Art and the Committed Eye - The Cultural Functions of Imagery, by Richard Leppert

leppertArt and the Committed Eye - The Cultural Functions of Imagery, by Richard Leppert. Westview Press, 1996. ISBN: 978-0813315409

The book I'm recommending to you isn't about music. It isn't a good novel. It won't help you keep up in your field. What I want to do is test some ideas about a kind of reading that starts as mild escapism and ends indirectly helping us think about our own field.

I say "mild escapism" because the book isn't bedtime or vacation reading -- it's a scholarly work of art criticism that I found on my library's "new acquisitions" shelf. I must admit that what I was doing there was a kind of avoidance -- more cat-curious than doggedly dutiful. In moments like that I often look at art books or art journals because they're eye-catching. Leppert's Art and the Committed Eye (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996) catches the eye with a picture of a painted eye peeping out of a leather case -- a trompe d'oeil come-on.

The catchiness of the cover brings me to what I mean about this book being indirect help in thinking about our own field. As music teachers and scholars we all raid other fields of study to answer questions for us or to give a context to what we are thinking about. In addition, we look for concepts and methods in other fields that we can translate into our own. We have always done that, but lately there has been more self-conscious keeping-up with the latest "theory" than ever before. Leppert, who has worked in musical iconography before now, always gives musicians wonderful guidance in reading and using scholarship from related fields. These are all direct uses of other fields, necessary for our daily work and valuable for refreshing our sense of what it can mean to study music. It is striking, though, how seldom scholars in other fields of the humanities take the trouble to keep up with music scholarship or -- the real pity -betray any awareness that the language of music scholarship might help them include music when they discuss general cultural issues. That's where Leppert's eye-catching cover comes in, as well as the pictures inside his book: lots of reproductions of paintings from the Western tradition, some in color, many stunningly beautiful, a few utterly repulsive, but all full of interest, if not at first, certainly by the time he finishes with them. There is more than one reason why scholars in other fields don't take much notice of music scholarship, but it can't help that many of them don't find the "illustrations" we give them appealing or can't make sense of them.

Technological developments are changing this situation -- soon we may routinely have music scholarship published/produced with sounding music examples. That should encourage us to reconsider the potential readership for our writings. But the example of art scholarship suggests further complications. All of the illustrations in Art and the Committed Eye are reproductions of whole paintings, whereas scholarly musical writing is traditionally illustrated with examples of short passages from the works under discussion. That's a big difference. Many art scholars reproduce a lot of "details," but it is normal for them to reproduce whole art works. This means that their readers can contemplate a work whole as they read about it. (I didn't notice the absence of "details" in Leppert's book until after I finished it.) With music, the wholeness of the work is a different matter by nature -- art scholars don't have to worry about "long-term looking" -- and so is the act of pointing to it: With music as with Oakland, "there's no there there." If we published words about music in conjunction with reproductions of whole performances, even given a user-friendly guidance system, that still wouldn't solve all the problems.

One way of dealing with certain of those problems is to write without music examples. Here, I recommend another art critic: Arthur Danto, who reports for The Nation regularly on current art exhibits in New York, never has the benefit of a single illustration. I live far from New York and almost never can I see any of the art he discusses. But I would never miss one of his columns, partly because he makes such a virtue of his graphic-deprived medium that he makes me feel I have been to the gallery. There is a comparable range of writing about music, but across the field of music scholarship we don't talk much about what kinds of thought you can put across (let alone what kinds of readers can follow you) when you give whole works as illustrations, when you give only short excerpts, and when you give none at all. It may stimulate some talk of that kind if I now consider what kind of book Art and the Committed Eye is and what Leppert gets from illustrating his thoughts so fully in it.

As its subtitle suggests, this book is about painting as a social practice. It covers some of the most persistent themes and genres of Western paintings -- the still life, the portrait, the nude -and explores the conditions of exchange and power that have shaped artists' ever-changing treatment of them. For me the book is most rewarding when I am most incapable of imagining on my own why anyone would have wanted the paintings in question. I have walked past seventeenth-century Dutch flower paintings all my life, it seems, without looking at them. Leppert suggests that the original value of those paintings was related to the social prestige and cost of rare species of flowers. Not until he tells me the social value of showing a hundred species in one vase do I notice -- for the very first time -- that there are so many flowers in a single painting! So -- in case after case in this book -- I need to see the work reproduced to see what, otherwise, I would have missed in it.

Naturally, not every observation Leppert makes needs illustration. For instance, from his brilliant chapter on the nature of portraits, here is a passage a la Danto: "The human face is never static. . . . In a portrait, however, a `single face' must account for all the complexities of the person represented" (p. 159). But the chapter, like the book as a whole, traces its argument through a series of contrasts, and Leppert's larger point about the cultural stakes involved in choosing what "single face" to paint only comes through to me as I compare the Goya self-portrait to the Champaigne portrait of Richelieu, the Arcimboldo portrait-in-fruit of Rudolf II to the conventional portrait of the same subject. "Seeing" comparisons, I begin to suspect, is even more crucial than seeing works that are being analyzed individually. Or at least, understanding a comparison is more likely to require looking at the works whole, while understanding an analysis of an individual work requires seeing -- in order to compare -- its parts. That seems to me as true of music as of painting. Too, this book makes me realize that illustrations or examples to a scholarly work, no matter how artfully they are devised to bring home individual points in the text, also conspire together to produce relationships and impressions of their own.

In a sense, the issues about music scholarship that I discovered indirectly in this book I could have discovered directly from music scholarship, But sometimes, escaping into a different subject, besides bringing the pleasures of the unfamiliar, is the best way to find out something about one's own.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 07/05/2013

James Parakilas

James Parakilas, a music scholar with a doctorate from Cornell University, teaches courses on music history and culture, music theory, and performance. He plays the piano, often in chamber groups with students and colleagues, and coaches student chamber groups. His scholarly publications include the books Ballads Without Words: Chopin and the Tradition of the Instrumental Ballade (Amadeus Press, 1992), Piano Roles: 300 Years of Life with the Piano (Yale University Press, 2000; paperback, 2002), and the textbook The Story of Opera (forthcoming from W. W. Norton). In 2010-2011, under a Phillips Faculty Research Fellowship, he studied recent research in psychology, neuroscience and other fields that is prompting new understandings of the nature of music.

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