The End of Art and Jazz (from Philosophyofjazz.net) by Wojciech Rubiś and Paulina Tendera

“…the most essential thing is that the composition, in terms of structure, be inventive and logical” Gunther Schuller (1963)


Photo by Lukas Robertson on Unsplash

In the second half of the twentieth century, there was a great deal of talk about a phenomenon known in the art world as “the end of art.” This concept referred to significant, sometimes revolutionary changes in the perception of the work of art and changes in its manner of existence (its ontology). The very notion of the “end of art” was justified and inspired (though not entirely validly) by the philosophy of Georg Hegel. Art critics, wishing to exploit this idea, explained the incompatibility of their own comments with the original thought of Hegel in historical terms: Hegel had written too early to be able to say anything detailed and specific about the art of the twentieth century; in fact, he had simply never seen such art. Hegel was not a clairvoyant with a crystal ball and was not writing horoscopes for artists; the philosophical structures of his thought – which were surely difficult for critics, who often know little about philosophy, to understand—are empty by nature—the nature of philosophical theories, which operate primarily on the basis of abstractions and concepts. It was too difficult for those critics to conceive that it was not through observation that Hegel arrived at his theses. Lectures on Aesthetics is a late work (essentially written by his disciples), fully compatible with the overall structure of the philosophy of history. It is no accident that the artists mentioned in the pages of Lectures on Aesthetics can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

But we ask the reader to refrain from immediately associating our views with naive traditionalism. The present question deals exclusively with the quality and clarity of the practice of philosophy: specifically, with the attempt to justify and, even worse, to exalt weak art by means of philosophy, which is comparable to the mechanism of evoking Nietzsche to justify twentieth-century German policy. The philosophy of history is not fortune-telling; this should serve us as a warning, precisely because we are capable of fathoming the emptiness of the forms in which this philosophy, as an abstract structure, is expressed. So much for the subject of Hegel.

There are many indications that the concept of the “end of art” acted not as an explanation and important enrichment of twentieth-century thinking about art, but rather as flashy advertising promoting the ultimate and irreversible twilight of Western culture, involving not only critics but philosophers, academics, journalists, artists, and collectors as well. Business boomed, and it appeared that the “end of art” also encompassed their postulates regarding “absolute freedom” in all areas and forms of artistic activity.

Fortunately, however, history happened to turn out somewhat differently, and there remained, in the area of artistic creation, “desert islands,” which, for various reasons, defended themselves against such clamorous ideology. Positions on this matter, of course, may differ, but we will try to put forward the thesis that one such “island” was the area of jazz music, which to this day is characterized by a rather stable and homogeneous ideological-tonal-philosophical core.


Photo by Gabriel Barletta on Unsplash

The reasons for this state of affairs can be traced to a few important aspects of jazz music itself and its history. To mention a few:

(A) Jazz music has its own very specific philosophy which developed systematically and independently from the beginning of slavery (that is, predating the musical form of jazz), largely in conjunction with racial-political and less so with market issues.

(B) Through the hermeticity of the language of music, especially jazz, this area of creativity is protected from the influence of casual (unqualified) observers, and discussions about its essence and perspectives regarding further development are conducted primarily among artists—that is, simply, the interested parties themselves.

(C) Jazz from the very beginning has possessed in and of itself an important component of freedom, which in the course of many years managed to become established in the jazz world, and jazz musicians never passed through the stage of a great universal emancipation (revolution in music). The values of freedom in jazz are strongly rooted in its history, which is intertwined with the history of slavery in the British, Spanish, and Portuguese colonies, as recalled in the late 1950s and early 60s in black national and racial movements.

(D) Jazz musicians never preached actual postulates of change in the world of art, i.e. the whole area of music; at times, for example, in the 1960s, we encounter certain statements concerning the spiritual renewal of man; however, essentially jazz musicians did not express themselves on the subjects of painting, sculpture, or film, etc. Their comments were usually limited to music. In short, jazz remained aloof from the philosophy unifying the entire field of art.

(E) The long apprenticeship generally associated with achieving mastery in playing any instrument and the hierarchy (relevant authorities) prevailing in the jazz world meant that one does not find self-proclaimed stars for a single season; recognition for composition and performance is derived from the musical environment (other opinions do not exist or are not taken into account). This attitude towards creativity reinforces objectivity in jazz.

The history of jazz and many statements by important creators of jazz culture and music show that artists possess a very high level of awareness of the area of creative work and the materials with which they operate. Many of them are very familiar with the history of jazz (at least since the 1960s), understand the interrelationships between and inspirations of particular artists, and possess broad knowledge in the area of music, not only jazz but also classical, ethnic, and contemporary trends (jazz, for example, is involved today in the creation of so-called World Music). The statements and opinions I am about to address result from this knowledge and, interestingly, very often take a very strict, almost academic form.

Based on this approach, one also maintains a healthy distance from heralds of phenomena such as “absolute freedom” or “the end of art.” Let us begin with a comment by Sunny Murray, who once said: “You can get complete freedom from the first guy to walk down the street. Give him twenty bucks, and he’ll probably do something totally free.”[2]

There is a great deal of reason and distance here that are usually lacking in critics and eulogists of the “new (arbitrary) freedom” who time after time denounce those members of the public trying to fight for the quality of art, saying that it is not they who decide what art is, but exclusively the freedom of the artist that confers the rank of art upon objects, and that there is no room for discussion of this issue. It is impossible to imagine such statements in the field of jazz, where freedom harmonizes with objectivity.

