American High Renaissance
By Crispin Sartwell
My Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael are Louis Armstrong, Hank Williams, and Biggie Smalls.
Certain periods of art history seem unaccountably potent. For example, the Italian High Renaissance is represented as an almost momentary perfection, a sublime height of human aesthetic expression. Indeed, perhaps on certain accounts, art has been in decline ever since, or at least has rarely or never reached such heights again.
I think that we have lived and are living through a similar period, and I propose that American popular music of the twentieth century was an artistic high point comparable to the sixteenth century in Italy, or the classical age of Greece. No, I am not kidding.
Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson, Duke Ellington, Thomas Dorsey, Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, Muddy Waters, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, George Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, Public Enemy, the Ramones, Lucinda Williams, Eminem: these are artists as great, in my view, as the High Renaissance masters or classical Greek sculptors, and it would surprise me if there was a comparable set of musical achievements anywhere in the world at any time.
This tradition, it seems to me, has produced things as beautiful, as moving, as intense, as intelligent, and as challenging as the painting and sculpture of the Italian High Renaissance, and things with far more effect on far more people around the world.
If these claims appear absurd, it's probably partly because of the suspicion, at the high end of the art world, of popular or commercial art, art with a mass audience. None of the artists mentioned above were trained at Julliard or spent the summers of their youth at Tanglewood. The way people experience this music is to go out dancing or buy records or listen to the radio. But surely few people, on reflection, would assert that the greater the number of people who like something, the worse it is.
Indeed, American popular music is, more or less, the world's popular music. There is no corner of the planet it hasn't penetrated, no culture whose music is unaffected by it. This, I think, is because of its great power: its emotional immediacy, its relentless formal and technological development, the way it helps bodies move or demands that they move.
Now the fine/popular art distinction is problematic in a thousand ways, but as Pierre Bourdieu among others has asserted, one of its problems is class: fine art as the art of rich people and those who aspire to that status, as opposed to the popular arts of the commoners. One approaches high or fine art seriously, but one approaches popular music in order to be entertained. The idea that people take pleasure in it and so want to buy it, itself seems to undermine its aesthetic quality.
All this is irrelevant snobbery, and the notion that Bartok is more formally challenging than Ellington is unsustainable. And indeed, the art music of the twentieth century, even with its tiny audience of culture mavens, is inconceivable without jazz, which started to be incorporated into 'classical' music almost at the moment jazz recordings appeared.
The classical music tradition has been marked by people sitting politely and trying not cough while large groups of musicians read sheet music and play it as written. Louis Armstrong never played the same solo twice, and the formal innovations he instituted were made on the fly, in response to the audience and the other musicians. The risk of this approach is higher - you make mistakes. But the rewards are higher too: sudden flashes of unaccountable genius perfectly suited to their musical and social contexts.
Listen to the early cadenza on "West End Blues" or the cornet solo on "Chimes Blues": perfect compositions that can only emerge at the right instant. One might say the same of Jimi Hendrix on "Little Wing", for example. The entire high art musical tradition, I believe, can show nothing comparable, nothing as compelling, nothing as connected to human happiness or to the truth.
You might think the music of Alan Jackson or Kacey Musgraves is just hicks playing cornpone. But it has told and still tells real stories about real people. I am going to assume that even art snobs occasionally experience things like lost love or addiction. I don't think there's any reason that great art should avoid the human condition or fail to express emotion, and I don't think the fact that a piece of music is aimed at non-rich southern white people itself shows that it is not aesthetically excellent. If you think so, you need to re-think your attitudes toward art and human beings from the bottom up.
Of course, popular music is connected to capitalism, and this itself appears to disqualify it among art snobs, who strongly prefer their art to be funded by the state or approved by the Pew foundation. (Perhaps they should reflect on the relation of the sgovernment and the foundation themselves to capitalism, to begin with.) But the fact that Run DMC and Patsy Cline were trying to sell records meant that they were in constant dialogue with their people: they both tried to give the record-buyer or concert-goer what they wanted, and to show them what they might want next.
And the fact that popular music has had a huge audience has also made it an incomparable cultural index. There are few clearer windows, for example, onto race, gender, class, and sexuality. If Tammy Wynette sang "Stand By Your Man" and Loretta Lynn "The Pill" almost simultaneously, they showed the lives and values of women in transition. You could take Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy" or Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" as ways into the American racial situation, and as among the most powerful statements by black people of what this has been like. And remarkably, precisely because these are works of mass art, the songs communicate the experiences across the lines that divide us.
The music that helps create cohesion among sub-cultures also communicates these cultures, potentially, to anyone. And the whole thing leads to a thousand problematic and liberating personal and artistic crossings: white folks slumming in Harlem to see Fletcher Henderson; hip hop's production of wiggers; Benny Goodman's work with Charlie Christian or Billie Holiday; Elvis Presley's synthesis of hillbilly and jump blues; Mahalia Jackson performing at a peace rally; Eminem's long collaboration with Dr. Dre.
Popular music has been central to liberation movements, and all over the world, musicians from oppressed groups are still taking Public Enemy as a model. Probably the greatest achievement of the century in this dimension is the music Bob Marley, and in general one of the few rivals to American music in the late twentieth century was the music of Jamaica. But Marley would be the first to tell you that there's no Jamaican pop without American rhythm and blues. And the Jamaican ska, rock steady, and reggae styles have been feeding back into American pop since perhaps 1970.
The British had a pretty good pop run, but if you think you could get anything like the Beatles or the Stones without American rhythm and blues, you might talk to the surviving members of those groups. Both started out as blues and soul buffs and cover bands. The Beatles would not have existed at all without people like Smokey Robinson and the Isley Brothers.
But there's no need to get captured by musical nationalism, and we should recognize everyone's achievements as far as we can. What I will insist on is that art history has produced few objects in any medium as moving in every sense, or as true, or as transformational in as many dimensions as "I Heard that Lonesome Whistle Blow", "Hellhound on My Trail", "Folsom Prison Blues", Biggie's "Suicidal Thoughts", "Take My Hand, Precious Lord", "Body and Soul", "Great Balls of Fire", "Sweet Old World".
In short, American popular music has been central to social identities, connected to real people's real lives, an agent of personal and societal transformation, and an incomparable source of collective and individual expression and pleasure. The world had never seen its like before, and I'm not sure it ever will again.
Perhaps the American High Renaissance is over, or has transitioned into a new Mannerism or an international, postmodern Baroque. On the other hand, the Baroque was pretty impressive as well, and popular music continues to be our most vital art.
[piece i couldn't sell]