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By James D. Carney

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However, that can only occur if we encounter it in use before we understand it as language. ) Therefore we cannot learn from it, by experience, that it is a source of meaning. Prior to understanding that it is a source of meaning, it cannot seem to be any more meaningful than anything else we encounter. Yet virtually everyone learns to distinguish language use from other patterns, and children become proficient in a native language long before they grasp the significance of any non-human patterns of equal complexity.

Like the Murciélago, performances of music are physically embodied manifestations of a culture. More to the point, that is why music is art and birdsong isn’t. But bear with me. This argument will take some time to unfold. It turns on a specific understanding of the concept of culture. Like us, birds have complex social relationships and their vocalizations play an important role in their social interactions. However, cultural interaction involves a great deal more than social interaction. Suppose that a university student enrolls in a course called “Classical Music,” a survey of music from the Baroque period until the early twentieth century.

These structures are musical materials. Like Paul McCartney’s Höfner bass guitar or Beethoven’s Broadwood piano, they are materials to be used and manipulated. Yet neither the selection of the materials nor the outcomes of the manipulations are pre-ordained. No nightingale will ever select a Höfner bass in order to supply counterpoint to the song of another nightingale. Birds cannot choose their materials and thus their medium. ” No bird will plan out ways to frustrate the learned expectations of the other birds in order to make a point to them, as Haydn did with Prince Esterházy.

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A Historical Theory of Art Criticism by James D. Carney


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