EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted with gracious permission from Watson-Guptill Publications in New York, who originally published it as the Introduction to the author’s book Classical Painting Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice in 2008. We highly recommend this inspiring and visually stunning book.
Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity we should like to stretch out over the whole of time.
—Albert Camus (from “Notebooks, 1935-1951”)
About fifteen years ago, I was a passenger on a road trip. It was raining and I passed the time by watching the water bead up and stream down the window. The combination of the gray sky, the warm car, and the long trip made me drowsy. Just as I was falling asleep, I noted that this was just one of innumerable moments in my life that I would never remember.
Over the course of my life, most of the daily experiences – countless meals, great conversations, and long walks – have been erased by the passing of time. They are gone. And while I failed to realize it in the car that day, it is not only the daily business of most of our lives that slips by unremembered; given enough time, we ourselves will slip away into the vastness of history.
Joseph Conrad wrote that part of the aim of art is to snatch a moment from the remorseless rush of time and to reveal that rescued fragment to others. Capturing and holding up a sliver of life’s truth and emotion creates solidarity among all who share it. That nondescript moment right before I fell asleep in the car became a distinct memory because I distilled it through examination. Likewise, isolating and transcribing an occurrence or thought along with its emotional tenor can transform an indistinguishable fragment of human life into a powerful conveyer of the human experience.
Human life is not made up of neutral moments simply waiting to be interpreted or transformed into art. Rather, each moment is a slice or microcosm of the worldview of the artist. The larger context of an individual’s life, beliefs, environment, temperament, and upbringing form the base from which he approaches every encounter and formulates every artistic expression. These worldviews, moreover, are not just private beliefs; they are inherently tied to the beliefs of the greater or larger culture. Like fractal geometry, the smaller shapes are unavoidably imprinted with the shape of the whole.
In previous eras, artistic production was colored by the subtext that human beings, as children of God, have divine origins and that our existence is not transitory but eternal. This belief provided not only hope for the future, but a deep assurance of the significance and value of a human life. Artists reflected this vision of reality in their artwork, which enabled them to glimpse beauty in the face of tragedy and to portray monumental views of human life. That is why Sandro Botticelli could paint his ethereal goddesses, revealing a reality only hinted at in the world as the black plague ravaged Europe.
The postmodern skeptic, faced with an unflinglingly pragmatic and scientific worldview, has no hope of an eternal future. Humanity, crawling out of the primordial soup, living briefly, and, returning to the mud, wrestles with a cosmic insignificance that is reflected in the art of our time. Beautiful figure paintings look hopelessly naïve and outmoded in many art circles precisely because they no longer represent the predominating beliefs of the artistic and intellectual elite – the end of man is not glory but dust. Thus the art of the modern epoch has been largely nonrepresentational, characterized by a marred, earthbound, fragmented view of the human being. Beauty, eternity, and truth seem to have faded into a bygone era.
While people share much with other living creatures, the desire for beauty, the capacity for self-reflection, and the longing for eternity are distinctively human qualities. On some subconscious level we need beauty, despite its perceived lack of function. If we were to give a horse a diamond ring, it would assess it only on the basis of its utility, essentially asking the question, “Can I eat it?” In contrast, the human being has the elevated option to ask not only “Is it useful” but “Is it beautiful?” The enormity of human suffering in the world does not render this question, or the desire to ask it, trivial. Rather, it affirms an appreciation of aesthetics as fundamental to our nature.
Artists help us see the surprising beauty that breaks into our daily lives by celebrating that which might otherwise pass by unnoticed. Artists are in a unique position to leave an intimate record of human life, as they give us the opportunity to see not only through their eyes but also through their thoughts and emotions. One could say that the greater the art, the more clearly we experience this communion of souls. Artists remind us that despite the pain and ugliness in the world, something deeper exists – a beauty that peeks through the drudgery of life, whispering that there is more just beneath the surface. We see a landscape filled with longing and loss or a figure filled with love and empathy. These images enable us to long and love with the creators.
Nature shows us one kind of beauty, such as the way the light falls through the tree canopy, speckling the forest floor where I now sit and write. Occasionally, an unusually insightful individual is able to capture this kind of beauty in art. This is why Mozart’s Requiem Mass still moves people to tears in packed orchestra halls or why people are willing to wait in line for hours to see an exhibition of works by Vermeer. Despite all appearances and talk to the contrary, we crave art that captures truth and remains powerfully and beautifully relevant long past the time of its creation. This sort of art is not just pretty or made up of the hollow aesthetic beauty that changes with the eye of the beholder. It is not sentimental, for sentiment is fleeting. The sort of art that lives eternally is that which captures astonishing, spine-chilling, breathtaking beauty that heightens our senses and floods us with transforming thought and emotion. In this work, we hear a whisper from another world saying, “It’s all real.” The ache to last means you were meant to last; the longing for beauty calls to you because beauty marks a reality that actually exists.
The contemporary artists in this book lived parallel to the rages of modern and postmodern art; they saw the same grimy buses pass by, the same soggy newspapers and cigarette butts in the gutter, the same horrors on the news, but they saw in these things an alternate reality of meaning – one that they communicate in their work. The topics they choose to express are not always comfortable to look at, but, through the artists’ vision, they are infused with pity, compassion, and insight that express a kind of beauty that transcends even the thorniest subject matter. The art portrayed in this book shows the courageous path followed by visionaries who are strangers in their own times, looking ahead to a land not yet found to capture a hope that, through beauty, can fight its way back into our world.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted with gracious permission from the author and from Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center, who originally published it in American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2009, Volume 26, Number 2.
The recent catastrophic bubbles [of 2008] in the electricity, oil, housing, and financial markets bring home to us that the relationship between physical reality and the signs, values, and meanings we give to it can be wildly unstable. In many countries past and future (Germany between the wars, Zimbabwe today), galloping inflation taught the population that their currency was just paper and that a loaf of bread could be twice as expensive in the evening as it was in the morning. The dollar, euro, yuan, and pound have been relatively stable, and this fact perhaps lulled us into a false sense of security in the belief that generally things were worth what they claimed to be worth, that the label matched the product, that the word matched the action, that the idea corresponded to the thing.
That faith has now been shaken, but there is what pundits call an upside: we are forced to reconsider the whole question of what value is, what meaning is, what the word reference itself refers to. These questions are of fundamental importance to artists and always have been, for the forte of artists has always been to make something supremely valuable and meaningful (and, they hope, expensive) out of the cheap and meaningless raw materials of sound, paint, words, stones, and bodily gestures. The everyday revelation of new bubbles and Ponzi schemes compels us to ask not only how a financial bond can really be cashed in and how a currency is backed, but also how we know that a so-called virtuous act really is good, how we know a scientific theory really explains the facts, how a painting or poem can be said to be genuine, beautiful, true.
Let’s explore one set of theories about the evolution and foundations of meaning, value, worth. I will be drawing on many sources – anthropological, biological, economic, neuroscientific, mythological, linguistic. I take full responsibility for any personal oddities in the way I have recombined the existing scholarly materials. First, some etymology. The word value comes from a root that also gave us valid, valor, avail, convalesce, equivalent, valence, and wield. All these words imply a sort of “putting your money where your mouth is,” a “stepping up to the plate,” a keeping of promises, a fair trade, healthy strength, the buck stopping where it should. But the word value is used correctly in a huge variety of contexts, implying that those contexts may not be as comfortably separate as we would like to think. It can be used of a banknote or financial contract, the price of a retail item, the content of an algebraic sign, the result obtained from an experimental measurement, the principle behind a virtuous act, the shade of a color in a painting or the quality, and beauty of an important work of art.
The words mean and meaning have many guises: a mean person is a stingy one, a mean repast is poor and unsatisfying, but the way we make something happen is the means by which we are able to do so, and a wealthy person is a man of means. If our behavior is neither passive nor violent but prudent, just, and wise, then we are following Aristotle’s noble ethic of the Golden Mean between the extremes. A word is not just a vibration in the air, but means something, and life is not worth living if it has no meaning. The word mean, then, spans a whole nested set of meanings from the lowest and meanest to the highest and most meaningful. It is a connector, a rope or string that links all the beads of signification and pricing and ability to accomplish what has been proposed.
The word mean is used in law to distinguish whether an arrestee meant to injure the victim – i.e., whether or not he was free to do the act and intended to do it, the key elements of moral judgement. Meaning is the central issue in the fields of linguistics and semantics, and the crux at the core of all contemporary philosophy. The meaning of a will or contract is crucial to all property relationships. The meaning of life is the heart of all religion. The meaning of a scientific formula, the meaning of a newly excavated inscription on a stele from an unknown civilization, the meaning of a strange cloud formation, the meaning of Gloucester’s attempted suicide in King Lear, and the meaning of the egg in Piero della Francesca’s Madonna and Child with Saints (Brera Altarpiece, 1472–74) are all valid uses of the word meaning (note that I need the word valid to make this point).
The simple word good, too, shares in this strangely useful variety of meanings – a good banknote, a good act, a good use of a word, a good theory, a good poem are all good. The Anglo-Saxon word for good is the same word as the word for God in that ancestral language. In these words, the collective wisdom of the Indo-European family of languages can be seen at work. (The etymologies of other language groups show a similar set of metaphors and logical connections.) One surprising element of that wisdom is that it draws together fields of thought often treated as entirely separate. The great American philosopher C.S. Peirce made important distinctions in this whole realm of signs, but our language itself is content to use the same words for this huge mixed set of economic, linguistic, moral, cognitive, and aesthetic significations.
So there is some justification in thinking that a careful look at where our economic meaning and value system has gone out of whack may yield valuable lessons to us as artists, language-users, and moral beings. In all these meanings, there is implied a basic bond between the immortal label and the temporal, volatile, labile matter of what it labels, between the person’s name and the enfleshed human being, between the moral intention and the act, between the face value of a coin and the intrinsic value of its metal, between the description and the reality, between the work of art and the world. When that bond is disastrously broken in one case, it may cast light on how the bond can break in others, and teach us how to keep the bond strong. Note, again, that the word bond itself, which demanded to be used here, is another of those words. Chemical bonds, government bonds, legal bonds, the bonds of brothers and sisters, the marriage bond, the bond of divine covenant are all bonds.
How can the bond break? To answer this, we must first inquire how it got made in the first place. Perhaps a good starting point would be to look at the emergence of meaningful action among animals and early humans. In mating rituals and ranking contests in animal species, we find symbolic gestures and behaviors that express the intention to mate or enter into a contest (sometimes both, resolved in symbolic displays, like the triumph ceremony of graylag geese). Trading and trusting coalitions also require such signals. In order for these signals to be believable, they must be what ethologists call “costly.” Though they may not cost as much as rape or overt battle to the death or risky robbery of resources, they are still expensive. They are sacrifices, paid in terms of scarce metabolic energy, the development of bodily pigment, antlers, decorative feathers, and nervous tissue to control the song or dance of the animal. Animals, and we, communicate by sacrifice, and we trade for what we want by being prepared to give up something we already have. The things that are traded – the proffered food of the male for reproductive access to the female, the pack leader’s status for the follower’s membership in the pack, the sentinel meerkat’s safety for the preservation of her genes among her kin – are thus equivalents for each other, and they make up a relationship of worth or value.
When evolutionary anthropologists try to date the emergence of language among our ancient ancestors, they look for signs of artificial sacrificial behavior. It seems that human, conscious self-awareness, the recognition and performance of sacrificial behavior as such and its transformation from a hardwired signaling device into a culturally rehearsed and agreed upon ritual, and the origins of language, are all intertwined. As humans, we no longer trade just with each other but with the gods or God – i.e., with whatever out there gave us what we have and are, and perhaps can give us what we want. The great old religious myths of the creation – and of the awakening of human beings to what they are – seem to be regaining a great deal of respect for their wisdom, as so many of them root the origin of the word in the rituals of sacrifice.
Among humans, sacrifice has a peculiar element, which we might call “commutation”: every sacrifice is an act that, in other circumstances, would be a crime of violence, waste, imprudence, or impurity, but which is excused on the grounds that it commemorates and expiates a previous sacrifice, in which some much more bloody violence or costly loss was required. Each new sacrifice is a little ascent on the Maslovian pyramid of valued goals, its purpose a little more intangible, intellectually demanding, ambiguous in form, rich in significance, inclusive in sympathy. We sacrifice first for survival, then for sustenance, then for power, then for status, then for love, then for spiritual transcendence. And as we do so, the actual demands of the deity to whom we sacrifice are tempered and gentled. The capital punishment for the disobedience of Adam and Eve is commuted to pain in childbirth (presumably because of the enlarged braincase of the newly human infant) and the need to work for a living (presumably because humans can and must take thought for the morrow). The punishment for Cain’s sacrifice of his brother Abel to God is commuted to a sign of his eternal homelessness, the human fate. Abraham is allowed to sacrifice a ram instead of his son, who was due to the Lord. Instead of a whole firstborn son, only a shred of flesh from the foreskin need be given. Later, the prophets tell us that God prefers the benevolent moral sacrifice of philanthropy over the meticulousness of ritual, and the generativeness of mercy over the strictness of justice, and so human blood sacrifice is gradually amped down physically and amped up morally until it becomes love for one’s neighbor.
Likewise, the Greeks can burn the fat and bones and hide of the bull to the gods, and eat the flesh themselves. The blood sacrifice demanded by the Furies is commuted to the civic service required by the Eumenides. In the Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita, and the sermons of the Buddha, animal sacrifice, asceticism and costly ritual are trumped by moral duty, which is in turn trumped by spiritual submission and compassion.
When the process has been going for a long time, the sacrificed object can become apparently rather trivial. Cucumbers are sacrificed in some African tribal societies; Catholics and Buddhists burn candles; almost all Christians break bread, simultaneously commemorating, re-evoking and symbolically atoning for the bloody sacrifice of the Cross – an act of ritual cannibalism that excuses our real cannibalism. Thus every sacrifice is an act of impurity or violence or waste, that pays for a prior act of greater impurity, but pays for it at an advantage – that is, without its participants having to suffer the full consequences incurred by its predecessor. The punishment is commuted in a process that can be seen as the original dictionary by which we learned higher meanings.
The process of commutation has much in common with the processes of metaphorization, symbolization, even reference or meaning itself. The Christian eucharistic sacrifice of bread not only stands in for the sacrifice of Christ (which in turn stands in for the death of the whole human race); it also means, and in sacramental theology is the death of Christ. The Greek tragic drama both referred to, and was a portion of, the sacrificial rites of Dionysus – both a use and a mention, as the logicians say, or both a metaphor and a synecdoche, in the language of the rhetorician. The word commutation nicely combines these senses. In general use, it means any substitution or exchange, as when money in one currency is changed into another, or into small change, or when payment in one form is permitted to be made in another. In alchemy, it can be almost synonymous with transmutation, as of one metal into another. In criminal jurisprudence, it refers to the reasoned lightening of a just punishment to one which is less severe, but which is juridically taken as equivalent to it. In electrical engineering, it is the reversal of a current or its transformation between direct and alternating current. In mathematical logic, it refers to the equivalency of a given operation, such as A multiplied by B, to its reverse, B multiplied by A.
Thus sacrifice is the meaning of meaning. What this implies for our own time is that the death of sacrifice is the death of meaning; that the crisis in modern philosophy over the meaning of the word reference – and this is the heart of it – has its roots in the denial of commutativeness; and that for reference and meaning to come back to life, some deep sacrifice is required. Fact is bonded to theory in science by the costly work of experiment. Price is bonded to utility in economics by the hard knocks of the marketplace. Good intentions are welded to actions by the sacrificial submission of the donor to the real needs and wants of the recipient. Lofty artistic conceptions are realized as beauty in paint or words or stone or sound by the exacting and even agonizing ordeal of learning and exercising the craft. When the pain of the commutative process is denied, the bond is broken.
How could this denial have taken place? When we think of the history of sacrifice, the answer is obvious. Spiritual submission and compassion for the poor are separated by so many stages of commutative transformation from the original human sacrifice that the connection can easily be lost, both by forgetfulness and as a convenient concealment of the shame of our good behavior’s shameful and atrocious origins. Even the honest Socrates argued in The Republic that the dreadful doings of the creator-gods should be concealed, by a noble lie, from the good citizens of his ideal community. If Passover and Holy Communion become polite ceremonies among social peers, their origins in blood and atrocity – and thus in the sacred and terrible mysteries of the human body – can be lost. If the derivatives traded by Icelandic government executives can no longer be traced back – and nobody wants to inspect them closely enough to trace them back – through the insurance policy against default taken out by a Japanese trader in bundled mortgages, and the bank that bundled them and used them as collateral, and the mortgage agent that convinced the speculative Florida homebuyer with twenty-five maxed-out credit cards, to the physical McMansion that constitutes some tiny fraction of its real value, then the bond of monetary meaning is lost. If one can only understand a conceptualist installation in a gallery if we trace its origins in critical theories based on recent performance pieces, based on other critical theories about commercial simulacra that derive from neo-Marxist concepts of commodification, themselves founded on protest against Victorian mass-produced decorative art, it is easy to forget the connection to anything living or experienced – and maybe convenient to do so.
