‘Sgt. Pepper’ Is the Greatest Album Ever — Unless You Don’t Think So

Robert Fraser /EMI Records LTD

On its 50th anniversary, is it finally time to stop expecting a silly, catchy album to be an unassailable cultural totem?

Tomorrow sees the release of a deluxe reissue of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, almost exactly 50 years since it first hit record shelves. It’s a major anniversary of the greatest album ever made. If that claim makes you roll your eyes, don’t blame me: It’s what the culture decided a long time ago. The record that featured the Beatles on the cover dressed up as a fictional band, Sgt. Pepper has been considered a masterpiece for as long as it’s existed.

Case in point: In the December 1967 issue of Esquire, music critic Robert Christgau wrote, “Partly because the 10-month gap between Revolver and Sgt. Pepper was so unprecedented, the album was awaited in much the same spirit as installments of Dickens must have been a century ago. Everyone was a little edgy: Could they do it again?” Although Christgau loved the record, he pushed against the ecstatic, blanket hosannas that greeted its release.Sgt. Pepper is not the world’s most perfect work of art,” he declared. “But that is what the Beatles’ fans have come to assume their idols must produce.”

In the 50 years since, Sgt. Pepper has only remained an unassailable musical totem. In 2003, Rolling Stone polled journalists, critics, musicians and others to put together a special issue commemorating the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” Sgt. Pepper topped the list. Nine years later, when the magazine revised the list, Sgt. Pepper was still number one. Summarizing the record, the staff wrote,is the most important rock & roll album ever made, an unsurpassed adventure in concept, sound, songwriting, cover art and studio technology by the greatest rock & roll group of all time. … [T]he 13 tracks on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band are the pinnacle of the Beatles’ eight years as recording artists. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were never more fearless and unified in their pursuit of magic and transcendence.”

Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison

With that kind of description — and with that kind of imposing history behind it — how could anyone approach Sgt. Pepper in 2017 with anything other than skepticism? As much as people like discovering new music, we tend to resist when it’s being shoved down our throats. It’s very hard to love something — to really embrace it as ours — when everybody else has already laid claim to it.No wonder that when NME made its own list of the greatest albums in 2013, Sgt. Pepper landed all the way down at number 87, the snotty write-up noting, “Considered the ultimate achievement of recorded music at the time, the gleam has dulled on Pepper’s medals over time, its psychedelic visuals and flower power sentiments turned corny at the edges.”

I’m not here to argue over whether Sgt. Pepper is the greatest album ever, or even the greatest Beatles album ever. (For what it’s worth, I don’t — and, not that it matters, but I probably prefer The Beatles.) But I would like to suggest that evaluating something based on other people’s belief that it’s the Greatest Thing Ever is a really bad idea. There’s no such thing as the Greatest Thing Ever. Such talk does a disservice to new listeners. And, more importantly, it does a disservice to the Thing in question.

Here’s what I mean: Pretend I told you that some mystery album I was going to play you, which you’d never heard, was the greatest album ever made. Before you heard a single note, what would you be thinking? Your expectations would be pretty high, right? Would you maybe start imagining what the greatest album ever would sound like? Maybe you’d begin constructing in your mind a list of sonic criteria that would be necessary for a record to justify to such a lofty buildup. You’d think about your own favorite albums — the ones that have meant the most to you and have been touchstones for the most important and meaningful moments in your life. Then you’d think, “Okay, what I’m about ready to hear has to surpass all of those albums. After all, this is the greatest album ever made.” Now imagine that, if you’re not totally sold on the record after one spin, that you’re going to be badgered by people telling you that it really is the greatest album ever made and that you just don’t get it.

I don’t care how open-minded a person you are: There’s very little chance you’re going to love that album. The deck is stacked against you. It’s a problem all cultural totems have: Once we decide as a consensus what the greatest movie/book/album/sitcom is, it gets encased in amber, its merits frozen in time. The piece of work is no longer breathing and open to exploration and discovery — it’s now an unimpeachable art object. And who can love something described as an “unimpeachable art object”?…




A Laboratory for Feeling and Time: Pioneering Philosopher Susanne Langer on What Gives Music Its Power and How It Illuminates the Other Arts

The Gnomes: "He played until the room was entirely filled with gnomes."

