Music as Ornament: Walton’s Road Not Taken
In his seminal book, Mimesis as Make-Believe, and in subsequent papers, Kendall Walton carefully integrated the art of music into his theory of the representational arts, arguing that not only bona fide instances of program music, but also works of so-called absolute music are thoroughly capable of generating fictional truths by engaging the listeners with props in sufficiently rich games of make-believe. Thus Walton responds favorably to a venerable tradition in aesthetics, going back at least to the 18th Century, which renders music as a member in good standing of the system of the fine arts. However, this aesthetic tradition remains contested, most notably in recent times by Peter Kivy and Philip Alperson, who argue that music is better construed as a decorative art, an art of pure sonic design. In this paper I argue that Walton’s theoretical framework actually fares better when leaning toward this seemingly antithetical view. I proceed by critically examining Walton’s threefold comparison of music to painting, which led him to construe music—problematically, I maintain—as an introspective, work-world deficient art. I argue that Walton underplays two crucially interrelated aspects of musical phenomena: (1) their range of perceptual accessibility, in particular cross-modality; (2) their conceptual embeddedness in the fluid gestures of performance. Concurrently he puts a philosophically prohibitive onus on the notion of imaginative introspection. I suggest that resisting those two concurrent moves would still allow the construal of music within Walton’s framework in terms of psychologically inhibited games of make-believe akin to ornamental representations. Such reorientation within Walton’s framework not only alleviates the aforementioned, as well as other conceptual tensions, but also does theoretical justice to the seamlessness of musical gesture and the real world which we inhabit. Thus understanding music as ornament allows us to see anew how works of music may generate fictional truths, in particular the importance of unauthorized games of make-believe for musical creativity and interpretation.