Critical Music 2: Interview with Colin Siyuan Chinnery (part 2)

Welcome to part two of the second interview in this series on critical music, talking with Colin Siyuan Chinnery. Part one can be found here. This final part will cover Colin’s more recent activities in relation to sound: his involvement with the Shijia Hutong Museum and the development of the Sound Museum, an entity investigating and exploiting the full potential of sound.

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Critical Music 2: Interview with Colin Siyuan Chinnery (part 1)

Critical Music series: This series of posts focuses on individuals, groups, or organisations that have played notable roles in the history of critical music practices in China. These practices appears in many different guises, often related to concepts such as “experimental music” or “sound art”, although neither term is entirely satisfactory in describing the practices which often exist in many hybrid forms. My adoption of the term “critical music” (following the writings of G Douglas Barrett) attempts to avoid the limitations of these terms, while highlighting the active nature of the sound component of the practices. These posts will primarily take the form of interviews, each one aiming to place the subject within the general history of critical music practices in China, and contextualise their current practice within their overall development.

Welcome to the second interview in this series. Today I am honoured to publish the first part of an interview with Colin Siyuan Chinnery, the Beijing-based artist, curator, musician, and writer. In the early ’90s Colin and his band Xue Wei were part of the evolving music scene in Beijing, as artists pushed up against the boundaries of the then dominant rock ‘n’ roll. His interest in experimental music later led to his initiating the influential Sound and the City project with the British Council, which saw four experimental musicians travelling from the UK to Beijing to create sound projects there. The second part of this interview (to follow) will cover his more recent activities: his involvement with the Shijia Hutong Museum and the development of the Sound Museum, an entity investigating and exploiting the wider potential of sound.

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WRITING—The Idea in Art

Picking up on another subject from the previous post, touched on in this quote:

. . . the [late nineteenth-century] avant-garde saw the necessity of an escape from ideas, which were infecting the arts with the ideological struggles of society.1

What’s interesting to me, upon re-reading that passage, is the denigration of ideas as ‘infecting the arts with the ideological struggles of society’, which is precisely (it seems to me) where certain strands of conceptual art took art in the late ’60’s – looking particularly at Adrian Piper.

On the course we are looking at Greenberg along with Clive Bell’s The Aesthetic Hypothesis (1914) and Roger Fry’s An Essay in Aesthetics (1909) as the developers of formalism in art theory in the early twentieth-century. So I reviewed the texts we are reading by them for other instances of the subordination of ideas, but it seems that for Bell and Fry it goes without saying and so there are only oblique references to it.

Clive Bell:

. . . for the purposes of aesthetics we have no right, neither is there any necessity, to pry behind the object, into the state of mind of him who made it.

For to appreciate a work of art we need bring nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its emotions. Art transports us from the works of man’s activity to a world of aesthetic exaltation.

To appreciate a work of art we need bring nothing but a sense of form and colour and a knowledge of three-dimensional space.

But if in the artist an inclination to play upon the emotions of life is often the sign of a flickering inspiration, in the spectator a tendency to seek, behind form, the emotions of life is a sign of defective sensibility always.2

Roger Fry:

It is only when an object exists in our lives for no other purpose than to be seen that we really look at it . . . and towards such even the most normal person adopts to some extent the artistic attitude of pure vision abstracted from necessity.

We must therefore give up the attempt to judge the work of art by its reaction on life, and consider it as an expression of emotions regarded as ends in themselves.3

Being prior to the development of conceptual art, Fry and Bell’s judgments are historically tied to an understanding of art as object based, so their concept of ‘idea’ seems to be one of subject-matter. Conceptual art on the other hand conceived of the idea as something that isn’t necessarily represented, so the return of the idea, post-Greenberg, was not a return to a previous practice, but a new way of doing art.

  1. Greenberg, C.(1940). Towards a Newer Laocoon. In Frascina F., eds. Pollock and After: The Critical Debate. London: Routledge, 1985.
  2. Bell, C.(1914). The Aesthetic Hypothesis. In Frascina F. and Harrison C., eds. Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology. London: Paul Chapman Publishing, 1982.
  3. Fry, R.(1909). An Essay in Aesthetics. In Frascina F. and Harrison C., eds. Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology. London: Paul Chapman Publishing, 1982.