Thinking Makes It So

Imagine a famous painting. For the sake of simplicity, think the “Mona Lisa.” Now consider an artist. Exceedingly talented. Adept with brush and paint. A mastery at manipulating the latter with the former. A steady hand. A keen eye. And she paints, stroke for stroke, brush for brush, what is, visibly, the “Mona Lisa.”

The point of her doing so is not forgery. At least not in the sense of trying to dupe anyone. Rather, she simply has created a version of a masterpiece, a version that even a practiced eye would have a difficult time debunking.

So say you go to a gallery or an art museum in a city you’re visiting. Say San Francisco. And you see what you think is the “Mona Lisa.” As you don’t keep up much with the comings and goings in the art world, you think to yourself, “Hey, the ‘Mona Lisa’ is here at SFMOMA. And there aren’t any crowds.” This scenario, of course, would have to be abetted by a curator. But just take all of this as a given.

Now the question becomes this: Is the reaction that you have to that painting any different than the reaction if you saw the real thing? Assuming that you had no extraneous knowledge of the masterful painting abilities of Jane Doe and her rendering of the DaVinci, presumably whatever reaction that you have would necessarily be the same (perhaps heightened a bit, knowing that you didn’t have to cross the Atlantic and then stand in a long line to see the object under glass).

Let’s switch the mimicry to music. Let’s say there is a band that has thoroughly dedicated itself to performing the music of the Jimi Hendrix Experience such that every lick that Hendrix played is accurate; every throb of the bass is rendered as Noel Redding would; every snap of the snare resonates of Mitch Mitchell.

Let’s further suppose that you didn’t see the performers playing, but actually, in some sort of audio rendering of a Turing Test, the music was piped in to a room where you were sitting. What would your reaction to this imitation be?

Admittedly, the Hendrix example isn’t good inasmuch as everyone pretty much knows that he’s dead. But I use it for a reason. Last month, there was a charity auction held of some of Hendrix’s memorabilia. And as part of promoting the event, a band was performed that played Experience music. And one of the members of that band was Noel Redding. Which led me to start wondering about precisely what it is that makes something authentic. After all, wasn’t Redding part of the Experience? Wouldn’t the audio experience in that case be Experiential?

There are always situations in music wherein performers come and go from any given grouping. Think only of an orchestra: What are the odds that the same people are playing in, say, the Berlin Philharmonic today as did 10 years ago? Long after band leader Glenn Miller died, an orchestra with his name continued to swing. Rock bands tend to be significantly smaller than either of these types of ensembles and so the individuals would seem to have more of an effect on the outcome of the music. What’s more, there seems to be a legal jealousy that exists in rock, where a few band members of a seemingly defunct group go out on a reunion tour with the original name intact. . .until they have to morph it into something similar but different (e.g., “Creedence Clearwater Revisited.”). While this may be seemingly like the calculation of the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, what I am trying to figure out is the number of people necessary in a band to make the band continue to be the band. Near as I can tell, no one said The Who was something other after Keith Moon died. Or the Stones after Brian Jones. Would the Grateful Dead have been unalterably changed after Garcia was dead? Is R.E.M. today something less than it was a few years ago. (OK. That’s a bad example.)

But what I am wondering about is the effect of the near-perfect clone, be it visual or aural: What is it that makes the artistic experience? Is it something that we know independent of the painting or song itself that makes it valuable? Without the validation of a name performer is what we see or hear less striking? Does this mean that our reactions are not immediate but actually mediated by information?

Does rock and roll change our lives, or does what we know about it really do the trick?

3 thoughts on “Thinking Makes It So”

  1. Dedicated cover bands (those being dedicated to a particular group) are a strange sort. There are bands like NoWaySis, dedicated to Brit rockers Oasis; 1964, dedicated to the Beatles; and even El Vez, the Mexican Elvis. Each of these acts certainly offers entertainment in their performances. But do they constitute art? I think the basis of art is in the creation…the inspiration. There are millions, literally, of young guitarists who can play Stairway to Heaven, but are they on the same creative level as Jimmy Page? Nope.

    When a key member leaves a group, through “creative differences” or death, that departure affects different groups to varying degrees. You mention the Who apres Keith Moon. Rock scholars continue to debate the relevancy of the Who without moon. Certainly their vitality was in question before Moon’s death (see the Who by Numbers), but after his death the band became virtually irrelevant. Moon was the driving force and living symbol of the Who’s youthful angst. Even with fellow Mod Kenney Jones on the kit, the Who lacked that frenetic energy and unorthodox syncopation that marked so many of their songs. The Who without Keith Moon are still the Who, but they ain’t Maximum R&B.

  2. Art needs context. Taken in the wrong, it ain’t art. Music, similarly, needs context. For example, seeing the Stones on the Steel Wheels tour wasn’t really seeing the Stones. It was a fun show, and certainly the music can be held up to whatever sort of evaluation you want, but it pales in comparison to seeing the Stones when they were at their peak in the early 70s.

  3. Jeff: But is the context, then, purely intellectual (i.e., knowing what they sounded like before) and not instinctive?

    Phil: If some young lady was in another room from you playing note-for-note “Stairway,” how would you know that it wasn’t Jimmy Page? (OK, Page’s digits are probably somewhat shakin’ nowadays, and therefore his rendition wouldn’t be what it once was.)

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