Glenn Gould is a name well known to classical music lovers, perhaps a little less so to non-music fans. Born in Toronto in the ’30s, he burst onto the music scene in the ’50s; his recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations was critically lauded, and a second recording made shortly before his early death in 1982 has sold over two million copies.
Gould was also an incorrigible eccentric. He compulsively hummed through recitals, providing a source of frustration to concertgoers and studio engineers alike. He wrote piano reductions of orchestral works by famous composers that added melodic and harmonic material found nowhere in the original. He conducted many of his relationships largely over the phone due to a Howard Hughes-like fear of germs. He frequently advanced extreme or absurd viewpoints in his copious essays and treatises on the musical world; one essay is even titled ‘Let’s Ban Applause’.
It is Gould and those like him who form the focus of Ross Posnick’s extraordinary book, Renunciation. The book’s subtitle is ‘Acts of Abandonment by Writers, Philosophers, and Artists’. For Posnock, renunciation does not signify the drawing back from public engagement that it intuitively signifies to the onlooker. Far from it: dwelling on modernism in the arts, he suggests that not abiding by the conventions of any given mode of expression is itself an expressive act.
On one level, Posnock supports this idea by recourse to a minute examination of the working practices of various writers, composers, performers, and painters. Initially one could be forgiven for thinking that Posnock’s approach, which frequently brings him into contact with well-worn examples of the modernist impulse, will bring little profit: Jackson Pollock’s ‘drip’ paintings of the ’50s hardly represent untrodden ground, and neither is John Cage’s 4’33″ (1952), his ‘silent piece’ for piano whose iconoclasm bemused and shocked audiences in equal measure.
Yet Posnock looks beyond the received notions of how such works were written, allowing us to reinterpret the artistic intent behind them in the process. In the case of Pollock, he perceptively notes the influence of the one piece of archive footage of Pollock in the process of painting one of these canvases in 1951. Clad in black, paint-covered stick in hand, Pollock circles a canvas laid on the floor, splattering paint here and there with an easy flourish that, in fact, seems to contain traces of the methodical.
For in Posnock’s view, this piece of film has come to represent all that we know, or rather, all that we think we know, about Pollock’s style at this point in his career. At the time, there were many in the general public who thought the emperor was wearing no clothes. British comedian Tony Hancock was so sure of this perception that he spoofed Pollock (and Pollock’s contemporary, William Green) in the comedy film The Rebel (1961; released in the US as Call Me Genius), in which the protagonist cheerfully splashes paint hither and yon, and even rides a bicycle through paint and then across a canvas — before being promptly lauded as a master painter.
The implication of all this is obvious: Pollock and his ilk eschew all pretensions of technique and form. Art historians know this to be untrue; at the least, there was forethought behind the painter’s decision to dispense with brush and palette. But Posnock notes the recent discovery (through digital enlargement of pictures of Pollock’s works) that “Pollock’s process was more cautious and complicated: he began not with abstract splats but with deliberately dripped human and animal figures that he buried in a cascade of splattering, only to then repeat the alternation of figures and splats” (p. 101). As in Cage’s case (4’33″ was written not as a cocked snook to the Second Viennese School, but as a result of a years-long exploration of the concept of silence, itself inspired by the examples of visual artists and a visit to an anechoic chamber), what appears on the surface as impudence or even dilettantism is revealed to have roots in exactly the same artistic impulses that inspired Brahms or Whistler.
Posnock casts his net very widely, introducing examples from every sphere of human expression — Baudelaire, Bacon, and Bob Dylan all get a look-in for one reason or another. The author’s kaleidoscopic array of supporting literature would tax even the more well-versed art fan (never in my life have I read a book that required me to do so much cross-referencing). But the sheer sweep of the work commands the attention, and ultimately contributes a richly textured and highly original exploration of the artistic impulse.