A Stupid Species

I return, once again, to a favorite topic of mine. It was first posted in 2012 and garnered a single online comment. True or not, not is worth a moment’s reflection. I have expanded it a bit.

A former student and good friend of mine some years back sent me a most interesting comment made by the Swedish film-maker Ingmar Bergman. It keeps coming back to me as one of the most profound insights into modernity’s spiritual malaise. As Carl Gustav Jung once said, modern man is in search of a soul. It’s not clear when he lost it, though some think it was around the time of the industrial revolution and the growth of free-enterprise capitalism. By the end of the nineteenth century Nietzsche had pronounced God dead. This has created a vacuum into which we anxiously stare and which continues to both fascinate and confound.  Henry Adams saw this as he reflected on the 35 years that had passed since his return from England with his father in 1868:

“Prosperity never before imagined, power never yet wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, had made the world irritable, nervous, querulous, unreasonable, and afraid.”

Bergman, on the other hand, is speaking about art; but we must remember that art creates culture: where the artist goes culture follows.

“It is my opinion that art lost its creative urge the moment it separated from worship. It severed the umbilical cord and lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. The individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation. Creative unity and humble anonymity are forgotten and buried relics without significance or meaning. The smallest cuts and moral pains of the ego are examined under the microscope as if they were of eternal importance. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our own loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death.

In a word, we no longer worship God, we worship ourselves. The self has displaced God, or indeed anything outside the self. In his autobiography, Adams tells us that he spent his life searching for meaning and continued to find only frustration. He looked back to see where we had gone wrong. In doing so, he wrote a marvelous study of the cathedrals at Chartres and Mont St. Michel, built to the greater glory of the Virgin Mary. In that study he expresses his astonishment at the power of faith over the entire European population at that time. How else to explain the cathedrals that took generations to build and remain to this day the highest expressions of human love? They reflect precisely the kind of passion and attention-turned-outwards that Bergman finds missing in our art and in our world today.

Think of the remarkable works of music, art, sculpture, poetry and even literature that were inspired by a writer, artist, or composer seeking something outside the self through which he or she could find meaning in a meaningless world. Is there any music composed today that can compare with Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s B. Minor Mass? or Verdi’s (or Brahms’ or Mozart’s) Requiem? The composers who sought inspiration based on a deep feeling for something besides the self were too numerous to mention. Now there are none — except, perhaps, Leonard Bernstein whose MASS, composed in 1971, stands virtually alone. And the visual works created during the medieval period and the Renaissance were breathtaking, leading the attention of the spectators beyond himself or herself to something worth respecting and even loving — much like the Cathedrals themselves. In literature we need only mention Dostoevsky’s extraordinary novel The Brothers Karamazov or Goethe’s Faust.

What we have instead is art that is largely self-expression coupled with a world dominated by technological expertise and amazing devices that allow us to move mountains, race at great speed, and communicate around the world in seconds — even travel to distant places in space and look back at the earth we are rapidly destroying. But, as Adams notes in his autobiography (which is clearly a companion piece for his study of Chartres and Mont St. Michel):

“All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.”

Medieval men had the power of inspiration, we have the only power of steam and nuclear fission.

We really are a stupid species. We pride ourselves on our accomplishments while we deny our ignorance which is immeasurably greater. We are surrounded by beauty which we ignore as we stare mindlessly down at the latest electronic devise designed to capture our minds. We are capable of love but feel only antipathy toward all but a few — if we are aware of others at all. We have the capacity to reason yet we are unable to think our way out of the simplest difficulty — usually one we have created for ourselves through lack of foresight.

Adams thought history revealed itself as a tendency toward greater and greater complexity, that it is impossible to grasp the meaning of events in a simple unified theory. If he is correct, and I suspect he is, it is almost certainly because humans continue to unleash forces they little understand and can barely control — as we learned in Japan not long ago — and the urge to discover the newest and latest has become a compulsion .

Bergman showed us in his films that the truth is staring us in the face. It’s in the smile of the infant, the glorious sunset, the deer leaping gracefully over the fence, or the bird soaring high above us. We can’t see these things because we are preoccupied with ourselves and the things we have done; we insist upon finding meaning where it doesn’t exist — within ourselves.

What Makes Art?

“From the eighteenth century onward, enlightened opinion has held that art plays an important part in the life of the individual and society, some would say a decisive part.” (Lionel Trilling)

It has been said that if four artists were to sit down on a hillside and paint a landscape the result would be four entirely different paintings. The reason, of course, is that each artist interprets what she sees differently. I would argue that it is precisely the interpretation that makes art. The artist does not merely copy what she sees (as Plato would have it), she creates an entirely new work each time. It’s what makes art art and not, say, craft. The two differ in that one respect.

There are craftsmen who can reproduce what they see in exact detail. Some of their works are more accurate than a photograph. With rare exceptions, what they produce are not works of art. There may be artistic elements in the craftsman’s work — the determination of what to copy, the arrangement of the items in the work, and the like. But the work as a whole usually lacks the truly creative element and this is what is essential: art is so much more than a mere copy.

Johann Sebastian Bach
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

In performance, the artist creates a new work every time she performs a work. I recall in college when we were discussing Bach’s “Goldberg’s Variations,” we listened to a performance recorded by Wanda Landowska — regarded at the time as one of the very best harpsichordist in the world. The tutor who was leading the discussion — himself a performing artist (and a Jew who had been sent to a Nazi prison camp where he had his fingers smashed so he could no longer play the piano. That’s what they did.) — continually noted that Landowska was repeating and/or playing slower than Bach had indicated in the score. The tutor did not regard this as a fault. Rather, he insisted that this was the mark of the true artist as performer: taking the work as written and interpreting it in her own individual manner. This was the creative artist performing the work of a creative genius.

