Hi, my name is Leon Botstein. I'm president of Bard College and I'm a musician and a historian of music. My subject today is the arts and art and what is it and why should we study it. Why is it part of university curriculum? Why is it something that an undergraduate student should worry about and spend time taking courses in?
So the first thing is to sort of think about what the word means. Art is a word we use all the time. It is in ordinary usage, applied to lots of different things and people get worried about something, you know is it artistic, is it art, what distinguishes art from anything else that you might encounter in the world and probably the simplest way to say it is that art is something that transforms the everyday. It transfigures the ordinary.
So a good example and a very sort of clear example is in the period of pop art, the artist Andy Warhol took a Campbell’s Soup can and made a work of art out of something we looked at ordinarily on the shelf of a supermarket. Take a photograph. Now you can take a photograph with your cell phone. You can look through it and snap someone’s picture. The question is, is that art as opposed to a great photographic portrait? Take for example the great American photographer Edward Steichen. He did a portrait of Charlie Chaplin. You look at that portrait and you ask yourself is that art or is it just a photograph of Charlie Chaplin. Well there is something different about it. There is something unexpected. There is something that isn’t quite in your ordinary experience yet it is related to your ordinary experience.
Another example comes also from the pop art era and that has to do with comic books, so the great artist Roy Lichtenstein made big canvases where you had the same kind of visual impact that a comic book had, people with bubbles coming out of their mouths with things being said and things very much apropos of what comic books talked about, love, loss, a kind of soap opera story.
So art is connected to what we experience every day, but it represents some kind of transformation of the everyday, something that is not actually entirely real. It can’t be found by locating it. It requires human intervention. It is the fingerprint, if you will, of our existence in the world that has its impact on things we transform through the use of our imagination.
So a good example would be to say music, which is perhaps one of the most easy aspects of art to talk about. Now music doesn’t exist really in nature. Birds sing and there is bird song and there is sounds in nature, but the system of Indian or Chinese or Western music, how we divide tones, how we organize them in the west by half steps and whole steps, sometimes with microtones and we organize rhythm and we create a grammar of sound and expectation, so a song like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” is something that seems natural to us. We can identify when it starts and when it ends and we have a pretty good idea of how it is organized.
Now that is totally artificial. There is no “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” song out in nature and there certainly isn’t anything as complicated as, in the Western tradition, a Beethoven symphony or even an opera, which is very artificial in which people are singing and talking and moving at the same time saying different things all within a coherent fabric. This is completely fictive. It doesn’t have a real place in the world, even when we try to be realistic. Go to a museum and you’ll look at a painting, a genre painting or a historical painting, which depicts a scene that you think is really quite realistic. Someone is fighting a battle. A person is looking out a window or you’re looking at a landscape which you actually perhaps have seen yourself, but that frame is very artificial and we allow ourselves to be caught up in the illusion of its realism. It isn’t really out there. It isn’t real. It’s somebody’s imagination of what is real.
The perfect example is TV, video and film where we get caught up in a storyline that may take years and centuries. It seems real to us. The whole thing is only an hour and a half long, but it has the illusion of realism and that is the artificial manipulation of our sensibilities through the work of an artist.
All the transformations I have described, the creation of music or the creation of an artificial visual image are things that people do regularly and things that don’t always qualify as art, so we can choose people who designs boxes or packaging for products or people who even do fashion design, although that is a contentious area and people who write jingles or commercial music or soundtracks for TV shows. Now is that art? Now there is always a lot of debate particularly among snobs about what is art, people who think they know what art is and they confuse art with taste. It’s hard to talk about. We are not sure what constitutes art is simply a matter of what I think is art or someone else thinks is art, but it’s quite clear that there is a continuum.
There are a lot of things that were not originally thought of being art that actually strike us as artistic and we would defend it. There are many movie scores that really are as good as something that someone wrote because he or she thought it was going to be art in some kind of elevated sense. There are things in ordinary life that are beautifully done that have an aesthetic capacity to persuade us that it is art. That is perfectly true of architecture, which is always, in a way, useful. People live in buildings. We work in buildings. We take trains from buildings. We fly planes from buildings. We go into things that are designed, industrial design and those things really are art. There was a period of time where people made a very strict distinction between that which was useful and that which was not useful and distinguished art as something that had no particular utility that was for its own sake if you will.
I'm not sure that is useful for us to consider, but it is always the case that there is some aspiration, some insight, something that happens in the transformation of the everyday through an artistic impulse that is entirely human and therefore subjective. There is something that goes beyond the thoughtless. It goes beyond something that we would pass by. It makes us stop and think about something quite important in an entirely different way. It’s for that reason that already from the Greeks the notion that art making was human was crucial. It was something like love that only mortals could experience. Gods didn’t make art, but we made art about the gods because our capacity was limited by our mortality, but yet our imagination, which was distinctly human, which was our own impression of the world with very limited knowledge and limited capacity. The way we escaped that limitation was through an imaginary world which we could create the same way we escape our limitation of being mortal by imagining ourselves to be in love and create a category we call love. Well here we **** a category of things we call artistic or very often a word that is used with art, the beautiful, so we think conventionally that art is about the beautiful and when we talk about beauty people get very concerned about it because one person’s beauty is another person’s ugliness. There are people who think well you think it is art, but it means nothing to me and then there is the notion that really great art is often misunderstood because it reaches beyond the conventional judgment of most of the people, so art often gets pegged as being something quite elitist. Most people don’t think it is art.
