E S S A Y 2 / 6 : Who Should Play the Flute, or, Who Should Play the Flute?

I know you like to line dance
Everything so democratic and cool
But baby there’s no guidance
When the random rules

– The Silver Jews, from the American Water LP


Do you know the one about Aristotle and the flute? More or less, it goes like this:

Aristotle stands on a low flat rock, a horseshoe of students sit on the ground around him. The students wear holly wreaths on their heads and togas the color of their school, held closed by safety pins decorated with carved abalone rainbow trout. It is the first day of mild weather on the tail end of a long winter and the decision has been made to hold class outside on the banks of a bay. Aristotle holds a flute at his side and fingers it in a light breeze coming off the water. He clears his throat, calls attendance, everyone pledges allegiance, and class begins.



“Who should play the flute?” begins Aristotle. He holds the flute out for the students to examine. There is a pause. They narrow their eyes at the flute and turn inwards to consider their options as a group: The well-bred? The rich? A slave? A landowner? A soldier? No single option seems best. The students are a modern, forward thinking bunch. They are concerned with what is equitable and fair to their fellow citizens. There is much discussion among the wreaths. The  shadow of a rogue cloud meanders from the new Springtime grass to the sand and out in the water, where it is overtaken by the shadows of the waves in the bay, marching together in a crowded and never-diminishing harmony.






An answer finally comes back from the students, who speak sing-song and in unison; “Anyone who wants to play the flute should play the flute.” They cross their arms. “Sure, sure,” Aristotle says, “It is a sensible answer.”  The students smile and clap. Aristotle continues: “ Sure, sure — it’s even-steven. If anyone is allowed to play the flute then no one is left out. But your answer is an answer without a choice. It’s marshmallows in the mashed potatoes.” The students begin to frown, Aristotle continues. “This would be the same answer you would give if we were standing here talking about growing corn or fishing for trout. Your answer sidesteps the virtue of the flute itself. It does not consider the flute-ness of the flute: the thing that makes it it, the verso of the thing that makes not it not-it. Now, if the virtue of the flute is to just make noise, then the wind coming off this bay has just as much a stake in the playing of this flute as you or as me or as the most learned flautist, yes?”

There is another pause, longer this time. The students stand still, facing neither inward nor outward, each one alone in thought. Some finger their safety pins, some adjust their wreaths. The breeze whistles a bar of Morricone through Aristotle’s flute.





Aristotle gestures to the horizon above the bay.  “At the end of your appeal to democracy today is a world of coddled dilettantes playing flutes badly all day long. Are you happy with that?” Aristotle goes on to remind his class about the horse the committee voted on, and points out that tepid water is neither refreshing to drink nor serviceable for cooking. He speaks quickly, his drawl comes out. Finally he asks again: “This time for all the marbles kids, who should play the flute?”

Class ends in great confusion as a sudden gust of wind whips the wreaths from the heads of the students and carries them up, up, up and out over the water, where they join the shadows of waves in the bay, still marching together in a crowded and never-diminishing harmony.

The End.





What an argument. Linear, righteous, fascistic, elegant as a swung claw hammer. “Come on people, “ Aristotle says, “let’s take this seriously. Let’s think about the virtue of this thing, set a standard, adhere to it, and ask others to do the same.” It is an argument of resource distribution according to the virtue of the resource first, the happiness of the consumer second. However it is an argument which assumes a limited supply of the resource, and so it is ultimately it is an argument of politics; who gets what, when, and how much of it do they get. Thankfully art is limited only by a person’s ability to respond to stimuli and so considerations of politics need not apply.

If there is a reason to view the making of Art with judgement and skepticism–and there is reason enough–it is not to safeguard resources. It is to uphold respect for the human facilities of empathy, curiosity, imagination, and creation, of which Art is one of the fulminated exhausts. It is a record we will leave behind and a gesture of goodwill to our future. So, who should make Art? Who knows. Folks will keep on making what they make, for good reasons and bad. It is the case instead that adherents of Art should be muscular in the naming of things and in the practice of making things; to use both sides of the claw hammer and to walk while chewing gum; to sometimes call things Art, to sometimes call things hobby, to sometimes call things dissatisfaction with more popular forms of distraction like sports and shopping; to celebrate the hearty, open-ended nature of Art but to care for it as though it may get all used up and leave in the breeze.