When the bond breaks, it leads usually to some catastrophic bubble or inflationary explosion, either in the realm of the signifier or of the signified, or both. Science goes wrong when theory and data get separated. What follows is a proliferation of meaningless data-gathering or an arms-race of empty theorizing, or both. When morality goes wrong, we get either brutal expediency (unprincipled action) or hypocrisy (principles not being matched by actions). When law goes wrong, we get excuses for bad behavior or cruel legalism. When religion goes wrong, we get idolatry or puritanical iconoclasm: too many things chasing too few ideas, or too many ideas chasing too few things. When philosophy goes wrong, we get know-nothingism or sophism. When our economy goes wrong, we get hedonistic materialism or the fantastical escalation and inflation of utterly immaterial derivatives and complex but bloodless financial instruments. When art goes wrong, we get a philistine welter of empty prettiness or an arid desert of conceptualism.
The place where a sacrifice takes place is an altar. For a social animal, the altar is its home territory. For a human, the altar is the hearth or the dining table, the place we carve the sacrificial turkey at Thanksgiving or Christmas. The choice of and commitment to one’s homeplace is, extended and abstracted, the choice of an identity, a set of promises constitutive of who one is. It is what we are prepared to defend to the death. The altar is where the idea and the fact, the signified and signifier, the thing and the label match each other.
Thus there may be a deep cultural connection between the current economic crisis and the increasingly abstract and elitist spiral in the postmodern arts and the crash that followed. What I believe happened in the market was that trading experts, recognizing that the central banks would no longer permit inflationary currency spirals from which they could profit, simply switched currency to relatively unregulated financial instruments – oil futures, bundled mortgages, credit default swaps – thereby wresting control of our legal tender from the nation itself. The sovereignty of a nation is anciently embodied in its control of its own currency, the medium of exchange and value, Caesar’s head on the coin, the golden sovereign. The coinage is a nation’s altar, its word, its bond. What the speculators had done was to substitute their own coinage, which they could manipulate at will. When Hitler wanted to destroy the sovereignty of Britain, its altar of exchange, he forced enslaved Jewish printers in Oranienburg and Mauthausen to forge perfect ten pound notes and tried to flood the markets with them.
The word credit comes from the Latin word credo: I believe, I have faith. In the arts, one could well argue that the sustained attack on all our faiths – in the goodness of our Western nations, in the integrity of our signs and symbols and stories, in the truth of science, in our religions, in democracy, in the classical values of virtue and beauty, in the basic meaningfulness of our lives beyond their mortal collection of experiences – helped set the conditions for the great betrayers (Lay, Blagojevich, Madoff) in our political economy.
When we live, as we must, on top of a multitude of teetering inverted pyramids of metaphors, abstractions, and derivatives, we must be careful always to inspect the buttresses and foundations of our flooring, lest the bond to origins, and between thoughts and things, be lost altogether and our house should fall. Maybe we need to revisit the ancient altars, the ancient roots. Maybe, from time to time, the tree of liberty does indeed need the blood of patriots and martyrs, as Jefferson suggested.
In the symbolism and rhetoric of the recent  presidential inauguration, there was a welcome renewal of the language of faith, wresting the term away from the various spiraling and inflationary ideologies that have claimed it. Meanings and values and bonds were being heavily reemphasized. If we can also renew our deep and even shameful sense of what those words mean, we may be on our way to a recovery not only of our economy, but of our artistic culture.
If we put the last century’s notions of “old” and “new” in a broader historic perspective, it becomes clear how short-sighted these notions were and how wrong it was to give them an aura of absoluteness, since these notions are, by their very nature, relative and flexible, and dependent upon context. When the painter, architect and theorist Giorgio Vasari wrote his Lives of the Great Artists (1568), a collection of biographies of Italian artists, he had to explain when discussing Bramante, Raphael, and Michelangelo what he meant by “modern,” since he knew that his audience would have questions about the “strange” idea that artists explored subjects and aesthetic forms which were a thousand years old and presented them as “new.” The rediscovery of the culture of antiquity as a source of inspiration and as a standard of quality was felt, in Renaissance times, as something new and dynamic. The influence of the culture of antiquity can be traced back to the 12th century when conditions favoured a more refined and sophisticated civilisation. This was not the first wave of Renaissance thinking, for Charlemagne had already stimulated interest in antiquity in the early 9th century, in a spirit of constructive reform, after the worst of the barbarism of the 7th and 8th centuries had subsided. Later on, in the medieval world, Italy’s culture was dominated by northern and eastern influences and for many people at that time, “modern” meant the latest developments of medieval culture imported from the prosperous north, especially Flanders. The concept of a “modernity” based upon ideas from ages ago was still controversial, but for the intelligentsia the works of poetry, science, and the visual arts of the Greco-Roman world were all superior to anything produced by contemporary culture, and the presence of Roman monuments, mostly ruined, reminded the Italians of a glorious past and inspired them to dream of a possibly comparable future.
The Renaissance interest in antiquity as a civilising influence is something fundamentally different from modern thinking. In the 20th century, progress was understood as a confident leap into the future: a projected utopia, only made possible by a drastic break with the past. The Past stood for Reaction, and the Future for Progress. By comparison, the ideas of the artists of the Italian Renaissance gives us an opposite picture. Although the relatively immediate past – the Middle Ages (also known as the Dark Ages) – was felt to be stagnant, the future held the possibility of recreating a distant past from a mythological era, which had already profoundly influenced the European intelligentsia. This potential recreation was considered something much better than the art of the Dark Ages, when the arts and crafts of Antiquity had eroded and their secrets were lost.
Assuming that Vasari’s view upon the developments he describes reflected a broader consensus among the intellectual and artistic elite of his time, it is clear that the driving force behind the changes in the arts and architecture from the beginning of the Renaissance onwards, was an urge to do things better than before, not to be more advanced in the sense of being “more modern” and for that reason “better.” Vasari clearly sees “early” artists like Cimabue, Giotto, and Simone Martini as still rather awkward, trying their best, and achieving the best that was possible in their time, but beginning an upward line through Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, and Sandro Botticelli to the “perfection” of his own time with brilliant people like Michelangelo, Tiziano, and Raphael. So, in Renaissance time, being modern was the result of being better, while in the 20th century being better was the result of being modern – it may be clear that the latter idea is nonsensical because it rests upon an assumed historical position, while in the Renaissance “being better” was achieved through artistic quality, an attitude which was not incompatible with “looking back” if in earlier times sources of inspiration and great examples could be found. An expression like Arthur Rimbaud’s “Il faut être absolument moderne” would be unthinkable in the 16th century, because of expressing a historicist intention prior to the creation of the work of art.
Was the Italian and, in general, the European Renaissance a reactionary, backward-looking, thus conservative period, with all the associations of dullness and conventionality? As we know, the opposite is true: this incredibly rich period meant the flowering of a spirit of invention and aesthetic sensibility, which lasted until the 19th century when this broad wave of inspiration-by-antiquity found a premature death through its codification in academic institutions, in a society that was changing fast in the industrial revolution and the development of the bourgeoisie as the main territory of cultural action. The rebellion against a petrified academic culture was the cradle of modernism: the creative forces of life had left the territory of “official culture,” which had suffocated innovation, and moved towards the margins of society, where neglected artists struggled to find new and freer ways of expression. The idea of “modern art,” reflecting contemporary life instead of idealized subjects, was born from dissatisfaction with a tradition that was codified, frozen in prescriptions of outward appearances of style and form, and thus had become superficial and untrue.
Thus in the 19th century, the urge of leaving conventional ideas about art behind, got the label “modern.” Since that trend eventually ended-up in the dead-end street of establishment modernism, the word “modern” no longer fits this urge, which, incidentally, also lies behind the motivation of new classical composers: what they feel as “conventional” was called “modern” in the past century. A good example which shows that being “modern” in the period before modernism did not involve the need to destroy the fundamentals of the art form, is the work of Debussy, who created an oeuvre which was shockingly untraditional in its own time, therefore very controversial. Debussy is often described as one of the “forefathers” of modernism, who (together with Schönberg) destroyed the orthodoxies of tradition and created a new and free musical paradigm. Boulez especially tried to show that some of the roots of his own sonic art were to be found in Debussy’s explorations. But Debussy never destroyed the inner workings of tonality and the underlying dynamics of tradition with their varied ways of achieving expression. In The Cambridge Companion to Debussy (Cambridge University Press, 2003), Boyd Pommeroy writes:
In keeping with the progressive spirit of the new century, Debussy succeeded in forging elements from the tonal practice of his predecessors into something radically new. At the same time, his tonal language, even at its least orthodox, never loses sight of the traditional principles that ultimately give it meaning. In Debussy’s music, tonal and formal processes continue to interrelate in ways not so fundamentally different from the tonal masterpieces of the preceding two centuries. To the extent that so vital an engagement with the tonal tradition went hand in hand with the creation of such strange and wonderful new sound-worlds, whose vivid modernity remains undimmed at the turn of another century, his achievement was perhaps unique.
Because Debussy never destroyed the fundamentals of music, his work proved immensely influential for composers who were looking for new paths to explore but wanted to avoid the deadlock of atonalism. As in the work of Stravinsky, it is the superb tonal sense which makes the expressive power of this music possible; it is no coincidence that the later works of Stravinsky, when he was influenced by the modernist trends of the fifties, are considerably less interesting. Like the great artists of the Italian Renaissance, Debussy was inspired by a dream of another world, but in his case it was not the stimulating nostalgia for Antiquity which for him stood for academic, and thus dusty, art forms; he detested everything “classical” in music, painting, and architecture. But nonetheless, his artistic temperament was classical through and through: perfectly balanced proportions, moderation in terms of expression, precise and concise craftsmanship, aristocratic style, and avoidance of everything cheap and vulgar. And, like the Renaissance artists who did not approach the art of Antiquity academically, he never undermined the mimetic basis of the art form. In contrary, he enriched it immensely and showed that freedom from classical forms could still preserve their spirit, as is eloquently shown in pieces like Hommage à Rameau, Mouvement, the symphonic La Mer, and of course the three late Sonates. In various articles and interviews, Debussy often mentioned the necessity of returning to the finesse and clarity of the French baroque which, for the French, is their Grand Siècle of classicism.
Looking backwards can easily go together with highly original creation because the process of interpretation operates on another level than the used style or materials; a really creative talent finds ways of combining elements from these two different levels in ever-changing syntheses. One could raise the question: if this is so, could then the musical modernism from the fifties and sixties from the last century not serve as material for contemporary interpretation? Could the work of Boulez and Stokhausen not play the same role as Antiquity for the Italian Renaissance artists? As we have seen, atonal music is not music but sonic art. And indeed, there are young contemporary sound artists who, within the field of sonic art, focus upon that period, and they call their work “new complexity.” The irony is that last century’s modernism cannot turn into a thing of the past without losing its identity, because it wanted so desperately to embody the future. Like the glass and steel cubes of modernist buildings, it cannot afford to become old, to become the past, because that is totally undermining its raison d’être. When the future becomes the past, the one cancels out the other and the result is emptiness. “New complexity” is an excellent example of contemporary conservatism, since that is the only impetus that is left: the conservation of an idea.
The same landscape may reveal very different aspects, depending upon the position from which it is perceived. Also, the past can take on different meanings, changing with the perspective we choose. Marguerite Yourcenar, author of the celebrated historical novel Memoirs of Hadrian, was well aware of the ambiguities of historical perception. She commented in a late interview:
If we look at history closely, leaving behind the academic and ideological clichés of our time, we conclude that every period, every milieu, had its own way of interpreting life… Although the human emotions are always more or less the same, made up of a certain restricted number of basic elements, they are open to thousands of variations, thousands of possibilities. So, if you like, the immensity of musical expression can be related back to the seven notes of the scale. You see these possibilities not only taking shape from century to century, but from year to year. After all, we don’t think the same as in 1950 any longer, and it is fascinating to find at a precise date in the past, the way in which problems have presented themselves, our problems, or problems parallel to ours. In this way, history is a school of liberation. It liberates us from a number of our prejudices and teaches us to see our own problems and our own routines in a different perspective. The past does not offer us an escape route, but a series of junctions, of different exits along the same way. If it may look as a form of escapism, it is an escape in the form of a leap of faith. The study of texts from antiquity has been such a stimulating leap of faith for Renaissance man, saturated as he was with medieval scholastic thought. The study of the Middle Ages was – up to a certain point – an inspiring “escape” for the romantic generation, bringing it back to the sources of popular poetry, to the original, European phenomenon, after the clarity, but also dryness, of the 18th century.” (From: “Entretiens Radiophoniques avec Marguerite Yourcenar” by Patrick de Rosbo; Mercure de France, Paris 1980.)
In periods of change, a civilization needs to draw on the experience as embodied in its cultural and intellectual inheritance to be able to distinguish between irrelevant surface phenomena and meaningful developments: engagement with the riches of a culture is a learning trajectory, not of formulae but of achievements of the human mind which may teach us what is right, what is good, what is meaningful and why, and in which context. It is a learning process which develops our capacity to make value judgments, without which no meaning can be found. Achievements from past periods have to be preserved and to be kept alive in their function of intellectual and cultural resources so that they can be used, can be learned from, facing the challenges of the present. If the past is well understood, it will throw a light upon the world in which we live, a world which has long roots in the accumulation of life experience of numerous generations. The survival of this experience makes renewal possible, which is: the “injection” of life into inherited forms and concepts; creative innovation is only possible on the foundation of the capacity to make elementary distinctions and value judgments and this is learned by studying the achievements and problems of the past of human civilization.
How concepts of “past” and “progress” are being interpreted is dependent upon context. Artists, working at the beginning of the 21st century, may see a reflection of contemporary life experience in works of art which were made ages ago and if they find ways of artistic thinking in the last century exhausted, they may see this as a good reason for looking elsewhere for inspiration. When established forms of “contemporary art” have become a repetition of conventions and clichés – in short, a reactionary attitude – or worse, a serious decline, it is perfectly natural to inspect the achievements of artists of the past from “before the fall” and to learn from them. Nowadays many serious visual artists and composers look to a glorious past for examples to learn from, hoping to create an art which may help identify who we are, or who we want to be, and in which way we want to express and transcend ourselves. In the reality in which Western civilization finds itself today, the modernist and postmodernist chimeras of the last century are futile, unproductive, and irrelevant because they cannot contribute to solutions of problems which have surfaced quite recently and are so different in nature from the time which gave birth to modernism. As the 20th century wanted to liberate itself from a “compromised” past to create the Brave New World, the 21st century woke up to the sobering suspicion that much of that past could nonetheless be helpful in our present predicament. The fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War, in combination with the environmental problem and an increasing globalization of trade and information technology, have changed the world in a profound way. Europe faces the challenge of reformulating its identity in relation to the world, which is also a cultural challenge. And as far as new art is concerned, the lesson of the Renaissance could greatly help to find an effective way through the maze of conflicting notions.
Identity refers to an awareness and understanding of the past, both on the collective and individual levels. What defines the character of European civilization is its past cultural achievements and the best of the values they embody, how it deals with them, interprets them, and builds upon them, and how the inner security and conviction can be found which is the basis of all constructive action. In the 21st century, rebuilding culture – in its visual and musical forms – is a contemporary challenge with symbolic implications for the entire West. And to be able to prepare conditions for a cultural Renaissance, modernism and its puerile progeny has to be removed from their establishment position in the cultural field, and their funding channeled towards the new art which carries the creative fire which is needed to give to contemporary art the meaning and value it had before the onslaught of 20th-century barbarism.
It is obvious that the attempts of modernist ideologies in the last century to “cancel the past” is not only silly, but in the present times, dangerous. For instance, to understand and reformulate European cultural identity, knowing and understanding the past is crucial. As said, identity is the result of history. In Aldous Huxley’s celebrated novel Brave New World the authorities of a totalitarian state “cancelled” the past, knowing that an awareness of past experience would undermine the credibility and the power of the regime. Cancelling or rewriting the past, which is in fact the same thing, is the usual means of blotting out independent, and thus subversive, thinking in authoritarian societies like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and North Korea. The attack upon the past is an attack upon civilization and therefore upon humanity; the inhuman nature of much modernist “music” (built upon a break with the past) is only the logical result of such an ideology.
The break with the past not only destroyed a living tradition, but also gave form to what now can be called the “museum culture.” The distance between the present and the past seemed to turn artifacts and musical works from past periods into icons which came a long way from an inaccessible world, surrounded by a cult of veneration and commercial exploitation. In this museum culture, works of art (including musical works) are seen and listened to as objects in a glass case – in this way, their direct connection with real life seems to have vanished, their makers felt as aliens from a different planet with powers no longer attainable by modern man. There is a direct link between the exaggerated veneration of the masters of the past and the deeply felt inferiority complex of the artists of modern times. And without the nonsense of concept art and sonic art, the traditional museum collections and the traditional musical repertoire would not shine so brilliantly. The break with the past seemed to make a direct inner connection with an artistic practice impossible; instead of history as a source of accessible and useful examples (as it was in pre-modern times), it became “a different country” and a cult.
