Essay About My Favourite Artists Simply Human

There has never been a time when art critics held more power than during the second half of the twentieth century. Following the Second World War, with the relocation of the world’s artistic epicenter from Paris to New York, a different kind of war was waged in the pages of magazines across the country. As part of the larger “culture wars” of the mid-century, art critics began to take on greater influence than they’d ever held before. For a time, two critics in particular—who began as friends, and remained in the same social circles for much of their lives—set the stakes of the debates surrounding the maturation of American art that would continue for decades. The ideas about art outlined by Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg are still debated today, and the extent to which they were debated in the past has shaped entire movements of the arts. Below are ten works of criticism through which one can trace the mainstreaming of Clement Greenberg’s formalist theory, and how its dismantling led us into institutional critique and conceptual art today.

 

 

The American Action Painters

Harold Rosenberg

 Jackson Pollock, One: Number 31, 1950

 

Harold Rosenberg, a poet who came to art through his involvement with the Artist’s Union and the WPA, was introduced to Jean-Paul Sartre as the “first American existentialist.” Soon, Rosenberg became a contributor to Sartre’s publication in France, for which he first drafted his influential essay. However, when Sartre supported Soviet aggression against Korea, Rosenberg brought his essay to Elaine de Kooning, then the editor of ARTnews, who ran “The American Action Painters” in December, 1952.

RELATED: What Did Harold Rosenberg Do? An Introduction to the Champion of “Action Painting”

Rosenberg’s essay on the emerging school of American Painters omitted particular names—because they’d have been unfamiliar to its original French audience—but it was nonetheless extraordinarily influential for the burgeoning scene of post-WWII American artists. Jackson Pollock claimed to be the influence of “action painting,” despite Rosenberg’s rumored lack of respect for the artist because Pollock wasn’t particularly well-read. Influenced by Marxist theory and French existentialism, Rosenberg conceives of a painting as an “arena,” in which the artist acts upon, wrestles, or otherwise engages with the canvas, in what ultimately amounts to an expressive record of a struggle. “What was to go on the canvas,” Rosenberg wrote, “was not a picture but an event.”

 

Notable Quote

Weak mysticism, the “Christian Science” side of the new movement, tends … toward easy painting—never so many unearned masterpieces! Works of this sort lack the dialectical tension of a genuine act, associated with risk and will. When a tube of paint is squeezed by the Absolute, the result can only be a Success. The painter need keep himself on hand solely to collect the benefits of an endless series of strokes of luck. His gesture completes itself without arousing either an opposing movement within itself nor the desire in the artist to make the act more fully his own. Satisfied with wonders that remain safely inside the canvas, the artist accepts the permanence of the commonplace and decorates it with his own daily annihilation. The result is an apocalyptic wallpaper.

 

 

‘American-Type’ Painting

Clement Greenberg

 

Frank Stella, Untitled, 1967

 

Throughout the preceding decade, Clement Greenberg, also a former poet, had established a reputation as a leftist critic through his writings with The Partisan Review—a publication run by the John Reed Club, a New York City-centered organization affiliated with the American Communist Party—and his time as an art critic with The Nation. In 1955, The Partisan Review published Greenberg’s “‘American-Type’ Painting,” in which the critic defined the now-ubiquitous term “abstract expressionism.”

RELATED: What Did Clement Greenberg Do? A Primer on the Powerful AbEx Theorist’s Key Ideas

In contrast to Rosenberg’s conception of painting as a performative act, Greenberg’s theory, influenced by Clive Bell and T. S. Eliot, was essentially a formal one—in fact, it eventually evolved into what would be called “formalism.” Greenberg argued that the evolution of painting was one of historical determinacy—that ever since the Renaissance, pictures moved toward flatness, and the painted line moved away from representation. Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso were two of the landmarks of this view. Pollock, who exhibited his drip paintings in 1951, freeing the line from figuration, was for Greenberg the pinnacle of American Modernism, the most important artist since Picasso. (Pollock’s paintings exhibited in 1954, with which he returned to semi-representational form, were regarded by Greenberg as a regression. This lead him to adopt Barnett Newman as his new poster-boy, despite the artist’s possessing vastly different ideas on the nature of painting. For one, Greenberg mostly ignored the Biblical titles of Newman’s paintings.)

