.  (Here’s a movement from their January 2016 studio release, but here’s the same movement in a 2014 live performance; it gives you a slightly better since of the athletic freakishness of what they’re doing.)  This example may seem less obvious because here the high level of compositional craft and the supremely well-executed performance is a clear relief.  But this just means that the untrained style of the singing is brought all the more confrontationally to the fore.  They are extremely specialized players, but their artistry is brilliant because of its dilettantery.  Precisely because their instrumental skills are so insanely high, their imperfections—their bodies, via their regular old voices—are made that much less avoidable. Their professionalism, ironically, highlights the ways in which they are amateur.  The poetry (by Russell Edson) that Dave sets thematizes, funny in its literalness, the absence of unity in a human subject:

A piece of a man had broken off in a road. He picked it up and put it in his pocket.

As he stooped to pick up another piece he came apart at the waist.

His bottom half was still standing. He walked over on his elbows and grabbed the seat of his pants and said, legs go home.

But as they were going along his head fell off. His head yelled, legs stop.

And then one of his knees came apart. But meanwhile his heart had dropped out of his trunk.

As his head screamed, legs turn around, his tongue fell out.

Oh my God, he thought, I’ll never get home.

The players in the string quartet—by playing and singing at the same time—divide their bodies just as the body of the narrative subject of the poem is physically divided.  The words are batted about the ensemble whereby the narrative voice is revealed as several points of view.  This is all can be read as a figure for our experience in this cultural moment: we like music and we like poetry, want to like them at the same time, get both compacted into 3 minutes, try to read as much of the experience as possible as it happens, and then reflect on it later.  We end up missing a lot, but get a lot out of it.  We still miss a lot.

I’d like to analyze many more recent performances I’ve seen, recordings that have been released, pieces I’ve come to know, and think and talk about them and how they relate to my existence as a dilettante.  But this essay has gotten really long (sorry-not-sorry); I, maybe like you, am drowning in culture, and I don’t have time to consider everything as carefully as I want to and I think I have a rehearsal this afternoon that I have to get ready for, so I’ll just make a bulleted list I guess:

  • I feel like Mocrep (of which the editors of this magazine are members) got a certain amount of criticism for a radical switch they exhibited in their 2015-16 concert season.  They used to be instrumentalists.  Now they mostly aren’t; in fact, their website lists only their names. They say they’re interested in “works that not only synthesize music, theater, and performance art, but also productively embrace the differences between these mediums.”  Some thought that their initial presentations of performance art weren’t well-crafted enough; at worst, went this line of criticism, their peformances could be construed as disrespectful to theater professionals, who have been doing performance art for years at a high level.  I have a few things to say in response to this line of thinking: 1) that in receiving this criticism, the members of the ensemble, in my experience, embraced it as a learning opportunity; 2) that, in spite of this criticism, they courageously continued to “constantly [push] to address political, social, and cultural questions through performance”; and 3) observing them rehearse at the Darmstadt Summer Courses, I have rarely seen a group of people work so hard.  It seems to me that how they proceeded is a solid model for how a person might want to be a musician in the world. Try a thing, and if that thing feels authentic, continue to pursue it and see where it takes one, and seek the honest help and support of others in doing so.  I don’t know what Mocrep will be doing in 1 or 3 or 5 years, but they embody the spirit of dilettantery, as I’ve construed it here, in an unusually productive and dedicated way. I don’t doubt that their development will continue to be surprising.

  • Parlour Tapes+’s release of a Danny Clay/Mabel Kwan clavichord album Inventions was really great.  (isn’t the tape just the perfect figure for the clavichord, both of them out-dated technologies that, if you pay really careful attention, yield a lot of aesthetic satisfaction? and isn’t it just so perfectly self-aware and brilliant that the Parlour Tapes+ people made little clavichords out of tape cases?).

  • here’s a random quotation from mathias spahlinger’s propositions/concepts on the liquidation/redundancy of the function of the composer.  “it is possible to perform a work perfectly, with all the right notes and in the right spirit…, without a majority of the musicians and, in an extreme case, a single person in the audience having understood it at all.”

  • here are links to both my deeply inexpert music-person review of a theater festival; but also that by Lily Mooney (a theater person) of a music show (mine).

  • there is just so much that is infinitely interesting about Joan Pàmies’ doctoral dissertation work, Produktionsmittel III (“Modes of Production III”) and its exacting self-examination and relentless provisionality.  it bombards you both with devastatingly vast ways of reading and interacting with the material, but also with its dogged self-consciousnes.  i wish i had more time to think about it

  • And while i’m at it, did y’all see all of the Northwestern doctoral comp recitals in 2016?  I mean they were like really amazing, right?  I mean those of—besides Dave and Joan—LJ White, Katie Young, Alex Temple and Chris Fisher-Lochhead.  I feel like there’s one i missed because I had a rehearsal that evening or was out of town.  Oh I think maybe it was Jenna Lyle’s?  Sorry, Jenna, if so; but you know I think your work is really great; I was really disturbed by that piece in the DePaul art museum and was really engaged by that weird thing you did in Darmstadt where like you pushed a piano into me and i didn’t move.  anyway, someone should really, like, think carefully about those NU recitals.

  • the recent Avalanches album is really great; i think it’s called “colors” or “frank sinatra” or something.  you should check it out, at least listen to the first song.  it sort of cuts in and out, i feel like i have the beginnings of a theory about it, i feel like it relates to something i read in some adorno essay and also the tame impala album from last summer that i haven’t listened to in a few months

  • i bought this book but i haven’t read it yet

  • you know i’m pretty sure i had something else to say but now i can’t remember what

[1] can a dilettante be par excellence?

[2] isn’t that just the place a diletantte would go for a definition?

[3] Am I spelling this right?

[4] Oh, right it’s “Perfect Illusion.”

[5] I’m not sure this is actually a real word; maybe I should look it up

[6] In this sense.

[7] less fancy than, I think, merriam-wesbter.com, and not even in the same ballpark as the OED.

[8] can the super-ego run wild?

[9] Somehow I suspect that many of you are not convinced by the above.  Let’s talk about it.  Maybe we could have a beer.  You could tell me why I’m wrong because of this cool thing you’ve been reading, and I’ll put it on one of my lists; maybe I’ll remember to look it up in two weeks.  Maybe it will end up being particularly meaningful for some reason and will push me in some direction that I didn’t expect.  Or maybe I will forget it about.

[10] hmmm, though maybe I sort of am; I find that this is a mode I occupy frequently.

[11] It’d be great if you could email me a PDF so I don’t have to go over to the library to get it va inter-library loan.

[12] actually the full evening—like, 4 hours; not the arts-organization-speak “evening-length” meaning 90 mins plus intermission, i.e., not evening-length.

[13] Aperghis, Andriesson, and such 

[14] Greg Saunier’s Deerhoof Chamber Variations, srsly so great

[15] Stefan Prins’ Generation Kill, a messy piece—one of whose themes is the impossibility of locating agency in the performers—and the circumstances of whose performance were messy; the power to two of the of game controller consoles went just as the performance was to start.

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