Therefore, the attempts of new classical composers to recapture this country as something of our own, is a courageous change of direction with the aim to splinter the glass of the museum culture’s cases, making a direct inner connection possible, and showing that the art of the past can be seen as something also living in the present. New classicism not only brings an old tradition to life again, it also makes a more direct emotional connection with the culture of the past possible – as if it were something not far removed in “another world.” It shows the culture of the “museum” as something which also lives in the present. As there is no reason to consider the “museum culture” as something totally removed from our own time, or to see it as something negative in relation to contemporary art (it is not its own fault that a cult has been created around its products and that so much contemporary art is so bad), new classicism should be welcomed as a reassuring signal that also in the present, meaningful art can be created. The whole idea of a museum culture as isolated from real life is being challenged by the current surge of mimetic art and music.
Meanwhile, there is a very good reason to support and cherish the islands of this so-called “museum culture,” where the accumulation of knowledge and understanding of human life and civilization is expressed not in a purely scientific way but in the form of experiences which involve the entire human being and are thus accessible to anybody who takes the trouble to enter this territory and learn to understand its various artistic “languages.” Fortunately, the reality is that the past still lives in the present, and if we want to maintain Western civilization and restore it according to its best ideas, we should be warned against utopias which cancel the humanistic and spiritual/expressive qualities of art. Purely materialistic and rationalistic philosophies of art inevitably carry in them the seeds of primitivism and barbarism. In these days, a classicism which draws its understanding of civilization from the lessons of the past seems to be the best possible attitude to counter utopianism and its tendency to dehumanize society and the individual.
Is this “conservative?” The answer will be clear: no, it is progressive in the sense that the Italian Renaissance was progressive, progressive in the sense of making things better, trying to achieve a better artistic quality, by following superb examples of a glorious past. This notion of “better” is only possible in a world view where hierarchical thinking in connection with value and quality is taken for granted. However, in an egalitarian society such as our Western one, where democratization has also been understood as applicable in territories like the arts, this is often considered as “elitist,” and thus un- or anti-democratic, an attitude which cannot result otherwise than in an undermining of creative ambition and marginalization of the best of talents. It is a sign of primitivism, of erosion, not of social “progress.” There is a link between the aristocratic, “elitist” attitude towards the arts in Renaissance times (and the ages directly following this glorious period), and the formidable quality of its art production – as there is between the modern democratic world and the deplorable state of its art as exhibited in the official, established public spaces and as supported by the state. The primitivism of “official” contemporary art and contemporary music is a reflection of the primitivism of the society which supports it – how could it be otherwise?
On this point it may be enlightening to mention the anthropologist Daniel Everett’s memoirs of his thirty-year stay with a primitive tribe in the Amazon jungle, the Pirahas (Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, Profile Books / Pantheon, 2008). This isolated community lives the way their forebears lived for thousands of years and they share a couple of remarkable characteristics: they have a simple language and speak in short sentences; they do not believe in gods, have no idea of spirituality, and do not believe in an afterlife; they are not conscious of the past or the future but live exclusively in the present; they have a strong resistance towards outsiders which they dub “crooked heads;” they don’t use numbers but words for amounts like “a little” or “much,” but nothing for ten, or five, or one hundred; their society is like a commune: an egalitarian, non-hierarchical social system which seems to be quite effective for them; they are not interested in learning agriculture and are happy with their hunter/gatherer existence; they have no interest in producing artwork. The remarkable thing is that they are, or strongly seem to be, a happy people who see nothing wrong or “restricted” in their way of living and thus want to keep things as they have always been. Not surprisingly, they resist modernization. They are traditionalists and conservatives in the reactionary, un-creative sense, clearly forced to remain as they are by the strong limitations their natural environment brings upon them. Do these characteristics not sound familiar? Are there not quite some people living in the modern West with many of these characteristics (sometimes even including the hunter/gatherer mentality)? People for whom the total absence of culture and the territory of the mind and spirit is not experienced as an absence, but as a happy state of unconsciousness? One can find these tribes everywhere in the big cities of the West, where there are no limitations like those of the Amazon jungle environment.
It must be said that, apparently, the Pirahas are perfectly adapted to their difficult life in primitive conditions where their lack of civilizational interests can be excused. But to find these typical primitive characteristics in the midst of a so-called civilized and wealthy world is – to say the least – rather disturbing. It is not the primitive tribes in the jungles who need civilization, but many areas within the civilized societies themselves, who in their educational system often seem to fail to teach the basic tenets of what it means to live in a civilized world.
The artists and composers who dedicate themselves to the task of restoration of cultural traditions, including the civilizational values they embody, feel the need to contribute to the core of what the best of European civilization has been. The need for a restoration of European and Western culture and cultural identity in the broadest sense is felt everywhere and the pioneers of this new classicism are the first artists who have rightly understood the challenge of renewal of the Western world in the 21st century, a renewal which gives the best of the past its due and sees it as a springing board for a more civilized world and more civilized contemporary art. They deserve our attention and our support because they may find the themes and subjects which will symbolize the path taken by society as a whole.
There was a time in America when virtually all intellectual activity was derived in one way or another from the Communist Party… resulting in a disastrous vulgarization of intellectual life, in which the character of American liberalism and radicalism was decisively – and perhaps permanently – corrupted.*
—Robert Warshow (1947)
Several years ago, I was having lunch with Henry Hope Reed, the author of The Golden City, one of the most important books of twentieth-century architecture criticism. At some point, he exploded with frustration, asking “Where did all this awful modernism come from?” Frankly, I was surprised. It never occurred to me that a scholar of Reed’s capabilities and knowledge would confess ignorance about such an important topic, but he was serious. The rest of our conversation focused on a vain attempt on my part to identify the course of events that led to the destruction of the academy and the classical tradition, the rise of modernism and its spawn, postmodernism. It was too long and complex a topic to explain over lunch, especially to a scholar afflicted with a hearing impairment.
With the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989, the question lost its relevancy. But postmodernism, with its ironic, anti-American, anti-religious ideology, continued to shape Western culture. In the twenty-five years since that collapse, with two dozen emerging nations subsequently freed, little serious discussion has been devoted to communism and its liberal off-shoots. However, the tsunami of postmodern culture has not only undermined the quality of the fine arts, but deconstructed the last redoubt of American creativity, popular culture – movies, comic books, theater, music, photography, fashion, interior design. The twenty-foot puppy atop the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a plastic Christ submerged in a vial of artist’s urine, inane poetry, the decline of education, and the rejection of timeless standards of aesthetics and beauty have opened a vast chasm in American civilization. The elimination of right and wrong, beauty and craft, and the criterion of excellence have effectively dumbed down popular appreciation of values that contributed to making this nation great. In hindsight, it was American popular culture – not high culture – that more truly preserved aesthetic standards during the 1950s. Unfortunately, it was mostly teenagers who recognized the creative value of that culture. Adults, mostly parents and the critical establishment, deplored “low culture,” referring to it as trash. One exception was Robert Warshow (1918–55), a much-admired critic for the Partisan Review and Commentary.
As a young artist during the 1950s, I immediately got the point of modernism – to maintain a high aesthetic without relying on traditional narrative structure. But it required some effort to remove the crust of politics that had been applied to it during the 1930s – progressively distorting its deeper meaning and importance – by communist idealists, liberals, radicals, and fellow travelers, most notably in the arts and education. During the same period, loyal Americans responded similarly with their own political agendas.
To understand the infiltration of political ideology into American high culture, one must recall that it was the height of the Cold War. It was the period of the Berlin Airlift and the Cuban Revolution, Russia’s stealing of atomic bomb secrets, the Rosenbergs, Whitaker Chambers’s Witness, the Hollywood Ten, and Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities hearings, the banning of comic books, rock-n-roll and “salacious” movies, and the stifling of students’ expressive behavior in schools. During this time, Dr. Frederic Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent, testified before a congressional sub-committee chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver about comic books’ subversive effect on children. Wertham and other “experts” singled out the burgeoning publisher EC Comics, a small publisher that employed highly talented, creative artists and writers – many of them teenagers just out of art school, particularly Cartoonists & Illustrators in New York City. It was an unfortunate setback for American popular culture. Similar attacks were pressed against pop music, particularly rock-n-roll. Wertham and the subcommittee did not criticize the big publishers, including Dell, DC Comics and National. Unfortunately, even astute critics such as Hilton Kramer regarded comics and most movies as “trash.”
In the beginning, it was hard to separate the politics of patriotism from the Marxist propaganda that seeped into every aspect of American life, undermining the pillars of society, mores, religion, and patriotism. Those who opposed the infiltration of propaganda, especially in the arts, mass media, movies, newspapers, television, and radio, included stalwarts such as Hilton Kramer, T.S. Eliot, Lionel Trilling, Norman Podhoretz, and Midge Dector. It seemed to me, even as a student, that the issue was not solely a political matter, but also aesthetic. Later, postmodernism would leave a gaping hole in American cultural and civic life with its unrelenting attack on aesthetics, beauty, and sacred iconography.
It was no coincidence that, during the subsequent fifty years of the Cold War, it was not possible to create a successful memorial for Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the National Mall. One proposal for four towering, white-concrete, monolithic slabs drew the outrage of the Roosevelt family. Plans for the memorial were put on hold for decades. The installation of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982 restored interest in projects for the Mall. The controversy over appropriate styles has yet to be resolved, however. In 1997, President Bill Clinton dedicated the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, created by American sculptor George Segal. The artist’s approach was to literally pour wet concrete over living models, let it harden to the point that it could be removed and made into casts. So grotesque was the outcome that many websites devoted to the memorial avoid reproductions of the statues, focusing instead on the memorable words uttered by Roosevelt during his administration, carved into blocks of stone framed by small waterfalls. Half a dozen modernist-style memorials, some even worse, have since been installed on the National Mall.
The problem is not limited to the memorials’ ugliness, but includes the mundane, meaningless themes and iconography used in honoring the great people and heroic events we mean to celebrate. In contrast, the success of Maya Lin’s Wall and Frederick Hart’s Three Soldiers at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is based on the themes of honor and respect to those who served. The beauty and gravitas of these works derive from their intent. The FDR Memorial resembles a cartoon park designed by Jeff Koons. No doubt someone at this moment plans to contract Koons to create a future memorial. Recent doubts about Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial call into question whether postmodern artists can create fitting memorials.
During the 1950s, neither Russian dictators nor patriotic Americans were all that interested in aesthetics or civic beauty. The City Beautiful Movement of the nineteenth century was over, and their primary focus was political and ideological. The Cold War – occasionally hot in places such as Korea, the Middle East, Central America, and Africa – was a distraction from cultural events. The communists promoted narrative realist paintings, which gave an unrealistic picture of the revolution of Lenin and Stalin. Americans, to the degree that they paid attention to the arts, accepted modernism, if only to prove to the world that American art was more progressive than fascism, Nazism, and communism. An old joke shared among artists at the Russian Academy (who were well trained in traditional academic skills): if you painted dour Soviet life as you saw and experienced it, you were sure to be sent to a slave camp in Siberia. Modernist abstraction was dealt with more harshly. The abstract, Constructivist artist Kazimir Malevich was sent to the Gulag prison to be “re-educated.” When he emerged, tortured and disheartened, this great artist was ordered to paint scenes of smiling peasants with brand new (nonexistent) harvesters, while millions of farmers in the Ukraine starved. During Glasnost, under Mikhail Gorbachev, abstract artists were tolerated as long as all the money derived from sales to the West were turned over to the government. For a while, they did a thriving business with Western collectors, even though modernism in the West was dead by the 1970s. The corruption of the art market continued, fueled by the rapacious business market and hundreds of modern art museums, galleries and art departments at U.S. universities.
American Arts Quarterly(AAQ) has long followed the decline of Western modernism and the need for a new vision to spark a renaissance in all the arts. Ironically, Russia – or what is left of the Soviet Union – finds itself in a similar bind. In June, Radio Free Europe broadcast that the Russian government had created a major new agency, the Directorate for Social Projects. Its first national conference was held in the city of Krasnadar, on the Ukrainian-Russian border, near Crimea, which Russian military forces had just invaded.
According to the Russian website, monitored by Radio Free Europe, the directorate will be controlled by the Russian President. Its mission is to strengthen “the spiritual and moral foundations of Russian society” and to improve “government policies in the field of patriotic upbringing.”† The ministry will be under the direct control of the Russian President. Interestingly, the core of this proposed revival of Russian culture, which is especially focused on youth, does not include communist propaganda, but pre-revolutionary values. Its purpose is nationalistic: the reclaiming of ancient Russia’s spiritually and aesthetically rich heritage and culture. Commentators on Radio Free Europe said the new agency could prove instrumental in filling the ideological vacuum left by the Soviet collapse, to correcting mistakes made under the regimes of Lenin and Stalin. Sadly, the present regime, socially oppressive and aggressively militaristic, seems ill-suited to the task.
In the years after World War II and the Cold War, we ignored the task of revitalizing American culture and education. During the 1990s, I served on the President’s Committee for National Standards for American Education K-12. Its members were composed primarily of business people and professional educators who had never heard of the word “renewal.” Traditional visual-art education and skills were shunned. The report, National Standards for Arts Education (1994), was prepared and published under a grant from the Department of Education, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and authorized by Congress.
Today, we find ourselves in another race with Russia and the Eastern nations, most obviously economic but, more crucially, cultural. We face two obstacles: much of American cultural history in the twentieth century was shaped by left-wing and liberal values; and the cognoscenti, the business community and government have been indifferent to the great decline in American standards and values, especially in education. Too many young people are falling into functional illiteracy. As Weird Al Yankovic sings in his brilliant pop music parody “Word Crimes”: “Your grammar’s errant … you’re incoherent.” Does anyone appreciate the irony that it is the inheritor of the communist empire, a former KGB officer of the Cold War, who seeks to “restore national pride, promote patriotism and strengthen the spiritual and moral foundations of Russian society”?
Our nation was founded on the ideals and rights promoted by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and those principles evolved through the growth of American culture. The primitive tiny group of independent states and territories – not yet a nation – gave birth to the architecture that distinguishes our nation’s capital. The painter Benjamin West (1738–1820) and Thomas Jefferson, as architect, initiated the patriotic, neoclassical style that not only inspired American art, but influenced the evolution of the French Royal Academy – from the eighteenth-century Rococo style to the neoclassical spartanism of Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), which prevailed until World War I. President George Washington wrote to Gouverneur Morris that he believed virtue, the arts and humanities were permanently interconnected, and that Americans should act accordingly.
AAQ has devoted so much time to the failures of postmodern art that clutter museums, universities, and our public and civic spaces, that I will spare the reader further jeremiads on my part, except to note one important issue: the future of the National Mall. The monuments of the last sixty years (with the exception of Maya Lin’s Wall and Frederick Hart’s Three Soldiers, both part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial) have been artistic and thematic failures, detracting from the gravitas and sacredness of this hallowed ground. On a brighter note, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama during a ceremony at the White House in July. BAM is noted for eclectic film series, including classic American movies that highlight the twentieth century’s most important art form, which grew out of the American popular culture. As he handed the award to the academy’s president, Karen Brooks Hopkins, the president remarked: “The moments you help create – moments of understanding or awe or joy or sorrow – they add texture to our lives, they are not incidental to the American experience – they are central to it. They are essential to it.”‡
Throughout our history, American culture has been fueled by creative anti-establishment energy. But that spirit of rebellion found a counterbalance in deeply rooted respect for traditional values, in a taste for direct storytelling and humor, and in community and civic pride. We have a healthy skepticism of officialdom, and any attempt to engineer much-needed changes in the arts through dogma and censorship will fail. But cultural institutions and the government can support and foster the individuals and groups that, for the last few decades, have worked to reclaim skills, communicate with an aesthetically engaged public, and promote beautiful and meaningful public spaces. In the best American tradition, that enterprise should encompass both the fine arts and pop culture – a powerful antidote to totalitarian agendas.
*Robert Warshow, The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Popular Culture (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1962), p. 33.
† Radio Free Europe: Radio Liberty, “Putin Creates Agency to Restore Russia’s National Pride” (June, 2014).
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with kind permission of the author. It first appeared on his blog, where the reader will find much more of interest.
Sometimes one hears the critique that classical music is no longer compatible with modernity. What “modernity” is supposed to mean always remains in darkness, as if the very word “modernity” were so obvious in its meaning that any further explanation would be superfluous. If “modern” means “of this time, of today,” this category is quite ephemeral because tomorrow there will be another today. But it is something else: modern culture, with its contemporary human condition, is felt as a fundamentally different way of life with values and experiences, strongly deviating from the past. All this is of course a generalization, but it paints a mood, and suggests that culture of the past has become “another country,” inaccessible to modern people. And it is quite remarkable that the core repertoire of classical music stems from that “other country”: modern musical life has one foot firmly in the past. And since the other foot inevitably stands on the brittle ground of contemporary times, the position becomes increasingly uncomfortable if the culture of the past is seen as fundamentally different from modern life experience.
