Friday, December 22, 2017


One of my lovely readers pointed me to this blog post by Blake Andrews. He is, roughly, putting up a defense of the "why can't pictures just be pretty?" position, and leaning on music as his metaphor.

The comments make me itch. Andrews mentions Bach so of course someone has to slip in a gratuitous anti-religion slam (gosh, you're very cool and with it for a 10 year old), and someone else has to say that Bach's music is basically math (no it's not, you idiot). But Andrews does have something of a point.

I'm not quite sure, to be honest, where his position actually is. He is, certainly, making at least the point that not every photograph has to be a moving essay on some Issue of Social or Political Importance. Perhaps this is in fact all he means, in which case his essay is a cheat. He's simply dressed up something universally agreed upon in radical clothes.

He provides as the other end of the spectrum the idea of something being "merely pretty" as if this were the only alternative to the Weighty Tome, and mentions music as an example of something which is allowed to be "merely pretty." This is a fascinating position, because music is absolutely not ever "merely pretty" in any meaningful way There is nothing mere about music, and certainly nothing mere about Bach's music.

This thing about music is that it seems to have a pretty direct channel into our emotions. I don't know how much is built in (pentatonic scale?) and how much is learned (western tonality certainly is) but the end result is that, within a given culture, music provides a vast and powerful toolbox for more or less direct manipulation of the emotions.

Here in the west we can use tonality, tempo, dynamics, voice leading, all kinds of crap. This piece is happy, this one is sad. This is a military march, this is a funeral march, and so on. There's a vast array of tropes that can be, and are, drawn upon, and musicians are specifically taught how to use them "and then modulate to a minor key and slow the tempo down for the serious, sad bit."

The closest thing I can think of to merely pretty music is a music box. Not one of the big ones, the little ones with the rotating dancer. There's no dynamics, no harmony. They merely plunk out the melody. And, note this, nobody actually listens to a music box. We wind them up and are charmed for a moment, as much by the little figure as by the tune. If the tune is familiar, perhaps it unlocks some memories. If the tune is unfamiliar, the sonic part of the object is a complete dud, despite being "pretty."

Music occupies the enormous zone between Weighty Tome and Merely Pretty. One only rarely encounters a piece of music that's actually about anything. There are almost no symphonies about The Problem of Homelessness. As noted, there is almost no music that is genuinely described as merely pretty. The vast majority of music is manipulative of our emotions. Some of it is deeply moving, some of it less so. But virtually all of it moves us.

This appears to me to be the point that Mr. Andrews is missing. No, photography need not always be about The Sorrow of Cancer. It is like music, and like music, it ought to touch us, to move us somehow.

If it is merely pretty, like the plunked melody from a music box, then it jolly well better match the furniture, otherwise, what the hell good is it?


  1. There's beautiful and there's pretty. As beautiful I would consider something (a scene, a picture, a piece of music, ... you name it) where every part fits into its place to form a somehow "harmonic" whole. The music by Bach is a good example. Apart from that, beauty is hard to define - somehow like the definition of porn ("I can't define it, but I know it when I see it"). In my opinion, the beautiful has its place to elevate our spirits, if nothing more - there is no purpose in beauty.

    The pretty, on the other hand, is a superficial pleasure for our senses, often deployed on purpose (think of advertising photography, or the ever-present "muzak"). I would even go so far to consider it as a perversion of the beautiful.

    Best, Thomas

    PS: Merry christmas and a happy new year to you and your family, and best luck and good health in 2018!

    1. Trying to parse apart "beautiful" from "pretty" in english is going to be a difficult row to hoe, since the cloud of meanings around each word overlap a LOT. That said, I think I get what you're driving at.

      "sublime" is a word that comes to mind.

  2. You do love to wade into murky waters... One of the best books I read this year was Carl Wilson's "Let's Talk About love : a journey to the end of taste" which has very interesting thing to say about musical taste, based on the curious case of Celine Dion. Recommended.

    Best wishes for 2018!


    1. That's where the biggest fish are! Spielberg did this movie in 1975 about it.

  3. Happy holidays to all of you! As I am fond of saying "whatever godforsaken pagan ritual you observe, observe the SHIT out of it!"

  4. By the way, with regards to the difficulties in finding a proper definition of beauty - I found The Way of Beauty: Five Meditations for Spiritual Transformation by Francois Cheng to be the best I've read about the subject.

    Best, Thomas