“Music is ‘significant form,’ and its significance is that of a symbol, a highly articulated sensuous object… Feeling, life, motion and emotion constitute its import.”

“Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts… and the most sensual,” Susan Sontag wrote in one of the most beautiful meditations on the power of music. Aldous Huxley, in his immensely poetic reflection on why music moves us so, recounted “some exquisite soft harmony apprehended by another sense” as he listened to Beethoven in the dark. This sensorial splendor of music is what Helen Keller, deaf and blind, articulated in her exultation upon “hearing” Beethoven’s Ode to Joy with her hand.

I thought about all of this recently — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I felt about it — as I listened, with my whole being, to a friend perform music that seemed to emanate from her whole being. I wondered what it is about music that we feel in our marrow, that invites us into some other dimension of time, magnetizing us to the present yet containing within itself all that ever was and ever will be — a place where the symbolic and the real, the abstract and the acutely alive, converge into something larger.

That peculiar property of music may have been what prompted Susanne Langer (December 20, 1895–July 17, 1985), one of the first professional women philosophers, to call music an “unconsummated symbol” in her trailblazing 1942 book Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. Langer revisited the subject a quarter century later in her final work, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling(public library), exploring what makes music different from all other forms of creative expression and how, paradoxically, understanding the source of its power illuminates the other arts.

Langer writes:

Music, like language, is an articulate form. Its parts not only fuse together to yield a greater entity, but in so doing they maintain some degree of separate existence, and the sensuous character of each element is affected by its function in the complex whole. This means that the greater entity we call a composition is not merely produced by mixture, like a new color made by mixing paints, but is articulated, i.e. its internal structure is given to our perception.

And yet music, Langer argues, is not quite a language, as it has frequently been called (although the two worked in tandem to help us evolve.) Unlike language, where words function as its primary forms of fixed meaning and association, music allows us to fill its forms with our own meaning. She considers this singular role of meaning in music:

Music has import, and this import is the pattern of sentience — the pattern of life itself, as it is felt and directly known.

Let us therefore call the significance of music its “vital import” instead of “meaning,” using “vital” not as a vague laudatory term, but as a qualifying adjective restricting the relevance of “import” to the dynamism of subjective experience.

With this lens, Langer offers a sublimely compact and insightful definition of what music is, how it differs from language, and what it does in and for us:

Music is “significant form,” and its significance is that of a symbol, a highly articulated sensuous object, which by virtue of its dynamic structure can express the forms of vital experience which language is peculiarly unfit to convey. Feeling, life, motion and emotion constitute its import…




In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs

“The garden of life is strewn with such dormant seeds and so much of art blossoms from their unwilled and unwillable awakenings.”

And now for something a bit out of the ordinary: When editor Andrew Blauner invited me to contribute to an anthology of essays by some of his favorite writers about their favorite Beatles songs, I did something I rarely do — I accepted, because a particular Beatles song happens to be a significant animating force in my family story.

The anthology is now out as In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs (public library), featuring contributions from wonderful writers like Pico Iyer (“Yesterday”), Rosanne Cash (“No Reply”), Rick Moody (“The End”), Rebecca Mead (“Eleanor Rigby”), Roz Chast (“She Loves You”), Jane Smiley (“I Want to Hold Your Hand”), and Adam Gopnik (“Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Field”).

Here my essay, as it appears in the book.

by Maria Popova

My parents fell in love on a train. It was the middle of the Cold War and they were both traveling from their native Bulgaria to Saint Petersburg in Russia, where they were to attend different universities — my father, an introvert of formidable intelligence, was studying computer science; my mother, a poetry-writing (bordering-on-bossy) extrovert , library science.