Is there any fundamental contradiction found in putting a CD with a Mozart symphony in the player while driving a modern car on a paved road through the suburban sprawl of a big, modern city? Or in performing a piece by J.S. Bach on a piano, or his Brandenburg Concerti on modern instruments? Or in viewing a Vermeer painting dressed in modern “clothes” – the canvas being lightened by carefully adjusted spotlights which were unthinkable in the 17th century? The Historically Informed Performance (HIP) movement in music, which presents music from the past on old, authentic instruments or else on exact copies of them, is a very modern phenomenon and nobody would demand that such performances are presented with the musicians dressed in 18th-century garb, with candles on their music stands. On the contrary, successful ensembles like John Eliot Gardiner’s Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, though composed of period instruments, use all the modern means and recording facilities available to spread their vision – which does not in the least diminish other possible interpretations of the same music. It all forms a rich palette of varied artistic experience which is the hallmark of true modernity.
I think that our human nature, in its essential elements, does not differ very much from that of our ancestors and that changes in society, lifestyle, and opinions happen quite slowly while the basic human needs remain the same. Since the 19th century, the West has been fascinated by the leaps of progress made in science and technology, which inevitably fed the myth that “progress” would be the answer to all the troubles of mankind. Looking back at the upheavels of the 20th century, we know now that this is not the case. In science and medicine, progress is definitely of great value, but in other spheres of human activity, “progress” is a dangerous notion because it may disguise decline and erosion, as can be noticed in the visual arts where obvious decline in abilities and aesthetic sensibility is so often sold as “renewal.”
Our distorted view of the relationship between modernity and culture has much to do with the idea that culture develops like a timeline: first this, then that – development from A via B to C and so on, with the implication and the hope that it is, in general, an upward line. If this were so in culture, we would end up with some obvious absurdities, like the notion that Picasso was an improvement on Velasquez, and that Xenakis was an improvement on Bach. In fact, the art of the past is with us in our present. It has not just survived the erosion of time but transcended the boundaries of time and place. The best works from the past are thus contemporary forever and any new art can only aspire to contribute to the ongoing accumulation of works, representing the creative mind of humanity. History in art thus looks like a quantitative accumulation process, and not like a timeline.
During my studies in Rotterdam in the seventies, the musical world was shocked by the appearance of a new music intending to break with the music from the past – which was still very much alive in performance practice. There were heated debates, and music – old as well as new – became gravely politicized. If audiences rejected Boulez or Stockhausen they were bourgeois and did not understand their times; and people embracing the Brave New World of sound demonstrated their keen commitment to modernity. Since the political climate of those days was predominantly Left-wing, modernity was Left, and bourgeois rejection of modernity in music was Right. So simple was the world in that time. In my parental home, classical music was a natural presence through radio and recordings, forming an organic backdrop to a rather bohemien life style: both my parents were painters. I never considered music as being related to some political point of view, and I was quite surprised when, in my first years at the conservatory, Beethoven, Mahler and Ravel were labelled “outdated” and “bourgeois” by my teacher, who tried to get our small group of composition students interested in the “real stuff”: Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern and everything following from their heroic explorations. Interestingly, the music of Schoenberg had never been aired on the classical stations at home, let alone Berg and Webern, and our record collection went no “further” than Ravel’s piano concertos and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and Third Piano Concerto. Also, I was surprised to find out that all the music which I had got accustomed to was “old.” I never experienced Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms et al as something “old” or as something far removed in time. In contrary, it was all very “of now” and bursting with life. Something that was so directly expressive and fresh could not possibly be of “another country.” Of course I knew that the music had been written long ago, but given the character of the music, that seemed to be entirely irrelevant, and loving and understanding that music did not make me feel “old fashioned” or “’bourgeois” – which would have been quite strange given the rather chaotic and un-bourgeois milieu in which I was growing up. But in the composition class, all that was put into a very different context.
Of course the students were fed with all the “subversive” music which was, in general, rejected by bourgeois concert life. I remember these group listening sessions as fascinating nightmares during which we were led into the dark world of atonal despair and into the postwar experiments with pure but chaotic sound and electronics. On one particularly sunny and clear April morning, the Three Orchestral Pieces of Alban Berg seemed suddenly to turn the weather into a dark hole of rain and angst: a thunder storm had landed on the quarter. Exercises in dodecaphony and serialism posed some considerable challenges, and I found it interesting to wrestle with complex constructions – like trying to get a puzzle right and hoping that the image that would appear in the end would be something artistically meaningful. (It almost never was, since a puzzle is not an artistic undertaking.) A falling fifth in one of my early pieces provoked some contemptuous sniffing by the teacher because it reminded him of the beginning of Beethoven’s ninth symphony – an embarrassing faux pas which I should avoid in the future if I ever wanted to be a composer. All this made very clear that music was not just music, but an embodiment of political values related to interests: so much new music was being written but not accepted in concert practice, where people were supposed to merely repeat the same “old” works like zombies in a perpetual state of comatose cultural confusion, ignorant of the demands of modernity which was knocking on the closed doors of the concert hall.
Modern visual art did not suffer from those bourgeois rejections and quickly developed a specialized market with big money passing through ever more eager hands, accompanied by a rapidly emerging army of theoretical “experts” encouraged by the infinite horizon of necessary and salaried explanation. Interestingly, the museums with the “old” collections everywhere in the Western world continued to attract visitors, as is still the case today – and now those works have become another half century older since the new wave of modernism appeared. Modernist music and modernist visual art created a territory of their own, separate from the culture of the past, underlining the “newness” of the phenomenon and its disconnection from existing art and music. To explain this distinction, theory and ideology were wielded as weaponry against the scepticism of “the bourgeois.”
Understanding that musical meaning was not to be found in modernist ideologies, I began to study art history, hoping to find examples of debates which could throw a light upon those of the present. And indeed, I found some: in 17th-century France a debate flared up among artists and architects around the question of whether or not modern artists were superior to those of Antiquity – the art of the ancient world then being considered so great that one should always try to take it as an example. It appeared that the rejection of a past culture was a relatively recent phenomenon and that in former ages the accumulated presence of achievements from the past was merely a huge repertory of means to be used and varied in the present. Sometimes harking back to an even older past was, for that reason, considered more “modern” – like the revival of classicist architecture near the end of the 18th and deep into the 19th centuries and the entire Italian Renaissance which was inspired by the art of Antiquity, both movements adapting the achievements of the past to the different needs of modern times. Opera was invented as a fantasy about the way the great plays of Ancient Greece might have been performed. Sources spoke of reciting and singing accompanied by instruments, but because concrete information was completely lacking, composers had to invent such presentation themselves – a beautiful example demonstrating modern invention as a result of looking backwards.
After my studies in Rotterdam I spent a year in Paris, keeping myself alive with private music teaching and a shabby little job at the Chamber of Commerce, where I sorted cards and filed them alphabetically and fetched coffee for the office’s real employees. Exploring the poetical cityscape and visiting the Louvre and the big monuments was a revelation: beauty and aesthetic meaning was everywhere – not as some alien object in a glass box, but as a natural part of life. To take just one from numerous examples, the Panthéon – this impressive monument to “the great men of the fatherland” – had been designed as a church in a very spare classical style, with a hughe dome topping a really excentric structure. The outside looks like a very square tomb, but the inside is light and elegant with vaults airy as a gothic cathedral. And indeed, the architect, as I discovered, had wanted to create the same high-rising effect of the medieval churches but with the vocabulary of classicism. The result is breathtakingly beautiful and also very original, now forming an important signifyer of identity to the nation.
A very instructive lesson in classicism: although the separate elements are borrowed from examples (the entirely traditional, “over-used,” but always impressive temple front; the dome following the design of the dome of St. Paul’s in London; the tall interior with customary pillars and vaults, using 18th-century decoration in a structure resembling gothic vaults), the resulting mix has a distinctively original effect, demonstrating Roger Scruton’s description of originality as the personal touch which becomes visible against a background of tradition. Also, it’s not ”just” a temple front: details and proportions are extremely well-designed, adding to the effect of tallness and forceful expression of grandeur.
Of all the treasures of the Louvre I only want to mention the Italian paintings from the Renaissance, showing that the particular imaginings of ages ago are capable of transmitting their beauty and meaning to crowds of people living in entirely different circumstances.
It became very clear to me that, in an artistic sense, “the past” does not exist. The works exist. The implication is of course that artists today can take these works as examples to learn their craft, so that they acquire the means to express their own inner drive to contribute to the better aspects of the world. After my return to the Netherlands, it became my goal to get to the heart of the classical tradition – classical in the widest sense, like we speak of “Indian classical art” as distinct from “modernity” – and to learn to adopt the techniques which were best suited to what I wanted to “say” in the “language” of music. As with all cultural endeavors, we learn through imitation. In the process of internalizing creative processes we become what we have learned, and the craft turns into a personal means of expression.
Of course such ideas fell completely outside the world view of modernism and of modernity as a narrowly defined moment on the timeline of history – and outside the established circles of “contemporary music” with their specialized festivals and performances by specialized ensembles. But maybe that was a good thing, because exploration and development that is endorsed by establishments may hinder the inner freedom that is a precondition of authentic creation – certainly if such establishments cultivate ideologies, party lines, and taboos for their adherents. Attempts to restore something of the classical tradition in music are, of course, important targets for taboos in a cultural climate where a narrow-minded notion of modernity is de rigueur. Yet we have seen in today’s contemporary music scene those hard-line taboos erode considerably. And in the end, that may offer possibilities of development exceeding those of modernism and its watered-down progeny, the ideas of which seem by now completely exhausted and feeble in comparison with the best of our traditions.
Even if we acknowledge that we live now in a post-postmodern era, I believe that works of art available or accessible to us should be judged by their ability to enrich our lives and that we must make ourselves accessible to the ideas and aesthetic expressions contained therein, because they may have something of value to impart to us. This is basically a timeless, a-historical position. And from that position, we can see how much of the art and music from the past is still very much present all around us, and how powerfully it still “speaks” to us. This is a reassuring sign that the human condition may be strong enough to endure even the most disruptive influences of modernity; and it shows us that one of the blessings of this same modernity is that so much art from the past is still available and accessible. More and more painters, architects, and composers no longer feel inhibited to explore these examples of humanism for their own artistic endeavors. And it seems to me that this is contributing to the available territory of meaningful art. May this be a renaissance of authentic culture, taking its place within the broad context of available, contemporary artistic experience.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with kind permission of the author. It first appeared on his website, where the reader will find much more of interest.
In the last century, very often the concept of “progress” was projected upon the arts as a measurement of quality: “good art” was “progressive art.” If an artist did not commit some “groundbreaking” artistic deed, his work was considered worthless. While progress in science is a fundamental notion, in the arts it is meaningless because the nature of art has nothing to do with progress. There may be progress in terms of physical means – like the types of pigment used in paint, which became more stable in the last century, or the relatively cheap paper for musical notation that became available with the advent of the 19th century’s Industrial Revolution, or the iron fittings in architecture that allowed builders to vault bigger spaces. The discovery of perspective by Bruneleschi in the 15th century was also something like progress, as was the “sfumato” brushwork developed by Leonardo da Vinci, which gave painters the means to create a hazy atmosphere on the canvas. But expression, artistic vision, the quality of execution has never been dependent upon the physical means of an art form: Vermeer has not been superseded in terms of artistic quality by Picasso or Pollock, Bach not by Mahler or Boulez, Michelangelo not by Giacometti or Moore, Palladio not by Gropius or Le Corbusier. And we can appreciate the brilliance of the “primitive” masters of Flanders, who lived before the great surge of 16th-century inventions in Italian painting, just as we can the music of Palestrina, who had no clue of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven or Chopin simply because he lived in an earlier time.
Because it addresses itself to our most sensitive aesthetic receptivity, the successful work of art – the one that achieves artistic greatness – lifts itself from its physical “body” and becomes “timeless.” Because it addresses universal capacities of the human mind and heart, it “speaks” to us over distances of time and place. Great art is aspirational: it represents the best of the human species and it stimulates the development of our inner experience of and reflection upon life. Great art is a symbol for, a mirror of, and a stimulus to the human condition. Of course not all art aspires to that height, but the best works offer something of a focus point, an ideal, and an instrument of quality assessment. Gifted artists attempt to emulate the great works of both contemporaries and the masters of the past and they try by hard work to get the best out of their talents. The serious and gifted artist will not look at ephemeral fashions, but will try to get at the heart of his art form and will look for the best instruments available to realize his vision. It will be clear that all this has nothing to do with the intention to be “progressive” or “modern.” The artist is already and always necessarily contemporary, whatever he tries to do. Artists who try to be “progressive” or “modern” – i.e., who try to be consciously and intentionally “of their time” – betray their superficiality and lack of substance, and they betray their artistic efforts as attempts to cover-up an empty space.
In the same way, serious artists do not try to be “conservative” as a conscious attempt to affiliate themselves with groups or movements in the art world for opportunistic reasons. J.S. Bach was considered “conservative” in his own time. Other composers at the time were exploring very different paths after they came to consider the “strict” Baroque style to be outdated. But Bach, about whom there is no evidence that he considered himself to be a conscious “conservative,” created new music based upon that style, and he found many new ways of combining things, filtering them through his own superb musical personality and thereby giving them a fullness of life which, with hindsight, looks like a last overwhelming sigh of the Baroque period in which all strands that made up its language found an apotheosis. (Of course, at the time the term “Baroque” as applied to music did not exist; we use it here for convenience’s sake.) In comparison with his contemporaries, Bach found the possibilities he discovered in older styles much more interesting than the new, fashionable and more naive way of composing – and rightly so. How could he have known the miraculous synthesis a Mozart or a Beethoven would one day create? Their precursors – Bach’s contemporaries – were interesting, but what they were doing was far and away less interesting than what Bach was doing or what Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven were going to do.
While the concepts of “progressive” and “conservative” have thus no meaning in the arts, it is nonetheless true that the art forms developed and were in constant flux, under the influence of many diverse artistic personalities, circumstances, social contexts, and the like. The current situation in both the visual arts and in (serious) music is not the result of a linear, “progressive” development in the various art forms, but of the flow of a broad delta that spread its many streams since the stream banks of traditional art gradually lost their more or less stable form after the demise of the Ancien Régime. The liberation of the bourgeoisie brought with it the liberation of the artists. Patronage was gradually replaced by the market, and in the enthusiasm of free exploration – often against the constraints of bourgeois tastes – the arts found their stasis after World War II in the various forms of modernism. Concept art and concept music (atonal music: sonic art) became the established forms of “new art” in the Western world – in Europe supported by the state and the educational institutions, while in America private funding took on the role of Maecenas. And in the 20th century, it has been the myth of “progress” which has propelled these developments, like a wind blowing the many little streams of the delta upon a barren coast of stone and sand where the sea of oblivion would wash away their products – products which were often merely the wreckage of artistic failure when viewed from the heights of the achievements of the art of the past. Modernism and conceptualism in the arts (including its watered-down progeny) never strove after artistic greatness; this explains the gradual disappearance of greatness from both the visual arts and music.
We can also translate the term “progress” as “innovation.” Artists who seem to invent something that has not been before are often considered “greater” than artists who seem to have been content with available materials and styles. But this is a relatively new phenomenon. In pre-revolutionary times – say the 18th and 17th centuries – there were no discussions about “innovation,” “progress,” “exploration” and the like. They popped-up during the 19th century and got riotous in the 20th. But did those earlier artists not explore and invent? Of course they did, but not intentionally so. Invention and exploration where the result of their artistic efforts, not a conscious goal. They tried to create good art, and if they had something of a personal signature, they automatically transformed the available materials and styles into something personal. That is why we immediately recognize the personal styles of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Rubens, Velasquez, and Caravaggio even though they used the same visual “language.” Innovation had always been a natural part of the artists’ craft. They did not need to turn it into a banner or a marketing device. So great art is always innovative, but not in the way innovation has meaning in science: in art, innovation is personal, temporal, and not part of a movement, of a communal enterprise where the boundaries are explored as part of a common attempt to liberate the arts from dominating restrictions.
The myth of progress and conscious innovation as it raged in the last century had the unfortunate effect of giving teeth to the philistines: people in establishment positions used it to make distinctions in terms of quality which had nothing to do with real artistic quality, resulting in the nonsense of concept art (where an unmade bed almost wins the Turner Prize) and of sonic art (where indigestion noises are dressed-up as music). It also had the effect of reinforcing suspicions about art which still adhered to older notions of artistic value and meaning: they were seen as expressions of an elitist and conservative culture attempting to suppress the tastes of the masses, as remnants of undemocratic and unjust times where hierarchical thinking led to authoritarian, arbitrary violence. To many people, the notion of artistic quality became tainted by associations with totalitarian regimes, crime, and injustice – especially since Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia showed how classical art could be misused as instruments of legitimization by criminal governments.