Greenberg’s formalist theories were immensely influential over the subsequent decades. Artforum in particular grew into a locus for formalist discourse, which had the early effect of providing an aesthetic toolkit divorced from politic. Certain curators of the Museum of Modern Art, particularly William Rubin, Kirk Varnedoe, and to an extent Alfred Barr are credited for steering the museum in an essentially formalist direction. Some painters, such as Frank Stella, Helen Frankenthaler, and Kenneth Noland, had even been accused of illustrating Greenberg’s theories (and those of Michael Fried, a prominent Greenbergian disciple) in attempt to embody the theory, which was restrictive in its failure to account for narrative content, figuration, identity, politics, and more. In addition, Greenberg’s theories proved well-suited for a burgeoning art market, which found connoisseurship an easy sell. (As the writer Mary McCarthy said, “You can’t hang an event on your wall.”) In fact, the dominance of the term “abstract expressionism” over “action painting,” which seemed more applicable to Pollock and Willem de Kooning than any other members of the New York School, is emblematic of the influence of formalist discourse.

 

Notable Quote

The justification for the term, “abstract expressionist,” lies in the fact that most of the painters covered by it took their lead from German, Russian, or Jewish expressionism in breaking away from late Cubist abstract art. But they all started from French painting, for their fundamental sense of style from it, and still maintain some sort of continuity with it. Not least of all, they got from it their most vivid notion of an ambitious, major art, and of the general direction in which it had to go in their time.

 

 

ABC Art

Barbara Rose 

 Donald Judd, Galvanized Iron 17 January, 1973

 

Like many critics in the 1950s and 60s, Barbara Rose had clearly staked her allegiance to one camp or the other. She was, firmly, a formalist, and along with Fried and Rosalind Krauss is largely credited with expanding the theory beyond abstract expressionist painting. By 1965, however, Rose recognized a limitation of the theory as outlined by Greenberg—that it was reductionist and only capable of account for a certain style of painting, and not much at all in other mediums.

RELATED: The Intellectual Origins Of Minimalism

In “ABC Art,” published in Art in America where Rose was a contributing editor, Rose opens up formalism to encompass sculpture, which Greenberg was largely unable to account for. The simple idea that art moves toward flatness and abstraction leads, for Rose, into Minimalism, and “ABC Art” is often considered the first landmark essay on Minimalist art. By linking the Minimalist sculptures of artists like Donald Judd to the Russian supremacist paintings of Kasimir Malevich and readymades of Duchamp, she extends the determinist history that formalism relies on into sculpture and movements beyond abstract expressionism.

 

Notable Quote

I do not agree with critic Michael Fried’s view that Duchamp, at any rate, was a failed Cubist. Rather, the inevitability of a logical evolution toward a reductive art was obvious to them already. For Malevich, the poetic Slav, this realization forced a turning inward toward an inspirational mysticism, whereas for Duchamp, the rational Frenchman, it meant a fatigue so enervating that finally the wish to paint at all was killed. Both the yearnings of Malevich’s Slavic soul and the deductions of Duchamp’s rationalist mind led both men ultimately to reject and exclude from their work many of the most cherished premises of Western art in favor of an art stripped to its bare, irreducible minimum.

 

 

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Philip Leider

 

Michael Heizer, Double Negative, 1969 

 

Despite the rhetorical tendency to suggest the social upheaval of the '60s ended with the actual decade, 1970 remained a year of unrest. And Artforum was still the locus of formalist criticism, which was proving increasingly unable to account for art that contributed to larger cultural movements, like Civil Rights, women’s liberation, anti-war protests, and more. (Tellingly, The Partisan Review, which birthed formalism, had by then distanced itself from its communist associations and, as an editorial body, was supportive of American Interventionism in Vietnam. Greenberg was a vocal hawk.) Subtitled “Art and Politics in Nevada, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Utah,” the editor’s note to the September 1970 issue of Artforum, written by Philip Leider, ostensibly recounts a road trip undertaken with Richard Serra and Abbie Hoffman to see Michael Heizer’s Double Negative in the Nevada desert.

