Posted by: Harold Knight | 08/17/2010

Bach, Susanne Langer (again), a Palestinian Artisan, and Beauty

Beauty or art?

Beauty or art?

In personal musings objectivity is impossible. For example, if one wishes to discuss what makes an object a work of art or what makes a work of art beautiful, one’s personal experience is inevitably useless for any scientific statement. Delving into philosophical or psychological questions of the meaning of art is likely to be a fool’s errand for most of us. Aesthetics exists in a rarefied atmosphere.

The American Society for Aesthetics deliberates these mysterious ideas. Fifty years ago my college organ teacher was its president. My youthful impression was that aestheticians spoke to each other in hushed tones about beauty. A college friend, also an admiring student of Dr. Spelman’s, and a great punster, coined the phrase “aesthete’s foot,” meaning, “Wherever I go, my feet simply ache for the beauty of it all.” We made jokes while we were in awe of thinking we could not understand.

There, you see, I managed to write only one paragraph in the academic third person, and have slipped into the first person speaking directly to you.

Back to works of art, and what makes them beautiful. I am well aware that the question of beauty may have nothing to do with art. Many objects in my apartment are beautiful (the cobalt blue vase I watched a Palestinian glass-blower in Hebron make, for example) but probably not ”art.” Some of the art to which I respond deeply (some sculptures at the Nasher Museum of Contemporary Art) is not necessarily beautiful.

On my desk is a postcard to a friend. It has a picture of a sculpture at the Nasher. Salesman, by Duane Hanson is not—at the level of first impression—beautiful. It is a figure of a man in a dress shirt and tie, standing arms folded, staring sideways, his expression blank. The statue is realistic enough that many museum-goers mistake it for a person. It is art, I would argue (as did Mr. Nasher), but to say it is beautiful is irrelevant.

In my own not-scholarly, certainly neither artistic nor beautiful language, I’ve stated the conundrum of aesthetics: what is the relationship between beauty and art, and how do we experience either? I have no illusions about my ability to unravel the conundrum or about my having studied aesthetics enough to join the age-old discussion.

Yesterday I practiced J.S. Bach’s organ chorale Wir glauben all’ an einen Gott (“We all believe in one God”). At the keyboard I concentrated on the written notes, working to remember the patterns both mentally and physically. Anyone, I should think, would understand Bach’s intricate music (intellectually and—for the performer—physically satisfying) is a work of “art.” At a level I challenge anyone to explain, it is also “beautiful” to those who have heard Western musical structures since infancy.

Practicing yesterday, I was often distracted (I’m not one whose mind zeroes in on an project or idea and thinks of nothing else until it is complete). I learned Wir glauben all’ when I was a senior in college. My goal was to prepare all of the large chorales from the Clavierübung III, Bach’s gargantuan collection of organ settings of Luther’s hymns for the Catechism. Wir glauben all’ is Luther’s hymn for the Nicene Creed. That’s not what this is about.

It’s all about me (sorry). The copy I worked from yesterday is the one I used in college, with my notes about wading through the music physically and Professor Orth’s notes about musical structures and ideas. I have not used that score since 1967. Looking at those pages puts me into a difficult mental space. I don’t know whose idea it was for me to learn those ten enormous pieces for my Honors Project, but it was a self-fulfilling prophecy for failure. Only now, 43 years later, can I look at that music without panic. I realize the quickest way for me to get the music “under my fingers” is using this copy, and its negativity is gone.

Is belief necessary?

Is belief necessary?

But those feelings are part of the “art” of the music for me. Never mind what Susanne Langer says, although I understand it (perhaps) and consent to it (I don’t have the brains to claim to agree with it).

. . . .music is not self-expression, but formulation and representation of emotions, moods, mental tensions and resolutions – a “logical picture” of sentient, responsive life, a source, of insight, not a plea for sympathy. Feelings represented in music are essentially not “the passion, love or longing of such-and-such an individual”. . . . Just as words can describe events we have not witnessed. . .so music can present moods we have not felt, passions we did not know before” (1). (Emphases in original.)

So I back track. Bach’s music is not self-expression for me—nor was it for him. However, his “life experience” (spare me pop psychology!) was necessary for him to compose it, and my playing it reflects the different person I am today. I am no longer pressured to play or fearful of failure. I love the music for itself.

I was also practicing (and will again today and every day until I once again can perform it) for, I’m ashamed to admit, political reasons. I’m substitute organist for a church whose theology I can take or leave, but whose politics I find perhaps abhorrent. They’re homophobic (among other difficult beliefs). It’s an Anglo-Catholic church, so I decided, as a final statement, I’d play a hefty work by Bach, the ultimate musical anti-Catholic, at the end of my last service there.

Mea culpa. The Devil made me do it. But I won’t. I’m not that far gone. I’ve sold myself (is making music the oldest profession?). My petty anger prompted me once again to play this sublime work. Speaking of conundrums.

One more quirk. When I was learning this music, I was in a required geology class. A field trip was mandatory. Missing it meant failing the class. I woke up the Saturday of the trip with the liberating sense I had nothing to do all day but practice. The field trip was on my calendar and my best friend came to fetch me and couldn’t find me. The dean intervened so I didn’t fail (a long story). A pattern started that early in my life? Forgetfulness? Or, perhaps—I don’t mean to make excuses, merely to raise the possibility—inability to focus caused by Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, of which I was painfully aware even then, though I had no name for it. The only circumstance in which I am never aware of seizure activity is when I’m making music.

All of these things are part of my struggling performance of the Bach. Langer would caution that

. . . .music that is invented [performed?] while the composer’s mind is fixed on what is to be expressed is apt not to be music. . . .for music at its highest, though clearly a symbolic form, is an unconsummated symbol. Articulation is its life, but not assertion; expressiveness, not expression. The actual function of meaning, which calls for permanent contents, is not fulfilled. . . .one rather than another possible meaning to each form is never explicitly [assigned] (2).

Will the artisan survive?

Will the artisan survive?

Music is expressive of some aspect of the life of our feelings, but it does not “mean” anything explicit. So in Wir glauben all’ Bach did not (does not) assert anything; much less do I. But I certainly think it’s beautiful. I’m with Carolyn Korsmeyer (taking both her writing and Alexander Nehamas’ out of context):

. . . .for [Nehamas’] view is the more appealing, and the suspicion is that if he is [right], then objects are ultimately beautiful only because we love them (3).
(1) Langer, Susanne K. Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. Third Edition.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard U Press, 1980, 222.
(2) ibid. 240
(3) Korsmeyer, Carolyn. “What Beauty Promises: Reflections on Alexander Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art.” British Journal of Aesthetics 50.2 (April 2010). 193-198.


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