An otherwise rational man, my father describes the train encounter as love at first sight. Upon arrival, he began courting my mother with such subtlety that it took her two years to realize she was being courted.

One spring morning, having finally begun to feel like a couple, they were walking across the lawn between the two dorms and decided it was time for them to have a whistle-call. At the time, Bulgarian couples customarily had whistle-calls — distinctive tunes they came up with, usually borrowed from the melody of a favorite song, by which they could find each other in a crowd or summon one another from across the street.

Partway between the primitive and the poetic, between the mating calls of mammals and the sonnets by which Romeo and Juliet beckoned one another, these signals were part of a couple’s shared language, a private code to be performed in public. Both sets of my grandparents had one. My mother’s parents, elementary schoolteachers in rural Bulgaria who tended to an orchard and the occasional farm animal, used a melody of unclear origin but aurally evocative of a Bulgarian folk song; my father’s parents, both civil engineers and city intellectuals, used a fragment from a Schumann waltz.

That spring morning, knowing that my mother was a Beatles fan, my father suggested “Yellow Submarine.” There was no deliberation, no getting mired in the paradox of choice — just an instinctive offering fetched from some mysterious mental library.

Eventually, my parents got pregnant, got married, had this child. They continued to summon each other, and eventually me, by whistling “Yellow Submarine.” Although I didn’t know at the time that it was originally written as a children’s song, it came to color my childhood. I had always wondered why, of all possible songs saturating their youth, my parents had chosen “Yellow Submarine” — a song released long before they met. My father wasn’t much of a Beatles fan himself, and yet that spring morning, he was able to open the cabinet of his semi-conscious memory, fetch a melody he had heard almost twenty years earlier, and effortlessly whistle it to his beloved. The familial whistle-call became a given in my childhood, like math homework and Beef Stroganoff Sundays, so it wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that it occurred to me to inquire about how “Yellow Submarine” wove itself into the family fabric. The story of how that seemingly random song had implanted itself in my father’s mind is the archetypal story of how popular music, and perhaps all popular art, is metabolized in the body of culture. Once it has entered the crucible of consciousness, a song becomes subject to a peculiar alchemy — the particularities of the listener’s life at that particular moment transmute its objective meaning, if there ever was one at all, into a subjective impression. That impression is what we encode into memory, what we retrieve to whistle twenty years later. The artist’s original intent is melded with the listener’s personal context into an amorphous mass of inexpressible yet unforgettable unity — a dormant seed whose blossoming depends on the myriad factors fertilizing the surrounding soil. That the seed was planted at all may remain unheralded until the moment of its blossoming…




Beethoven’s Advice on Being an Artist: His Touching Letter to a Little Girl Who Sent Him Fan Mail

“The true artist is not proud… Though he may be admired by others, he is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius only appears as a distant, guiding sun.”

Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler

“The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself,” E.E. Cummings wrote in contemplating what it means to be an artist — a sentiment which intimates that the accumulation of learning, an inevitable byproduct of the process of growing up, takes us not closer to but further away from our creative source. Baudelaire captured this perfectly when he wrote: “Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.” This, perhaps, is why some of humanity’s most fertile minds have traced the origin of their creative purpose in childhood moments of epiphany — Pablo Neruda in his anecdote of the hand through the fence, Patti Smith in her encounter with the the swan, and Albert Einstein in his formative memory of the compass.

In speaking with children, therefore, one might be able to get to the heart of art most simply and directly, unobstructed by the learned assumptions with which the act of living cloaks the act of creation.

That’s precisely what Ludwig van Beethoven (December 16, 1770–March 26, 1827) did in his response to a fan letter from a little girl.

In the summer of 1812, a young aspiring pianist named Emilie sent her hero a beautiful hand-embroidered pocketbook to express her admiration for his artistic genius. Touched by the gesture, 41-year-old Beethoven wrote back, offering some simple yet profound words of encouragement and advice on the creative life — an exquisite micro-manifesto for what it means to be an artist and what art demands of those who make it.