So for example in abstract art when people began to make paintings that were really seemed to be only one color or very simple shapes or Jackson Pollock did things with swirls of color that people thought well I can do that, that is like finger painting, my child can do that. Well there is something about a child’s finger painting that may actually not qualify in our view as art, not because of the prejudice, but because actually there is something different between a finger painting of a child and what Jackson Pollock does, but the fact is that from the very first moment his paintings were recognized by some group it is not true that all great art exceeds the capacity of the larger public, although as you get more rarified and study art you begin to see more in what is out there than you would see if you didn’t think more carefully about it.
So let’s take the finger painting. One of the important things about what makes a work of art is the power of the human imagination to predict something, although there have been strong traditions of art that are random, people who believe in randomness or in happenstance or in chance. Most of what we think is art is the result of people thinking about doing something and being carried away by either some plan or some intuition or some imagination, so the child’s finger painting is probably distinguishable from Jackson Pollock by its structure, its composition, its intent, its design. Now that doesn’t mean that some people won’t be fooled and that’s why I have always been in favor of museums that would have no labels and no identification. It’s very easy to look at a painting and say well that’s by Rembrandt or that is by Monet or that is by Clint and therefore it is good.
Now imagine if we had a museum without labels or we had concerts without names or programs. People would only have to respond to what they liked or they disliked, but that’s already far down the road of discriminating things we like from the things we don’t like. It’s far away from the generic definition of what is art, art, which is in music, in painting and photography and architecture, in video and film mediums.
Art is really the attempt to create through time and in space a work that has—or a statement or an event that has some coherence that derives from, is connected to everyday experience, but is really quite apart from it and works back in our experience of it to that everyday experience.
It creates a vocabulary of sensibility, a vocabulary of interpretation, a vocabulary of meaning that in one sense is beyond that of language. Very important about art is that it is not restricted to language. There is art in language. We see that in poetry, which is a different use of language, the use of language in many art forms visual, architectural and in music, but much of art and much of the art that we care about responds to something other than the linguistic. We talk about it in language, but our experience of it is somehow around language. It bypasses language. So we’re concerned with art that transforms our sense of space, our sense of proportion, our relationship to the world, which is artificially constructed by the spaces in which we live and those are spaces designed by architects or really artists.
We also think of ourselves in terms of even the way we dress and the way we sit and the way we walk or move in the world. In a conceptual space it is influenced by the way we see and the way we see is influenced by things that we use as models in the shaping of our own imagination and then our hearing, our sense of sound, our sense of meaning. Many philosophers have argued that the visual and particularly musical reaches an individual in a different way, not through the medium of language and therefore is not entirely rational. It’s not something that we can say is right or wrong. When we say we’re moved by a work of art or that we’re inspired by a work of art we often find it hard to put that in words.
The power of music for example is best expressed in the way music interacts with words, so take a great moment in the operatic literature, in Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro”. At the very end it is an opera about infidelity and at the very end the Countess forgives her husband the Count for contemplating, if not realizing infidelity. She realizes the loss of love, so as she forgives the Count the music, which has no words to it, tells an inner story to the audience of a sense of loss, a sense of distance from what she is actually saying that would be impossible to communicate without music.
The sense of nostalgia, of memory is so profoundly evoked with music. Now that is an experience we can describe in language as existing, but it’s very hard to induce only with a linguistic. The same is with the visual. If you go for example on the Hudson Valley and you wait on a summer day to see the sunset in the west. To look at it and to be inspired by its natural beauty we really have to think back that our view of that beauty has been deeply influenced by the way artists have depicted it. In our common culture we have, whether we like it or not, been used to, not in photographs, but painters, Frederick Church for example, the Hudson River School that looked at nature and made nature beautiful to those of us who are city dwellers for whom nature was no longer really accessible. We didn’t live in nature, so we imagined a nature, a beautiful, glorified, kind, benign nature, not a nature of terrible thunderstorms and hurricanes, but a nature that seemed to provide us an importance in the world, a sense of sanctity, a sense of openness, a sense of hope, a sense of beauty uncorrupted by human intervention. This illusion of nature is an artistic invention. It’s a product of our subjectivity. It is a way, a love of nature similar to the love of the divine, both of which are enormous subjects of art making. A great deal of art has been produced to celebrate the divine in some god sense and also the divine in some sense of nature.
