Friday, September 19, 2014

Determining Musical and Artistic Value

How do we know if the work we do as composers will have value for people of future generations? Who is really equipped to judge the value of a body of work, whether it be music or visual art? Who is equipped to judge the value of work that we do ourselves? Who is equipped to judge the value of work done by someone you love?

It is all so subjective. The first scribblings of a child are extremely meaningful to young parents and young grandparents. Michael and I saved boxes and boxes of drawings, books, and paintings that our kids made. Our children drew a lot, and because of it their personalities made their way into their art. Our son had an unusual eye for emotion, detail, and perspective at a very young age, and our daughter had a unique intimate style, a nice spatial sense, and a real eye for color. Some of Rachel's and Ben's art hangs on our walls, and when we see it Michael and I are reminded of their childhoods. Nobody can convince me that their work isn't great art.

Choice pieces of my mother's art hangs on our walls too. Since I know the large body of her work, I can separate her pieces into categories of excellent, good, and not so good. Because I know the "back story," I can also appreciate the technique she acquired over the years. Seeing her art serves a personal purpose for me, but I'm pleased to find that friends who see her work find their own special attachments to individual pieces.

Many years ago, in the early days of the internet, my mother made a website with photos of her work. Nothing came of it, and when AOL changed something in its format, my mother's website melted into the ether. My mother mentioned that nobody seemed interested in putting much in the way of monetary value on her work because she was still alive. Death puts a finite cap onto someone's creative life, and by doing so changes the monetary value of his or her work. Consider the artists of the past who were unable to sell their works for a fraction of the price that those works can command today.

Who is qualified to place monetary value on my mother's work? I am far too subjective to make any kind of judgement, and because she is no longer a working artist who can calculate the cost of materials into a work's monetary value, neither is she. All I have to go on to determine what is excellent, good, and not so good is my instinct. My mother's memory is quite good, but she doesn't remember every piece of art she did from 1970 to 2004. She is also just as subjective as the next artist, and probably equally critical. Blindness put a finite cap on my mother's life as a visual artist, but it doesn't ease her burden of those of us who can see when we are put in a position to evaluate her work.

Yesterday, a few hours before Marshall's memorial service, I went to his apartment and had a look at the condition of his manuscripts. They were in meticulous order: each piece was placed within a large envelope, and those envelopes were stored in appropriately sized boxes. Marshall kept a catalog of his works as a "Monument" (his word for it), and followed the format that we see in scholarly collections of composers' works. He listed everything by opus number, whether it was published or not. I was not surprised at all that everything would be in perfect order because his exceptional abilities and talents were bundled together with an exceptional sense of self-importance.

[I was surprised to find that his library of books about music mirrored my own almost exactly.]

I have always experienced Marshall through his thick curtain of self-importance, so I am unable to subjectively determine either the quality or the importance of his work. Marshall believed his work was of great value. Now the "ball" is in the hands of people outside of the family, and I wish them great success and courage in separating the excellent from the good and from the not so good. Marshall's absolute sense of self-importance (absolute "pitch" if you will) will certainly make the job of archiving and preserving his music easier.

Perhaps it is a "gift" (along with my neuro-typical makeup) that I do not feel compelled to tout the merits of my own work (or "toot" my own horn, as it were). Perhaps my aversion to the practice of self-promotion comes from having a brother who "touted" his horn loudly and often.

I do believe that what I do is useful (because it serves a need), and I do believe it has some value (because I take pride in my work, and I actually enjoy playing it and listening to it). I am, however, not in a position to judge its quality or its ultimate value. Nor should I be.


Jean Petree said...

The older I get, the less I'm into attempting to judge things by some societal standard -- artistic or otherwise. I can only say if I like it or not. Maybe in ditching my connections to music performance I've lost my "artistic sensibilities". Heheheheh - it's more fun like this, anyway!

David Wolfson said...

While I'm composing a piece of music, I'm usually convinced that it's utter drek, and by the time I finish it that it's the greatest piece of music ever written anywhere by anyone. Listening a few years later, I can generally make a more realistic evaluation...