RELATED: A City of Art in the Desert: Behind Michael Heizer’s Monumental Visions for Nevada

However, the essay is also an account of an onsetting disillusion with formalism, which Leider found left him woefully unequipped to process the protests that had erupted surrounding an exhibition of prints by Paul Wunderlich at the Phoenix Gallery in Berkeley. Wunderlich’s depictions of nude women were shown concurrently to an exhibition of drawings sold to raise money for Vietnamese orphans. The juxtaposition of a canonical, patriarchal form of representation and liberal posturing, to which the protestors objected, showcased the limitations of a methodology that placed the aesthetic elements of a picture plane far above the actual world in which it existed. Less than a year later, Leider stepped down as editor-in-chief and Artforum began to lose its emphasis on late Modernism.

 

Notable Quote

I thought the women were probably with me—if they were, I was with them. I thought the women were picketing the show because it was reactionary art. To the women, [Piet] Mondrian must be a great revolutionary artist. Abstract art broke all of those chains thirty years ago! What is a Movement gallery showing dumb stuff like this for? But if it were just a matter of reactionary art, why would the women picket it? Why not? Women care as much about art as men do—maybe more. The question is, why weren’t the men right there with them?

 

 

Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?

Linda Nochlin

 Linda Nochlin teaches an art history class at Vassar in 1965

 

While Artforum, in its early history, had established a reputation as a generator for formalist theory, ARTnews had followed a decidedly more Rosenberg-ian course, emphasizing art as a practice for investigating the world. The January 1971 issue of the magazine was dedicated to “Women’s Liberation, Woman Artists, and Art History” and included an iconoclastic essay by Linda Nochlin titled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”

RELATED: An Introduction to Feminist Art

Nochlin notes that it’s tempting to answer the question “why have there been no great women artists?” by listing examples of those overlooked by critical and institutional organizations (a labor that Nochlin admits has great merit). However, she notes, “by attempting to answer it, they tacitly reinforce its negative implications,” namely that women are intrinsically less capable of achieving artistic merit than men. Instead, Nochlin’s essay functions as a critique of art institutions, beginning with European salons, which were structured in such a way as to deter women from rising to the highest echelons. Nochlin’s essay is considered the beginning of modern feminist art history and a textbook example of institutional critique.

 

Notable Quote

There are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cézanne, Picasso or Matisse, or even in very recent times, for de Kooning or Warhol, any more than there are black American equivalents for the same. If there actually were large numbers of “hidden” great women artists, or if there really should be different standards for women’s art as opposed to men’s—and one can’t have it both ways—then what are feminists fighting for? If women have in fact achieved the same status as men in the arts, then the status quo is fine as it is.
But in actuality, as we all know, things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and above all, male. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education.

 

 

Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief

Thomas McEvilley

 Exhibition view of “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern

 

One of the many extrapolations of Nochlin’s essay is that contemporary museum institutions continue to reflect the gendered and racist biases of preceding centuries by reinforcing the supremacy of specific master artists. In a 1984 Artforum review, Thomas McEvilley, a classicist new to the world of contemporary art, made the case that the Museum of Modern Art in New York served as an exclusionary temple to certain high-minded Modernists—namely, Picasso, Matisse, and Pollock—who, in fact, took many of their innovations from native cultures.

RELATED: MoMA Curator Laura Hoptman on How to Tell a Good Painting From a “Bogus” Painting

In 1984, MoMA organized a blockbuster exhibition. Curated by William Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe, both of whom were avowed formalists, “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” collected works by European painters like Paul Gaugin and Picasso with cultural artifacts from Zaire, arctic communities, and elsewhere. McEvilley takes aim at the “the absolutist view of formalist Modernism” in which MoMA is rooted. He argues that the removal tribal artifacts from their contexts (for example, many were ritual items intended for ceremonies, not display) and placement of them, unattributed, near works by European artists, censors the cultural contributions of non-Western civilizations in deference to an idealized European genius.

 

Notable Quote

The fact that the primitive “looks like” the Modern is interpreted as validating the Modern by showing that its values are universal, while at the same time projecting it—and with it MoMA—into the future as a permanent canon. A counter view is possible: that primitivism on the contrary invalidates Modernism by showing it to be derivative and subject to external causation. At one level this show undertakes precisely to coopt that question by answering it before it has really been asked, and by burying it under a mass of information.

