Context as Necessity

Often reading textbooks on Art History, philosophy, or even Music, a great deal of context is given. The work in question has to be situated. It comes from somewhere.

But I get the sense that when the climate of the times is described, the author implicitly suggests that the work wasn’t anything really special, or genius. One can easily trace its origins to the current ideas circulating.

When one presents a work like this, we cease to really see its transforming power. We cease to see it as a work of genius. And, I think, there are geniuses. When one reads a biography of the artist/philosopher in question, the transforming power of the work is almost always raised to a much higher degree because the work in question is seen in detail. When I look at it as one instance of one person’s work, as a sign of the times, I’m not really looking at the work as it was presented in its own context.

I can’t help hear Badiou’s voice in my head: an event is an ontological decision. One of his examples is the French Revolution. Once it is infinitely picked apart, no one can name it as unified event anymore, and if no one can name it as an evental site, it no longer holds any trans-formative power.

In sum, the way one views an artwork is a decision. I can decide to see Schoenberg as a consequence of the steady increase of the use of dissonance. Indeed, he seemed to say as much. But. One hundred years after Schoenberg, people often see his late work as the cut-off of what constitutes good classical music (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, then it ends…). And I can also say: “Ya, he wasn’t so great. You can easily see where he comes from. Sooner or later someone would have done what he did.” Here, (bad?) historical context is used as a weapon against the naming of a revolutionary work.

Be wary of textbooks and biographies that use context. Tracking the influence of a work is a difficult business, even if it is within context. So, “Context”, then, can be used either for the discrediting of a revolutionary work, or it can be used to show just how revolutionary the work really is.

About JoeL

I completed a Master of Music degree from McGill University. I am currently working towards an Artist Diploma also at McGill. I like to do philosophy as a hobby.

7 thoughts on “Context as Necessity

  1. I immediately thought of Glenn Gould. You, obviously, know him and his work far better than I. Would you say that people can “context” his significance away?

    Another point: Many (none moreso than Proust, from what I’ve encountered) have made note of the fact that true geniuses are rarely recognized in their own time, with the implication being that they reach ahead and out of their context. How do art history, music, or philosophy text books makes sense of this phenomenon (I don’t think I’ve ever read a textbook come to think of it)?

    I think Merleau-Ponty has some good things to say about the relationship between context and authentic creativity. Here are just a few quotes, all of them from “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence.”

    “The painter [can never…] say (since the distinction makes no sense) what comes from him and what comes from things, what his new work adds to the previous ones, or what he has taken from others as opposed to what is his own.”

    Writing against the the devaluing (putting into pure context) activity of museums: “Style lives within each painter like his heartbeat… [in a] secret, modest, non-deliberated, involuntary, and, in short, living historicity.”

    “Da Vinci he succeeded in making a means of interpreting the world out of everything he lived.”

    “[Van Gogh’s style of expression] is legible for Van Gogh neither in his first works, nor even in his ‘inner life’ (for in this case Van Gogh would not need painting in order to be reconciled with himself; he would stop painting). It is that very life, to the extent that it emerges from its inherence, ceases to be in possession of itself, and becomes a universal means of understanding and of making something understood, of seeing and of presenting something to see – and is thus not shut up in the depths of the mute individual but diffused throughout all he sees.”

    On good improvisation: “There is also the improvisation of the artist who has turned toward the world that he wanted to express and (each word calling for another) has finally composed for himself a learned voice which is more his than his original cry.”


  2. I especially loved the first and last quotes.

    As far as Gould is concerned. I’ve heard mostly strange things in Academia. And it seems like the things that I have heard can’t really make sense of his chaotic significance. For instance, 1. He was so eccentric that we can’t really take him seriously. 2. If he wanted his music to sound more like Bach intended, why didn’t he just play the harpsichord, instead of just modifying his piano? 3. He was a great advocate of the music of Schoenberg, but mostly people just wanted to hear his Bach.(Actually, I’m listening to him play Schoenberg as we speak. huh. weird coincidence). 4. His interpretations of Beethoven, Brahms and the more canonic pianist composers are far too unorthodox. He took way too much liberty. He imposed his own interpretation of the music, instead of letting the music speak the way (the orthodox (?) thinkers think) the composer intended. 5. Canadian composers are pushed these days in academia, so there have been a few projects that have attempted to mimic his playing style, mechanically, and I think with a real pianist. I’m not sure about this one entirely.

    It seems like he crossed over far too many boundaries in a very wild way for him to be used in Academia. I don’t know. There are biographies of him as a significant pianist in the 20th century. But it’s hard to tell, exactly if it’s only the general public who really admired him.

    As far as context is concerned, it is difficult to say, because, in a way, his work did really seem to come out of nowhere, though he claims that he learned how to play Bach like he does once he heard a female pianist, whose name escapes me.

    Perhaps I’m not addressing the kind of significance you mean.


  3. No, you’re getting at what I was thinking in regards to Gould. What I’m understanding is that, unable to “context his significance away,” people have simply denied significance. I wonder if this is what we do more often to “genius,” finding it quite out of context. The problem with this is that it appears to give license to anyone who is critiqued to understand themselves as the true, misunderstood artist. And then, who knows how people 3 centuries from now will see how Gould fit into the context of 20th century music.

    “If he wanted his music to sound more like Bach intended, why didn’t he just play the harpsichord, instead of just modifying his piano?” It would be interesting to consider this critique in terms of in/authenticity and retrieval.

    Liked by 1 person

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