"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, July 15, 2013

Is Mozart Better Than The Beatles?

One day I happened to mention to a young friend that I thought that Arts & Crafts were not art.  To me, the distinction was clear. The artist was expressing something about the human condition – life, death, suffering, and religious passion.  The craftsman was simply producing appealing artifacts – blown glass flamingos, asymmetrical ceramics, rustic wood chairs from Tennessee, and Hopi-style turquoise necklaces.  How could there possibly be a comparison, I asked?

“Who said that art should be ennobling”, he retorted. “What French Academy rules the way we see?”.

We went back and forth. I argued that the cave paintings at Lascaux, over 17,000 years old are certainly our first ‘art’, but are only graceful representations of the world in which the Paleolithic hunters lived. They were, then, only ‘craft’.

No, my friend replied. The paintings were depictions of the world, and in their stylized representation, were graceful and elegant expressions of the Paleolithic universe.  I agreed that they were indeed elegant and graceful, but that there was no artistic intent behind the drawings.  The artist simply painted what he saw, and we are the ones who ascribe higher-order meaning. They were craft.

He then asked me to look at an image of a 5000 year-old stele from Saudi Arabia.  Is it art or craft?

Anthropomorphic Stele

It is art, I said, because if caveman of the Paleolithic was able to create representational depictions of his world and the animals and people within it seventeen thousand years ago at Lascaux, then someone 12,000 years later certainly could, but chose not to.  This stele, therefore, had to be a deliberately abstract depiction of Man or God. Never easily daunted, he responded that no, this was probably no more than a gravestone, chiseled out by a tradesman:

After looking at these sublime images, I pulled out the big guns. “OK”, I said, tell me with a straight face that these figures are art.”

My young friend, who has gone on to be an artist in his own right, eventually got over his dalliance with crafts and has admitted that yes, there is something one can call great art.  He has concluded that although there is no point in comparing Western and Eastern art, or even Indonesian primitive art and Picasso, all art has something in common – an intentional depiction of the human condition.  Not human reality, but the spiritual, religious, or philosophical reality that underlies all. Anselm Kiefer’s work is art.  Dale Chihuly’s glass figurines are not.

Even those who insist on artistic relativity (Mozart vs. The Beatles) readily acknowledge that they have their own rock-solid criteria for excellence.  Beatles fans talk of the band’s lyricism, subtlety, musical references, and poetry and dismiss the raw, brutal music of the Stones.  In other words, for most of us there is no such thing as artistic relativity.

I, however, dismiss all talk of relativity –except that between genres (i.e. Kabuki vs. Balanchine).  While I prefer the Beatles to the Stones, there is no question that Mozart will always be more important, more relevant, more illuminating and enlightening than the Beatles.  Absalom, Absalom, Hamlet, and Paradise Lost will always be of higher literary, intellectual, and philosophical value than slave journals, minor memoirs, or Maya Angelou – despite the protestations of Deconstructionists. There is an absolute value to the intelligence, insight, language, innovation, and profundity of Faulkner, Milton, and Shakespeare that cannot be challenged.  One can argue which of these authors is ‘better’, but never dispute their genius and importance.

Gary Gutting, writing in the New York Times (7.15.13) takes a different tack, and introduces the complicating factor of class and upbringing:

For example, Virginia Woolf’s classic essay — arch, snobbish, and very funny — reserved the appreciation of great art to “highbrows”: those “thoroughbreds of the mind” who combine innate taste with sufficient inherited wealth to sustain a life entirely dedicated to art. Lowbrows were working-class people who had neither the taste nor the time for the artistic life. Woolf claimed to admire lowbrows, who did the work highbrows like herself could not and accepted their cultural inferiority. But she expresses only disdain for a third class — the “middlebrows”— who have earned (probably through trade) enough money to purchase the marks of a high culture that they could never properly appreciate. Middlebrows pursue “no single object, neither art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige.”

In other words, there is most definitely such a thing as art.  It can be defined and appreciated; just not by everyone.  By extension, if the glass works of Dale Chihuly are all that the Pittsburgh millworker can manage, so be it.  For him they are art.

Gutting revives an old argument concerning art – If it moves you, then it is art, and quotes Alex Ross’s words in his 2004 essay, “Listen to This”:

Music is too personal a medium to support an absolute hierarchy of values. The best music is music that persuades us that there is no other music in the world. This morning, for me, it was Sibelius’s Fifth; late last night, Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”; tomorrow, it may be something entirely new. I can’t rank my favorite music any more than I can rank my memories…

No doubt. There is plenty of music that moves me.  I just bought a Romeo Santos (El Rey de la Bachata) album because his high-energy salsa/merengue is exactly the thing for travelling on the open road.  I feel happy when I hear him sing. 

One day I was travelling with a girlfriend on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  We were staying in Dewey, DE – a small town removed from the large crowds of Rehoboth. It was perfect.  The hotel was small, intimate.  The town was walkable and pleasant.  One day we decided to drive down to Rehoboth to have a bigger selection of restaurants. Bad decision. Rehoboth is big, tacky, crowded, and nasty. The only way to get there is on a clogged commercial strip.  It rained, and I was miserable. I put on my favorite Puccini aria, Signore, Ascolta, sung by Maria Callas and the rain, the ugliness, the sheer misery of having to negotiate beach day-trippers, disappeared.

Crosby, Stills, and Nash was the upbeat, happy band of the late Sixties. Stoned, pounding out Judy Blue Eyes from the 16th floor of my rooftop terrace in Bombay, dancing high above the city, I was exuberant.

Of course music moves us, but how? To romantic tears? To hippy highs? Or, like a Bach organ fugue, to the sublime aerie of mathematical precision, musical complexity, and sheer power?

I am very textual in my analysis of art. I may be amused by the vaudevillian antics of the Washington Shakespeare Company’s production of The Merchant of Venice; or captivated by Ian McKellen’s Richard III; but the genius of the works is in the text.  It is there that the full range of Shakespeare’s mind is displayed, unsullied by bad stage performances. Put side by side, there is no comparison between the scores of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and Let Me Hold Your Hand.

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