 

 

Please Wait By the Coatroom

John Yau

 Wifredo Lam, The Jungle, 1943

 

Not content to let MoMA and the last vestiges of formalism off the hook yet, John Yau wrote in 1988 an essay on Wifredo Lam, a Cuban painter who lived and worked in Paris among Picasso, Matisse, Georges Braque, and others. Noting Lam’s many influences—his Afro-Cuban mother, Chinese father, and Yoruba godmother—Yau laments the placement of Lam’s The Jungle near the coatroom in the Museum of Modern Art, as opposed to within the Modernist galleries several floors above. The painting was accompanied by a brief entry written by former curator William Rubin, who, Yau argues, adopted Greenberg’s theories because they endowed him with “a connoisseur’s lens with which one can scan all art.”

RELATED: From Cuba With Love: Artist Bill Claps on the Island’s DIY Art Scene

Here, as with with McEvilley’s essay, Yau illustrates how formalism, as adapted by museum institutions, became a (perhaps unintentional) method for reinforcing the exclusionary framework that Nochlin argued excluded women and black artists for centuries.

 

Notable Quote

Rubin sees in Lam only what is in his own eyes: colorless or white artists. For Lam to have achieved the status of unique individual, he would have had to successfully adapt to the conditions of imprisonment (the aesthetic standards of a fixed tradition) Rubin and others both construct and watch over. To enter this prison, which takes the alluring form of museums, art history textbooks, galleries, and magazines, an individual must suppress his cultural differences and become a colorless ghost. The bind every hybrid American artist finds themselves in is this: should they try and deal with the constantly changing polymorphous conditions effecting identity, tradition, and reality? Or should they assimilate into the mainstream art world by focusing on approved-of aesthetic issues? Lam’s response to this bind sets an important precedent. Instead of assimilating, Lam infiltrates the syntactical rules of “the exploiters” with his own specific language. He becomes, as he says, “a Trojan horse.”

 

 

Black Culture and Postmodernism

Cornel West

 

Cornel West

 

The opening up of cultural discourse did not mean that it immediately made room for voices of all dimensions. Cornel West notes as much in his 1989 essay “Black Culture and Postmodernism,” in which he argues that postmodernism, much like Modernism before it, remains primarily ahistorical, which makes it difficult for “oppressed peoples to exercise their opposition to hierarchies of power.” West’s position is that the proliferation of theory and criticism that accompanied the rise of postmodernism provided mechanisms by which black culture could “be conversant with and, to a degree, participants in the debate.” Without their voices, postmodernism would remain yet another exclusionary movements.

RELATED: Kerry James Marshall on Painting Blackness as a Noun Vs. Verb

 

Notable Quote

As the consumption cycle of advanced multinational corporate capitalism was sped up in order to sustain the production of luxury goods, cultural production became more and more mass-commodity production. The stress here is not simply on the new and fashionable but also on the exotic and primitive. Black cultural products have historically served as a major source for European and Euro-American exotic interests—interests that issue from a healthy critique of the mechanistic, puritanical, utilitarian, and productivity aspects of modern life.

 

 

Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power

Anna C. Chave

 Richard Serra, Tilted Arc, 1981

 

In recent years, formalist analysis has been deployed as a single tool within a more varied approach to art. Its methodology—that of analyzing a picture as an isolated phenomena—remains prevalent, and has its uses. Yet, many of the works and movements that rose to prominence under formalist critics and curators, in no small part because of their institutional acceptance, have since become part of the rearguard rather than the vanguard.

In a 1990 essay for Arts Magazine, Anna Chave analyzes how Minimalist sculpture possesses a “domineering, sometimes brutal rhetoric” that was aligned with “both the American military in Vietnam, and the police at home in the streets and on university campuses across the country.” In particular, Chave is concerned with the way Minimalist sculptures define themselves through a process of negation. Of particular relevance to Chave’s argument are the massive steel sculptures by Minimalist artist Richard Serra. 