It was not so much artists as art critics—seeing their own future in similar postulates—who demanded this arbitrary freedom. Artists preoccupied with their own craft often do not even glance at critics, while those lacking talent in the craft eagerly support themselves on the promises of the pundits. Where there are no longer any true artists, art becomes the creation of critics. How is it that jazz musicians are able to maintain such a distance from contemporary slogans of freedom? Or, to put the question a different way, what are we, in the perspective of such words, to make of the frenzied and often meaningless pursuit of this freedom by contemporary artists?

Here a very important issue arises, one that should really be dealt with by artists, concerning, in all seriousness, the following question: should the artist be concerned with freedom? Specifically—although it is difficult to imagine today—in the history of art the idea of freedom is by no means the dominant element; rather, the minds of the great masters of musical instruments, brushes, or chisels were usually engaged with artistic and theoretical questions, worlds away from divagations concerning whether or not they were essentially free. More often, when they spoke of freedom, their demands were delivered philosophically, on behalf of all humanity (human freedom as such), not artists alone. Let us admit that these oppressed artists often left behind examples of excellent art, proving that freedom does not go hand in hand with artistic quality.

A good or even superficial knowledge of the history of art and the history of ideas in art is surely lacking in all those who, at the same time, lack this precious distance from current fashions and trends in art. American trombonist J. J. Johnson expressed his opinion on this subject as follows:

“Changes in art shouldn’t be made like changes in fashion, just for the sake of novelty. A new style in music, painting, or poetry should be the result of a new way of thinking in the world. A new style of music is born in the minds and hearts of true artists, not of opportunists.”[3]


Photo by Trust „Tru” Katsande on Unsplash

Thus Johnson believes that artists themselves should not focus on changes and the remaking of art, for, simply, that is neither the aim of art nor the role of the artist. It follows that an artistic dialog with the so-called “art world” as a whole is, for the artist himself and his work meaningless and incidental, and possibly even harmful, since it takes an extra-artistic form, and thus is especially compelling for artists. In fact, the “art world” is, for the artist, a world of pressure. If we cared to add a bit of metaphysics to Johnson, we might say, accurately, that the development of art should be governed rather by higher necessity, which, however, we seek not in Hegelian “historical necessity,” but in internal directions of developments intrinsic to jazz. Thus there is no question of expediency within the meaning of some kind (even if cited above) of Hegelian philosophy of history, but rather a necessity flowing “from the bottom up.” Metaphorically, if we take a step with the left foot, we take the next step with the right; if we add two and two, we get four; but this is because our actions result from order and harmony of action, not because someone has established four as the necessary result of any arithmetic or decided to walk with the right foot only—which would be the inevitable result of the concept of the “end of art.”

But let us add a bit of sensitivity and feeling to Johnson’s words and remind ourselves of an important idea by an author who is already a classic in the history of jazz, namely, Joachim Berendt:

The demand for something new at every festival, year after year, is an inhuman, cold, industrial, abstract one. Art is love, and love is an act, something that must be fulfilled. Anyone who says about this act that “there was nothing new in it” robs himself of his own capacity for love. This is what I sense in this type of critic: lack of love. Lack of love also characterizes music which wants at all costs to always be new. However, jazz, perhaps to a greater extent than any other kind of music, expresses love: rediscovery and perpetual return.[4]


Photo by Matthew LeJune on Unsplash

Berendt goes straight to the heart of things. He loves music for its own sake; creating and listening to music is one of life’s great delights, a communion with beauty and order. Here we are, of course, at liberty to raise the question of freedom; however, it is worth taking a critical look at the history of the twentieth century, and also noting, so as not to reflect negatively on the quality of art, that the great chase for freedom is very closely linked to politics and mass-culture marketing. Thus we are faced with the following question: in the twentieth century, was it actually artists who demanded freedom? For whom was it truly a necessity? Who persuaded artists that they were not and could not be independent? Who in the art world operates in the style of a mafia offering entrepreneurs protection from itself? Theorists defending artists from attempts at theory.

This idea is summed up well by Andrzej Schmidt, a Polish historian of jazz:

“Time corrects much, sometimes even all. The years that to many contemporary lovers and observers of jazz seemed full of earthquakes, revolution, and even catastrophe are seen differently today: as a logical sequence of events, with its own specific causes.” [5]

A general observation emerges following analysis of this judgment: even if, in the areas of visual arts, painting, film, or performance (theater), there is a strong connection of necessity between what was and what is, it is not observable from the perspective of supporters of the “end of art.” The prospect of (arbitrary) freedom associated with subjectivism and relativism in art eliminates, for artists and viewers alike, the opportunity for deeper reflection on historical and ideological links and perceptible harmony connected with the internal ontological order of art—which, as we know, is a source of beauty in its most fundamental sense. Jazz defends itself from this, because, apart from freedom, it does not give up objective values and principles of establishing order and identifying good works. The mistake of the contemporary “end of art” is thus not even a caricature of the quest for freedom, but mere relativism.

Winslow, AZ, USA 2017

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