Many years later I recall listening to a recording of a Bach organ piece I was familiar with played by a friend of mine in which he played the piece much, much slower than anyone else I had ever heard play the piece. He admitted it was much slower than Bach had even intended. But it was the way he thought the piece should be played. It was his interpretation: it was his work of art — courtesy of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The dancer interprets the music she dances to and the actor interprets the character he plays on the stage. No two dancers will dance the same dance the same way — and the same dancer will likely dance it differently each time she performs the piece. So also with the actor. Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Willy Loman is unique. The element of interpretation is the creative element which makes each performance a work of art. The music on the sheet or the lines in the script are in themselves works or art — or they can be. But the performance is a new creation each time it is performed.

The craftsman, as mentioned, can reproduce an exact copy — at times with exceptional accuracy. Norman Rockwell regarded himself as an “illustrator,” not an artist. He worked from photographs and the results were remarkable in their own way. But they were not works of art — with a few rare exceptions. The element of interpretation was missing almost always as Rockwell simply chose to reproduce what he saw. And he did this with remarkable skill. His works are highly treasured as the works of a man who could present us with scenes from ordinary life that generated strong sympathetic responses. But those responses are the same that we might feel if we were to see a photograph of the same scene, or reflect back on scenes from our childhood. They are not the responses that a truly sensitive person feels when regarding a work of art; they are not aesthetic responses . The spectator, in the latter case, responds to the mysterious element of creativity, that sudden expression that suggests the artist’s interpretation of what was seen.

In art, therefore, we have three different elements: the artist herself who paints, sculpts, composes, performs, or plays; the work itself which must contain the element of creative interpretation; and the response of the spectator who also interprets. Each work is unique, as is each performance and each response. It’s no wonder, then, when no two people agree about the same work of art — because no two people see the same thing and the object itself is highly suggestive, rich with possibilities.

This does not mean we cannot discuss art, of course. There is still something “out there” that we respond to in our own way. The person who is practiced in viewing art will often be able to point out features that another might miss and there may be features of the work that have yet to be uncovered and that we can come to see or hear if we open ourselves to it and to one another. But the point is that there is something to discuss and agree or disagree about. It’s not all a matter of opinion. Not by a long shot!

And it is one hellovalot more interesting and enriching than the toys we have become fascinated with.

Art and the Unexpected

In an essay he wrote in 1952 Lionel Trilling uses a captivating phrase in describing the novel of an obscure Russian writer by the name of Isaac Babel. Trilling notes that “the essence of art is unexpectedness.” This is, of course, true, as is the related notion that the success or failure of art, especially literary art, hinges on ambiguity. The worse sin that a writer or novelist can make is to convey messages; art degenerates into didacticism. This is why Tolstoy was wrong when he insisted that the Bible was the greatest work of art ever written. The Bible is fundamentally and essentially didactic: it seeks to convey messages, clear and to the point. Literature and indeed all art requires, above all else, the unexpected.; they also require at the center an ambiguity that allows for a great many interpretations of what the artist or writer is up to. They themselves may not even know what they intended to say or paint. So, rather than listen to them we must recall what D.H. Lawrence said:

 “If you want to know what the novelist has to say, read the novel. As for the novelist he is a dribbling liar.”

In any event, Trilling’s comment about the unexpected lead me to recall an essay I used to teach in aesthetics classes years ago by the musicologist Leonard Meyer. He insisted that great music is a function of the unexpected. The difference between Bach and Francesco Geminiani, for example, is that Bach is full of surprises, whereas Geminiani tends to be predictable. Bach is a great composer; Geminiani is not. When we listen to Bach, or Mozart, or Beethoven, we never know quite what to expect. Music has “gestalt” qualities, as does all art, which lead us to certain expectations, certain resolutions of tensions built up with in the work. The great artists know how to frustrate those expectations and to surprise us in so many creative and interesting ways, thus increasing what Meyer called “information” — the heart and soul of greatness.

Greatness in art, as indeed in anything except in sports where greatness abounds apparently (along with “super stars”), has disappeared behind a screen of relativistic nonsense. We can no longer talk about greatness because it is a sign of our being “judgmental, which is forbidden by the politically correct…..and incorrect. Those who call the shots these days insist that there is no truth and no greatness. There is just what people do and it is up to us to make of it what we will. To which I say: bollocks! There is truth, and there is greatness. In fact the preceding sentence is true and certain works of art and literature are indeed great — for the reasons given above. It’s all about “the unexpected.” It is not about what we perceive, it is about what is going on, or what fails to go on, in the work itself. Our tendency these days to reduce all value judgments, in both art and ethics, to personal reactions is nothing more and nothing less than a sign of out inverted consciousness, our determination to turn the world into the world-for-us. It is a denial of the objectivity and reality of that which stands before us in all its glory, and it is quite simply wrong-headed — if for no other reason than it closes off to us the beauties and wonders of a world we are lucky enough to be a part of. It is not OUR world; it is THE world. We share it and we can make statements about it that are either true or false. And some of us can create works of great beauty, works that reveal to us dimensions of that shared world that we would otherwise miss. Our world tends to be bland; theirs is full of surprises — we never know quite what to expect.

And, curiously enough, the unexpected is the heart and soul of comedy as well. Interesting, don’t you think?