Tilted Arc was installed in Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan in 1981. Chave describes the work as a “mammoth, perilously tilted steel arc [that] formed a divisive barrier too tall to see over, and a protracted trip to walk around.” She writes, “it is more often the case with Serra that his work doesn’t simply exemplify aggression or domination, but acts it out.” Tilted Arc was so controversial upon its erecting that the General Services Administration, which commissioned the work, held hearings in response to petitions demanding the work be removed. Worth quoting at length, Chave writes:

A predictable defense of Serra’s work was mounted by critics, curators, dealers, collectors, and some fellow artists…. The principle arguments mustered on Serra’s behalf were old ones concerning the nature and function of the avant-garde…. What Rubin and Serra’s other supporters declined to ask is whether the sculptor really is, in the most meaningful sense of the term, an avant-garde artist. Being avant-garde implies being ahead of, outside, or against the dominant culture; proffering a vision that implicitly stands (at least when it is conceived) as a critique of entrenched forms and structures…. But Serra’s work is securely embedded within the system: when the brouhaha over Arc was at its height, he was enjoying a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art…. [The defense’s] arguments locate Serra not with the vanguard but with the standing army or “status quo.” … More thoughtful, sensible, and eloquent testimony at the hearing came instead from some of the uncouth:

My name is Danny Katz and I work in this building as a clerk. My friend Vito told me this morning that I am a philistine. Despite that I am getting up to speak…. I don’t think this issue should be elevated into a dispute between the forces of ignorance and art, or art versus government. I really blame government less because it has long ago outgrown its human dimension. But from the artists I expected a lot more. I didn’t expect to hear them rely on the tired and dangerous reasoning that the government has made a deal, so let the rabble live with the steel because it’s a deal. That kind of mentality leads to wars. We had a deal with Vietnam. I didn’t expect to hear the arrogant position that art justifies interference with the simple joys of human activity in a plaza. It’s not a great plaza by international standards, but it is a small refuge and place of revival for people who ride to work in steel containers, work in sealed rooms, and breathe recirculated air all day. Is the purpose of art in public places to seal off a route of escape, to stress the absence of joy and hope? I can’t believe this was the artistic intention, yet to my sadness this for me has become the dominant effect of the work, and it’s all the fault of its position and location. I can accept anything in art, but I can’t accept physical assault and complete destruction of pathetic human activity. No work of art created with a contempt for ordinary humanity and without respect for the common element of human experience can be great. It will always lack dimension.

The terms Katz associated with Serra’s project include arrogance and contempt, assault, and destruction; he saw the Minimalist idiom, in other words, as continuous with the master discourse of our imperious and violent technocracy.

 

 

The End of Art

Arthur Danto

 

Andy Warhol carries a Brillo box in his Factory

 

Like Greenberg, Arthur Danto was an art critic for The Nation. However, Danto was overtly critical of Greenberg’s ideology and the influence he wielded over Modern and contemporary art. Nor was he a follower of Harold Rosenberg, though they shared influences, among them the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Danto’s chief contribution to contemporary art was his advancing of Pop Artists, particularly Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

In “The End of Art” Danto argues that society at large determines and accepts art, which no longer progresses linearly, categorized by movements. Instead, viewers each possess a theory or two, which they use to interpret works, and art institutions are largely tasked with developing, testing, and modifying various interpretive methods. In this way, art differs little from philosophy. After decades of infighting regarding the proper way to interpret works of art, Danto essentially sanctioned each approach and the institutions that gave rise to them. He came to call this “pluralism.”

RELATED: What Was the Pictures Generation?

Similarly, in “Painting, Politics, and Post-Historical Art,” Danto makes the case for an armistice between formalism and the various theories that arose in opposition, noting that postmodern critics like Douglas Crimp in the 1980s, who positioned themselves against formalism, nonetheless adopted the same constrictive air, minus the revolutionary beginnings.

 

Notable Quote

Modernist critical practice was out of phase with what was happening in the art world itself in the late 60s and through the 1970s. It remained the basis for most critical practice, especially on the part of the curatoriat, and the art-history professoriat as well, to the degree that it descended to criticism. It became the language of the museum panel, the catalog essay, the article in the art periodical. It was a daunting paradigm, and it was the counterpart in discourse to the “broadening of taste” which reduced art of all cultures and times to its formalist skeleton, and thus, as I phrased it, transformed every museum into a Museum of Modern Art, whatever that museum’s contents. It was the stable of the docent’s gallery talk and the art appreciation course—and it was replaced, not totally but massively, by the postmodernist discourse that was imported from Paris in the late 70s, in the texts of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jacques Lacan, and of the French feminists Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray. That is the discourse [Douglas] Crimp internalizes, and it came to be lingua artspeak everywhere. Like modernist discourse, it applied to everything, so that there was room for deconstructive and “archeological” discussion of art of every period.

