Art à la Carte

There is a school of thought that would insist that great art embodies powerful human emotions, and perhaps as a corollary that the greatest art is that which conveys human emotions most powerfully, that a work of art that fails to convey emotion is an artistic failure.

This is wrong.

A work of art — any work, be it great, modest, bold, humdrum, or irremediably defective — can embody various perceptions, ideas, techniques, and, yes, emotions in various ways. Often in several ways at once. Emotion is only one of the colors in the artist’s palette. Whether it is the most important element in a work or a relatively minor element is up to the taste and inclinations of the artist.

As sometimes happens, I got into an argument on Facebook, or let’s call it a spirited discussion. An argument with, as often happens, a stranger. He linked to a video of Yo-Yo Ma playing a Bach cello suite and dared me to gaze at the rapture on Ma’s face and doubt that art was about emotion. Worse, he insulted me by saying my life must be dull if I don’t understand and embrace his view.

I don’t respond well to insults on Facebook. I use my blog to jam importunate strangers into the ground. The perfect counter-example to his Yo-Yo Ma video is, of course, a performance — any performance — by Glenn Gould. Gould was as great a Bach interpreter as Ma. His posture at the piano was hunched, expressionless. When beginning a fugue, he would sometimes conduct the hand playing the opening subject by waving the fingers of his free hand; that was as close as he ever got to expressive body language. The effect was almost clinical, but it was never dry. His interpretations were vivid and surprising.

My opponent really shouldn’t have gone straight to Bach, because the music of Bach is not, in most cases, filled with emotion. A few of his pieces are deeply emotional. I don’t know his liturgical work, but I’ve always felt the second cello suite is steeped in tragedy. But in many of Bach’s pieces the primary point of interest is not the emotion being expressed. We may be able to hear the emotion. We may be able to state that a given piece is tranquil, or playful, or powerful. But that’s not the point. Bach wasn’t writing the music in order to express playfulness, or power, or tranquility. His concerns generally had as much to do with formal structure and the development of ideas as with any expression of a particular emotion. The idiom in which he wrote wasn’t even very well equipped to express emotion.

Art became an exercise in the expression of strong emotion only in the 19th century. In music, it was Beethoven. Beethoven was idolized by other composers in the 19th century not only, and not primarily, for his ability to manipulate motivic material. He was idolized because he poured strong emotions into his music. Throughout the century, composers felt that that was their job. And of course audiences agreed!

But compare and contrast a Beethoven symphony, any of them, with a minuet by Mozart. I defy you to find a shred of emotion anywhere in a Mozart minuet. But that doesn’t make it any less a work of art than a Beethoven symphony. Well, okay, the minuet in the G minor viola quintet has some rather anguished chord stabs, but that’s an isolated instance, not the sort of thing Mozart usually did.

Mozart’s artistic goals were different, that’s all. In fact, Bach was not highly regarded in the years when Beethoven flourished. Years passed before there was a growing awareness in the European classical music community of Bach’s extraordinary mastery and importance. Much of his work was unpublished during his lifetime, and a great deal of effort went into finding the scattered manuscript copies and preserving them.

Or consider Michelangelo’s David. Is there any emotion in it? Not that I can see. It’s a triumphal work of art, but it’s not about emotion, neither Michelangelo’s nor David’s. Or, in literature, how about Finnegans Wake? Whatever we may think of it (I don’t care much for it, myself), it is certainly a massive and important work of art. If there’s any emotion in it, it’s the emotion you find in yourself while reading it. The words on the page are not conveying emotion; as far as we can tell, that wasn’t what Joyce set out to do.

Some novelists feel that their duty is to explore the depths of the human condition, preferably with strong doses of emotion in every chapter. If they choose to do that, that’s perfectly all right. That’s one of the ways of making art. But I don’t enjoy reading that sort of thing, except in small doses. When I pick up a book, I want to be entertained! I’m more likely to read (or re-read) one of Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder mysteries than I am to pick up a serious novel that flogs me with passion.

To entertain is a perfectly legitimate aspiration for an artist. A work that entertains, or that, like a Bach fugue, dazzles us with its formal beauty, is not a lesser work. Art doesn’t have to jab us or demand that we excavate our life trauma. It can be quietly beautiful and refer to nothing outside of itself. It can hint at human experiences, including emotions, without being explicit.

Honestly, I’m surprised I have to point this out, but some people are still stuck in the 19th century.

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1 Response to Art à la Carte

  1. Art can be various things to different people. To me it’s mainly a mental-emotional gratification. Something like chocolate for the psyche. And sometimes, that gratifications makes me feel that it brings me closer to the universal truth.

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