Now art is a human activity and in so far as it is a human activity, which is quite universal. There are very few cultures that don’t have something called art and there is also the effort to try to get the populous to appreciate it because art often is not designed to be the most accessible or uniform kind of form of communication, so it’s not a single message because art doesn’t exist without the user. It’s hard to know whether something exists philosophically. One can become very concerned about well is that tree out there really there if no one is looking at it. It’s safe to say then in the matter of art the book doesn’t exist, the painting doesn’t exist, the movie doesn’t exist, the piece of music doesn’t exist unless there is a listener, there is a reader, there is a viewer. Art is, in its core, a social activity. It’s an activity in which individuals seek to communicate, which is why art can be viewed as dangerous by political regimes that don’t like the expression of human intention or the making of art because it is designed to reach somebody, so it is not a surprise that the one person recently imprisoned by the Chinese now released, Ai Weiwei, was an artist. He wasn’t actually a political activist. Why was this artist dangerous? Why were the censors against art making, theater and music in periods of tyranny in the early 19th century before 1848, in periods of extreme tyranny under Stalin and Hitler? Why do these tyrannous regimes attempt to control and manipulate the artistic community, painters, sculptures, architects, composers, writers?
The reason is because they somehow understood that art is something that seeks a public and its impact on the public could be subversive because it’s very hard to pinpoint. Its influence is enormous. In reading for example, a novel one of the great ironic examples of that is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary where the main character Madame Bovary imagines her life through bad novels, but many of us have found ways to understand life or ourselves through our reaction to fiction, not through real factual narratives, but through fiction and have imagined our relationship with the world and with others and with our society through the listening of music.
Much of art is public. Art hangs in museums. There are installations. There is public art and the most important public art of all is architecture. What do buildings tell us about ourselves? If you look at a fabulous building, for example, the Helsinki Railway Station by Eliel Saarinen, fabulous building, massive, showing the public the entire nation, the modern Finland embodied by the train, so it is a massive train station similar to many that is in Europe, but it has a slight difference. It speaks to its public by making it much lower and flatter so the relationship of the individual to the massivity of the railway station is not imposing. It is not one of tyranny. It is not one of superior power. It doesn’t celebrate industrial power. It doesn’t celebrate wealth and in fact it is much more intimate despite its scale. Furthermore, through it there are decorative elements which remind the user of an imaginary traditional Finland, of a Finland of the Kalevala, of a mythic past, of a tradition of a nation that was distinct from the rest of Europe. So local pride, folklore, national identity all get communicated through art making, things that are completely artificial. You don’t need to have that kind of railway station just to put trains in place. It could be a much more neutral, if you will, solution to how to build a railway station.
The capital of the United States is an architectural statement that reveals ideals about what the builders thought the American Republic was going to be about and so art is a public endeavor often that takes place in public spaces. It is also a private endeavor. It informs how we organize our private space and how we use it. In days when people were amateur musicians and sang and played together that was a form of a conversation. People sat down to play a string quartet and that was a conversation with four people that used no language, just music. People sang together in their parlors. People went to choruses in church or in secular circumstances to sing together. So art is not only the enterprise of the individual art maker or the individual person who seeks to transform his or her experience of the everyday by something that is not real, but transformed by a human being called art, but they also have to recognize that art is about the way we live our lives in a public circumstance.
When one recognizes that art is not merely an act of an individual who exceeds his or her boundaries of experience in ways we cannot predict parenthetically it’s important to realize that art is never something that has to exist. In science we have the notion that what we discover is something that somehow is out there. Now that is totally and entirely true. The way we describe it, our conception of nature and of the world and of the laws of nature affects how we understand it and use it, but there is a correspondence theory. There is some evidence. We have to show that the way we describe it, the theories that we have to describe it actually are true and there is some evidence. So there was a great deal of speculation and relief when relativity was proven by astronomical observation, by sort of **** experimental evidence.
Now in art what is created has no reason to exist. It wasn’t out there before a human being made it, which is why art is so significant to the individual because it is a reminder both for the maker of the art and the person who engages with the art of his or her uniqueness in the world. We would like to think, which is true, that each of us has a fingerprint that is unique and a DNA sequence that is unique, which is why we can be identified if we commit a crime, but they the same token the making of art is a reflection of that uniqueness which has no predictive content. When you hear a piece of music, a new piece of music written by a composer or you see a work of art at an installation, performance art, a movie, any photography that one sees one realizes this is the imagination of a single individual whose existence could not have been foretold. So there is a kind of uniqueness. That uniqueness has the parallel in the viewer. Not artwork is complete unless it has someone who receives it. When there is no one in the museum the real purpose of art dies. Those works come alive through the presence of a viewer.