And here we have arrived at a very sensitive problem and the paradox of the arts today. According to the official establishment, modern art and modern music are supposed to reflect our free, modern age, occupying a different space than those occupied by pre-modern art, which is safely locked-up in museums and in concert halls and opera houses dedicated to classical music. What is considered “classical” art nowadays was hardly ever considered so at the time of its conception. It has become “classical” since modernism became the “official” new art of the 20th century as a way to define the difference between that which was, and that which is – the art of former generations who suffered in a hierarchical society, and the art of today, created by us, we who are liberated and enjoy the luxury of a progressive, egalitarian society where everything is valued by its own intentions and where hierarchical qualitative norms have been banished because they are elitist, oppressive, and so on. And yet, a great majority of people have developed enough artistic sense to understand and appreciate the great art of the past. They flock to the great collections enshrined in grand museums like the Louvre, the National Gallery, and the Uffizi and to concert halls and opera houses to experience the thrilling creations of dead white males from undemocratic ages. This “old art” did not naturally develop into the modern art of today, but forms an altogether different world of sensibilities. The upheavals of two world wars and industrialization, together with fundamental cultural shifts in society, play a crucial role in the appearance of this rift in creative thinking, the roots of which can be found in the 19th century. Eyes and ears educated in the best that any art form has to offer will not fail to see and hear the difference between “old art” and “new art.” This is not “conservatism,” since that does not exist in the arts, but a normal observation supported by experience. And a preponderance of “new art” is, by any standard, simply not good – at least, it fails abysmally in comparison with the best art of former ages.
It is a mistake to see criticism of modern art as a bourgeois defense reaction against modernity, since the bourgeois society which protested against the impressionists and against Debussy and Schönberg no longer exists. If we could not criticize “modern art” in our own day, there would not exist any bad modern art. Without criticism, how could we know it? Therefore, we should feel free to criticize inferiority where we find it, trusting that indeed there are general, objective norms and standards for artistic quality and talent, even if they cannot be precisely formulated. All great art of the past has been created on this assumption, thereby empirically proving the fact. (That these norms change over time does not refute the idea that indeed there are norms.) In the same way, we know that something like “love” does indeed exist, although it is impossible to formulate the phenomenon in such a way as to arrive at an objective, testable description, as in science, and in spite of the different forms in which love manifests itself, in other places, other times, other cultures. We also have an inborn sensitivity to aesthetic quality, which is (to name an example) otherwise expressed in the intentions to create our living areas in such a way that we feel comfortable therein. Beauty – which had always been a natural part of any work of art – is not persé kitsch or Adorno’s “false consciousness” (how could he know?), but an indication of a higher vision of life, and therefore important to what we best call the human condition.
“Old art” and “old music” still “speak” to us, because they have universal qualities that transcend time and place. That is the reason behind the iconic value conferred on the great “old” collections in the museums and on the “old” repertoire fêted in the “traditional” concert halls and opera houses. In fact, this “old art” is not old at all, but contemporary forever because its great qualities can be interpreted again and again by every generation. There is an interaction happening between the living generation and the voices which come to us from the past – a dialogue. And this dialogue is ever new. Concept art and sonic art, whenever attempting to be serious, could create a similar dialogue, but this dialogue would be different in its character because these art forms have different “messages.” Often these messages reflect a negative outlook upon human life, upon contemporary times, and upon human nature. No doubt, these criticisms have a rightful place in our society, but they should not be seen as natural descendents of the art of former times. Concept art and sonic art are something really new – like photography developing alongside painting in the 19th century. To call concept/sonic art the result of progress and thereby implying that it is just the old art but developed towards and into modernity is to deny the newness of these new art forms altogether. Let it be new, but don’t let it be art in the sense of art of former times. The fact that “old art” and “old music” are still of great importance to us keeps them new and presents them as an alternative to what is now establishment-sanctioned modern art and music. Would it not be great if contemporary artists would try to emulate the “old art” and pick up former artistic values and norms to develop them according to their own insights and life experiences (as Bach did)? And indeed, that is already happening and has been now for many years: new figurative painting is enjoying a renaissance, as is new tonal music based upon “traditional” values. These are not conservative movements but fully modern, contemporary art forms that give the lie to the outdated myth of progress and innovation for their own sake. Are these art forms dull, imitative, derivative, nostalgic recollections of times which have long past? By no means. In contrary, compared to the modern art and modern music of the establishment they are a breath of fresh air, since they explore techniques, values and aesthetics which – as we have seen – are not restricted to time and place and are thus universally valid and renewable.
There is a good reason why a Jackson Pollock or an Andy Warhol is not hung next to a Velasquez or a Manet or (even) a Dali, why there are museums exclusively dedicated to modern art, and why there are “modern music festivals” and specialized ensembles and concert venues exclusively dedicated to “modern music,” which is mostly sonic art or derivations from pop or “world music.” They form a different field of sensibilities and aesthetic values which would rightly be experienced as an intrusion from outside within the context of “old” art and music. But new figurative art mixes very well with the “old” collections, just as new classical music fits very well into a regular, classical music programme in a classical concert hall. There is a continuum that embraces “old” figurative art/tonal music and new figurative art/tonal music. The element that unites all the different forms of these arts is mimesis, the old Greek concept of art as representing and interpreting reality as man experiences it – including the stirrings of his inner life – and which is realized by means that make use of the forms of perceived reality, in the case of visual art, and by means that metaphorically reflect emotional experiences, in the case of music. (Mimesis was first formulated by Aristotle.) But while the visual arts include elements of visual reality, great art never merely imitates it (as the many religious works amply attest). In music, the flow of lines and the changes in harmony reflect the movements of the emotions, while never merely imitating them (which would result in directionless utterances). In both the visual arts and in music, human experience is stylized in an aesthetic, imagined space, which gives these experiences a meaning and quality on a higher level than what we experience “in the raw.” This explains the stimulating effect of great art: it transcends the earthly level of our life, transporting it to a higher realm, and thus ennobles it – even where the experiences as such are not pleasant at all (like the numerous crucifixions in religious art, which can be considered fairly regular human experiences symbolically re-enacted in mythological form). This quality of transcendence can rarely be found in the establishment’s “modern art” and “modern music.” They have very different aims.
New mimetic art explores meaning, value, and beauty as universal qualities of the human condition. It exists next to modernism in all its forms – not in opposition, but as a fruitful alternative after more than half a century’s celebration of the negation of universal values. What is progress? In culture, and especially in high culture, progress is the attempt to make something better, which implies hierarchical thinking: if there is something better, this means that there is also something worse. During the Italian Renaissance, artists strove to make things better, to paint better, to build better, to compose better (read Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists). In their time, they were modern as a result of their intention to be better, and not the other way around. And they chose as a measurement of quality the art of antiquity: a thing of the past. Eventually, in their intoxicating self-confidence, they tried to surpass the art of antiquity – which shows their freedom in interpreting their examples. At the end of the 17th century, a discussion ensued in France – then at the forefront of contemporary, modern, backwards looking art – about whether “the moderns” were better than the “old” or not – the “querelle des anciens et des moderns.” This would have been unthinkable in the 20th century, when being “better” was, under the delusion of the myth of historical progress, considered the result of being “modern.”
Of course Vasari was wrong to think that art of ages immediately preceding his own was “less good” than the works of his contemporaries: Mantegna is not superseded, in artistic terms, by Leonardo or Raphael. It was the means that became available to artists, which got better, not the qualities of artistic vision. The point is that developments on the material level are something different from the psychological/aesthetic level of art. What a work of art “says” is something different from the materials in which it is “said.” If “progress” is used in reference to the material level, more possibilities become available to the artist; if the term is projected upon the artistic vision itself (the psychological and aesthetic level), and on top of that is imposed a linear, historical perspective, as happened in the 20th century, artistic possibilities will eventually diminish. And that is what we have seen in the last 50 years. The obligation to be “modern” closes off the arsenal of means that developed in the past, the result being that the range of possibilities becomes ever narrower. And in the end, all available material means seem to be “exhausted,” since the artist looks upon the material level as the most important one.
The modernist composer György Ligeti said in an interview that he felt imprisoned between, on one hand, the past, and on the other, modernism – the avant-garde which he himself had helped into being but which he felt he had somehow to transcend, because “progress” meant to him having to “go forward” all the time on the line of historical development. For Ligeti, modernism had become petrified into a mentality which had to be “overcome,” had to be “surpassed” along the line from past to future – but in which direction? The artists of the Renaissance (and of later times during the ancien régime) never got into such dead-end street because learning from examples and freely delving into the material means of the past protected them from a historical, linear perspective. They tried to create good art and, if possible, to emulate or surpass the works of other artists, be they in the past or in the present. While trying to create good art, the past was always there to be of help and support. They never felt “threatened” by the art of the past because their awareness of being “modern” was not in opposition to it. This freedom of thought made infinite exploration and variation possible.
From 1648 till 1665, Amsterdam built its new, “modern” town hall. It had to express the power, wealth, and importance of the capital of the United Provinces of the Netherlands at the climax of what later generations called the “Golden Age” of Holland. Amsterdam was built of small, individual houses in the traditional gable style in brown brick and/or wood along small streets and a network of canals (which would be extended over the years). But this new, central building had to be different and as modern as possible – underlining the present as something of a higher order than the past during which the town had developed – because Amsterdam’s glory was a thing of the present, not of the past. The style chosen was Italian classicism, which was seen as the most up-to-date and modern style because it was considered to be “the best,” forming a stark contrast to the other, older architecture of the town. So the new town hall was supposed to be “better” than the recent past and the way to achieve this was to hark back to an older past, as was then the contemporary way of thinking: people could explore the past as a treasure trove of possibilities and choose what they thought of as “the best.” In Amsterdam of the 17th century, “the best” was represented by an architectural style which recreated the grandeur and spaciousness, and the rich ornamentation, of Roman antiquity; the classicist Italian Renaissance tradition fulfilled that requirement in an excellent way, according to the city council and the architect, Jacob van Campen. (It must have been a very expensive undertaking, since the lightish natural stone and the sparkling marble had to be imported from abroad, Holland being a country of clay and sand.) Following the same line of thought in which past and present share a continuum from which art can be freely chosen, the dome of Rome’s Saint Peter was modeled upon the Pantheon, the famous circular temple of Roman antiquity. The building of Saint Peter was by far the most spectacular building adventure of the 16th century, and again, the most “modern” in the old sense. The invention of the opera – a totally new idea at the time – was born from the attempt to recreate the plays of Greek antiquity. These rather random examples reflect a very different interpretation of the concept of modernity than has been the custom during the last century – and an interpretation of the world which did not see a conflict between past and present. In the place of our myth of progress and modernity was their myth of a golden age, by which the past stimulated new creation. It was idealistic nostalgia which spurred artistic developments, with innovation as a result of a universal vision of the arts as a timeless continuum where works of art from the past interact with art of the present, and in which examples stimulated emulation and thus created an endless progeny of great works. This continuum is best described as “classical” – not in the sense of “old” and “bygone,” but in the sense that it indicates an understanding of continuity with the past. It does not hamper new innovation and personal interpretation, but rather stimulates personal creation under the influence of examples which provide standards of excellence. In this sense, new classical art is a continuation of the great tradition of European art of the past, a living process of continuous renewal and interpretation, without the delusions of progress and modernity as a goal to strive after consciously.
To what extent is new classical art, because of its focus on examples, derivative? What do we mean by the term derivative? If we mean thereby an art which is a mere imitation of what has already been “said,” the term can be applied to any art, of any time and place. But even “derivativeness” should not be considered a merely negative quality, as the art of old Egypt amply shows, where repetition was de rigueur. Individual freedom of the artist, as developed in Europe over the ages, is a great good. It created the possibility of multiple variations. But individuality which becomes so personal that it has no meaning for other people results in the void of pointlessness. Art needs a continuum of works of art which refer to each other to create a framework of meaning, value, and norms against which personal originality can stand out. New classical art is an attempt to restore something of this framework, which existed before the emergence of modernism, and which now – in the 21st century – offers the best hope for the renewal of the arts. New classical artists, both in the visual arts and in music, do not imitate, but apply mimetic “languages” to express individual experience, and this experience is inevitably contemporary. That these “languages” freely take their means from traditional mimetic art forms is perfectly natural, just as Renaissance artists looked towards antiquity to develop their skills and personal styles.
Classicism, thus interpreted, may become the landmark of artistic innovation in our own time: interpretation of the past as a contemporary exploration, and a liberation from the restricting myth of modernity in the arts which has created so much confusion and havoc in the last century.
In the first part of this series, I acknowledged the growing consensus that there is something wrong with higher music education today, and I discussed Entrepreneurship as the first of three themes around which the most enthusiastic and popular suggestions for reform seem to converge. In this installment, I will address the second and introduce the third.
It’s hard not to sympathize with the plight of the young musician who, despite or perhaps rather because of his passion, is destined to scrape together his living in “the real world” outside the towering ivory walls of our traditional institutions of classical music. We sense that his is the lot of the disenfranchised – which, we might suspect, in some ways we too share. Our compassion for him is that which we reserve for the many that find themselves excluded from the privileges and the concerns of the few, “The One Percent”; we mourn the difficulty of his dejected life and regret what we fear to be his wasted potential. But our compassion, like the wider, prevailing social conscience with which it harmonizes, also has a dark side.
It is the ominous shadow of resentment that darkens both our references to “The One Percent” and the stormy gulf that it inevitably creates between “them” and “us.” But what’s most troubling about the tendency to conflate the “privileged class” with our traditional, musical institutions, such as orchestras – or even with the small group of elite students who will eventually find positions in them – is that it implies an injustice. Our resentment and our egalitarian ideals convince us that those in the small, privileged group wielding all the influence and power somehow don’t deserve their position, as if they came by it dishonestly or by lucky accident.
And we have a sense that culture is like that. You are born into a culture, of course, and so the great accomplishments you’ve inherited are really none of your own doing. They are a fortunate accident, like being born into great wealth. So if your birthright is the culture that came up with something particularly and impressively difficult to attain, something that nevertheless has endured many centuries, and has consequently become the aspiration or else the envy of the world, you will have some explaining to do. In this light, the canon, the traditions, and the longstanding conservatories and institutions of the European tradition of classical music all begin to look suspiciously like an elaborate system designed to exclude all but a cultural elite that does not deserve its place. And so they are turned into objects of resentment and scorn. But we do a great disservice to high culture when we treat it this way. One isn’t born into an orchestra or a canon. None of the world’s great musicians or history’s great composers were destined to be so by birth. Membership in either is a long-term project and must be earned at every step of the way.1
Nevertheless, we are swept along by the tyrannical tide of prevailing attitudes which make no such distinctions about social injustice and which view any objection to the ravages of their progress through our conservatories as their raison d’être. Those within the academy who lack either the will or the rhetorical skill to resist the tide of resentment threatening the canon, our traditional forms, and our historical institutions instead turn and join it. Some, guided by their compassion and by their sincere desire not to deserve the contempt rising around them on all sides, hasten to apologize for and repudiate all the more vigorously the insularity and elitism of which the tradition is accused. Others step forward to lead the assault, driven by either the revolutionary’s ideological conviction or else the careerist’s cynical opportunism. We might suspect the Task Force for the Undergraduate Music Major (TFUMM) of the latter when it bluntly declares that “the culturally narrow horizons of music study [are] nothing short of a social justice crisis.”2
And so, misguided but often well-meaning castigates are left to cast about for the things which classical music can be and do in order to ameliorate the elitism that they are now convinced has caused all the problems of the world. Classical music – and the schools which perpetuate it – must now be about setting aright the injustices of our troubled age. Our music schools now promise, as one of the nation’s most prominent conservatories does, that their “gifted students will not only be trained as musicians but also as catalysts who will inspire creativity and spark positive change in their communities.” I’m at a loss to explain to you how they intend to train their “catalysts” to “spark positive change.” Are they putting the string section through classes in the theory and tactics of social and political activism? Are they giving the trombone section master classes on “leaning in” and “paying it forward”? And what is the nature, we might wonder, of this “positive change”? The TFUMM’s report is far less vague:
A strong argument can also be made that the transformed model of music study advanced by TFUMM will shape a new generation of artists/visionaries who will transmit their broad and transformative wisdom to society and positively impact many of the most pressing issues of our times. Ecological crises, poverty, famine, disease, violence against women, child abuse, ideological and extremist tensions…3
are all mentioned in the very next breath.
Of course, that’s a laughably tall order. Does anyone really believe in the “broad and transformative wisdom” of recent college graduates? Do we have any reason to think that the next generation of musicians will finally solve human society’s oldest and most persistent problems? Yet we hear the unmistakable echo of this strange idea in the rhapsodic rhetoric coming from our nation’s beleaguered professional orchestras. They too have largely capitulated to the forces of popular resentment and have accepted their role as scapegoat. They too now increasingly promise “positive change” in return for the right to exist.