 

 

Editor’s Note: This list was drawn in part from a 2014 seminar taught by Debra Bricker Balken in the MFA program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts titled Critical Strategies: Late Modernism/Postmodernism. Additional sources can be found here, here, here (paywall), and here. Also relevant are reviews of the 2008 exhibition at the Jewish Museum, “Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940–1976,” notably those by Roberta Smith, Peter Schjeldahl, and Martha Schwendener.

 

What is music? There’s no end to the parade of philosophers who have wondered about this, but most of us feel confident saying: ‘I know it when I hear it.’ Still, judgments of musicality are notoriously malleable. That new club tune, obnoxious at first, might become toe-tappingly likeable after a few hearings. Put the most music-apathetic individual in a household where someone is rehearsing for a contemporary music recital and they will leave whistling Ligeti. The simple act of repetition can serve as a quasi-magical agent of musicalisation. Instead of asking: ‘What is music?’ we might have an easier time asking: ‘What do we hear as music?’ And a remarkably large part of the answer appears to be: ‘I know it when I hear it again.’

Psychologists have understood that people prefer things they’ve experienced before at least since Robert Zajonc first demonstrated the ‘mere exposure effect’ in the 1960s. It doesn’t matter whether those things are triangles or pictures or melodies; people report liking them more the second or third time around, even when they aren’t aware of any previous exposure. People seem to misattribute their increased perceptual fluency – their improved ability to process the triangle or the picture or the melody – not to the prior experience, but to some quality of the object itself. Instead of thinking: ‘I’ve seen that triangle before, that’s why I know it,’ they seem to think: ‘Gee, I like that triangle. It makes me feel clever.’ This effect extends to musical listening. But evidence has been accumulating that something more than the mere exposure effect governs the special role of repetition in music.

To begin with, there’s the sheer amount of it. Cultures all over the world make repetitive music. The ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl at the University of Illinois counts repetitiveness among the few musical universals known to characterise music the world over. Hit songs on American radio often feature a chorus that plays several times, and people listen to these already repetitive songs many times. The musicologist David Huron at Ohio State University estimates that, during more than 90 per cent of the time spent listening to music, people are actually hearing passages that they’ve listened to before. The play counter in iTunes reveals just how frequently we listen to our favourite tracks. And if that’s not enough, tunes that get stuck in our heads seem to loop again and again. In short, repetition is a startlingly prevalent feature of music, real and imagined.

In fact, repetition is so powerfully linked with musicality that its application can dramatically transform apparently non-musical materials into song. The psychologist Diana Deutsch, at the University of California, San Diego, discovered a particularly powerful example – the speech-to-song illusion. The illusion begins with an ordinary spoken utterance, the sentence ‘The sounds as they appear to you are not only different from those that are really present, but they sometimes behave so strangely as to seem quite impossible.’ Next, one part of this utterance – just a few words – is looped several times. Finally, the original recording is represented in its entirety, as a spoken utterance. When the listener reaches the phrase that was looped, it seems as if the speaker has broken into song, Disney-style.


The speech-to-sound illusion, discovered by Diana Deutsch, UC San Diego. To experience the illusion, play the two recordings in sequence. Credit: Diana Deutsch

The transformation is truly bizarre. You’d think that listening to someone speak and listening to someone sing were separate things, distinguished by the objective characteristics of the sound itself. It seems obvious: I hear someone speak when she’s speaking, and sing when she’s singing. But the speech-to-song illusion reveals that the exact same sequence of sounds can seem either like speech or like music, depending only on whether it has been repeated. Repetition can actually shift your perceptual circuitry such that the segment of sound is heard as music: not thought about as similar to music, or contemplated in reference to music, but actually experienced as if the words were being sung.

This illusion demonstrates what it means to hear something musically. The ‘musicalisation’ shifts your attention from the meaning of the words to the contour of the passage (the patterns of high and low pitches) and its rhythms (the patterns of short and long durations), and even invites you to hum or tap along with it. In fact, part of what it means to listen to something musically is to participate imaginatively.

When they’re being heard as music, the two words – ‘sometimes behave’ – in Deutsch’s recording contain the next two words – ‘so strangely’ – almost inevitably within them. Try listening to the original utterance again and pausing it after the words ‘sometimes behave’: unable to resist completing the pattern, your mind automatically offers the continuation ‘so strangely’. When you hear something as music, you aren’t so much listening to as listening along with.

