It is the eternal stance of the “progressive” or “reformer” that there are always conditions to be improved. I believe this. There is always criticism to be levied of our shortcomings on all levels. All critics are optimistic – even if only secretly. And the object of critique is the object of a sober and guarded love: critique is in the name of raising standards and improving the object of critique.
But there is a danger lurking in this stridency, and within all realms of critique. The danger is that in our eagerness to improve the quality of the things around us – from the broadest geopolitics to the smallest details of everyday life – that we become mired in negativism.
Sarcasm, facetiousness, cynicism, curmudgeonry, misanthropy, acerbity, biliousness, and mocking are all great in my book. There’s nothing like some piss-taking to help you through the tough times and temper your mania in the high times. But excepting the British Isles, where it is the basis of all social interaction, most people simply don’t even get irony.
To level things out and to start a general discussion, today I set aside the negative side of critique and focus on the other side of qualitative study: positivity. Here is an examination of some things that I love. This love is not necessarily untempered or unbounded, but it is certainly without irony.
This amalgam of genres from the late 19th Century to today test all the processes of musical production and performance: the limits of the notation of music, the role of beauty, what constitutes an instrument, the role of the performer and the listener, etc. From pushing the envelope of convention with Stravinsky to the musical studies of bird-calls by Messiaen, I love art music. From the extended technique of Crumb to the mathematical notations of Xenakis, I love art music. From the stochastics of Eno to the minimalism of Glass, I love art music.
Once I had gone down the rabbit hole of this music, once I had braved its inverse siren’s call and found the awe-inspiring nuance, variation, and reward of listening to it, I could never hear popular music the same way again. The rivalries that rage around pop-rock bands and the idiomatic limitations of every genre of popular music are embarrassing in their lack of dignity. But inversely, the hidden genius of even the least self-aware and idiomatically narrow music – Bluegrass or English Liturgical music for example – can be breathtaking.
For all its flaws, I loved the architecture school at the University of Southern California. But I didn’t think much of the university, and am not one who goes in for “School Spirit.” When I was there, I couldn’t care less about the college’s sports. The gap between the “jocks” and the “geeks” was just too large. Football games were what caused the boos and cheers I could hear from a couple blocks away at my customary Saturday afternoon shift at the School of Fine Arts Photography Lab.
After school, I went back to my hometown of Cincinnati for a few years. Cincinnati produces far more architecture graduates than it needs, and is an export market for architectural talent, so for a long time I couldn’t find a job in an architecture office.
But a strange thing happened. Even after I ran from LA as fast as I could, I was suffering a reverse culture-shock. I missed the damn place.
Well, the USC School of Architecture may not have been on television every Saturday evening, but the resurgent USC Trojans Football Team sure was. So, as a tether back to all the things I missed about Los Angeles, USC Football became my wire mother.
From 2003-2005, I watched Misters Carroll, Leinart, Tatupu, Jackson, White (another who shall remain nameless), et al put together an historic era in college football history. All from 2,100 miles away. It inspired pride, awe, and a previously lacking competitiveness in me.
I have no interest in professional sports. And all the corruption, cheating, and appallingly poor behavior that has always been part of college football at every level from my beloved Trojans downward – which seemed to be backburnered there for a few halcyon years that exactly coincided with USC’s dominance – is being aired as I write. But come what may, I now respect the part that college athletics – yes, even football – play in the healthy life of a serious and respectable academic university. The football team was talismanic to me in a pivotal time in my life. I doubt I’m the only person for whom this is true. And because of this, come what may I am loyal to the USC Trojans.
Next Up: Things A Critic Actually Likes – 2 of 2: Bicycles, The BBC, and Early Modernist and Constructivist Architecture.
[The multi-part article on Steampunk and Salvagepunk will continue soon after it gets beaten into submission and held at bay from turning manic and book length.]