One thought which arises from Gianni Vattimo’s essay ‘The Death or Decline of Art’ is that art, by way of resisting tradition, loses its delimitation as implicitly having value and instead is obliged to substitute this absence with self-referential dissidence, allusion and pastiche. Thus, the death of art is located in its gradual degradation into a kitsch aesthetic played out against a vapid cultural scheme. Resisting this degradation, Vattimo (along with Adorno) posits authentic art as aspiring towards silence and so thwarting the inclination towards agreeability and overt narrative.
What does this mean for art’s capacity to testify to past events? Kitsch art is necessarily untimely; it points to a number of different temporal occasions and simultaneously commits to none. Thus, there is an ambiguous drifting that really never lingers. This is entirely analogous – though polarized – in the avant-garde where a refusal to submit to the limitations of tradition means that there is an equal propensity towards non-committal.
The Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov has cultivated an entire worldview from this decline of confined form. Silvestrov is usually labelled kitsch in a pejorative fashion. His symphonies are protracted codas, with constant allusion to themes which anticipated their conception. Yet, they say nothing. There is a romantic headiness which is neither nostalgic nor ridden with fate. They – though I am really thinking of the Fifth Symphony – refuse motion. Nothing has begun despite the beginning being an end.
If Silvestrov withdraws from delimitation, then his musical gestures are uncanny. They linger long after they should have dissolved. The shadow motif in De Chirico is identical in this respect. It has no place and so loses its capacity to bear witness to its origin. They are plastic shadows, produced synthetically before being distributed according to the artist’s intentions. There is never a question of them flourishing of their own accord.
Decline in the era of mass reproduction: with Silvestrov, figures, passages and themes are produced in accordance with a strict template of their historical counterparts. For him, however, they exist in conjunction with a musical form temporally dislocated. There is a sense of arrogance in his music which evinces a subversion of decline. This subversion is located in a seduction-repulsion dialectic of Vattimo’s ‘gastronomic’ aesthetic: “…in a world where consensus is produced by manipulation, authentic art speaks only be lapsing into silence, and aesthetic experience only arises only as the negation of all its traditional an canonical characteristics, starting with the pleasure of the beautiful itself.”
Silvestrov demands that we acknowledge the pleasure of beautiful before we can turn away from it through recognizing it as specious. This is why a disfigured manipulation of the adagio is such a prominent feature. The scherzo is grotesque and so bound by that which it is mocking in both space and time. Traditionally, this involves restriction. However, with Silvestrov – following Mahler (particularly in his Ninth Symphony) – the feel of the scherzo imbues the adagio so that what was once regarded as solemn is now seen as vacuous and illusory. This is a process of decline in that content has been outmoded by form; it is also a concession to the failure of art to testify to temporal events, since the mode of the artwork is incapable of committing itself to a fixed moment in the temporal present.