Repetition is the key to this participatory aspect of music. My own lab at the University of Arkansas did some research using rondos, a repetitive kind of musical composition that was particularly popular in the late 18th century. In our study, people who had heard classical rondos featuring exact repetition reported more of a tendency to tap or sing along than those who had heard rondos that varied the refrain a little. Then again, classical rondos provide very little opportunity for audience participation, and it’s notable that musical situations that expressly call for broad involvement generally feature even more repetition – think of the number of times a church responsorial calls on the congregation to sing a single phrase back. Even in the many ordinary musical situations that don’t expressly call for participation (listening to the radio while driving along, for instance), people still get involved in ways that range from subtle swaying to air guitar to full-voiced singing along.

Can music exist without repetition? Well, music is not a natural object and composers are free to flout any tendency that it seems to exhibit. Indeed, over the past century, a number of composers expressly began to avoid repetitiveness in their work. In a recent study at the Music Cognition lab, we played people samples of this sort of music, written by such renowned 20th-century composers as Luciano Berio and Elliott Carter. Unbeknownst to the participants, some of these samples had been digitally altered. Segments of these excerpts, chosen only for convenience and not for aesthetic effect, had been extracted and reinserted. These altered excerpts differed from the original excerpts only in that they featured repetition.

The altered excerpts should have been fairly cringeworthy; after all, the originals were written by some of the most celebrated composers of recent times, and the altered versions were spliced together without regard to aesthetic effect. But listeners in the study consistently rated the altered excerpts as more enjoyable, more interesting, and – most tellingly – more likely to have been composed by a human artist rather than randomly generated by a computer. The listeners in the study were college undergraduates with no special training or experience in contemporary art music.

A phrase that sounded arbitrary the first time might come to sound purposefully shaped and communicative the second

Even so, when I presented these findings at the annual meeting of the Society for Music Theory in 2011, to an audience that was uncommonly well-versed in these repertoires, some people were surprised to find that the doctored versions possessed an elevated degree of persuasiveness, even to them, and even when they knew what they were hearing. Admittedly, this study does not address the specially cultivated listening habits of the cognoscenti, but it does reveal something about the way listeners make sense of music that is new to them. Repetition serves as a handprint of human intent. A phrase that might have sounded arbitrary the first time might come to sound purposefully shaped and communicative the second.

A separate study in my lab tested whether repetition could also make snippets of music sound more musical. We generated random sequences of notes and presented them to listeners in one of two conditions: original or looped. In the looped condition, the random sequence played not once but six times in a row. At the start of the study, people listened to the sequences, which played automatically, one after the other. Some were in their original form and some were looped (it varied from participant to participant which sequence was heard in what form). Later, the test subjects heard each random sequence individually – once only, without repeats – and then rated how musical it sounded.

They had heard enough sequences that they all tended to blend together; they didn’t explicitly remember which segments they’d heard as loops, or even whether they’d previously heard the sequence at all. Nevertheless, they consistently found the sequences to be more musical when they’d heard them in looped form. Even without the aid of explicit memory, the repetitions of the random sequences had imbued them with a sense of musicality. No matter the constituent material, whether it’s strings of syllables or strings of pitches, it seems that the brute force of repetition can work to musicalise sequences of sounds, triggering a profound shift in the way we hear them.

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To get a sense of how the process works, there’s a very simple trick you can try. Ask an indulgent friend to pick a word – lollipop, for example – and keep saying it to you for a couple minutes. You will gradually experience a curious detachment between the sounds and their meaning. This is the semantic satiation effect, documented more than 100 years ago. As the word’s meaning becomes less and less accessible, aspects of the sound become oddly salient – idiosyncrasies of pronunciation, the repetition of the letter l, the abrupt end of the last syllable, for example. The simple act of repetition makes a new way of listening possible, a more direct confrontation with the sensory attributes of the word itself.

Anthropologists might feel that they are on familiar ground here, because it is now understood that rituals – by which I mean stereotyped sequences of actions, such as the ceremonial washing of a bowl – also harness the power of repetition to concentrate the mind on immediate sensory details rather than broader practicalities. In the case of the bowl-washing, for example, the repetition makes it clear that the washing gestures aren’t meant merely to serve a practical end, such as making the bowl clean, but should rather serve as a locus of attention in themselves.