A piece of music exists only if it is played and heard and therefore requires human intervention. The important thing about that is that art is one way, particularly in our current society to fight the sense of being superfluous. If one had to ask in contemporary life what is the most important aspect of art to the individual is the recognition that in a very large mass society in which most of the things we do are governed by efficiency, we can make things with robots, we actually produce food immensely efficiently and with the promise of biotechnology and information science it’s likely that those efficiencies will only increase. So there are a lot of people in the world. What are we here for? We once thought the primary reason for our existence was labor, work. We were here because we had to. We had to till the soil. We had to protect ourselves from external danger, rain, snow, weather. We had to take care of the necessities of life and by so doing we had to do something useful and that useful thing could be rewarded, rewarded either in money, which was a much later system or in actually goods, which would feed us and our children.But that notion of work and labor is increasingly at risk. While we would like to see all of our society very well employed one could positive a future where we are not needed, where there is an easy pass for every function. You don’t need a toll collector any more. You don’t need an elevator operator. You don’t need a manufacturing person. You don’t need an artisan. So what are we here for?
Well we’re probably here for the things that are not useful. We are here for the things that have no utility, that have no purpose, that are simply about our life and that essential sense of our purpose being what we can do that may have no practical utility, that sense of the sacred character of our capacity to create. If one believes the Abrahamic tale that we were made in God’s image what does that mean? It means that God was a creator. He used language to create. Well we also use language to create, but we also have the capacity for creation, for imagination. If God imagined the world we imagine things and the things that we imagine often fall into the category of art, things that don’t exist, things we put together, things we completely rely on our fantasy, our humor, our sense of joy, our sense of possibility and our sense of the thing that wouldn’t ordinarily occur if we just lived our lives in some predictive way, in some imitative way, which is why art can be dangerous because it doesn’t follow rules.
It rarely follows rules, but the important thing about art both in its making and its absorption, its engagement is we reinvent ourselves. We invent ourselves in our relationship to listening to music, characters in the Enforcers novels for example. He was a great music lover. When they listened to Beethoven or even in George Elliott. In many circumstances people who find their lives transformed by looking at a beautiful building or a work of art or even a movie or young people who will swear by a series of popular songs that seem to be very meaningful to them. That identification with the imaginary which helps us define ourselves in some unique way, the way we put it altogether, the mosaic of our own tastes those things allow us to give ourselves purpose where we could be very depressed by a sense of uselessness and boredom.
The most terrifying thing is the loss of life and the sense of purpose by boredom and that creates envy and hostility to others. We envy the person who seems to be useful and needed. We’re looking for a safe place where we can feel ourselves important and significant, which is why many of us choose to join religious communities or other communities where through some community identification we give ourselves purpose, but art allows us as individuals to have a purpose as we make it, participate in it, consume it if you will, engage with it and it reminds us of not our capacity to create art, but to recognize it and follow someone else’s imagination along with him or with her.
The Social Utility of Art
Now the social utility of art, the fact that it’s public, the fact that it’s pretty universal in the sense that most societies creates some kind of system of it, the social utility has been the subject of enormous controversy. There are people who think precisely because art is imaginary in some way, it isn’t real and it isn’t useful in some way, is a kind of mirage that distorts our sense of value. Famously Plato had his doubts about poetry and about certain kinds of art making and there is a long tradition of suspicion that art first of all is a conceit among a very small group of human beings who try to make themselves superior through a kind of Ponzi scheme of values that they all inhabit and they exclude other people from. It’s a Ponzi scheme because it really has no value at the end of the day.
This notion of art is particularly prevalent in democratic societies, which is why for example in the United States there is really no public subsidy of the arts because people will say: “Look you think it is art. I don’t think it is art and these artists are not really useful. Why should we support them and art is really a matter of taste, so it’s no different from clothes buying. If classical music is so important it should pay for itself and people who like it should buy it. If people like that painting on the wall and they want to pay five million dollars for it I'm just as happy with a ten cent poster I can buy down the street. Who is going to tell me that Normal Rockwell, the famous illustrator is somehow inferior as an artist to some sort of strange thing that is on someone’s wall in South Hampton who believes her or himself to be a real connoisseur and collector and paid four million dollars for something I wouldn’t give ten cents for?”
So in a democratic society the majority wins, which means what we might think is art perfectly reasonably is Hollywood makes money or Broadway on the off chance it makes money and many of the noncommercial arts are considered it’s a conceit of a minority. It is one’s own private religion and that in mass society, in mass democracy there is no agreement about what is art and there is not real much agreement whether art is necessary in a society.
Now that’s totally seemingly persuasive and actually is hypocritical because the government builds buildings so it chooses architects, makes an absolute statement in what kind of architecture it chooses, but beyond that the nation in its military has orchestras and bands. It recognizes that art is part of the fabric of a community. It has always been part of the fabric of what we consider patriotism, the songs we sing, our national anthem. It’s not so easy to say whether there no art and there is also not so easy to say that it’s only those things that make money because in fact all true things are not popular. Evolution is not popular. It may be true, but it isn’t popular and there are many facts which are not pleasant but are true and hard to understand. The earth is not flat. We all operate as if it is. Now it’s very complicated to explain to someone that it is round, but that fact that that is true and it is only understood by a minority doesn’t make it wrong.
