Sunday, February 24, 2008

Notes on the Vernacular in American Culture

I. A Preface

The vernacular is what we have all experienced as a multiplicity of cultures fermenting in the historical cauldron of what we have chosen to call AMERICA, a highly contested emblem bursting with very specific fears, dreams and desires, a very particular confluence of cross-cultural energies, ideas, and possibilities. It is the on-going clashing and nervously ‘harmonious’ blending of disparate sensibilities, rhythms, and emotions. It is the ever-evolving and devoluting motion of what we have known, cherished, believed, hated, caressed and denied. It contains the truths we see and the lies we don’t. It includes, in spite of our multivaried selves, the curious “national” syllogisms of our most extraordinary memories. It is the hieroglyphic semiology of our angry and tragic unconscious. It is the eternal site of our “greatest triumphs” and most humbling defeats. It reveals to us at all times and in all spaces what and who and how we are. It is the power and the glory and the bullshit, amen. It is the Joy we sing and the weight we wear. It is what is behind our eyes. We don’t have to re-member it because it never “really” leaves us. It is Groucho Marx & Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong & D.W. Griffith. It is Duke Ellington & Mae West. It is Paul Robeson & Frank Sinatra. It is Fred Astaire & the Boogaloo. It is Billie Holiday & Langston Hughes. It is James Cagney & Jelly Roll Morton. It is Charlie Parker & Huey Long. It is Bugs Bunny & Woody Guthrie. Lester Young & Smokey Robinson. Orson Welles & RUN-DMC. Cole Porter & the Philly Dog. Richard Pryor & The Nicholas Brothers. Sam Cooke & John Coltrane. Malcolm X & Katherine Dunham. It is Lenny Bruce & the Ku Klux Klan. Thelonious Monk & Martin Luther King. Miles Davis & Bob Dylan. Elvis Presley & Amiri Baraka. Ella Fitzgerald & W.C. Fields. Ishmael Reed & Chuck Berry. Woody Allen & the Coasters. Count Basie & William Burroughs. Zora Neale Hurston & Romare Bearden. Little Richard & the Nation of Islam. Dizzy Gillespie & John Cage. Bob Kaufman & B.B. King. Ray Charles & James Dean. Robert Johnson & George Wallace. Jimi Hendrix & Dinah Washington. Raymond Chandler & Bojangles Robinson. Adrian Piper & Cindy Sherman. Sam Delany & Kathy Acker. Jean-Michel Basquiat & Robert Mitchum. Andy Warhol & James Brown. Eddie Palmieri & Stevie Wonder. Eric Dolphy & De La Soul. Ralph Ellison & Maya Deren. Sterling A. Brown & W.E.B. DuBois. W.C. Williams & Bob Thompson. Bob Fosse & the Temptations. Alvin Ailey & Albert Ayler. James Baldwin & the Lindyhop. It is Pedro Pietri & Sarah Vaughan. Tito Puente & Harry Partch. It is Jacob Lawrence & Curtis Mayfield. Aretha Franklin & Bette Davis. Twyla Tharp & Dionne Warwick. Lena Horne & Tupac Shakur. Jackson Pollack & Toni Morrison. Gayl Jones & Norman Mailer. Wily Coyote & Thomas Pynchon. Donald Duck & Betty Boop. Melvin B. Tolson & Barbara Kruger. The Road Runner & Lauren Bacall. Henry Miller & the Jerk. Kurt Vonnegut & Sam Fuller. Billy Wilder & Madonna. Humphrey Bogart & Ice Cube. Roscoe Mitchell & Robert Altman. The Art Ensemble of Chicago & Sam Fuller. Bill T. Jones & Mary Lou Williams. It is SNCC & the White Citizens Council. It is Frankie Lymon & Notorious B.I.G. It is Victor Hernandez Cruz & Felix the Cat. Marvin Gaye & Marlon Brando. Spike Lee & Ida Lupino. Frank O’Hara & Martin Scorsese. Boris & Natasha. Rocky & the Grateful Dead. Prince & Bullwinkle. It is Chester Himes & Sun Ra. Willie Dixon & Josephine Baker. Rita Hayworth & breakdancing. Public Enemy & Anthony Braxton. Stuart Davis & A Tribe Called Quest. Alfred Hitchcock & Etta James. It is a specific way of ‘seeing’ and ‘expressing’ the world. Its realm is the only world we know of course, and that world is called LANGUAGE (the world of speech, of gesture, of sound, of movement, of writing...). The peculiarities of how we do that (thru inflection, accent, syntax, grammar, velocity, sonority, phrasing) is what constitutes vernacular reality, the reality of our everyday existence stylized...