In 2008, the psychologists Pascal Boyer and Pierre Liénard at Washington University in St Louis went so far as to claim that ritual creates a distinct attentional state in which we consider actions on a much more basic level than usual. Outside of ritual, individual gestures aren’t usually interpreted on their own terms; they are absorbed into our understanding of the larger flow of events. Ritual shifts attention from the overall pattern of events toward their component gestures. Instead of noting only that a bowl is being cleaned, the witness to a ritual might notice the acceleration of the hand across the bowl’s edge during each wiping gesture, or the way the cloth bunches and then opens as it is dragged forward and back across the surface. What’s more, the repetition of gestures makes it harder and harder to resist imaginatively modelling them, feeling how it might be to move your own hand in the same way. This is precisely the way that repetition in music works to make the nuanced, expressive elements of the sound increasingly available, and to make a participatory tendency – a tendency to move or sing along – more irresistible.

our brains show more activity in their emotional regions when the music we are listening to is familiar, regardless of whether or not we actually like it

Given these similarities, it should be no surprise that many rituals actually depend on music. And music does seem to be a potently mind-expanding tool in its own right. The Swedish psychologist Alf Gabrielsson asked thousands of people to describe their most powerful experiences with music, then searched their responses for common themes. Many people reported that their peak musical experiences involved a sense of transcendence, of dissolved boundaries where they seemed to escape the limitations of their bodies and become one with the sounds they were hearing. These very deep and moving experiences can be partially explained by the shift in attention and the heightened sense of involvement brought about by repetition. Indeed, the psychologist Carlos Pereira and his colleagues at the University of Helsinki demonstrated that our brains show more activity in their emotional regions when the music we are listening to is familiar, regardless of whether or not we actually like it.

Even involuntary repetition, quite against our own musical preferences, is powerful. This is why music that we hate but that we’ve heard again and again can sometimes engage us unwillingly; why we can find ourselves on the bus enthusiastically grooving along until we realise that we’re actually listening to We Built This City by Starship. Repeated exposure makes one sound seem to connect almost inevitably to the next, so that when we hear ‘What is love?’, ‘Baby, don’t hurt me’ immediately plays through our minds. Few spoken utterances contain this irresistible connection between one part and the next. And when we do want bits of speech to be tightly bound in this way – if we’re memorising a list of the presidents of the United States, for example – we might set it to music, and we might repeat it. Listening seems musical when the current bit of sound feels like it’s inextricably pulled to the next bit of sound. Repetition intensifies this effect.

Can you make anything into music just by repeating it? No, there seems to be something special about sound. The few studies that have transferred musical devices, such as rhythm, repetition, and periodicity, to non-auditory domains – flashing lights, for example – suggest that the distinctive kinds of mental processing associated with music are harder to elicit when the basic material isn’t sonic.

It’s also worth pointing out that there are many aspects of music not illuminated by repetition. It might be possible to transform speech into song, but a single bowed note on a violin can also sound unambiguously musical without any special assistance. Repetition can’t explain why a minor chord sounds dark or a diminished chord sounds sinister. Still, it might be able to explain why a series of these chords can come to sound rousing and inevitable.

By tracing and retracing a path through musical space, repetition makes a sequence of sounds seem less like an objective presentation of content and more like a kind of tug that’s pulling you along. It captures sequencing circuitry that makes music feel like something you do rather than something you perceive. This sense of identification we have with music, of listening with it rather than to it, so definitional to what we think about as music, also owes a lot to repeated exposure.

The stunning prevalence of repetition in music all over the world is no accident. Music didn’t acquire the property of repetitiveness because it’s less sophisticated than speech, and the 347 times that iTunes says you have listened to your favourite album isn’t evidence of some pathological compulsion – it’s just a crucial part of how music works its magic. Repetitiveness actually gives rise to the kind of listening that we think of as musical. It carves out a familiar, rewarding path in our minds, allowing us at once to anticipate and participate in each phrase as we listen. That experience of being played by the music is what creates a sense of shared subjectivity with the sound, and – when we unplug our earbuds, anyway – with each other, a transcendent connection that lasts at least as long as a favourite song.

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Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis

is director of the music cognition lab at the University of Arkansas, a trained concert pianist, and the author of On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind (2013).

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