Now the real debate in the arts is are there criteria for art that could be persuasive in a democratic society to induce a society to support it? Is there some objective way of saying well a Beethoven symphony, a Wagner opera, a Debussy nocturne those are superior to something else, that certain buildings, certain painters, certain sculptures are understood as critically superior to things that are of the same type, but not as good? Is there a hierarchy of goodness? Is there some truth value to our judgments about art? Is it reasonable to say well that just isn’t art or is not very good art or bad art? If we could make those discriminations then we might create a hierarchy of value where then we could justify society supporting it.
In monarchies and aristocratic societies arts were supported by patrons and the patrons happened to be the State in the case of kings and queens and emperors and in certain eras, particularly communist era the Party and the State had a very clear idea of what was art that was good for the State. Fascists had the same idea. Both Hitler and Stalin were art lovers and they were music lovers. They had very, very specific tastes. In Stalin’s case he hounded Shostakovich twice in his career, in the 30s and the 40s for writing music that wasn’t right, that wasn’t really towards what art should do in the community.
Now those were not necessarily aesthetic criteria. They were political criteria if you can separate the two for a moment. They were about what made people feel part of a working class communist proletarian nation. What kind of music should that sound like? What kind of painting should that be? Let’s call it socialist realism. In fascism it was a clear idea of how to portray to Aryan purity and the Aryan race and Nordic superiority and music like Hamena Buhlana [ph], a very famous piece that was designed to give people a sense of membership and solidarity that manipulated people’s emotions so that it was consistent with the objectives of the State, but that’s not about the truth value. That is about a regime’s belief in how art actually can function to help that regime.
So to return to the question particularly for the United States in a democratic society we don’t support the art because we can’t agree as to what would be art. We can agree what makes a profit, so if you want to do art you can pay for it. Everyone is happy. People can go to it. But why should we subsidize opera companies, museums, artists, performance spaces, independent filmmakers and photographers? Why do that? Why not leave it simply to the marketplace? And one way to solve that problem would be to say well as in science they can be kind of peer review, an objective sense of what is good, what is bad and if we could discriminate, if we could agree then we could say well these people deserve support, these people don’t.
Now this is a thorny question and there are no fixed answers, but the tradition of arguing about it over many centuries has given us some clue of how to think about this question. Clearly the more you think about each separate art form, movies, films, buildings, music, painting, sculpture, performance art you develop sensibilities, criteria. There was a great example for example in the case of the composer Mozart. He had a pupil, Thomas Atwood who became a court composer in England during the reign of Victoria. He was a fine musician, but not a great talent, perfectly fine craftsman and wrote a fair amount of music, none of which has survived, but very competent. Now his music is art music. It’s fine. It’s good. It’s interesting. It is historically interesting because every age has its own artistic currents and it is very interesting to understand the past. Art is a terrific instrument for getting under the skin so to speak of a past era.
Now Thomas Atwood studied with Mozart. Now Mozart was not much of a teacher. He did it only for the money and the strange thing about Thomas Atwood is that it’s the one complete record because he was English and very meticulous he kept his lessons with Mozart. It’s the only record we have of Mozart teaching. We don’t have any real records of Beethoven teaching. We have people telling us sort of what he did, but he was not a systematic teacher. In Mozart he gave Atwood lessons and exercises and there is a great example of a minuet dance in which he gave Atwood a baseline and asked him to fill it out. You have one line. You had to fill it out and give it melody, so he gave him a baseline, a kind of foundation in which to write the minuet, which is a dance in three meter and the fascinating thing is when Mozart was correcting it he made slight changes and if you play Atwood’s exercise that he gave back to Mozart and Mozart’s just to fill the time, just think about it, editing and changing of it you see the difference between the ordinary and the great and blindfold and audience who has listened to a lot of 18th century minuets will identify the Mozart one right away.
What Constitutes Quality in Art?
So there are many such examples where actually works of art and music catch an imagination or seem to appeal to some criteria of craftsmanship, perhaps even beauty, imagination, novelty, surprise. One of the things about art is that it breaks your expectations unlike a train ride where you would be shocked if there were a sudden stop or if suddenly it turned upside down and kept moving or as in all those Harry Potter films you could levitate and go into an imaginary place with some wand. Well art is like that to the human experience. It sets up expectations and then changes them. You think you’re going down one road. You go to another. You think something is going to happen regularly and then it just stops happening regularly. You think well it is going to look like this and doesn’t. It makes you look at the world around you in a different way.
Well the unexpected comes in varying degrees of sophistication and so in every art form there are criteria that have been developed that are both historical and go beyond historical periods. Where we can discriminate from the more persuasive, the less persuasive to some degree of agreement and then it deviates because the judgment of history isn’t always right. We rediscover artists that we never thought much of and bring them back. A good example would be for example, the Austrian painter Gustov Clint who in the 50s was not an important figure, but by the year 2000 was a very important figure even though he had died in 1918. The same, there was a great Hungarian painter Munkácsy, greatest painter, hugely patronized by Americans and by Europeans, a forgotten figure now, but in his lifetime highly touted. The most expensive canvases to be sold before 1900 were by the Swiss German painter Arnold Bocklin. After that his importance almost vanished. He now is experiencing a revival. So tastes change and judgments change and you cannot always rely on the so-called verdict of history because there are many political and other factors that go into a person’s success or failure, but there are areas of discussion where one can look at a novel, a poem, a painting, a building, a movie and say this is a great movie and that is why and many of those things are separate from the content of the movie itself or the painting or nominally the piece of music.