Lurking beneath efforts to convince us of classical music’s ability to change our communities and to bring an end to social injustices of all kinds is fear of the oft-repeated prophecy that classical music is dying. But in fact there are more people learning, practicing, and performing classical music in more corners of the globe than ever before in the tradition’s history. If there is any sense in which the gloomy prophecy is true, it is in the way it describes the steady erosion of the discipline within the academy at the hands of shortsighted careerists “whose primary concern is with self promotion (grounded in ideological posturing and research ‘agendas’).”4 Getting ahead in today’s academic milieu is as simple as taking cheap potshots at the tradition in the name of social justice. Accolades, promotions, and attention reward those who find innovative ways to serve social and political agendas in spite of – and indeed, specifically to spite – the canon and the traditional forms and institutions of classical music.
I do not have to go out of my way to provide an example. A respected state university lists the qualifications of the recently appointed head of its music school as follows:
An ethnomusicologist, her research interests include African American music, feminist theories, queer studies in music and the social sciences, and race in American popular culture. [She] pursues these interests in… a study that tracks the emergence of black feminist consciousness in women’s music. The latter is a network that emerged from a subculture of lesbian feminism in the early 1970s. …[Her] research into the interactions of race, gender and sexuality in regard to African American music cultures is complemented by her personal and professional advocacy on behalf of women, people of color, and other underrepresented constituencies in departments and schools of music.
Hardly a word is said about her musical qualifications, her mastery of the canon, her accomplishments as a teacher of classical music, or even about her previous experience running an institution of higher education. These sets of skills, it would seem, are an afterthought to her political agenda. Are we to believe that her “advocacy” is what qualifies her to lead a music school? That is, in fact, exactly what we’re expected to believe. Here is someone who represents “change we can believe in” and proof of the university’s complicity in the repudiation of classical music’s “elitist” and “exclusionary” European heritage. Here is a mascot for the social activism that will save the conservatory from resentment and ruin.
But it is in just this way that classical music within the academy will die: as we replace, for the sake of politics or expediency, the teachers who quietly loved and maintained the tradition with those who’ve made a career of loudly condemning or refuting it, the discipline will be chipped away from the inside by a myriad of tiny careerists and ideologues happy to attack or cheapen the long and living tradition of Western classical music for the sake of a petty promotion or a hearty pat on the back.
The last theme around which we find the loudest and most persistent arguments for the reform of our conservatories is the need for music programs to focus on the cultivation of creativity. What makes these arguments so powerful and so sinister is that they often begin from that old, familiar attitude of resentment. We hear it rumbling again just beneath the surface in statements made by the TFUMM, which complains that
contemporary tertiary-level music study – with interpretive performance and analysis of European classical repertory at its center – remains lodged in a cultural, aesthetic, and pedagogical paradigm that is notably out of step with…broader reality.5
At issue, of course, is the fact that the purpose of the traditional music education is to prepare students to participate and collaborate in “the performance and analysis of European classical repertory” at its highest levels. The “broader reality” to which they subscribe is reflected in the modern tendency to see that emphasis as not only a slight to those who will fail to achieve those ends, but as a real offense to those who, like the Task Force, reject that purpose and the primacy of the European classical canon itself.
It’s not far to step from resentment of the Western classical heritage to disdain for the tradition of “interpretive performance.” Each has bequeathed to us – and depends upon – the other. And so we should look with great skepticism upon those would like us to think that,
Were Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt alive today, their musical lives would likely more closely resemble those of today’s creative jazz artists and other improvisers-composers-performers than interpretive performance specialists whose primary focus is repertory created in, and for, another time and place.6
We should take the time to acknowledge several glaring problems with this astonishingly bold assertion, because they will point us towards the mistakes that underlie our present obsession with creativity. To begin with the most obvious error: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt, and especially Clara Schumann were trained, in the first place, as interpretive performers. Clara was in fact an “interpretive performance specialist” for the whole of her career. It would be generous to call this statement misleading.
But the most important thing to notice about this mischaracterization, is the slippery presumption folded insidiously into it: that Clara’s focus as an “interpretive performance specialist” would have been therefore “repertory created in, and for, another time and place.” Now here is an idea that only a modern could have. And the narrow-mindedness of it would have confounded Clara Schumann – and indeed any of the artists in earlier eras, who all saw themselves as participants in a great and continuous tradition stretching beyond any particular time and place. The idea that the past masters reveal to us through their works something not only relevant but crucial to the vitality and success of all our present and future endeavors was not peculiar to the Renaissance. In fact it lasted until rather recently.
Master painter, teacher, and author Juliette Aristides notes,
However, [that] in the cultural climate that exists today this pattern of receiving an artistic heritage and either building on it or reacting against it has been broken. Many contemporary artists acknowledge no relationship at all to the art of the past.7
This break with the past precedes our dismissal of both the canon and the tradition that created and sustains it. If we have no relation to one, then we have no relation to the other. It also justifies and reinforces our resentment. And for this reason, we should not be at all surprised that the revolutionary program for higher education requires that we sweep away the “irrelevant” works “created in, and for, another time and place,” be they musical compositions, paintings, literature, or even architecture. Though most will quickly protest that their vision is not so extreme, those who call for this kind of revolution in our conservatories are in fact only following their successful brothers-in-arms whose absolutism effectively destroyed our schools of art and architecture. I will return that cautionary tale later.
It is a mistake steeped in the antihistoricism of ideology to imagine that Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt, and Schumann (Clara or Robert) saw themselves and their music in this particularly modern light – that they imagined themselves as standing outside of and apart from their musical heritage, bound to the times they were living in, and creators of something entirely original. And from it flows the chief mistake in likening them to “creative jazz artists” of idolizing them not for their place in and propagation of the tradition, but for what we imagine is their inherent originality.
This is a difficult subject and what I just said will no doubt rub many people the wrong way. And that is because we are generally convinced that there is no objective standard by which to judge art. We have rejected the traditional standards of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness as purely subjective: what is beautiful to you might be unappealing to me, your truth might be different from my truth, etc. – and there is no way to judge between them. But if there is nothing aesthetically objective by which to judge a created thing, we are left to judge it by its creativity alone. And this is what we accept as the point of art today. Judged only in this light, it is impossible to distinguish a Bach fugue from a stunt like John Cage’s 4’33”. And if you point out that even you could have written the score for four and half minutes of silence – as if to differentiate the stunt from the skill with which Bach composed his fugues – a quick answer will remind you sharply that creativity was the point: “But you didn’t.”
Creativity becomes a great equalizer wielded in this way. A childlike scribble can be as important as one of da Vinci’s sketches, a pickled shark as monumental as Michelangelo’s David. And when you walk through our museums of modern art, you can see how convinced of the idea we are. It’s little wonder that creativity, like social justice and disruptive innovation, has become a holy grail for those who have taken up the reformation of our music schools. The cry goes up that we are stifling creativity, or at least not encouraging it as we should:
Ironically, while appeals for inclusion of the arts in overall education are often grounded in the need to cultivate creativity in all students, music study has long been predicated on the subordination of creativity to technical proficiency and interpretive performance.8
It may be true that the popular argument for including arts in general education today cites “the need to cultivate creativity,” and if it does, then that is a serious problem in itself. But it is certainly true that “music study has long been predicated on the subordination of creativity to technical proficiency and interpretive performance.” In fact, this was true for students of art, as well. And when it ceased to be true, art education began a long descent towards irrelevance, which will be the subject of the next part in this series.
1 And in fact, music has remained one of those few pursuits in which success is possible for the talented in any class throughout the course of European history’s most rigidly hierarchical societies.
In the second part of this series, I introduced the theme of Creativity as perhaps the most persistent of the ideas inspiring the reformation of our institutions of higher music education. The fact that “music study has long been predicated on the subordination of creativity to technical proficiency and interpretive performance” masquerades as an accusation – or at least as weighty criticism. And it’s hurled as thoughtlessly as it is effectively because we rarely question the assumption that hides behind the mask – if we even notice that it’s there at all. If we do question it, we’re generally at a loss for an answer. Is it a bad thing to subordinate creativity to technical proficiency and interpretive performance?
As the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds said in his presidential address to the Royal Academy when it opened in 1769,
I would chiefly recommend that an implicit obedience to the rules of art, as established by the great masters, should be exacted from the young students. That those models, which have passed through the approbation of ages, should be considered by them as perfect and infallible guides as subjects for their imitation, not their criticism. I am confident that this is the only efficacious method of making a progress in the arts; and that he who sets out with doubting will find life finished before he becomes master of the rudiments. …Every opportunity, therefore, should be taken to discountenance that false and vulgar opinion that rules are the fetters of genius. They are fetters only to men of no genius….1
The discipline and pursuit of technical proficiency, of course, is not antithetical to creativity and was the rule throughout the periods of history that produced our civilization’s greatest art. Juliette Aristides notes that, “Historically, the practice of master copying was a central component in the methods of training painters; it started at the very beginning of a student’s training and often lasted long after the individual had reached mastery.”2
‘Copying,’ [Eugène] Delacroix wrote, ‘herein lay the education of most of the great masters. They first learned their master’s style as an apprentice is taught how to make a knife, without seeking to show their own originality. Afterwards, they copied everything they could lay hands on among the works of past or contemporary artists.’3
It was the same, of course, for the musical training of history’s great composers. “Interpretive performance,” a form of “copying,” has been the central component of a musical education from the very beginning. And there is one more, very important reason for that fact: music, unlike art, only exists when it is being performed. It is not like a painting, which only needs to be painted once in order for us to experience it fully. The composition of a painting never changes; when we come back to it, it is always exactly as it was, and only we change. But music only exists when we are hearing it. It must be “copied” again and again and over again; and every copy is different like every human fingerprint is different. It changes and we change, each time we hear it. And if we cease to play Beethoven’s symphonies – or if we fail to cultivate in the next generation of musicians the skills and the love necessary to faithfully “copy” them – then in a very real sense they will cease to be.
What the revolutionaries and reformers, in their zeal, also seem to forget is that the vast majority of musicians – that majority they profess to have always in mind – even in Bach’s, Beethoven’s, Mozart’s, Liszt’s, or Schumann’s time, were interpretive performers. Though they’d like to imagine it otherwise, we can safely say that virtually none of us are born with creative powers even remotely equal to those of Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart. In fact, we’d be lucky to have one such genius in our midst during the course of an age. And I think that even today, most of the students who enter our conservatories do so, not because they believe they are in line to be the next Mozart, but because they love performing the music that has found its way into our canon – and the time and energy they’ve invested in learning to be worthy of playing it attests to that fact. It’s part of the great miracle of classical music that the preponderance of musicians who have come and gone throughout the long course of its history were interpretive performers inspired to play “repertory created in, and for, another time and place” – overlooking for the moment the sophistry already mentioned, and taking that phrase to mean instead “music composed before one’s lifetime” – because if they weren’t, we’d know little or nothing about the music of Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart today. Perhaps that’s fine with the Modernists, but I think the rest of us would object loudly.
It seems to be a triumphal bit of amnesia that confidently injects the modern reformer’s rhetoric with that “false and vulgar opinion” that “the subordination of creativity to technical proficiency” is somehow a detriment to the development of a student’s creative genius. But it’s an argument that is as popular as it is unexamined. A former music critic who is now one of the Internet’s most popular bloggers on the future of classical music – and who admittedly would “like to run a music school” – weighs in:
Music schools don’t encourage creativity. …I’m not saying that their teaching might not be on a high level, but mostly it’s on a high level of doing what the rest of the classical music world does, making music the way your teachers, your chamber music coaches, and the conductors you play for expect it to be made. …But art students, I’m going to guess, are doing varied, original things, because that’s what they see in the art world.
We are invited over and over again to compare our conservatories to our art schools. And it’s a useful comparison, though not in the way the reformers think it is. Art schools already and thoroughly made the mistake that the musical academy is being encouraged to make:
In our arts climate, historical education and art training are often considered antithetical to genius. Rising artists are frequently expected to tap their knowledge directly from the ether, disconnected from history and labor. However, when the instincts of the individual are elevated above education, the artist can become stuck in a perpetual adolescence where his passion outstrips his ability to perform. A far more powerful art form is created when artists seek to first master the craft of art and then use it to express their individuality.4
But it is hard to convince us of this because we really want to believe that technical proficiency – which concerns itself ultimately with Beauty, Truth, and Goodness – is a dictatorial grey area eclipsed by the shining genius of innate creativity. And after all, if four and a half minutes of silence can stand next to one of Bach’s fugues as a work of creativity, why do we need to bother with technical proficiency? Of course, when faced with this absurdity, we realize that there is something that precedes creativity, just as we know that there is a way for creativity to reach beyond technicality. Sir Joshua Reynolds described it this way:
How much liberty may be taken to break through those rules, and, as the poet expresses it,
“To snatch a grace beyond the reach of art,”
may be an after consideration, when the pupils become masters themselves. It is then, when their genius has received its utmost improvement, that rules may possibly be dispensed with. But let us not destroy the scaffold until we have raised the building.5
The problem is that the project of our art schools, and the project of reforming our conservatories, has become rather to raze the building.
Art Schools and the Atelier Movement
The critics are not wrong about the differences between our academies of art and of music. Music conservatories have until now largely resisted the impulses that have so effectively reformed our art schools. And the nation’s very best music schools continue to ignore the din and still reliably produce the world’s top musical talent.
But art schools long ago succumbed to the delusion that sets creativity and originality ahead of discipline. They long ago embraced the widespread cultural rebellion against tradition in all its forms; generations ago they rejected the practice of “teaching as it was taught to me.” They have effectively broken with the past. They’re even wildly successful at turning out entrepreneurs: modern artists are now rolling their “art” off of assembly lines straight into museums.
Alexander Gorlizki is an up-and-coming artist… [whose] work has been displayed at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Denver Art Museum and Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, among others, and sells for up to $10,000. Mr. Gorlizki lives in New York City. The paintings are done by seven artists who work for him in Jaipur, India. “I prefer not to be involved in actually painting,” says Mr. Gorlizki, who adds that it would take him 20 years to develop the skills of his chief Indian painter, Riyaz Uddin. “It liberates me not being encumbered by the technical proficiency,” he says.6
We don’t have to squint to see where this road that our reformers are rushing down ends. Indeed we are fortunate to have such an explicit example to study. Before we bid our conservatories follow our art schools into the great modern experiment, then, we ought to ask ourselves – and consider carefully – whether or not the experiment has been successful.
There is a growing movement of students and artists who are convinced that the answer is no. And they are flocking to ateliers that continue to spring up all over the world. The modern atelier movement is the correction to the art schools that first abdicated their responsibility to teach technical proficiency and tradition – and subsequently lost the ability to do so altogether. But if the art schools themselves are responsible for the rise of the ateliers, they are not at all to thank for the possibility that they could even exist. Modern ateliers exist because,
Against all odds and facing ridicule, a handful of artists who were still academically trained managed to preserve the core technical knowledge of Western art and to continue the process of teaching another generation. There is now a growing movement of artists demanding to be taught the classical methods. They are part of a new Renaissance that has brought the atelier method full circle and back into the art world of today.7
The atelier is an artist’s workshop, set up much as it was 150 years ago and with its roots in the guilds of the early Renaissance. It is the place where a student trains for many years under the careful, meticulous, and demanding eye of a master artist. Often, only a handful of promising students are accepted at any one time, and they are immersed in the intensively slow and steady process of acquiring technical proficiency, of mastering foundational principles, and of realizing the historic artistic achievements upon which the tradition of Western art has been built. Juliette Aristides was trained in an atelier and now trains her students the same way:
The atelier movement attempts to rebuild the links between masterpieces of the past and our artistic future. As such, it sets a different course than the one prescribed by the arts establishment of the modern era. By reinvigorating arts education we can give the next generation of artists the tools that have been lost or discarded over the last one hundred and fifty years.8
As serious students of art begin to realize that they do have the option of learning the tradition and the disciplines that art schools cannot – or do not – offer, art schools in turn are starting to realize that serious art students are willing to forego the accredited college degree – along with the possibility of a university career, a steady salary, and tenure, to say nothing of the approbation of the art establishment – in exchange for the opportunity to learn the craft, to master technical proficiency, and to spend their time tediously copying history’s masterpieces. Their ambition is fired by love for, not resentment of, the canon and its creators – and by a burning desire, which perseveres in the face of failure, to participate in the long and living tradition that is our Western heritage. As Peter Trippi, Editor-in-chief of Fine Art Connoisseur Magazine points out,
[A]telier enrollments have continued to soar nationwide…. These enrollments have slowly been “stealing” business from mainstream university art departments, so some are now responding by creating their own programs in this vein.9
It is very possible that the music academy, if it harkens to the shouts echoing all around it and proceeds in the proposed march toward reform and “progress,” will pass by the art academy as it hastens back to that crossroads where it took a wrong turn. It is very possible that, by chasing “relevance,” our conservatories, like our art schools, will make themselves irrelevant.