In a letter from July 17 of that year, found in Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations (public library) — which also gave us the great composer’s stirring letter to his brothers about how music saved his life — Beethoven writes to Emilie:

My dear good Emilie, my dear Friend!


Do not only practice art, but get at the very heart of it; this it deserves, for only art and science raise men to the God-head. If, my dear Emilie, you at any time wish to know something, write without hesitation to me. The true artist is not proud, he unfortunately sees that art has no limits; he feels darkly how far he is from the goal; and though he may be admired by others, he is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius only appears as a distant, guiding sun.

Although known for his explosive anger, a bout of which reportedly caused his deafness, Beethoven was indeed a man of multitudes, capable at times of tremendous tenderness and sensitivity. It is from that soft and human place that he adds, in this letter to a little girl of meager means and no social advantage, a touching note on the artist’s responsibility to humility:

I would, perhaps, rather come to you and your people, than to many rich folk who display inward poverty. If one day I should come to [your town], I will come to you, to your house; I know no other excellencies in man than those which causes him to rank among better men; where I find this, there is my home.

If you wish, dear Emilie, to write to me, only address straight here where I shall be still for the next four weeks, or to Vienna; it is all one. Look upon me as your friend, and as the friend of your family.

Complement this particular fragment of Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations with Einstein’s advice to a little girl on being a scientist, Sol LeWitt’s electrifying letter of encouragement on being an artist, and Rilke’s timeless wisdom on what it takes to create, then revisit Beethoven’s passionate love letters.



Bryan Cranston’s New Villain Is Almost More Selfish Than Walter White

Everybody has daydreamed about walking out on his life — driving off into the distance and leaving everything he knew behind. There’s something very cleansing about this fantasy, a comforting belief that if we could have a second crack at life, we wouldn’t screw it up the way we did the first time.

But such longing also comes with darkness — a belief that, if we did walk out, all the people around us would collapse into pieces, unable to go on without us. It’s a double delusion in which we overestimate both our ability to correct our past mistakes and our significance in the world.

This is essentially the dilemma in the new character drama Wakefield. Based on a story by Ragtime author E.L. Doctorow, the movie tells the strange story of Howard Wakefield, a big-city attorney who, just as he does every night, is taking the train home so he can be with his wife and children. But this night turns out to be different: A power outage on his train temporarily strands him and, presumably, shocks him out of his comfortable, mindless routine. And so, as Howard walks toward his house, he decides that he can’t bring himself to go inside. Instead, he sneaks away to the family’s garage, hiding out in the second-story attic. He’s not running away, exactly — he’s just taking a break. And, during this hiatus, he’s going to spy on his family through the attic window, observing how they react to his disappearance.

A lot of actors could’ve starred in Wakefield, but it’s perfect that writer-director Robin Swicord cast Bryan Cranston to portray this inscrutable man. After all, the Emmy-winning actor made his name playing a bright, seemingly ordinary guy with an ability to talk himself into doing all types of despicable things to feed his ego. Breaking Bad’s Walter White was a more extreme variation of the hubris that powers Howard’s decisions, but Cranston brings the same poisonous self-justification to both roles: He has a gift for characters who pity themselves so much they don’t realize what cretins they are.

For much of Wakefield, Howard speaks directly to the audience through voiceover, demeaning his suburban existence and rationalizing his selfishness. “They’ve hardly been abandoned,” he says callously of his wife and children, who have no idea what’s become of him. “I’m right here.” But he’s present in a way that only serves his needs. As the months go by, Howard gets more bedraggled as he lets his beard and hair grow — he’s living in the most extreme version of a man-cave ever, secure in the knowledge that his wife and daughters will never check for him up there because they considered the attic repellant.

Initially, Howard takes sick pleasure in watching his wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) freak out about his vanishing. As we learn through flashbacks, Howard has fostered a contentious relationship with Diana over time. Where first he courted her, stealing her away from his best friend, Howard has eventually come to believe that she doesn’t love him enough. His escape is, in part, a way to punish her, and Diana’s tears and anxiety are his dark revenge on a woman he views as not sufficiently loyal.