These are things we call formal and those are criteria of construction, the use of the materials, the use of space and time. They are criteria of the way conventions of storytelling or construction are used by the individual artist, so there are ways we can discriminate. At the very end much of it is subjective, but there are many, many areas where great human achievements do require some more sophistication in the way we read, the way we look and the way we listen. It can’t all be naïve. At first blush a Mahler symphony doesn’t seem comprehensible. **** actually sustain one’s attention over 75 minutes of just sound, but then as one sort of listens to it and goes back and listens to a Beethoven symphony and a Heiden symphony and a Mozart symphony and a Mendelssohn symphony, even a Sibelius symphony, a contemporary you then get an idea of what the possibilities are.
The first movie you see well you’ve never seen another movie. You see a lot of movies, you begin to discriminate, not only by the narrative or the subject matter, but by something about the form of the movie, the way movies are made or can be made or might be made, the same with photographs. Eventually you can look at your own photograph that you took of your friend or your parents or a sibling with your camera in your cell phone and realize it isn’t quite the same as a portrait by Irving Penn or by Diane Arbus. There is something about what they did with the same basic medium that shows you that there is something you might learn, you might think about, you might be able to do it yourself.
The question that we face increasingly is to what extent in a democratic society or any society, particularly in what we might call open or free societies should we encourage the development of the aesthetic sensibilities of our citizens? To what extent should art be encouraged as part of what we foster in the conduct of both private and public life? Is art a constructive constituent activity, art making, art viewing, art buying is the artistic conversation if you will, an important part of what we would like to see in our society? Is it consistent with values such as freedom and justice?
Now these are once again topics that have a long history of philosophical and political debate. It’s important to say that in un-free societies, in societies where there has been an enormous amount of censorship and repression art has usually been an avenue of dissent that is the place of last resort. One’s speech, pamphleteering, public, political activity was banned and restricted. The last refuge of freedom ended up being the arts, poetry, painting, particularly the arts that were not representational. There are a group of arts that are close or closer to nature. They might be painting, photography, film, which trade on the illusion of realism and fiction, prose fiction and then there are those that are less tied to nature seemingly that is poetry, which doesn’t really use language in the ordinary sense and then there is music clearly, which seems entirely abstract, the most abstract perhaps of the arts and those become the most resistant to effective censorship and therefore, art can be identified with courage and with breaking the habit to conform, especially if conformity is associated with tyranny. We simply go about our business while some people are harmed, killed, oppressed, exterminated and we are beaten into submission and the resistance that submission can often be the arts. By the same token, arts can serve the State and they can be used to justify tyranny. Sergei Prokofiev, the Russian composer who returned to live under Stalin wrote a cantata for Stalin’s birthday called “Zdravitsa” for his health whose text is unimaginable praising Stalin for every good thing even the rising of the sun and the health of children.
Now this fawning to one of the most evil people in recorded history doesn’t make an advertisement for the virtue of the arts per se. Interesting about the arts of course is that while they may even be created to serve a particular political purpose they are also susceptible to being reinvented. One of the best examples is again from music is the “9th Symphony” of Beethoven, which has a final movement whose text is by the German poet Schiller and it is nominally about human brotherhood and so-called the “Ode to Joy”, but it was performed on a regular basis by the Nazi’s to celebrate Hitler’s birthday and to celebrate the heroes of the 1941 attack on Russia and it was also used to celebrate the fall of the Berlin wall, two completely opposite political purposes using the same music. It resists appropriation partly because music has never been useful and therefore, to be taken into a purpose that is useful since it is useless by definition it never quite fits. It doesn’t fit as a constituent element in somebody’s scheme entirely persuasively, but the question in a free society or one where highly fluid in terms of what we individuals can do, especially a consumer society where we in a way like to think of our freedom mostly as freedom of movement, where we can go and what we can do using money as a metaphor of movement, so there was a great American artist Barbara Kruger who had a painting with sort of a spoof on the Cartesian phrase “I think therefore, I am”. Instead she had, “I shop therefore, I am”, in other words, the idea that our self identity is as consumers.
Is art a useful instrument of criticism, constructive criticism to the conceits of our society? Now that is a hard thing because much of art in the United States in our society is patronized by very wealthy individuals, so it is odd to see very wealthy individuals collect or support art that has huge amounts of social criticism, so people living in big houses and mansions buy art that somehow utilizes the suffering of others or tries to point out injustice, social injustice. There is something slightly hypocritical about these uses of art and artists who in visual arts make a lot of money trading on a kind of sympathy of the very wealthy and powerful for the plight of the poor and underserved, but really do nothing about it.
