In Support of Art
This is an abridged version of an address prepared for the CMS meeting in Rochester on Nov. 14, 1975.
Not long ago, I received an interesting circular from a group known as "Advocates for the Arts." I should like to quote, verbatim, the first two sentences:
"If you've gone to a museum, attended a play, seen an opera, or bought a painting in the last year, you deserve credit. By supporting cultural programs, you were responsible for keeping the arts alive."
Can one, or need one, say more?
These beautiful sentences sum up our condition and our prospects, the world in which we live and in which we are to work. They point to the ultimate debasement of art and artists, and they convey a message that we cannot ignore. And for that reason I am going to ask you today to join me in what is essentially a crusade against "culture," and in favor of civilization—against "the arts," and in favor of art.
I have pointed out elsewhere that just about everything is now included in "the arts." We have "numbers arts" (formerly known as arithmetic), "language arts" (formerly Freshman English), and of course "communications arts," which usually means licensed monologue. One can add many more. People supporting "culture programs" are talking about the artsy arts: music and painting, theatre and dance. But what they are really talking about is of course money. What is important is box-office, salesmanship, and tax-deductions. The quality of art, or its meaning and importance, are things that do not enter into their thinking, because they clearly reveal that they have not the faintest interest in art as a serious pursuit or satisfaction.
For these people, and they are numerous, art may as well be dead. Instead of art, we have "cultural programs." And this is really what I want to talk about. I should like to attempt at least to talk in a general way about art and "the arts," and about culture and civilization and education.
One hears a great deal about "culture" nowadays, and very little about civilization. "Culture" has become a national habit or goal, almost as necessary as automobiles. The difficulty about culture, as well as one of the reasons for its popularity, is that no one knows exactly what it is supposed to mean. It is usually assumed that it means building art centers, taking Pop Art seriously, going to dance recitals and even to concerts, as well as giving or taking courses in finger-painting and creating sculpture out of old rags. Culture can be counted and measured by the number of these things that are done, and the money that is expended on them. Culture is also something that can be rather easily acquired, and it is now considered an obligation to acquire it. Its branches are many, and almost anyone can find one under which he can fall asleep. It is, incidentally, a very large and growing business, which is worth billions of dollars annually. The New York Times notes that "interest in culture . . . has become the newest status symbol" in American society. Culture, we know, is something to be purchased and consumed; and our society is judged by its rate of consumption. It will not be long before our sociologists conduct surveys to report the annual per capita consumption of Brahms in the United States, with breakdowns by sex, age, income, social status, and locality.
This is all very well, but it has nothing to do with civilization, with which it is often confused. Culture is a word that properly is used in two fields: biology and anthropology. Perhaps we might take a moment to consider the meaning of the word in biology: "The cultivation of microscopic organisms in artificially prepared media." The definition might be a salutary one to keep in mind.
Matthew Arnold used the word in a different sense in Culture and Anarchy, but at least he made explicit what he did mean, which was properly civilization. It is perhaps because of the currency he gave the word culture that confusion exists today. He thought of culture as sweetness and light, a phrase often ridiculed because misunderstood. To Arnold it meant the combination of the best traditions and characters that we have inherited from the Greeks and the Hebrews, and
a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters that most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world; and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically.
This is not, clearly, quite what is meant when the term culture is loosely used today. And one of our society's most obvious characteristics is that it is more interested in the pursuit of its version of culture, or, academically, in the study of cultures, than it is in civilization. We have invented the pursuits of anthropology, sociology, ethnology, and all of the so-called behavioral sciences. We measure, we compare, we collect data and compile statistics. We take refuge in what we think is information. We seem to be afraid to make judgments, for we tend to consider all values as subjective. We substitute what we assume to be knowledge, defined as the ever-accumulating storage of facts, of data, of exhibits, of what we like to call information. And we tend to equate everything that we collect. We seem afraid, most of the time, to attempt to define for ourselves "the best that has been thought and said in the world."
We seem, in short, rather tired of civilization, or perhaps merely discouraged. Certainly we seem to lack confidence. We look about us to what we call "culture" as an escape; and often we look, literally, to other cultures. We tend to view our art, including of course our music, as history or as data; and we have made musicology, including ethno-musicology, of primary importance in our academic curricula. We analyze, we dissect, we catalogue; we accumulate, we resurrect and restore. We do almost everything but listen and contemplate, or try to understand, or allow ourselves to be moved to tears or laughter.
We treat much of our heritage as if it didn't belong to us, or perhaps as if Bach and Mozart and Schubert no longer meant anything to us. Or as if the music of the Middle Ages or of Afghanistan were more interesting, more beautiful, or more meaningful to us, because less familiar. Or, if not more interesting, then at least equal in interest.
