Thursday, January 22, 2004

What is Art? Can we define "art" as....oooooh, Cheetos!

Lynn Sislo points out a comment thread that is heading for definitions of art. It all began with another thread somewhere that asked if a classical listener attends a Chopin recital and reports a "great" experience, and a rock listener attends a Black Sabbath concert and likewise reports a "great" experience, can both listeners be said to have experienced "greatness"? My personal feeling is "Absolutely" -- I've never believed in the inherent superiority of classical music, even when I was a music major neck-deep in studying the stuff -- but that's not what interests me just now. There's a commenter named Bill Kaplan who argues thusly:

"The premise of this discussion is that both Chopin's music and Black Sabbath's show are art. This seems a dubious premise. I would argue that only Black Sabbath's show is art and that Chopin is merely decoration for the ear.

There are numerous definitions for what art is and isn't, but most have meaning as a central condition. "Art is a lie that shows us the truth," says Picasso. "Art is a selective representation of reality based on the artist's metaphysical value judgements," says Rand. Where is there any element of truth or value in purely musical expression? I say there is none unless it is coupled with some element of meaning, generally lyrics."

Kaplan is receiving quite a bit of, shall we say, negative reaction to his apparent belief that Chopin is not art. Ultimately, of course, we arrive at the age-old question, "What is art?" Kaplan seems to want to define art as having something to do with "meaning", which he then assumes refers to specific representational connections, I guess, between an art work and the "world out there". (He doesn't identify which Rand he's quoting here, but I have the sinking feeling it's Ayn Rand, the citation of whom in nearly any conversation makes my eyes droop and my soul grow weary.) Art, Mr. Kaplan appears to believe, must be representational of something.

Thus, Kaplan's definition of art is, in my eyes, exclusive to an almost absurd degree, because it appears to rule out abstraction almost completely, and pays no attention at all to emotion (which, actually, is the central consideration in my definition of art). However, in the course of riding his argument right off the rails, he has hit on something important:

Music is fundamentally abstract.

Take, for example, a Chopin nocturne. Chopin was a Romantic -- in fact, along with Schumann, he's probably the quintessential Romantic composer for pianists. But Chopin rejected an idea that's been common ever since the Romantic era, i.e., that music could have extramusical significance, and that music could, in and of itself, depict things in the real world. This, however, music cannot do. Chopin knew this, and that's why he doesn't give his pieces wistful-sounding titles: one of his most hauntingly beautiful works does not bear a moniker like "Elms Swaying In the Breeze", but just the prosaic description of genre and key: "Nocturne in E flat major".

This, I think, is a premise in Kaplan's argument. Musical tones, by themselves, can't describe or depict, in concrete terms, anything in the real world. I learned this in, of all places, a fifth-grade music class: our teacher gave us all sheets of paper and some crayons, put some music on the stereo, and told us to "draw" the music. The piece she played was the first movement of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, but no one in the class -- twenty-four of us, roughly -- came up with any kind of picture even remotely suggestive of The Arabian Nights. So unless we are told, up front, what a composer says his or her music is "depicting", we are vanishingly unlikely to realize it on our own.

But this isn't a fault with music, and neither does it undermine music as an art form, as Mr. Kaplan seems to think. Not every truth can be encapsulated in words, and not every work of art need exhibit a one-to-one relationship with something in the world. Leonard Bernstein once summarized the position I outline above by saying of a Chopin etude: "If Chopin could say in words what he was trying to say with this etude, why should he use musical notes at all?" Further, Kaplan seems to totally ignore the role of form in art, and form is probably more important in music than in any other art: pure form, I'm talking about here: not how perfectly representational something is, but how its composite parts interact with one another for complementary effect.

Perhaps this is too mystical of an approach to art for Mr. Kaplan, but I've arrived at this view purely through my own experience. Great music does express "truth" -- whether it has "lyrics" or not -- but it's not truth that can be said in words. (Or if it is, it would take a poet to do it, and I am certainly not a poet.) Music expresses musical truth, purely emotional truth. It's not a definable truth, and it's not an easy truth, which I think partially explains why the lyricists tend to be favored over the composers these days. We're accustomed to looking for truth and meaning in words; non-linguistic truth is harder, more nebulous, more redolent of hippies "goin' with the flow".

Well, I'll take it. So, I think the proper response to Mr. Kaplan comes from Shakespeare: "There are more things on Heaven and Earth than are dream't of in your philosophy."

(My own definition of Art is this: "Art is any activity whose primary purpose is the provocation of aesthetic response.")

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