People go to a play that shows the suffering of an Afro-American man and they feel ennobled by having wept in the theater at the sight of the suffering portrayed on the stage and they think they have done something to advance that cause. There is not a lot of evidence that that is true, not a lot of evidence that except for making myself feel more noble because my sympathies were in an artificial context onstage or in a movie with a protagonist who is somehow disadvantaged while I was very comfortable and advantaged in some way that that emotional identification through art is constructive. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that that actually is the very opposite, that all art does is allow us to be more complacent with injustice.
Art prettifies in some aesthetic way all the evils of human society. Art is really the worst servants of the State because they dress up all that is bad in the world in a way that makes it palatable and in fact the conceit of my being superior by being an artist allows me literally to pull the shades in my window as I see the injustice in the street. I allows me to exempt myself from a sense of social responsibility because I'm superior and there comes a whole conceit of the artist, the Bohemian, the person who doesn’t play by the rules, who thinks she or he is superior because they are artists and therefore, they are exempt from having to do what we all have to do, which is somehow contribute to the world around us and make the world better in some constructive way.
So it’s not clear that just generically art is constructive, that art is always about freedom or always about individuality, it’s always on the right side, not clearly so and that the values that it puts forward are not always ones which we would find totally defensible, but the important thing is to think about the question as an activity and as a repository of human achievement. Is it something that needs to be fought for? And at the core of that question is, is there a relationship between what art does and the good, morally good, ethically good? Is there a connection as the 18th century philosopher who would have liked to think was the case between the good and the beautiful?
Art and the Good
Now the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy really said beauty isn’t the issue and in fact, beauty is the problem. Art shouldn’t be about beauty. Art really should be about community and about goodness and the function of art is precisely to use the imagination to remind us that we are all the same, the same as children of God, in his case a Christian God and a Christian world, but the fact is that he was suspicious of individuality, although he was—in the end of his career, although he was himself supremely an individual in the individualistic sense and he was very suspicious of art short of some moral ethical purpose. Teaching of morality was kind of an instrument of religion and he was very suspicious and he was in a long line of thinkers who held art in suspicion because it separated some human beings from others. It was against the notion that we’re all created equal. We’re all the same people.
Now I happen to think the art medium is very powerful, but requires an answer. I'm not sure they have the answer. Art has some relationship to what is good if one thinks about that. It also has some relation to what might be true. Art isn’t completely arbitrary because it comes out of the human imagination and becomes something that we then need to respond to. There are things about it which seem to be susceptible to creating a conversation among human beings that advances the cause of what is good and what might be true.
I'll give you an example. In the performing arts the great thing about the performing arts is that there is no object. There is no residue. A painting or a photograph or a movie can be reproduced. It never really gets lost. Now the original might get lost, but there are pictures of it and if you preserve it, it can last forever. So we can go to museums and look at artworks that were made thousands of years ago. We can see things that we now consider to be art, although they were made to be useful because art doesn’t have to be useless, a piece of pottery, a jug, especially from the ancient world, in the Mediterranean, these are great artworks. The transformation of the everyday with which we started this lecture is really inherent in even the way we design what we live with. The decorative arts are among the most important arts that we can study. What we eat off, what we sit on, what we sleep in, those are really objects of huge creative design and imagination.
So utility doesn’t disqualify a work of art, but the important thing is that where the truth and goodness comes in is that in the performing arts it is only there when it is performed and then in the memory of the people who have performed and listened. So the performing arts cannot be standardized. We now live at the end of the age of recording. The great thing about the internet is that it has destroyed high fidelity recording. People who used to buy records and listen to them now we can listen to these records, but the MP3 file or the digital file that we now use doesn’t sound particularly good, but it’s sufficient for us when we’re running or we’re sitting around, but we realize when we go to a real live concert whatever form of music it is there is a kind of visceral acoustic sensuality and we realize something that was always true, that the work of music or the work of theater is in its presence, seeing that actor up there, seeing how she speaks, seeing her perspire, seeing her act and every night is different. The performance exists not on tape. It exists only in the viewer’s reading of that performance and no two viewers’ reading of that performance is alike, therefore, the arts have a fundamental function in redeeming the sanctity of every single human being and since we believe that the sanctity of every single human is actually a true belief and we think it’s the right belief that my recognition whether I'm onstage or I'm in the audience that in this specific time and this specific place in some village, in some city, outdoors, indoors, day or night that musical performance, that theatrical performance, that form of performance art, that concert was a moment in time that can never be recaptured since time moves in one direction and that it becomes a constituent element of my memory. The sense of a commonality of that human experience is quite significant because it transcends the most ordinary experience and fear of birth and death, the fear of hunger and the fear of pain. While we might think now that that would be sufficient to make us feel common with other human beings the more sophisticated our society becomes, the more literate we become, the more instruments of differentiation we accumulate the more important things like art are to recognize our interdependence and our equality.
