Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 16th, 2018

The end of applause

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On July 8, 1962, at a performance of Bach’s The Art of Fugue, the pianist Glenn Gould asked his audience not to applaud at the end. Most of his listeners complied, although the request clearly made them uneasy. A few months earlier, Gould had published an essay, “Let’s Ban Applause!”, in which he presented the case against the convention. (I owe my discovery of this piece to an excellent episode of my wife’s podcast, Rework, which you should check out if you haven’t done so already.) Gould wrote:

I have come to the conclusion, most seriously, that the most efficacious step which could be taken in our culture today would be the gradual but total elimination of audience response…I believe that the justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.

Later that year, Gould expanded on his position in an interview with The Globe and Mail. When asked why he disliked applause, he replied:

I am rebellious about the institution of the concert—of the mob, which sits in judgment. Some artists seem to place too much reliance on the sweaty mass response of the moment. If we must have a public response at all, I feel it should be much less savage than it is today…Applause tells me nothing. Like any other artist, I can always pull off a few musical tricks at the end of a performance and the decibel count will automatically go up ten points.

The last line is the one that interests me the most. Gould, I think, was skeptical of applause largely because it reminded him of his own worst instincts as a performer—the part that would fall back on a few technical tricks to milk a more enthusiastic response from his audience in the moment. The funny thing about social media, of course, is that it places all of us in this position. If you’ve spent any time on Twitter or Facebook, you know that some messages will generate an enthusiastic response from followers, while others will go over like a lead balloon, and we quickly learn to intuitively sense the difference. Even if it isn’t conscious, it quietly affects the content that we decide to put out there in the world, as well as the opinions and the sides of ourselves that we reveal to others. And while this might seem like a small matter, it had a real impact on our politics, which became increasingly driven by ideas that thrived in certain corners of the social marketplace, where they inspired the “momentary ejection of adrenaline” that Gould decried. Last month, Antonio García Martínez, a former Facebook employee, wrote on Wired of the logistics of the site’s ad auction system:

During the run-up to the election, the Trump and Clinton campaigns bid ruthlessly for the same online real estate in front of the same swing-state voters. But because Trump used provocative content to stoke social media buzz, and he was better able to drive likes, comments, and shares than Clinton, his bids received a boost from Facebook’s click model, effectively winning him more media for less money. In essence, Clinton was paying Manhattan prices for the square footage on your smartphone’s screen, while Trump was paying Detroit prices.

And in the aftermath, Trump’s attitudes toward important issues often seem driven by the response that he gets on Twitter, which leads to a cycle in which he’s encouraged to become even more like what he already is. (In the past, I’ve drawn a comparison between his evolution and that of L. Ron Hubbard, and I think that it still holds up.) In many ways, Trump is the greatest embodiment so far of the tendency that Gould diagnosed half a century ago, in which the performer is driven to change himself in response to the collective feedback that he receives from applause. It’s no accident that Trump only seems truly alive on camera, in front of a cheering crowd, or while tweeting, or why he displays such an obsession with polls and television ratings. Applause may have told Gould nothing, but it tells Trump everything. Social media was a pivotal factor in his victory, but only at the cost of transforming him into a monster that his younger self—as craven and superficial as he was—might not have recognized. And it worked horrifyingly well. At an interview in January, Trump admonished reporters: “The fact is, you people won’t say this, but I’ll say it: I was a much better candidate than [Clinton]. You always say she was a bad candidate; you never say I was a good candidate. I was one of the greatest candidates. Someday you’re going to say that.” Well, I’m ready to say it now. Before the election, I argued in a blog post that Trump’s candidacy would establish the baseline of the popular vote that could be won by the worst possible campaign, and by any conventional measure, I was right. Like everyone else, though, I missed the larger point. Even as we mocked Trump for boasting about the attendance at his rallies, he was listening to the applause, and he evolved in real time into something that would raise the decibel count to shattering levels.

It almost makes me wish that we had actually banned applause back in the sixties, at least for the sake of a thought experiment. In his essay, Gould sketched a picture of how a concert might conclude under his new model:

In the early stages…the performers may feel a moment of unaccustomed tension at the conclusion of their selection, when they must withdraw to the wings unescorted by the homage of their auditors. For orchestral players this should provide no hazard: a platoon of cellists smartly goose-stepping offstage is an inspiring sight. For the solo pianist, however, I would suggest a sort of lazy-Susan device which would transport him and his instrument to the wings without his having to rise. This would encourage performance of those sonatas which end on a note of serene reminiscence, and in which the lazy Susan could be set gently in motion some moments before the conclusion.

It’s hard to imagine Trump giving a speech in such a situation. If it weren’t for the rallies, he never would have run for president at all, and much of his administration has consisted of his wistful efforts to recapture that glorious moment. (The infamous meeting in which he was showered with praise by his staff members—half a dozen of whom are now gone—feels now like an attempt to recreate that dynamic in a smaller room, and his recent request for a military parade channels that impulse into an even more troubling direction.) Instead of banning applause, of course, we did exactly the opposite. We enabled it everywhere—and then we upvoted its ultimate creation into the White House.

Written by nevalalee

March 16, 2018 at 9:02 am

Quote of the Day

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[Literature] is a business which has its allurements. It requires no capital, no special education, no training, and may be taken up at any time without a moment’s delay. If a man can command a table, a chair, a pen, paper, and ink, he can commence his trade as a literary man…It is an idea that comes to very many men and women, old as well as young—to many thousands who at last are crushed by it, of whom the world knows nothing.

Anthony Trollope, Thackeray

Written by nevalalee

March 16, 2018 at 7:30 am

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