Can we say, then, that all is well in the world of higher music education on this side of the pond? For now, we continue to produce an ample supply of musicians that rank among the world’s best, with the technical proficiency, confidence, and maturity to faithfully perform the great works that were handed down to us. Occasionally – no more often than we might expect it to happen – a creative talent rises visibly from the cohort, perhaps one day to join the canon and the masters at whose feet he studied.
If our music schools are in danger, the danger is a knowable one that rumbles predictably and pharisaically. The course of man, like the labor of the student, was always fraught with mistakes. But the tale of higher art education is ultimately a hopeful one. For there will always be those students who, hungry to participate in that transcendent experience that is the miracle of classical music, will seek out and heed the advice of Cennino D’Andrea Cennini, imparted to us in Il Libro dell’Arte at the dawn of the 15th century – ever as fresh as the day he inscribed it:
You, therefore, who with lofty spirit are fired with this ambition, and are about to enter the profession, begin by decking yourselves with this attire: Enthusiasm, Reverence, Obedience, and Constancy. And begin to submit yourself to the direction of a master of instruction as early as you can; and do not leave the master until you have to.10
1 Sir Joshua Reynolds, “A Discourse Delivered at the Opening of the Royal Academy, January 2nd, 1769, by the President”, published in Seven Discourses Delivered in the Royal Academy by the President (London 1778) 13.
2 Juliette Aristides, Classical Painting Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice (New York City 2008), 6.
3 Quoted in Juliette Aristides, Classical Painting Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice (New York City 2008), 6.
4 Juliette Aristides, Classical Drawing Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice (New York City 2006).
5 Sir Joshua Reynolds, “A Discourse Delivered at the Opening of the Royal Academy, January 2nd, 1769, by the President”, published in Seven Discourses Delivered in the Royal Academy by the President (London 1778) 14.
6 Stan Sesser, “The Art Assembly Line” in The Wall Street Journal (June 3, 2011). Accessed 9/28/15: www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303745304576357681741418282.
7 Fred Ross, Chairman of the Art Renewal Center, in his Foreword to Classical Painting Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice (New York City 2008).
8 Juliette Aristides, Classical Drawing Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice (New York City 2006).
9 Peter Trippi, “Ateliers Today: A New Renaissance?” in Fine Art Connoisseur (November/December 2012), 79.
10 Quoted in Juliette Aristides, Classical Painting Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice (New York City 2008), 1.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted with gracious permission from the Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center, who originally published it in American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2008, Volume 25, Number 3.
Virtuosity in today’s art world presents a hard brief to argue insofar as it encompasses virtù, or excellence, which implies hierarchies of values, achievements and, at least in a narrow sense, persons. All of these are currently suspect if not, in the present parlance, downright transgressive. In some quarters, a craft tradition may now be seen as obsolete or, worse yet, exclusive. It is hardly surprising that the draftsmanship of freshman art students has been declining for decades. This shift, to some degree, represents an overcorrection of past failings. In the Ars Poetica, Horace emphasized the importance of both native ability and assiduous learning, but until relatively recently the appearance of talent and the opportunity to cultivate it appeared almost entirely among the privileged classes. Occasionally, a great talent could ascend in society in the same way as a great beauty, but the common lot was mere subsistence, and commoners’ lack of achievement no doubt reinforced aristocratic attitudes and perpetuated self-fulfilling prophecies for generations. The spread of mass literacy, increasing life expectancies and a degree of mass prosperity have fortunately extended to many commoners the opportunity to find out whether they have talent and the will to cultivate it. While we can only wonder how much genius has been wasted in the past, it would be perverse not to relish these new opportunities.
Egalitarian bonhomie has gotten carried away, however. In American terms, a Jeffersonian aristocracy of merit has given way to a Jacksonian approach in which anyone might be assumed to perform as well as anyone else. Thus few are humbled, and few are rightfully exalted. (How many artists occupy the recognizable top rank among their peers and the cognoscenti of their fields, let alone among the public at large?) The Jacksonian impulse may actually serve quite well in politics – horrors are more likely to stem from the pursuit of greatness than from an Everyman’s attempt to put in a day’s work – but serves the arts poorly.
Blaming the decay of virtuosity on capitalism would be facile. The mass marketing of art rewards mass-produced reproductions, but those reproductions seem at least as likely to be those of Vermeer or van Gogh as they are of any artist active since 1900. The most obvious excrescences of modern art stem instead from the caprices of collectors who attempt to carry on the aristocratic tradition. Without a sense of devotion to Church or State, these collectors have found themselves without guiding principles other than a dedication to conspicuous consumption or a residual Edwardian devotion to progress, or novelty masquerading as progress. This pseudo-patrician hegemony of taste has filtered into the educational system, as generations build on their predecessors and attempt to justify their own experiments. If models of virtuosity are ever more faintly approximated, subsequent generations have only weaker models to follow.
Such a patrician approach also leads to the sort of egalitarianism advocated by those who don’t have to live with its consequences. The intellectual classes have provided the underpinning for the notion that differences in talent are irrelevant. Beyond getting a fair opportunity to attempt, it is now held that individuals have the right to be artists, or at least consider themselves as such. And there is a certain undeniable cachet attached to this. This approach, tantamount to a latter-day Marie Antoinette waving off the crowds by saying “Let them make art,” trivializes all art by removing distinctions of quality. The combination of a decadent patrician tradition and a radical egalitarianism might have proven disastrous enough on its own, or merely one of those occasional lulls that occur in art history. But these trends have converged – or shared roots – with a shift in the definition of a work of art, from that which is made, often after years of training and bitter struggle, to that which is perceived. If other eras have labored and will labor again under the shadows of Rembrandt and Velázquez, or their successors, the present age is laboring under the shadows of wall-mounted handlebars and urinals.
These experiments were not without value. Every work of art exists in a context, and context can constrain as well as enable the viewer. Well-executed industrial design often holds greater appeal than self-conscious but questionably executed art. Umberto Eco has noted that the most genuinely beautiful objects at fairs and expositions are machines rather than allegedly decorative or artistic items. A spidery Philippe Starck juicer offers at least as much aesthetic appeal as the average Henry Moore sculpture, and far more utility.
The historical error, however, has lain in treating perception and context as sufficient rather than necessary conditions for art. Duchamp and Picasso moved on to projects that more fully engaged their talents once they had made their statements, but many others have mistaken a detour for a cul-de-sac. Perceptions and changes of context become a series of what graduate instructors might call “thought experiments.” At first these questions needed to be asked. The definition of art, the role of the museum and gallery in relation to class and aesthetics, and an interrogation of the artistic tradition’s development were all questions worth asking, especially after the timidity and complacency that dominated art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; even the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists did not stray that far from the groves of the academic approach.
Artists have been expected to épater la bourgeoisie for over a century, but continuing a revolutionary struggle starts to look foolish when everyone alive has been born long after the fall of the ancien régime. Surveying twentieth-century poetry, for instance, Timothy Steele has argued that decades of vers libre bards are still reacting to the late Victorian era’s soporific iambic pentameter and metronomic approach to recitation, dragons long since slain by the likes of Eliot and Pound. Apparently, the former avant-garde, like many other triumphant revolutionaries, would rather fight than govern. Remaining in a defensive stance, they have failed to establish a tradition that admits of development and amplification. Instead, there is a narrowing and reduction – a working out of ever-narrower formal questions. Thus the “progression” from the Cubists to Mondrian to late Rothko.
The questions being asked, however, are largely redundant and ultimately not very interesting. This poses a far greater problem than abstraction per se to viewers who have endured the slander of simplemindedness for far too long. After a century of abstract art, representation does not represent a sine qua non of many viewers’ aesthetics. Without so much as an art appreciation class, it is possible to appreciate the volumes and geometries of a Brancusi on their own terms and, for all their surface simplicity of execution, as achievements sprung from both skill and effort. It is not necessary to analyze his movement from outer representations to portrayals of archetypes and Platonic essences in order to enjoy his work. The same could be said for Kandinsky. We know that something substantial is being said – because of the arrangement and mastery of materials and because he felt compelled to exert a substantial effort. To apprehend that statement immediately, or ever to understand that statement in its totality, are unfair demands to place even on the cognoscenti. Moreover, any verbal statement is presumably secondary to non-verbal apprehensions of truth. Kandinsky is remembered for Yellow, Red, Blue and the Composition series, and only secondarily as the author of the cryptic, if intriguing Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and those paintings do not so much make statements as ask questions about the proper subjects and techniques of painting.
Fast-forward to the pickled menageries of Damien Hirst. The question being asked is relatively simple: how does it feel to be presented with a dead animal? Simplicity alone does not render a question unworthy of being asked, but an artist who asks such an obvious question assumes the concomitant responsibility of providing an answer that merits the viewer’s attention. The work of an artist such as Hirst partakes of banality. Once the novelty of their concept wears off, their pat and workmanlike answers demonstrate no exceptional command of skills or materials, and the execution could just as easily have been subcontracted as left to the putative artist. Such execution belongs more to the realm of artisanship or mass production. The resulting vision is impersonal, not in the way of Egyptian or Mayan work, but that of a widget. The possibilities of discovery inherent in working with and perhaps mastering one’s materials are thus prematurely foreclosed. An architect suckled on computer-assisted drafting, better known by its acronym CAD, may well turn out more product than a predecessor trained with pencils and a drawing board, but having his spaces created for him with the click of a mouse may deprive him of the chance to envision a structure ex nihilo and consider its possibilities before committing himself to drawing a line by hand.
What kind of painting would have resulted if Edward Hopper had subcontracted the execution of a canvas portraying figures at the counter of a late-night diner – and conveying the grandeur and unspeakable loneliness of American individualism? Only in painting Nighthawks was he able to convey his sensibility and refine it, through the discovery and discipline of engaging with his medium. Short-circuiting that process can lead to a premature sense of achievement. This is not even the self-satisfaction that Tom Wolfe denounced in The Painted Word, which assails modern art for serving mainly as the concretization of aesthetic theory, rather than the expression of any other impulse. Such theory-bound works can be, for all their coldness, a mental palate cleanser. The Cubists did not merely stop at asking the intriguing question “What if reality can be rewardingly portrayed with multiple vanishing-point perspectives and a geometric conception of matter?” They also sounded out the implications of that question. Pollock similarly asked whether a painting can rightly represent the document of action as well as the portrayal of an interior or exterior stasis, and he likewise worked through the implications of that question. We would not be able to approach this question in the same depth – or ask it at all – without his exertions. In short, our understanding and even our consciousness are expanded through the artist’s exercise of virtuosity, far more than they might have been through the short, pat answers of conceptual art. Merely saying “drips,” “squiggles” and “splashes,” or providing a few cursory examples, hardly does justice to their possibilities. Pollock’s particular drips, squiggles and splashes, with their underlying symmetry, make manifest at least some of those possibilities.
The answers of many artists, however, do not greatly improve on the possibilities of a one-sentence reply. Rothko’s later monochromatic canvases simply don’t tell us much, other than that the artist has reached a certain dead end of experimentation. While reaching a dead end is a noble risk of any experiment in art, as it is in science, artists have all too often lingered in that dead end. Faced with a similarly intractable obstacle, a conscientious scientist will cut his losses, however reluctantly, and pursue a new line of inquiry. For an artist, the option exists of returning, perhaps refreshed, to an approach that embodies more than a nominal treatment of materials for their own sake. Indeed, some artists have done precisely that. Anselm Kiefer does not deny the paths that Rothko took, but he transcends them through a tendency to elaborate and add materials into what would otherwise be a realm of pure negation.
That negation can derive from momentary fatigue or despair, but the repetition of those moments takes on an air of schtick. This is not confined to late Rothko. Barnett Newman’s monumental canvas Voices of Fire, which consists of three vertical stripes in red and yellow, takes up the greater part of a high wall at Canada’s National Gallery. Neither the question (what would three gigantic stripes look like?) nor the answer is terribly interesting, and, in an era of computer-generated special effects, the thought experiment could be made tangible with a few keystrokes. Instead, in the less technologically advanced days of 1990, the museum paid some $1.8 million for the privilege of owning the work.
The musical analogue of this approach occurs in the perverse milestone of John Cage’s 4‘33”. Besides the vague unease that attends sitting around while waiting for the performance not to happen, the impact of this piece could just as easily be obtained by stating as a thought experiment, “Imagine someone sitting down at the piano without playing.” Though Cage staked out his territory first, another composer could have “written” the score as well as Cage himself. Performance raises a further set of questions. The audience is pranked, or wills itself to admire the emperor’s new clothes, as nothing auditory is on offer. Short of a spirited interpretation in mime – and perhaps this has already been done – no two pianists (not that a pianist is strictly necessary) can offer meaningfully different readings of the piece.
This disregard for virtuosity – or even for the possibility of virtuosity – has both personal and historical implications. Developing a skill or exploring the properties of a medium can build character, or at least trim the overgrowth of our worst excesses. Doctor and host of the radio program Loveline, Drew Pinsky has applied an inventory of narcissism to his celebrity guests, and he has found the highest levels of narcissism among those who have applied the least discipline to the development of their talents, i.e., reality show participants. Lower levels obtain among those, such as musicians, who have had to defer gratification and subordinate their egos in order to master an instrument on its own terms. Cause and effect prove harder to determine when one moves from individuals to entire societies, but archaeological evidence across cultures and eras consistently associates a decline in the quality of crafts, such as ceramics, with a decline in the vitality of a place or culture.
The historical questions raised by contemporary indifference to craft and its flowering in virtuosity will not be answered any time soon, but for now that indifference can lead viewers, canaries in the aesthetic coal mine, to feel that they have been had. Sometimes money is the issue (a squandered “donation” for museum admission), but more than value-for-price is at stake. Viewers who have not been trained or indoctrinated in a certain tradition of self-conscious art appreciation are at least as likely to feel hoodwinked out of their time and attention as their money, and left to wonder if taste-making mandarins are somehow having a joke at their expense, or performing an experiment on the viewers, rather than in the medium purportedly employed. In short, it is easy for many viewers to simply feel manipulated toward no clear end.
An experience many seek but often will not find in high-concept works of art is awe, whether at the total sensory impact of a work or at the artist’s deployment of his skill to expand the consciousness of others who do not share that skill or vision. Individuals with a mature understanding of their own limitations are able to appreciate the virtuosity of Michael Jordan, Yo-Yo Ma or Dante in the same way as a rainbow, the Grand Canyon or any other wonder they could not have created themselves. To ignore this possibility is to insult the audience’s intelligence or profoundly misunderstand its needs. An artist expecting praise primarily for his ideas virtually consigns himself to failure. Giotto and Michelangelo had ideas as well, but their technique made them accessible to others.
Superlatives have no doubt been achieved in some mediums, techniques and movements, but this does not mean that it has all been done before (a recurrent postmodern complaint) or that the possibilities of virtuosity itself have been exhausted. A healthier response than settling merely for the crude realization of a concept – or the pursuit of a studied ugliness – is apprenticing oneself to a new medium. Photography and lithography were once new things under the sun, and Goya explored the latter in his final years. The possibilities include failure and a very long learning curve, but they hold out greater prospects for aesthetic exploration and existential bravery than small, self-satisfied “successes” that register as an exercise in high-concept painting by numbers. Such works can serve as student exercises, ensure survival in an MFA program where one or another dogma prevails or tide one over during lean times with an occasional sale. Nonetheless, they hold the danger of conflating means and ends.
An artist who is frustrated in achieving a desired level of accomplishment and is not interested merely in repeating himself may have to consider alternatives such as waiting for inspiration and making less art, or none at all. There are plenty of worse things not to do and, as Rilke noted in Letters to a Young Poet, plenty of other worthwhile things to be. Artists who cut back on their work or give it up altogether may have to redefine their self-concept, as many do at different stages of life. Practicing an art does not, and should not, confer immunity against basic human struggles. If we end up with fewer works of art this way, what will we be missing – collages of advertising, mutilated Barbies, installations of decontextualized household objects and outsize plastic moldings of ears of corn and fire trucks? In a latter-day corollary of Gresham’s Law, this debased currency drives out more accomplished work, or at least makes it harder to find.
This disproportion, if nothing else, helps to explain the low regard in which much modern art, particularly in the visual arts but in other fields as well, is held by the general public. With fewer high-concept, low-execution pieces of art crowding gallery floors and walls, there might be a fair chance for a non-artist to look over a painting or sculpture and see an idea realized as well as posited, word made flesh through vision and skill.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted with gracious permission from the Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center, who originally published it in American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2006, Volume 23, Number 2.
Sitting in his studio at the French Academy in Rome, the painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres picks up his violin and begins to play. His interest in the violin is both musical and visual. The instrument he plays is a composition of molding profiles drawn from classical architecture – torus, scotia, bead and cyma recta – culminating in a spiral resembling the volute of an Ionic capital. The proportion of neck to body of the violin is that known as the Golden Section, a ratio thought to underlie many natural forms as well as the proportions of Greek temples. The anthropomorphism of the instrument is surely not lost on the painter, as his eyes move between its sinuous curves and those of the odalisque taking shape on the canvas next to him. He draws the bow across the strings and produces consonant intervals that correspond to the simple whole-number ratios first demonstrated by Pythagoras in the fifth century B.C. The violin traces out an arc of melody that seems a sonic analogue to the linearity of the artist’s drawing. The music is all beauty of line, and so is the painting. At this moment, the musical and the visual experiences fuse into one.
