Books

Charles Rosen's 'Freedom and the Arts' Embodies a Corpus of Creativity and Achievement

“Without pleasure, there is no understanding… You cannot make sense of music without advocacy, and not to make sense of it is to condemn [it]” (238).


Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature

Publisher: Harvard University Press
Length: 448 pages
Author: Charles Rosen
Price: $35.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-05
Amazon

Charles Rosen has endowed the field of musicology and cultural-musical history for decades with innovative analyses that restructure the understanding of the classical musical form. His prize-winning previous works have been applauded for their ability to present innovative questions that shift scholarly focus and modes of inquiry. Rosen’s work as a pianist and a scholar have demonstrated his talent for infusing cultural analysis with a well-researched, genuine, and thoughtful perspective that serve to delight and engage audiences. With superb writing and a prodigious polymathic knowledge base, Rosen’s recent book, Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature, is no exception.

In this new collection, Rosen details a spectrum of subject areas that challenge readers to develop new interpretations, critique insights, and disentangle philosophical puzzles such as what influences one’s taste, enjoyment, repulsion, etc. The central thesis of this text is made clear in the introduction, that art can offer “multiple possibilities of significance” (8) ultimately bringing a sense of pleasure. To accept our freedom to interpret, we must find a balance that evokes both the past and present while ensuring pleasure and the creation of knowledge. Thus Freedom and the Arts serves to enrich our appreciation, understanding, and passions of music, literature, and art.

Rosen’s chapters broach questions regarding the construction of a Western aesthetic canon, the influence of politics, the legacy of Mozart’s music and tradition, critiques of commodified art, the development of new theoretical approaches, etc. Each chapter’s subject is thoroughly developed and argued. The text is comprised of six divisions: Part 1: The Weight of Society, Part II: Mostly Mozart, Part III: Centenaries, Part IV: Long Perspectives, Part V: Classical Modernism: Past and Present, Part 6: Conclusive Essay. More so, Rosen adopts an expansive and impressive range of methodologies and modes of inquiry to fully develop his subject base. For example, he readily employs musical theory, cultural histories, biographies, and personal narrative etc. as preferred methodologies.

For fans of Rosen, the interjection of personal narrative is plentiful, but that doesn't detract from the overall text. Rather, his anecdotes concretize his thesis because he serves as the embodiment of the pleasure and life-long passion engendered by the merits of art. As Rosen reminds readers, "music -- even classical music -- is intended to give pleasure. Without pleasure there is no understanding" (236) thereby echoing his legacy and his passions.

However, he over-enthusiastically includes copious asides and minor tangents that sometimes aid the thesis, but more often render it unclear. Regardless, I found that in general the shorter historical quips strengthen Rosen’s text, as they provide a fuller understanding of the historical and social contexts. Other reviewers suggest that some of Rosen’s facts are incorrect (see Alastair Macaulay’s article, "The Pleasures of Charles Rosen", The New York Review of Books, 24 2012). Still, Rosen’s text is imbued with a heart-fullness that clearly reflects his interest in the subject matter. What Rosen succeeds in doing is demonstrating the gratification in cultural pluralism, and the expansive diapason of art and interpretation that can ultimately grant pleasure.

Rosen’s examples are of classical Western origin, despite this, many of his concepts, such as the necessity for the fluidity of interpretation and the pleasure of art, can be applied across mediums and temporal contexts. Such adaptability is one of the strongest features of Freedom and the Arts, it allows the readers to grasp Rosen’s larger ideas and apply them across contexts. This again facilitates his desire to use art and culture as producers of pleasure and knowledge.

Indeed, Rosen argues for a polysemic analyses and critiques of art. Thus, if we accept a single interpretation, then we ourselves become single-minded, ostensibly conformed and entrapped by commonality: “a double approach to a work of the past increases not only knowledge but delight. Any work becomes richer and more interesting when we cease to restrict our vision either to the conventions of the past or to the demands of the present” (420). The acceptance of a polysemic method of analysis leads to new and refreshing possibilities in music and literature that in due course fuse the longevity of classical art. This is precisely one of Rosen’s central points. When approaching art, one must keep in mind the original work’s identity and context. thereby inculcating a quotient from the past while adapting the piece for the present.

It seems that Rosen is highly influenced by the Frankfurt School, especially the work of Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, and Theodore Adorno, and it's no coincidence that Rosen’s essay, “Theodore Adorno: Criticism as Cultural Nostalgia” is included in this text. Just as Adorno’s “sharp intelligence led him to confront important issues in the arts and culture that other critics refuse to face – changes in reading and listening habits, the increasing difficulty of modern art, the influence of commercial interests in artistic distribution” (262), Rosen sets his text in a similar direction. Yet unlike Adorno, Rosen approaches art and culture as ingenious rather than derivative. Moreover, Rosen sees art as potentially fueling a type of freedom opposed to Adorno’s fear that culture can enslave and oppress.

The first half of the text is celebratory, demonstrating and illustrating the nuances of art and interpretation. For example, Rosen elects Mozart scholar Cliff Eisen as an individual who elucidates Mozart’s work while paying full respect to the original. As Rosen contends, “without altering the original, [Eisen] has added thousands of footnotes that correct or expand the text” (65).

Yet Freedom and the Arts takes a turn, and becomes noticeably more alarmist and pessimistic. It's clear that Rosen is concerned with the longevity of classical art and does not believe in an artists’ ability to balance tradition with modernity. Rosen’s fear is that modernizing classical art, or restructuring it to appeal to a contemporary audience, will destroy the original integrity of the piece. He has little faith in artists’ or audiences’ abilities to recuperate the original work. As Rosen argues, “we must abandon the view that an acceptable interpretation is reachable either by a one-sided attempt to impose an ‘authentic’ view or by a rigorously ‘modern’ reconception” (420). For example Rosen lambastes attempts to update opera by suggesting “more recent publications have come up with a modern realism even more inappropriate and far more grotesque than the comic old fashioned style” (416).

I will not argue against Rosen’s exhortations that many companies are revamping classic art in order to appeal to more contemporary audience, and in many cases this is a determent. However, Rosen continues to suggest that we cannot abandon classical art, and I would return with the suggestion that no one has abandoned it. Rather, classical art is a constant contributor to contemporary culture and in many instances has maintained its originality and the voice of the artist, but it has also adopted new and imaginative manifestations. If one were to implement a deeper analysis, as Rosen calls for in the introduction, audiences can pinpoint interpretative freedoms, instances that enliven a waning interest in a classical piece, or examine moments when art, and music in particular, is “seemingly unfiltered through a system of meaning. In the opera, music does not come to us through the words: the words arrive through the music and sometimes give it greater force” (288).

Art is very much like the act of interpretation, in that it is fluid. To warn readers in this manner, Rosen adopts a strict authoritative voice that leans toward patronization and pretension, thereby contradicting his own imploration for fluidity of interpretation.

By no means is Freedom and the Arts a type of text that one sits down and reads in a single session. Rather, it's best read in increments – a chapter or a paragraph at a time – in order to fully unpack Rosen’s intent and argument. Rosen implicitly alludes to this when he writes that a “classic may almost be defined as a book to which you wish to return from time to time even if only for a few minutes” (73). Despite its flaws, Freedom and the Arts embodies a corpus of creativity and achievement. Rosen leads readers through these pieces and eras and poignantly demonstrates the delicate features and everlasting joys we share when discussing and consuming art.

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Music

Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?

Music

Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.

Music

IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.

Music

Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.

Film

NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.

Music

The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.