The Idea, and Style

While in London this week I had the opportunity to see “Underground Surrealism” at the Hayward Gallery, a fascinating look into one very exciting moment in art history as witnessed through the prism of one magazine, Georges Bataille’s “Documents.” 

The magazine only lasted for about a year, yet Bataille and his colleagues were able to document an amazing array of the artistic ideas and philosophical debates of his time. More than any exhibition I’ve seen in a long time, this one did a fantastic job of both bringing to life the concert of ideas that helped spur the creation of new artistic forms and styles, but also showed how our current way of looking at life was so powerfully influenced by one group of thinkers and artists in one short window of time. 

More than anything, the exhibit is a testament to the supreme power of the idea as the core value of art. Bataille had a completely democratic attitude to art, which embraced virtuoso painters like Picasso, Dali and Masson, primitive art, historical art, Hollywood and even children’s drawings. Technique and theory don’t seem to matter much to him, but context and ideas do, and they matter a lot. Bataille’s exploration of the power of symbols and ritual seems to lead again and again back to his own ideas about humanity’s fascination with humiliation, death, degradation and mystery. 

I can’t help feeling a bit envious of those who were there. Looking back on all the explosions of creativity in the first 30 years of the 20th Century, it’s almost inconceivable that in so short a time humanity was able to find so many completely new ways of looking at the world artistically, philosophically and scientifically. Perhaps historians will recognize it as the most fertile period in human history. Relativity, serialism, jazz, expressionism, cubism, and American musical theatre- the list goes on and on. By grim comparison, what have we accomplished since 1976? Has there been even one truly significant artistic revolution? One scientific breakthrough (the road to the internet was mapped out in the early 70s!)? One new musical genre? Where are the new ideas of our time? 

How fascinating then that within 30 hours I had had two very powerful illustrations of the power of a completely opposite approach to art. Bataille’s evaluation of art seems to be dependent entirely on what he perceives as the value and power of the ideas it expresses. Presentation is not treated as a value in and of itself, and this is a quintessentially 20th Century outlook- where mere beauty is treated as a somewhat bourgeois value. Yet, when one hears Strauss’s Die Fledermaus or Elgar’s In the South, as I did on the next two evenings, one can’t help but admit that presentation does matter, that craft does matter. In the South is not one of Elgar’s most probing philosophical statements, but it is, in the very best sense of the cliché, a true tour-de-force of orchestration, voice-leading, harmonization and structure. It is an absolute joy to listen to from beginning to end. 

Johann Strauss Jr. is an even more extreme example of someone with an almost unfathomable natural facility as a composer and the most incredible instincts as a musician. How could one musician write so much in such a limited range of genres and yet always sound so fresh and alive. Strauss never seemed to have any ambition to be “serious” or in any way groundbreaking, but his music is as good as anyone else’s and better than most. Fledermaus does have ideas in it, but these were not an important part of the Glyndebourne production we saw this week, which was mostly a frothy, slapstick affair. What was important was the music- the sparking orchestration, the endless tunes, the wit, the flash, and the little touches of genius in every bar. Come to think of it, we haven’t done so brilliantly in the last 30 years on presentation, either, when compared to the era of Strauss and Elgar. 

 More on Undercover Surrealism

c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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