July 01, 2004

Colin Martindale

When I wrote my rambling review/essay of John Heskett's Toothpicks & Logos I linked to Colin Martindale's The Clockwork Muse: The Predictability of Artistic Change. I hadn't bothered to read the official reviews Amazon printed there, because they deeply don't get it. I find it to be a problematic work, but a really interesting one which attempts to find a predictable pattern in creativity and probably does in several places. It came out before all of the emergent theory literature (like Six Degrees, which I also reference in that piece), so Martindale didn't have the tools to try and take his analysis further and critics had no basis from which to evaluate the book, since it was--and still is--quite in left field.

I have also found a much better review of the book by Denis Dutton. In this review he summarizes the point of the book quite well:

Perhaps itís just that Iíve become so habituated to the literary journals, but not only did I fail to find The Clockwork Muse boring, it was for me full of all sorts of revelations. Martindale writes with a calculated, in-your-face insolence, heaping contempt on critics, humanists, behaviorists, Marxists, philosophers, sociologists. He credits Harold Bloom for having half understood, in his bumbling English professorís manner, the law of novelty, but doesnít have much nice to say about many others except psychologists in his own field. He uses his various theses to analyze the histories of British, French and American poetry, American fiction and popular music lyrics, European and American painting, Gothic architecture, Greek vases, Egyptian tomb painting, precolumbian sculpture, Japanese prints, New England gravestones, and various composers and musical works.

A major lynchpin of the investigation concerns what he calls ďprimordial content,Ē roughly the emotional or emotionally expressive aspects of a work. Martindale argues that the arousal potential of works tends to require more primordial content as time go on in a particular art or style. Thus the natural progression will always be from classic to romantic, for greater musical forces, for more violent metaphors, larger, more extraordinary paintings, and so forth. The (Dionysian) primordial is contrasted with (Apollonian) conceptual, which involves, if I understand him, the stylistic mode of an art. Within an established style, primordial content in time must increase. When a style changes, primordial content will decrease. Thus art evolves.

In other words, novelty in form means that content can be less complex, but as we get tired of the form, content becomes more complex (or, in Martindale's unfortunate terminology, "primordial"). Think of electronic music: at first, it was all techno and disco, 133 bpm four-on-the-floor. It was a big hit. Now, 20 years later, there's a forest of subgenres. Why was the original formula not enough to sustain 20 years of dancing? People feel compelled to create ever more complex content when a new field of ideas opens. Is the pattern of that creation somehow predictable?

Dutton raises some very good questions about the book, but concludes--as I have--that it's far from useless because it asks many old questions in an entirely new way, a way that produces unexpected answers that have a face validity that's hard to ignore. That said, the book has been on the remainder shelves pretty much since the day it was published, so it in fact has been ignored and Martindale's assertions have never been validated or refuted on anything like the terms he created them under. Too bad, and I hope that now that the emergent property analysis tools exist, someone in need of journal publication will use them to analyze Martidale's assertions.

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