II. An Opening Salvo

Ideas about music, literature and visual art change in accordance with historical shifts in social consciousness. This is especially true regarding the identity and use of these categories over time and across cultures. For example, what ‘classical’ artists meant to their societies in Europe in the 17th century is not what they meant in the 20th. Modernism and postmodernism have changed our conceptions about what constitutes music, literature, and ‘visual art’, as well as their social, cultural and philosophical (i.e. ‘aesthetic’) meaning in our time. Which is to say: No past generalizations about language, sound and image will be able to define what uses they will be put to either now or in the future. These categories are not ‘universal’ in the reductive sense that Enlightenment thinkers and later modernists mean the term, but are culturally and historically specific.
The advent of vernacular forms in music, literature and visual art meant that new critical sensibilities, ideological conceptions and creative values were emerging in response to particular, specific changes in political economy, social and cultural formations and technological developments. Reality itself was rapidly changing and thus our ideas about the form and content of the Real.
For example, if we examine the rise of Jazz, Blues, R & B, and Rock and Roll as popular cultural forms we will simultaneously discover how profound changes in political consciousness, economic conditions, cultural values and technological advances brought about new aesthetic realities. These vernacular forms implicitly and explicitly challenged our given and received ‘classical’ (high brow) notions of what ‘Art’ was, especially in the realms of music, art and literature (or literary, visual and sound representations). Thus, considerations of ‘style’ alone could not fully account for how and why these transformations took place in our understanding of what ‘the aesthetic’ (another historically and culturally specific idea!) was, or could be, in an entirely new and different historical context.
The reasons that Jazz, Blues, and Rock were initially attacked and resisted in high art circles in the West is that they automatically called into question the dominant idea that the only ‘true art’ was that defined and sanctioned by the (bourgeois) State and the upper classes of the society (as well as the institutionalized religious order). The very notion of ‘folk art’ was thus immediately separated from the classical paradigm, and made to seem like a poor, inferior counterpart to the high art model and ideal. This canonical hierarchy positioning of mass-based vernacular (i.e. folk) sources beneath the aristocratic, elitist expressions valorized as classical (read: legitimate) led to the political and cultural institutionalization of differences that in turn created an exploitive/oppressive division between so-called ‘real’ or ‘serious’ art and barely tolerated ersatz versions (folk, vernacular).
In the context of the United States this meant that traditional and modernist notions of art imported from Europe would eventually prevail over all ‘other’ forms, values, conceptions and traditions originating from Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and the Pacific Islands. Further, this ethnic and ‘racial’ division would also be expanded to take in oppressive class and gender based hierarchies as well. Thus poor and working-class vernacular expressions and forms of various other nationalities, and those of women generally, would also be deemed inferior and marginal. The rise of the 19th and 20th century notions of ‘serious’ music, painting, literature and dance were the categories proposed (imposed) by European and white American male critics (and their acolytes) to silence and render invisible the ‘artistic’ ideas, values, traditions and expressions of those vernacular American artists who refused and openly resisted the Eurocentric, high art hegemony. These artists were quickly identified as renegades and outlaws who actively confronted and/or opposed the bourgeois traditions coming out of the classical and modern art forms of Western Europe and the white supremacist United States.
As a result it was easy for the general critical and artistic community to ignore, ridicule, neglect, denigrate, denounce and expropriate the contributions of African American artists, who were perceived as not only being the ‘wrong color’, but expressing the ‘wrong art’ to be properly promoted in high art circles. Folk and vernacular art traditions in the U.S. were considered ‘quaint’, and ‘entertaining’, even ‘interesting’ but rarely important until a new wave of European artists and critics began to openly praise the work of black musicians, artists and writers during the pivotal 1920-1960 period in the United States when all forms of white modernist racist attacks and neglect were at their peak. This resulted in the French, German, Scandinavian and English critics being the first to acknowledge the artistry of African American musicians and composers.
