harpsichords, art worlds and support personnel

© Tilman Skowroneck 2011

“Art worlds decline when some groups that knew and used the conventions which inform their characteristic works lose that knowledge, or when new personnel cannot be recruited to maintain the world’s activities.” (Howard S. Becker Art Worlds, 349)

The importance of “support personnel” and “conventions” in art worlds is somewhat easier understood when we look at examples of everyday technology: until a few years ago, for example, it was not problematic in the least to get color films adequately developed, printed, or put on a high-resolution CD. For the past two years or so it has become very difficult to find labs that are still matching this standard: real film is nowadays processed so rarely that it (apparently) has become a major hassle for the labs to keep their chemicals fresh and uncontaminated. As a result, some of my most recent pictures resemble my first photographic efforts when they came back from our corner-store developing service back in the sixties, featuring indistinct colors, embedded particles of dust and debris, specks, and scratches.

But not only the standard of the technology and its maintenance declines. The people who are there for me to talk to about my pictures have no longer any clue about the processes involved in conventional photography. When I, for example, asked the girl at the local photographer’s counter — who still has on-site developing facilities — to get someone in the lab to rinse a specky and dusty film strip once more with distilled water and to wipe it off properly (there are special tongs for doing so, but one can also do it with freshly rubber-gloved fingers, if careful), she first frowned and said something about the inappropriateness of making film wet (all conventional film gets wet during processing and has to be rinsed and dried). Whereupon, (and I swear it is true) she fished a strip of negative out of its pouch, wiped at a dust speck with her fingertip and then tried to pry it off with a pointy, painted finger nail, before I could stop her. I left the film with her with a clearly voiced request, and what I got back was a new CD in which someone had inexpertly photoshopped the specks and impurities away and randomly enhanced the color intensity – something I could have done better with my own equipment.

The vanishing technology, old-school photography in this example, belongs to the “conventions;” the girl at the counter who had no idea what I or she was talking about, and did the only really wrong thing you can do to a dirty negative (touch it with your fingers and scratch around on it), represents the next-generation “personnel” that steps into the breach left by those who could not any more “be recruited to support the [art] world’s activities.”

Time and again it surprises me just how fast the decline of a practice linked to a specific technology can happen. Does anyone remember tape recorders? Digital cassette recorders? Floppy disks? Electric typewriters? There is almost nothing left of any of these. As Becker suggests, characteristic for the sharp decline pattern of such technologies is the mix of a declining economical interest, a loss of proper support channels and facilities, and a loss of knowledge about their upkeep and operation. However, even in art worlds, the aesthetic argument is most of the time comparatively unimportant for the process. True, a discussion about the artistic values and pitfalls of digital photography has raged ever since the new medium became accessible for the average consumer, but it seems to me that the old technology has crashed at a much steeper rate than the aesthetic discourse alone was able to predict.

The demise of the harpsichord at the end of the 18th century may have happened along similar lines. Most early retrospective accounts of the final days of the instrument agree that (apart from its lack of dynamic variation) it was its cumbersome need of re-quilling and regulation that made that it fell out of favor. In addition, we read descriptions about the instrument’s “confusion” and about its heavy and irregular touch.

Needless to say, a well-regulated harpsichord is (and was) neither inherently heavy to play nor irregular, and provided the dampers are well adjusted, its sound is not in the least confused. For centuries, maintenance had been a matter of routine for harpsichord owners, perhaps not always performed gladly, but seen as part of what it meant to own such an instrument and benefit from it. In other words, the art world of the harpsichord was founded on a common mindset that embraced the maintenance needs of the instrument; supply channels for replacements of plectra and jack springs or bristles and damper cloth were in place; there existed personnel that was able to perform proper maintenance; and harpsichord owners calculated their budget according to these requirements.

Only at a point in time when the instrument’s regulation had become too bothersome for anyone to do it well, its heaviness, irregularity and confusion were becoming a problem. Soon, fewer and fewer people even knew how to maintain their harpsichords at all. A poorly maintained harpsichord, just as a neglected car or a rusty water pump, is bound to malfunction earlier rather than later, and thus it begins to seem problematic as and of itself, especially to a dispassionate public. The decrease of musical interest in the harpsichord at the end of the 18th century alone cannot explain why it vanished so thoroughly from musical practice in such short time. It is much more likely that its support network simply collapsed, rendering most harpsichords unusable within years. From here, the step to the historical, but false, claim that the instrument was technically fundamentally inadequate was a small one.

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