Category Archives: Zone of Proximal Development

Selling Out

The other evening at the Red Rock open mic I was talking to Bill, a singer with an incredible voice. He referred to Bob Dylan and mentioned “Selling Out”.

I noted that the concept of “Selling Out” was hard to apply to Dylan, since he had a record contract within weeks of hitting NYC, before he wrote any of his most innovative songs. The question of “selling out” was around in the ’60s and ’70’s, but its application has always been problematic.

Some artists create a space that is difficult for viewers or listeners to navigate. If that difficulty isn’t too great (the level differs with different people and different media) people can be attracted to playing with the space, learning how to navigate it, and how its edges are determined. The attractiveness, as I’ve written before, is a function of Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development”.

With the mass media that was present in the ’60s, large numbers of people shared the same inputs, and pop artists emerged, like Dylan.

What happens, I believe, is that people eventually learn to navigate the artist’s space. Artists also either exhaust it, or move to other spaces for their own explorations. The artist can lose the ability to create an attractive zone. Some artists find strategies that work throughout their whole lives, like Duchamp, Picasso, Zappa. Others have the space lose its foreignness for much of its audience–people domesticate it.

I like Beefheart’s “selling out”. After putting out some incredible sonic constructions, he put out an album called “Unconditionally Guarenteed” with a photo of himself holding handfulls of cash. The music inside was simple and dull, I’ve never heard anyone defend it. So when Beefheart sold out–explicitly–he lost his audience. Some sell-out. He later put out a couple of killer albums, after regrouping. And the space was back.

As an artist, you find a space to manipulate. Depending on the strategy of that manipulation, and the complexity it engenders, it may give you enough to work with for your whole life. Or you may work through it within a year, and never find another. But the relationship of the artist to that space is not one of money. You can’t buy it, and you can’t starve yourself into it.

The Thing at the Edge

I remember that when I was back in college, Steve Reich made the statement that it wasn’t how you made the music, what was important was whether it was good music or not. And the statement puzzled me, because more than anyone Reich had introduced process into composition, process that led to unintended sonic textures. Well, maybe more than anyone except Cage. But what values did Reich use to determine what was good music?

I’d listened to as wide a range of music as I possibly could, from every inch of the globe, from every electronic and music concrete blurt, and from the very oldest to the current. And what I loved most to hear was something that I absolutely hadn’t ever thought existed.

If something is really foreign, your reaction is not usually intense. If something well known is played badly, you have an intense reaction. But if it’s truly unlike the art you make, you will not recognize the art in it on first blush. It will take repeated exposures, and learning about how it is made, and what rules are followed, and what came before it, and what the instrument that generates it is like to play etc. After a while, you’ll start to feel the inner parts, and you’ll perceive the play it has.

But at the edge of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, you do have a reaction. This is again intense, because your mind and senses are rushing into the experience to get a solid taste of it, to map it and perceive it. To perceive its beauty.

And for me, this is what I’ve come to believe is the “good music” that Reich refers to. I know it isn’t a definition that is pan-cultural, but I could imagine someone following that thread and making sense of it. Someone might argue that beautiful music is music that conforms to certain architectural ratios. I can agree, but the beauty needs a person who is ready to resonate with it.

And so I’ve come to value the beautiful over the new. Not because I think it is more important. But because I know it’s a healthy place for a person to have a nest. And because I know that as one perceives, the locus of that nest must change, as percept becomes concept. The thing, then, is always a balance among self, object, and sensory perspective.