Now I propose to you that this is simply not true: that the anthropological, ethnological, sociological, or even historical approaches to art and music are distortions. I should like, in short, to suggest to you that we must abandon in our thinking and in our teaching the idea that all facts, or artifacts, or all data, are equally important or interesting. They are not. We must think of music, and of art in general, not in terms of history or anthropology, but in terms of esthetic experience and intellectual or even moral values. The intellectual and indeed the moral values of high or great art were emphasized by Immanuel Kant and the German idealist philosophers in the 18th century and by many others since then. I propose to you quite literally that Western music, of the period from about 1600 to about 1900, represents one of the greatest achievements of human genius, and that it is more important than any other manifestation of musical art in any other time or place. It is unique; and it is uniquely valuable, not because it is past, but because it is great. This art is not data or history; it is alive, and it represents indeed "the best that has been thought and said" by Western man. It is not to be regarded as the expression or the mirror of a culture or a civilization: it is civilization itself.
It is true that it is interesting, and perhaps even necessary, to know history. But this is true only if we learn from history, and regard it not as a recounting of more or less verifiable facts, but as a source of knowledge rather than of information. One can consider the orientations of various societies, perhaps of various civilizations, toward history. The Greeks, for example, were not strongly influenced or burdened by historical consciousness, as we are. Their past rapidly became myth and legend. But this past became for them a source of moral and philosophical strength. Their history was not history in our sense at all.
Our society makes of history a science, specifically so regarded, of collecting and assorting. We now have psycho-history, quanto-history and a large variety of quasi-scientific methods. It may be said that as a result we know much more about the Trojan War than the Greeks of the 5th century did. But, on the other hand, it can certainly be maintained that we understand it less. We are madly conscious of history and insatiable to enlarge it. So far as our music is concerned, we are preoccupied with collecting, with dating, with analyzing, and with categorizing. We even now use computers to dissect the music of the Renaissance. We worry about the influence of X on Y or of Y on Z, as if this were really important, or really even more important than the value of what each may have written, or than the relation of their work to that "best which has been said or thought in the world."
It is a truism that in order to value "the best," it is necessary to know a great deal besides the best. The more one knows in any field, the more one is in a reasonable position to make comparative judgments. And it is useful to make comparisons, as they test any absolute ideas or visions we may entertain about achievement or meaning. All satisfactions derived from art are not necessarily the same in kind or degree, but none need be rejected because it is minor. The essential point is, however, that all things are not equal, although all may be interesting.
The "object," or the work of art, is more important than its history; and that is a point we tend to forget. We live in an age of program notes and museum placards, the tone of which often seems derived from our major folk art, which is advertising. Everything is explained to us in terms of dates, origins, derivations, significance, and why it is good for you. It is pleasant to have this kind of information, which represents a specious security, but it is often regarded as an adequate substitute for considering the work of art itself. It is also pleasant, and even useful, to understand, or even merely to enumerate, the links in a chain of historical change or development, and to find or invent reasons why this or that happened or did not happen. But it is more important for a civilized man or woman to be able to experience and to value each expression for what it has to tell us of and by itself. Today we have a more than usual difficulty in doing this, for we cannot adjust to, or absorb, the many cultures of which we are aware, and are consequently not always able to deal adequately with the expressions of a civilization which seems to have lost its meaning.
Which is more important to us: to be able to give the correct dates for the artist, perhaps even the exact month or hour of the day when the given picture was painted or the work of music composed—to explain the influences that made him work as he did and the influence he in turn exercised on others—or to be able to say, quite simply, "How beautiful and how moving!" and to realize that the work, even if ever so slightly, has changed our lives, our way of looking at things, of understanding ourselves and our aspirations? Which? And which has more to do with education? This question abides.
When we talk about music, or art, and civilization, we tend to think at once in terms of historical parallels: of music as a reflection or an aspect of society or culture; or we think of parallels with other arts, or with political developments, or of the social forms in which an age organizes itself. We tend to think of music, and in fact of all art, as an expression of an era or a period. And we like to simplify by giving names to periods: the Baroque Era, the Age of Reason, and so on. Then we summarize them briefly, and try to maintain that all of the manifestations of art, politics, manners, and theology in a given period express essentially the same thing. But they do not. The arts have periods of rise and fall, have developments and declines that correspond to their own laws and their own time-cycles. Otherwise indeed all art would be equally interesting and perhaps equally great, and all would be equally developed at corresponding times.