So I would argue that an aesthetic sensibility deepens the sanctity of life and in so far as you deepen the sanctity of life you create some potential of resistance against violence and cruelty and against tyranny. Now that is very optimistic and very religious of me if you will and it’s not something that I can defend entirely by evidence. A good historian would demolish my argument by saying you know all the Nazis were music lovers, the communist elite were art lovers, every second two-bit dictator has been some kind of art collector and even amateur artist, but I would say to that that doesn’t disprove the possibility. It does prove that making of art is the reflection of an exceptional amount of ambition and courage. People who are artists are more likely than not people with more of a drive than is probably healthy. Most artists are in that sense slightly deviant. The same people are always in the audience. They are not the people who made the pictures in the museum. They’re the people who go to the museum and I have greater respect for the audience than I have for my fellow artists in terms of sanity and perhaps even human kindness, but the activity itself and the recognition that we’re capable of it has some kind of uncomfortable potential not yet realized relationship to what we might think is both true and good.
Now the 18th century philosophers were not off the mark. Our capacity to create something that is not useful, that is only understood by mortals, that is only within the human experience and that is beyond the provable and everyday, that is unpredictable that is the highest praise we can give for being human, therefore, the historical residue in all cultures in history of that impetus and that impulse seems worthy of study and it is deeply encouraging to our sense of our own lives to look at the works of the imagination in all their forms, whether it be the visual, the spacial, the decorative, the useful, the auditory or even the physical in terms of dance and movement. It would never occur to me to look at a classical ballet or a modern dance and see how space, time and the human body can be organized in ways which are beyond and above our experience and so looking at the history of art and art making and then looking at what we in our time would do as artists to put ourselves in the imagination of the artist is I think very good use of a student’s time.
My recommendation for students would be not to be passive, not to take only art history or music history or theater history or dance history, but actually to do it. The most important thing about art is the capacity of each human being to make it, so if you’re interested in music don’t just study it. Do it, sing, play. If you’re interested in movement do dance and movement. If you’re interested in the visual arts make visual art. If you’re interested in performance art, dot it. If you want to make movies, make movies. Take photographs, but in a more sophisticated and more disciplined way than with your iPhone and cell phone.
It is the cultivation of the ability to organize the world in this way which will help you in other ways. The hidden secret of the arts is that they have collateral utility, so for example, a student who learns how to abstract an image in a drawing class, take a figure that is seated and just do the exercise. Draw that figure, but make sure the figure’s boundaries touch all four sides of the page. A very hard assignment, but the analytical capacity to manipulate one’s sight and one’s capacity for abstraction is hugely powerful as a skill in life. The ability to write a canon or a song, the ability to play an instrument, to sing, to dance, these are disciplines of body and mind which have unexpected utility in whatever one wishes to do.
It was said and I think plausibly so that in the organization of his ideas and in the presentation of his ideas Einstein in the early part of his career was deeply influenced by his musical sensibilities. He was a mediocre violinist, not a very good one. The school records we have are not particularly complimentary and he really never played very well and his tastes were very limited, but he really loved the classical tradition, which was really Heiden, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert and he liked really early and mid Beethoven, not the more experimental late Beethoven, but it could be argued that his notion of beauty and elegance in scientific explanation had a lot to do with a sense of proportion, clarity, transparency and logic that was enhanced by his musical sensibilities.
People often speak about the Mozart effect where young children become more effective as learners because they have been trained in music and there is some evidence that that is the case. I don’t know if it’s the case or not, but even if it is not true it is worth selling as if it were because it doesn’t do any harm. There is no evidence that becoming musical damages your thinking capacity.
The ability to draw and to paint, to sculpt, to use the mediums of the film and the photograph and the computer too, all these instrumentalities to create an imaginary world is a very important discipline and therefore, I would recommend against just studying it as a consumer. That leads to sort of false hierarchies and snobberies and just becoming a sophisticated consumer Is no different from being Imelda Marcos collecting shoes and that’s not particularly noble, but I do think the making of art and the experience of trying your hand at it is the best route to appreciating the experience of art and the experience of music and all the forms of art and allows you also to fill your day in moments where there is nothing useful for you to do in an activity that reminds you how special you are and how independent you might actually be of the terrifying uniformities which govern our lives.
So I thank you for your time and patience. There are many opportunities for each of you to study the arts, both inside the university and outside. The great thing about the arts is they are in every city, in every town. There are things from drawing classes to dancing classes, to music lessons you can take. Your opportunity to study the arts is not limited to the university. However, the university has resources in it, particularly in areas that are not so easy to access such as architecture and that I would suggest that universities are also places where there are museums and there are tremendous holdings in institutions in everything from theater to music and it would be a tragedy to go through a university life without a deep engagement with the arts. It’s one of the few things in a university that in student’s experience that has a lasting impact on the conduct of adult life long after one graduates.
So I encourage you and I thank you for your time and for your interest.