It wasn’t until the late 1950s and early ‘60s that a very small but vocal minority of white American critics began to write positively and intelligently about the complex innovations and creative genius of Jazz and Blues musicians and composers (and still later black R & B/Rock & Roll artists). In fact, the few white individual exceptions to the otherwise overt and pervasive racism of the 1920-1950 era (e.g. John Hammond, Leonard Feather, Barry Ulanov, Charles Edward Smith, Roger Pryor Dodge, etc.) were either themselves still hamstrung with various forms of gliberal ‘benevolent condescension’ toward independent black creativity or else simply considered inept, incompetent or ideologically suspect by their more reactionary white colleagues.
The first black Jazz critics to write in the 1950s and ‘60s, like the novelists, playwrights and poets Ralph Ellison, Leroi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), Larry Neal, James Stewart and A.B. Spellman, etc. were (with the exception of Ellison) considered to be either militant or radical malcontents (and thus not to be trusted intellectually), or marginal figures far off the ‘golden track’ of mainstream music criticism. It is only in the past thirty years that this situation has begun to improve from the standpoint of a heightened awareness among some critics (e.g. Frank Kofsky, Robert Palmer, Garry Giddins, Gene Santoro, Francis Davis). The real pioneers in this development however were three of the leading white American critics of the 1950s and ‘60s, Ralph Gleason, Nat Hentoff and Martin Williams.
The idea of ‘the folk’ in American art began in the 19th century when white American painters, writers, composers, and theatre artists were largely considered inferior to the European classical tradition. The U.S. reaction against this notion started in the 1840-1880 period when American writers and intellectuals began to develop an independent literary tradition informed by vernacular styles in verbal language and literary forms. These pioneering American modernist writers (e.g. Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, etc.) began to consciously challenge and even critique high art traditions by implicitly asserting through their own idiosyncratic appropriations, the aesthetic values, ideas, and expressive forms of Native American, African American, and white working-class cultures in their work.
The apex of this philosophical and aesthetic reaction occurs in the late 1890s when first Ragtime, then Jazz, began to revolutionize Western music through its rapid, syncretic incorporation of African, Latin American and Afro-Caribbean styles, traditions, forms, modal elements and structures. By 1920 African American vernacular forms had so permeated U.S. culture that the common use of the word ‘folk’ as a pejorative and ethnocentric term of inadequacy, marginalization, and abuse had ceased to be anywhere near an accurate historical account of actual Art practice in the United States. Since the advent of many artistically diverse stylistic forms in the next fifty year period (1920-1970) has also been heavily influenced by Jazz, Blues, R & B, Rock ‘n Roll, and Funk, as well as the literary and oral speech forms of African Americans (and all from a rich, deep and obvious ‘folk’ base), it comes as no surprise that theoretical ideas about the very identity of American culture have begun to change.
Thus the clearly radical intervention of what once was deemed black as well as ethnic, feminist and multicultural studies since 1968, has forced a still highly resistant academic canon to pretend to reconsider its self-serving mythology of ‘universalism’ in the arts, while openly appealing to fatuous, right-wing repressive strategies of rhetorically declaring all intellectual challenges to its domination to be mere ‘political correctness’ and cultural parochialism. Despite the institutional power of academe this strategy has continued to backfire in the face of widespread cultural and political resistance by those Americans who realize that its culture is unavoidably and inextricably multicultural and multinational as a direct result of the pervasive hybrid dynamics of social-historical interaction.

{Excerpt from opening chapter in new book 'What is An Aesthestic?: Writings on American Culture' by Kofi Natambu)