The reading makes some interesting points about the differences between what it considers “first-word art” and what it considers “last-word art”. However, my problem with it lies in the treatment of the overlap. Rather than it being a gaggle of misfits, like the article seems to imply, I strongly believe that there is a strong connection between the two, and that this connection is a lot more complex, layered, and nuanced than the article would lead us to believe.
Taking Naimark’s own example, the distinction between Haydn and Beethoven. While most would agree on his characterization of Haydn, I believe that he greatly shortchanges Beethoven. While the 9th symphony was definitely a symphonic statement made with as much finality as any could be, it truly opened more doors than it closed. On a literal level, Beethoven’s stretching of the form, and in particular his utilization of a chorus, was completely unprecedented and could easily be considered “first-word art”. However, on a slightly less literal level, we see that Beethoven’s 9th Symphony ushered in the Golden Age of the symphony. None of the symphonies of Schubert, Brahms, Dvorak, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Mahler, or countless others would be remotely possible without the new direction in which Beethoven struck out.
Even the most “regressive” composer in Western musical history, Bach, can be seen in the light of both “first-word art” and “last-word art”. He is obviously the latter, from his fame as being the last great contrapuntist. But we shouldn’t forget that his shadow has also fallen over close to 300 years of Western music as incomparable, precisely because of his idiosyncratic and unrelenting austerity. And we shouldn’t forget his influence on formal matters, such as the set of 24 preludes and fugues, which has been reused by such varied composers as Shostakovich and Hindemith.
Given that information, it feels that the two poles seem to be reduced to the notion of surviving the test of time. The artists who do, are considered to have made statements of finality, not because of the work itself, but because of its continued ability to affect people. And in this respect there definitely is a difference between Haydn and Beethoven, because Haydn has definitely aged in a way that it feels like Beethoven never will. However, basing a theory of art based on what will survive the test of time brings about its own set of problems. For example, so many of the reasons that work doesn’t survive is because it is never theorized and incorporated in artistic discourse, due to the various political, social, racial, and ethnic biases in art historiography. Why else would we study poetry by Robert Browning so much more than poetry by Christina Rossetti. Come to think of it, I couldn’t even think of a single African-American artist from the last century off the top of my head.
An example that goes in the other direction, showing that “last-word art” can be lurking in places where we least expect it, is in the work of the Postmodernist sculptor Eva Hesse. Hesse specialized in creating material studies out of novel materials and textures, particularly latex and resin. Her work broke new ground for the use of such non-traditional materials and moreover, the choice of latex inevitably sentenced the work to a quick demise (many have already degraded beyond restoration). This feels like the ideal example of something that is “first-word art”, and yet there is some undefinable brilliance to her work that makes it relevant decades after her death.
My point is that the division often overlaps and is always messy. In my opinion, in the work of every piece of “last-word art”, there’s a piece of “first-word art” waiting to be seen, and what makes a piece of “first-word art” sink into oblivion could be factors embedded inside a socio-political context that defies such clean distinctions. With technology, that context however also takes on new meaning because it comes to include all of the massive changes in technology that occur between the making and the reception of the artwork. However, this is true of older media, for example the saturation of our culture with recording and playback devices has fundamentally changed the way we listen to music from a process of narrative focus, to one of timbral focus (I’ll reserve this for a totally different tirade), thereby completely changing our relationship to Beethoven, something which was totally beyond his control.
To conclude, I suppose that all we can truly ever do as creators, is hope that what we believe is worth making, through our education and our gut, is truly worth making, according to some definition of the word “worth”.