What’s clever about Swicord’s film, however, is that we don’t really know if that’s accurate — or, frankly, if anything else Howard tells us is true or not. Diana is always viewed from afar as Howard peeps at her through windows. As a result, Wakefield can be seen as a sharp critique of an egomaniac’s worldview. Everything in this movie is filtered through his experience, his biases and his feelings. Wakefield is pure, uncut Howard — and the more time we spend with him, the more we detest him.

The movie has surprises in store for Howard, though. After a while, much to his chagrin, Diana and her daughters learn to move on. A new man comes into her life. Normalcy returns. A tougher film would’ve let Howard stew in his own resentment; he’s certainly got it coming. Instead, unfortunately, Wakefield allows him to start realizing the error of his ways. Maybe he does need these people after all. Maybe Diana really did love him if he’d ever bothered to notice.

Cranston is so perfect at playing a deluded heel that it’s disappointing to watch the character have a change of heart and stumble toward redemption. Because the bleaker message is the more interesting one: If you decide to get away from it all, maybe the only thing your absence will do is help your loved ones realize they’re better off without you.



Revisiting Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Revisiting Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Photo by Wesley Tingey | https://tricy.cl/2qTPgso

The author of the iconic book died last month

By Dan Zigmond

Robert Pirsig died on Monday, April 24, 2017, at his home in Maine. He was 88 and had been in poor health for some time.

In 1974, he published Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, an autobiographical account of the road trip he took with his 11-year-old son Chris from Minneapolis to San Francisco in the summer of 1968. It became an unexpected and almost immediate success, selling a million copies within a year and many more millions since.

The book also describes his experience, years earlier, of going clinically insane while trying to discover the meaning of life, eventually leaving him confined to a psychiatric hospital to receive electroconvulsive therapy. Yet a third strand of the novel develops the philosophy he explored during those difficult years—a metaphysics of what he calls “Quality”—in a series of informal narrative essays that form the bulk of most chapters.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is not about traditional Zen, although Pirsig was clearly inspired by Zen Buddhism. His philosophical investigations began through teaching English composition to college students and asking himself the simple question of what made writing good. He started with this practical quandary:

Quality—you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others—but what’s the “betterness”? So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?”

Pirsig describes a sort of enlightenment experience around this ineffable Quality koan of his, and he comes to equate his notion of Quality with the Buddha quite literally: “Quality is the Buddha,” he declares near the end. His writing on this point evokes a distinctly Zen flavor:

“To discover a metaphysical relationship of Quality and the Buddha at some mountaintop of personal experience is very spectacular. And very unimportant . . . What’s important is the relevance of such a discovery to all the valleys of this world, and all the dull, dreary jobs and monotonous years that await all of us in them.”

Pirsig adapted his famous—and now frequently imitated—title from Zen in the Art of Archery, a slim volume published by a German philosophy professor in the late 1940s that became one of the first works on Japanese Zen available in English. Although Pirsig’s own book makes few direct references to orthodox Zen practice, there are hints within that Pirsig knew much more than he let on. He makes a fleeting reference to “beginner’s mind,” that favorite phrase of San Francisco Zen Center’s founder Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. In fact, Pirsig studied extensively with Suzuki’s friend Dainin Katagiri Roshi, helping him start the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, which still thrives in Minneapolis.

Pirsig developed a deeper and far more tragic connection to the San Francisco Zen Center in 1979, when his son Chris was killed on the street just outside that building a week before his 23rd birthday. Chris had also suffered bouts of mental illness, but had moved to San Francisco and was living at the Center at the time, pursuing the formal practice of Zen that his father’s book largely avoided. Katagiri Roshi gave the address at Chris’s funeral. With the elder Pirsig’s passing last month, both passengers on that legendary motorcycle have now left us.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance likely remains the world’s best-selling book with the word “Zen” in the title. Pirsig himself offered a simple explanation for his work’s enduring appeal: “To reject that part of the Buddha that attends to the analysis of motorcycles is to miss the Buddha entirely,” he wrote early in his book. For certain newcomers to Zen and even some experienced practitioners, Pirsig’s long digressions on tightening bolts and changing spark plugs might just be the inspiration they need to understand life’s great mysteries…




Has art ended again?