But we know that this is not so. The attempt to make it appear so is a simplistic fallacy, and an accommodation of artistic or even historical fact to a wish for easy correspondence. Gothic music, for example, is not on the plane of Gothic architecture. Both did exist at the same time, in an age which we can circumscribe with dates and about which we can generalize. But they do not mean the same thing, nor do they represent a similar degree of development or skill or imagination. Nor do they tell us the same things about the same years.
In the same way, we cannot make parallels between the tragedies of Shakespeare and the music of Morley. These too are not the same in scope, nor are they comparable expressions of an age. Certainly they are products of an age, and they exist in a context that can be examined and studied with profit. But there is nothing about the music of Morley, charming as it is, to suggest that he lived at the same time or in the same country, political or spiritual, as Shakespeare. Shakespeare is a peak in poetry, as Morley is not in music. One is grand; the other is pleasant. We can read or hear Shakespeare without much familiarity with the Elizabethan Period; we feel that his is a timeless art, and few of us, I think, consciously or unconsciously, relate it to a period. In short, we can see clearly enough that although all of the arts may represent in some ways the times in which they arise, they also represent independent expressions of the human imagination that do not correspond to contexts. We do not know (or can only theorize about) by what laws or accidents the arts flourish or decline. Yet we can observe in Western history that the great art of the 12th century is architecture; that dramatic poetry reaches its greatest heights in the 17th century; that painting and sculpture are more interesting in the 15th through the 17th centuries than in the 18th; that the novel characterized the art of the 19th. And so on.
And thus music. My argument must stand or fall on a proposition that I am willing to defend. It is simply this: that Western music of the period of Bach through Beethoven represents one of those summits of human achievement comparable to the architecture of northern Europe from about 1100 to 1300, or to dramatic poetry in the hands of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Racine from 1580 to a century later. I am saying, in effect, that the music of the so-called classical period is a higher and grander expression of the very idea of civilization than the music of periods preceding it.
The idea of civilization—as opposed to culture—finds its highest expression in these achievements of the human intellect, in these peaks of achievement. For these do represent the greatest accomplishments of man.
We need not ignore the music or the art of other periods, or of other civilizations, or even of primitive cultures. We can see them and value them as attempts by man to express his aspirations, his beliefs, and his potentialities. But we must always remember that the Cathedral of Chartres is not the same thing as an igloo; neither is a Beethoven symphony the same as music produced on a bamboo pipe and a gourd. These are all produced in the context of a culture, but they are not equal as manifestations of a civilization.
Civilization is constructed by intellect. And it is an intellectual achievement that music represents in Western civilization. That is its distinction and its unique quality. Every culture produces rhythm and tone (or melody). The unique achievement of Western music is harmony, which is not alone a highly abstract system of relating simultaneous sounds, but is also the greatest achievement of the Western mind in giving rational meaning to time.
For the Greeks, the term order, or the idea of order, implied a musical organization. And throughout the history of the West, music has represented the search for order and for ideal beauty, for logic and completeness. Music is not merely pleasure, or pleasant sounds, or an excitement of the senses. It is a search for meaning and the meaning of relation. It is a paradigm of what life itself ideally ought to be.
All other arts are to some degree useful (as architecture, which provides shelter as well as delight), or representational (as, until recently at least, painting and sculpture), or dependent on concrete image and experience (as poetry and prose). But music is entirely abstract. It contains, in itself, the Idea of Order, the Idea of Harmony, and the Idea of Perfection. It is self-sufficient, meaning only itself. And at its greatest development, in the 18th and 19th centuries, it carried to the highest point yet attained by imaginative man the projection and elaboration of simple elements, forming huge and coherent structures from a limited and carefully evolved selection of simple pitches and timbres.
This is what music means in civilization. To know well one work of Mozart is to be on the way to becoming civilized and to know what the values of civilization may be. This is not "culture" or a concern with "the arts." One does not deserve credit for it. It is real, and not merely "relevant."
The music of Haydn or Mozart or Beethoven represents a synthesis, perhaps a paradigm, of the best that Western civilization has achieved or attempted to achieve, including even the mastery of nature, but most of all, mastery of Man himself. For in this music, the primitive fact or existence of the phenomena of sound and hearing is transformed into ideal structures of logic, beauty, order, completeness and meaning. It expresses humanity and transcends, or at least persuades us that it transcends, human limitations. The meaning of art in civilization is perhaps that it shows us what we could be.
What is incumbent upon us all as teachers is to see that this ideal concept of art and civilization does not disappear, and that we pass on to our children something beyond information; perhaps even some ideas of order and harmony and perfection as exemplified in music—ideas on which our children, in turn, may at least hope to build.