So familiar is the story of the great painter and his nearly equal dedication to music that the French phrase le violon d’Ingres has come to refer to an avocation at which one excels. At least in the case of the visual and musical arts, it seems that the “vocation” and “avocation” are not simply two independent pursuits – there seems to be a profound connection between them, and that is how they are often experienced by those who are blessed with such multiple gifts. But, while few would deny a strong relationship between musical and visual forms, the character of that relationship is hard to describe.
For example, many musicians and composers have observed that the key signatures are associated with different colors. Alexander Scriabin contrived a “color organ” – an early precursor of a 1960s psychedelic light show – to accompany performances of his music by projecting the colors corresponding to the score’s harmonies. A few decades later, Olivier Messiaen based his music in part on “chordal colors,” such as “golden yellow, blue of Chartres, violet purple, green and red, orange tint, violet amethyst, mauve and pearl gray.”1 Even less exalted musicians find that they recognize the key in which a piece of music is being played by its “color” as much as by the absolute pitches they hear. The problem is that composers and musicians cannot agree on which colors go with which chords – it seems to be different for each individual – and yet they all attest to this coincidence of harmony and color.
In more extreme cases, some people experience an intense cross-over between their senses known as synesthesia, in which sounds are “seen” and objects – including shapes, buildings or pictures – are “heard.” This is now recognized clinically as an involuntary neurological phenomenon affecting a small number of people, including, famously, the composer Scriabin (and possibly Messiaen), the painter Wassily Kandinsky and the novelist Vladimir Nabokov. Distinct from this clinical designation is the use of synesthesia as an idea or metaphor to explain the visual correlatives to heard music reported by musicians, and musical correlatives to visual and spatial form reported by artists and architects. Some researchers suggest that we are all synesthetes, but only some of us are consciously aware of “the holistic nature of perception.”2 Using this synesthetic metaphor as a starting point, I want to explore some ways a musical interest might affect the work of a visual artist, especially an architect, since that is my own discipline. As we shall see, painting and architecture have parallel – albeit somewhat different – relationships with music.
Ingres was not, of course, the first or last painter with a serious involvement in music. Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists, tells us that Leonardo da Vinci performed for the Duke of Milan on a lyre “that he had made himself, mostly of silver, in the shape of a horse’s head, so that the sound would be more sonorous and resonant.”3 There are tantalizing passages in Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting, in which he calls music “the sister of painting,” and continues: “You will say that music is composed of proportion, and in answer to that I say that in that respect it imitates and follows the example of painting.” Unfortunately, we know little about Leonardo’s musical life, his Treatise on Music is lost, and only a few scraps of musical score in his hand have survived, although contemporary accounts tell of his great skill as both composer and performer. Not surprisingly, given his technological and scientific approach to whatever interested him, his musical activity extended to suggesting technical improvements to numerous musical instruments and even inventing new ones.4
A scientific bent also characterized Thomas Jefferson, who, like his younger contemporary Ingres, was an “above-average amateur violinist,” but who, like Leonardo, also had a technical interest in the design and construction of musical instruments. His music library included scores by Corelli, Vivaldi, Handel, Boccherini, Haydn and Mozart.5 Jefferson did not record his thoughts about the relationship between music and architecture, but his superb design for the University of Virginia always brings to my mind the counterpoint, cadences or tempi of those graceful colonnades and arcades, and the ascent up the Lawn to the Rotunda seems a perfect crescendo. Although it is unlikely that Jefferson knew of it, his endlessly subtle and beautiful Lawn has always seemed to me a built correlative of its near-contemporary, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
Frank Lloyd Wright was an able pianist who admitted that his architectural language was shaped by his musical understanding. Wright was particularly devoted to Beethoven, whom he called a great architect, referring to the Eroica as a “great edifice of sound.”6 There is indeed something of Beethoven’s familiar building-up of complex textures from simple motives that pervades Wright’s work almost throughout his career, from the early Prairie Houses and Unity Temple to the late Marin County government center. Another important modernist, Louis Kahn, often spoke poetically, if cryptically, about music and its relation to architecture. Former students recall his not infrequent habit of humming a theme from Mozart to make a point in an architectural design jury. In his most celebrated works, such as the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, the library at Exeter Academy or the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, Kahn shares with Wright an interest in the expressive power of abstract form – space, mass, line and detail – in a way that seems profoundly musical.
Among architects who have sought to revive the Classical tradition in their work, Léon Krier, a leading crusader against the modernism of both Wright and Kahn, nonetheless shares their musical interests. Another accomplished pianist, Krier has a particular devotion to Chopin, which might seem surprising in relation to his design work. At first glance, his robust and enigmatic designs – including his own house at Seaside, the Town Hall at Windsor or the newly completed building for the School of Architecture at the University of Miami – have little of the exquisiteness we associate with the Polish master of the piano. And yet Chopin also evokes a Michelangelesque terribilità in some of the Preludes and Ballades, and close study of Krier’s designs reveal a sense of fantasía and melancholy often overlooked by critics.
Admittedly, these examples are anecdotal and superficial, bordering perhaps on cliché. But, like many clichés, they point to an underlying truth, namely that we often find it natural to speak of the architecture of music or the musicality of architecture. What is the source of this connection? Goethe’s famous definition of architecture as “frozen music” is suggestive, but not very specific. My sense is that there are three fundamental points of intersection between music and the visual arts: the first is the analogy between tonality and perspective, the second is their common interest in proportion, and the third is their non-representational, nonverbal expressiveness.
Renaissance theories of pictorial perspective construct an apparent three-dimensional space in a two-dimensional medium by defining the location and orientation of each object in the visual field with respect to an independent geometrical system. In Western music since the mid-seventeenth century, tonality similarly establishes a metaphorical space within which each tone has a location, orientation and sense of movement. Leonardo da Vinci, who developed techniques for perspective drawing still cited today, noted in his treatise that music’s harmonies “are composed of the simultaneous conjunction of its proportional parts, which are destined to be born and then die in one or several harmonic spaces.”7 Music may be fleeting in time, he is saying, but lingers in a remembered space of the hearer’s own making.
This space is not simply an abstract diagram in our minds, but is experienced as an analogue to our daily physical space, whose three dimensions are mirrored in the musical dimensions of harmony, melody and rhythm. A sound becomes a tone when it assumes a character within a harmonic, melodic or rhythmic context and a hierarchical position with respect to other tones. Philosopher Roger Scruton points out that “a tone has implications in these three dimensions, which correspond to three kinds of expectation that are aroused or thwarted in musical experience. A tone arouses ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ expectations – the first being harmonic, the second melodic and rhythmic.” Through what Scruton calls “metaphorical transference,” these musical dimensions conjure a “space” through which we can imaginatively walk, finding in it such spatial attributes as intimacy or grandeur, a soaring upward or cascading down, a sense of compression or release. Scruton describes our musical understanding as revealing “a first-person perspective on a world that we know is not ours. Neither is it anyone else’s. It is a creation of the imagination, and retains the impersonality of the imaginative act.” We hear music when “sounds are transfigured into movements, harmonies, rhythms—metaphorical gestures in a metaphorical space.”8
In an architectural analogue to musical space, commuters entering Grand Central Terminal in New York from 42nd Street pass through a low vestibule into the generously proportioned Vanderbilt Hall, continue through a Piranesian passage where ramps lead to the lower levels, and finally emerge into the great concourse, a crescendo worthy of Beethoven. It is not only the spaces themselves that impress us, but the way the elements enclosing them are organized compositionally. We see walls, floors and ceilings punctuated by openings and organized proportionally by the classical orders – the exact opposite of randomness. In the same way, a musical space has a hierarchical structure – “the essence of which is groups combined within groups” – parts forming wholes which are themselves parts of larger wholes, extending from the microcosm to the macrocosm.9 Just as pictorial-spatial perspective orders the structural hierarchy of an architectural work, so the sonic perspective afforded by tonality orders the individual tones into coherent music.
Music and architecture, then, are constructed with respect to both perceptual and metaphorical space and time, but as mirror images of one another. In music, tonality uses a temporal sequence of tones to construct a metaphorical space in which time seems suspended; architectural perspective uses a spatial sequence of fixed rooms to suggest a journey unfolding in time. In each case, it is the interweaving of space and time that is essential, one being given to the senses and the other being provided by the imagination. Perhaps it is this synchronization of sense and imagination that makes the experience of both perspective and tonality so satisfying.
Music and architecture are linked by a second kind of geometry, that which orders figural shape and proportion rather than space. Since ancient times, we have understood that a common set of numerical ratios may be used to describe a series of pleasingly shaped rectangles, based on the relations of adjacent sides, and consonant musical intervals, based on the lengths of the strings that emit those tones when plucked. In other words, sounds have shapes and shapes have sounds, a kind of naturally occurring synesthesia. A common terminology was developed to describe these ratios; for example, the ratio 2:3, or sequialtera (Latin for “more by half” – or two plus half of two), denotes both a rectangle with sides in this proportion as well as the musical interval of a fifth.10 Recognition of common geometric and musical proportions retained a central role in the Western artistic imagination from Vitruvius to well into the nineteenth century.
John Hersey’s recent book Architecture and Geometry in the Age of the Baroque shows how the coincidence of musical and geometrical consonance may be reflected quite literally in the designs of such artists as Vignola and Bernini. As an example, Hersey develops “intervals, chords, and melodies out of the geometric envelope of Bernini’s baldacchino” by translating its constituent rectangles into musical intervals. I must say that I am not overly impressed by the musical value of the tune Hersey derives from Bernini’s composition, but the demonstration is nonetheless illuminating.11 Looking at the matter from the other direction, years ago I attended a performance by the harpsichordist Davitt Moroney at which he analyzed the counterpoint in one of J. S. Bach’s fugues by relating its composition of subjects and countersubjects to the arcaded wall treatment of the classical room in which he was playing, using the moldings and elements of the room to clarify the fugue’s musical structure. While the room, of course, did not explicitly manifest specific patterns derived from the piece, the analogy between the musical and spatial architectures was effectively illustrated.
While both musical and architectural proportions are rooted in geometry, I believe there is not necessarily a one-to-one correspondence between them. Attempts by composers to write music according to a predetermined architectural pattern of beats or intervals have, in my hearing at any rate, not been particularly effective; and architectural designs rigidly composed according to prescribed musical ratios, to my eye, lack the liveliness we ascribe to an architectural design when we say that it sings. One reason for this non-correspondence is perceptual: an architectural composition, more often than a musical one, must compromise with contingent reality; hence we have the optical corrections of the Greek temples that adjust the ideal configuration of columns and entablatures to compensate for the distorting effects of human vision.
In truth, music and architecture each have their own proper proportional procedures that keep recurring, whether consciously applied or not, and the actual patterns so recurring are not necessarily mutually transferable between the two art forms. I believe the analogy between them goes deeper than ratios regulating intervals or dimensions. Musical and architectural structures both arise from their relation to a common measure.12 In classical music this is usually a reference tone – the tonic or tonal center; in classical architecture, a module or ratio – such as a recurring rectangle, column diameter or the Golden Section. The consistency with which this common measure is applied in each respective art is the key to its expressive structure, allowing for the establishment of a norm built into the individual work, violations of which then become significant.13
Our recognition of proportional consonance in both music and architecture leads to another, even deeper truth: we are drawn to things that are made in the same way we ourselves are made. A harmonious chord and a well-proportioned structure mirror back to us the constructive harmonies of our own bodies, and by extension, of the cosmos itself. Such was the point of the classical doctrine of the “music of the spheres,” which was taken quite literally from ancient times until the birth of modern astronomy in the seventeenth century. Modern cosmology debunked this ancient picture of the cosmos as mysticism, a view paralleled in Schoenberg’s dismissal of tonality as an arbitrary convention and the modernist architects’ dismissal of the classical orders as relics of an exhausted past.14
In recent decades, however, there has been growing scientific interest in the formative power of naturally occurring patterns as a far more complex cosmology slowly emerges. Scientists are interested in pattern and proportion once again. Neuroscience is beginning to reveal ways in which pattern-recognition is built into the complex and subtle mechanisms of the brain. From this viewpoint, classical music and architecture are analogous, not just because they reflect one another, but because they reflect us and the way our minds work. It should come as no surprise, then, that both music and architecture today are engaged in retrieving their respective traditional languages: melody, tonality, proportion, ornament, the classical orders – the whole lot.
These reflections lead to a final relationship uniting music and architecture: their non-representational mode of expression, that is, their abstraction. This is a property that is not necessarily shared by painting to the extent that it is representational, which music and architecture cannot be. The painter’s depiction of his subject – that is, content outside of the painting itself – potentially communicates thoughts about the subject that might be put into words. Whatever music Ingres played on his violin, it did not express definite thoughts about a non-musical subject that could be restated in words. Architecture, too, may be intensely expressive, communicating strong feelings purely by manipulation of “space, mass, line, and coherence” (to borrow Geoffrey Scott’s terms),15 but it cannot say anything definite about a non-architectural subject.16 This is why architecture needs decorative painting and sculpture to introduce narrative content, and why music relies on sung or spoken words for the same purpose. So while Ingres’s appreciation of the affinities between music and painting may have led him to reflect on their differences in this regard, an architect like Wright or Kahn might reflect on the similarities between music and architecture for the same reason. I think this is why an architect who is also a musician might think about architecture differently than one who is also a painter.
Their common wordless expressiveness is perhaps what most links music and architecture in my own experience. Why can I be reduced to tears on hearing Bach’s “O Mensch, bewein die Sünde Gross” or upon stepping into Michelangelo’s vestibule to the library of San Lorenzo? Paradoxically, the first is music in a major key (which we tend to associate with “happy” content in contrast to the “sad” minor keys), and the second is simply an arrangement of columns and niches around an oddly configured stairway, seemingly without explicit emotional associations. And yet, the response in both cases was immediate and profound. The emotional effects of music and architecture are simply ineffable, but it is also now clear that the modernist abandonment of traditional tonality and perspective rendered both arts capable of communicating only anxiety and disorientation. Only in a system in which consonance and dissonance can be distinguished, and in which consonance is the norm, can we find and express a fuller range of human emotion.
Like many people, from an early age I found that music provided a doorway into my own feelings, without which those feelings may have been much less accessible. As childhood passed into adolescence, architecture joined music in this role, and both of them now occupy central places in my life, in which feeling and reasoning seem to work together productively. Perhaps had I been blessed with talent in painting and poetry instead, I would say the same thing; but something about the wordlessness of music and architecture bring them into an intimacy and immediacy of enjoyment that I cannot help thinking is unique to them.
I don’t know if Ingres ever had any thoughts like these, but he might have mused to himself along similar lines as he drew the portrait of his friend and fellow Academician, the composer Charles Gounod, or later, when Gounod sat at the piano and accompanied the painter-violinist in some new music the composer had brought with him. To me, the lovely phrase le violon d’Ingres connotes much more than a glorified hobby. It expresses recognition that all the arts and all our human faculties – despite their individual characters, distinctive requirements and separate domains – are fundamentally one.
1 Olivier Messiaen, The Technique of My Musical Language (Paris: A. Leduc, 1956). The quotation about “chordal colors” is taken from the composer’s liner notes for the recording of his “Méditations sur la Mystère de la Sainte Trinité,” released by the Musical Heritage Society, MHS 1797/98.
2 Richard Cytowic, “Synesthesia: Phenomenology and Neuropsychology: A Review of Current Knowledge,” PSYCHE, 2 (10), (July 1995).
3 Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists (Penguin Classics, 1965). p. 261.
4 Carlos Velilla , “Leonardo da Vinci and Music,” Jacqueline Minett, trans., Goldberg (online music magazine: www.goldbergweb.com).
5 Helen Cripe, Thomas Jefferson and Music (Charlotteville: University Press of Virginia, 1974).
6 “Frank Lloyd Wright on Record” (audio recording of interview in New York, June 5, 1956), Caedmon Records, TC1064.
7 Quoted in Velilla, op. cit.
8 Roger Scruton, “Understanding Music,” The Aesthetic Understanding (New York. Methuen, 1983), pp. 77–100.
9 Molly Guston, Tonality (New York: Philosophical Library, 1969), p. 85.
10 John Hersey, Architecture and Geometry in the Age of the Baroque (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), pp. 9–10.
11 Hersey, op. cit., pp. 46–51.
12 Guston, op. cit., p. 83.
13 Guston, op. cit., pp. 88–89.
14 Robert R.Reilly, “The Music of the Spheres, or the Metaphysics of Music,” The Intercollegiate Review (Fall 2001), p. 12.
15 Geoffrey Scott, The Architecture of Humanism: A Study in the History of Taste (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1999).
16 Roger Scruton, “Representation in Music,” The Aesthetic Understanding (New York: Methuen, 1983), pp. 62–76.