Resultado de imagem para Andy Warhol in 1964. Photo by Mario De Biasi/Mondadori/Getty

Andy Warhol in 1964. Photo by Mario De Biasi/Mondadori/Getty

Ever since Hegel, artists and critics alike have been claiming that art is finished. But what could that actually mean?

Owen Hulatt  is a teaching fellow in philosophy at the University of York. His research focuses on profundity in music and art. His latest book is Adorno’s Theory of Aesthetic and Philosophical Truth: Texture and Performance (forthcoming September 2016). 

There are more artworks, and more types of artwork, being produced than ever before. Galleries are widespread and – in some countries – free. Major art prizes, and major artists, receive frequent press attention. With all this abundance, it seems nonsensical to suggest that art had ended. It’s not clear that the claim even makes sense – how could art come to an end?

But this idea is not as obviously wrong as it seems. Talented and insightful philosophers of art have taken this claim quite seriously, even while acknowledging that artworks will continue to be produced in larger numbers, and in new and exciting ways. When these philosophers claim that art has ended, they are not saying that there will be no new artworks. Their claim is quite different. They are telling us that art has some kind of goal, or line of development, which has been completed; plenty more will happen in art, but there is nothing left to achieve. Just as Francis Fukuyama claimed in 1989 that history had ended – meaning not that nothing more would ever happen, only that all ‘viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism’ had been exhausted – so too some philosophers claim that art as a practice will continue, but has no more ways of progressing. Two of the more prominent philosophers to have made this sort of argument were G W F Hegel in the early 19th century, and Arthur Danto in the late 20th century.

Hegel was, in many ways, the father of what we now call the history of art. He gave one of the earliest and most ambitious accounts of art’s development, and its importance in shaping and reflecting our common culture. He traced its beginnings in the ‘symbolic art’ of early cultures and their religious art, admired the clarity and unity of the ‘classical’ art of Greece, and followed its development through to modern, ‘romantic’ art, best typified, he claimed, in poetry. Art had not just gone through a series of random changes: in his view, it had developed. Art was one of the many ways in which humanity was improving its understanding of its own freedom, and improving its understanding of its relationship to the world. But this was not all good news. Art had gone as far as it could go and stalled; it could, according to Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics (1835), progress no further:

the conditions of our present time are not favourable to art […] art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past.

In 1835, Hegel claimed that art had ended. Almost exactly 10 years later, the German composer Richard Wagner premiered Tannhäuser in Dresden, the first of his great operas; the beginning in earnest of a career that would change musical composition forever. Less than a century after Hegel’s claim, the visual arts saw the onset of Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism and Fauvism, among other movements, and literature, poetry and architecture were deeply changed by Modernism.

In 1964, Danto attended an exhibition at the Stable Gallery in New York. He came across Andy Warhol’s artwork Brillo Boxes (1964) – a visually unassuming, highly realistic collection of plywood replicas of the cardboard boxes in which Brillo cleaning products were shipped. Danto left the exhibition dumbstruck. Art, he was convinced, had ended. One could not tell the artworks apart from the real shipping containers they were aping. One required something else, something outside the artwork itself, to explain why Warhol’s Brillo Boxes were art, and Brillo boxes in the dry goods store were not. Art’s progress was over, Danto felt; and the reign of art theory had begun.

We could ask ourselves whether these claims were false – but a better question is, what would it mean for these claims to be true? What do philosophers mean when they say art has or will come to an end? Is it just hyperbole? And why does art keep ending, for philosophers, while the rest of us see it carrying on, taking new directions?…



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