NEXT TIME: Essay 3/6: The Distance and the Manicure.




E S S A Y 1 / 6 : Line in Muck.

Y’tulip, y’tulip, y’pea brained earwig
Y’punk, y’silver tongued snake
I’d rather make furniture than go to midnight mass

 – Wire, from the Snakedrill EP


The characteristics of good Art and bad Art are apparent to each of us when we are alone and don’t gain anything by our judgements. Good Art has something to do with truth and earnestness and satisfaction, and so bad Art that has something to do with the opposite of those things; to be disingenuous, to be callow, to submit to being unsatisfied. Surely there is enough of this floating around under the sun for everyone to have their fill and take leftovers to work tomorrow. What then is to account for all this bad Art? The qualities of Art, the focus of this essay and the five to follow, is a wild geometry. Readable in an instant, as fast as looking.



Good Art doesn’t make it rain more in dry weather. Bad Art doesn’t run over my foot or overcook my egg. A weak piece does not diminish a regionalism, or stunt a movement, or muddy the entire project of Art. So why all the hay-making about good-Art-bad-Art ? For the vast majority of Art’s adherents and practitioners, Art does not keep the lights on at home or pay the studio rent. This is beside the point though; Art is what makes the lights worth turning on, makes the rent worth paying.




Here is an image of Art; here is a busy bay on a warm holiday weekend. I have been at the bay all morning long, just dog paddling, and I hope to stay until after the sun goes down. I feel a blissful and deliberate joy in negotiating the water as it moves around me. I am wary of the fanciest strokes and the shiniest innertubes as they cut through the chop or float above it. Ease and habit sometimes share an inflatable raft shaped like an ear of corn. There is a quagmire down below — as wide and deep as consciousness, as dense as thought, and woven through with currents of judgement and veins of taste. The act of making Art is to plumb the muck of the quagmire, to locate a resonance, to pursue it, and to return with some piece of what is there. Whatever else we have in our pockets when we come back is probably just pocket lint.




Art looms large in my life and stands close to me, and I cannot see its edges on some days. However I am not a zealot or a Pollyanna about the importance of Art, and I do not maintain a standardless appreciation of it. Rather, I am proprietary of Art and offended to see it dealt with callously. Here, it’s like this: some Art is better than other Art, and most Art is not very good. So much of it is truly and deeply lazy in its execution and cynical in its conception. So much of it doesn’t attempt anything. So much of it is devised as social capital, or it is overly burdened with the prescriptions of the day, or else the relationship between artist and material is conservative and transactional where it ought to be curious and slutty, or else there is too much shame given and received in retreading old ground in the pursuit of finding new territory, or else the work takes itself too seriously, or else it is an execution of fashion without regard for the flow of time, or the work is too greedy for attention and space, or the work is only descriptive where it ought to be transformative, or it is a branding exercise, or it is too much given over to commerce, or it is too timid, or it is too blustery, or it is fetishized beyond vitality, or it is happy without being introspective, or it is joyless without being redemptive, or it condescends, or there is all this damned context, or the work conflates shiftlessness with pursuit, or it is just a game of inside baseball, or it is just a game of throwing pocket knives, or it is too much the opposite of any of these, or else it has been tailored to be the size and shape and weight and aura of Art which is called Fine.




Back in the bay, left hand right hand, a note about discussing Art before I go. Art calls for acts of intellectual and emotional exploration where literal and functional considerations are jettisoned in favor of timelessness and play and evasion. Discussion calls for a common, descriptive, restless tongue–a dumb muscle. This being the case, discussions of Art are slippery and too often reliant on the dry ground of precedent and terminology for footing. Precedent is difficult; to describe one thing by describing another is to sometimes describe neither. Terminology is difficult; to describe a thing with a five dollar word when plainspokenness would do is wasteful at least, cowardly maybe, and alienating. It is good to have standards, and to speak to them. It is good to be available to Art, to be available to each other to discuss Art, to give no cover to Art that is bad, and to recognize the qualities of Art that is good. Whatever else we have in our throats when we talk about Art is probably just pocket lint.




Next time — E S S A Y 2 / 6 : Who Should Play the Flute.