2013-01-14

Art And The Cognitive Time-Horizon

I have spent the last several days immersed in music written by a musical act I used to like, then eventually grew to dislike immensely. My primary criticism of this band was that, after all is said and done, the way they chose to write their music was intellectually dishonest.

(Note: people who know me well know which band I'm talking about here, but for the purposes of today's discussion, it is not necessary to dive into that. Imagine whichever band you think fits the mold; the moral of the story will remain the same.)

The thrust of my criticism was thus: Because this particular band is comprised mainly of great repertoirie musicians, their chosen writing style is to associate sounds with specific artists, and therefore, they might begin a song with Sound X, which would be an approximation of a real-life passage from the existing material of Band A. Then, for the next passage in the song, the band might want to move to Sound Y, otherwise known as an approximation of music by Band B, and so on. This band has composed whole albums this way, and they have been quite successful in doing so.

My problem with this approach is, as I first mentioned, it strikes me as being a bit intellectually dishonest. The band isn't even pretending to come up with their own sounds and compose the music they hear in their hearts. Instead, they "paint by numbers," using a repertoire of reference material. And while it is true that every artist to some degree "references" her influences when creating art, few are so audacious as to readily admit when and where those references are deliberately included, and to state outright that the entirety of their catalogue was written that way.

So that aspect of the band is remarkably off-putting.

But there is a lingering problem here, which is this: Despite the methodological fly in their ointment, the band has managed to produce an extensive body of work that is nonetheless fully coherent and continuous. This "conceptual continuity" (to use Frank Zappa's term) offers listeners a deeper and more profound experience than other bands tend to offer.

Why? Because conceptual continuity invokes the artist's cognitive time-horizon, as well as that of the listener. There is a consistent artistic theme providing the underlying context for the listener's experience. Each new work the artist produces exists, not as a separate and unique entity, but as a smaller component of a larger whole.

When listening to a single song, then, the listener experiences more than merely the song itself. The listener also experiences the full context in which the song resides.

This provides the listener with the kind of powerful artistic experience that fans of this particular band are well-known for obsessing over. In fact, I'd argue that invoking conceptual continuity and the cognitive time-horizon is a great way to move one's fans to a higher level of dedication. Fans appreciate the time it takes to provide this kind of experience, and they reward the artist handsomely for having provided it to them.

In that case, the artist uses her cognitive time-horizon twice: Once in applying her cognitive time-horizon to the creation of art in the form of conceptual continuity, and once some period of time before that, in understanding that doing so is "worth it" in terms of long-run benefit.