Thursday, January 11, 2007

A Discussion On Beauty

We begin with the quote.

L.E. Modesitt, Archform: Beauty, 205-206:
"We require students to be able to read, to understand economics, to learn about history. Music has been a part of every culture since the Neandertals. Shouldn't they be required to be exposed to something that's been a big part of human history since even before people could write? Shouldn't that be part of higher education? Excellence in the arts is a big part of what makes a society great. Can you name a culture that was great that didn't have great art?"

"Isn't greatness a subjective judgement?" [...]

""That's always what people say when they don't like something. You're in politics. I'm not. Wouldn't you say you know more about politics than I do?"

"I'd hope so," he said with a laugh.

"So why does every politician and every administrator question our judgement as artists and scholars? Why can a businessman or an economist use their knowledge and be respected, but why does every parent and every politician and administrator seem to think they know more about our field than we do?" [...]

"Because everyone with any education at all thinks that they can sing or write. When the arts keep getting degraded by politicians who pander to the ignorant, and when the only question is how much money a performer makes, and not how good they are, then the arts suffer. When the arts suffer, we all suffer, because credits are used as the only measure of excellence. Credits don't measure excellence. They only measure popularity, and they're not the same thing."
This is a future society extrapolated from our own, one where a common feeling among the young is "Classical stuff, should have been buried with the composers..." How many people have encountered a similar lack of respect for the arts, visual, textual, and musical?

Personally, I find it incomprehensible that people should not only be satisfied with pop (which is fine, I like it too), but actively deny that more complex forms of music have value. That future snot (again, not my term!) is only echoing a feeling that many of us have encountered in others in one form or another.

Witness how some music gets derided for being "pretentious," even when the only thing being displayed is technical excellence.

My husband has a theory, not original, that understanding music is like understanding language, and when all that a person is exposed to is baby talk (pop), one does not develop a deep musical vocabulary or understanding. Studies support this thesis, and a good understanding of music has been shown to aid both mathematical and language comprehension. People buy "Baby Mozart" products with the hope of instilling this kind of understanding, understanding which previously was available through such mundane sources as old Warner Brothers cartoons. (Nowadays, the chances of an animated cartoon having a complex, classical soundtrack are slim. What a pity.)

However, though the danger of straying too far toward the popular taste is evident, the danger of the other direction is also apparent. How many people have made jokes about modern art? (Raises own hand.) Though experts in any field are important, it becomes problematic when the population suspects that they are charlatans. Is that really art, or is someone having a joke at the public's expense?

Art students often complain that their professors are more concerned with the subjects of art than with the techniques necessary to convey them; it's very frustrating to be told to build a house that reflects your needs without being told how to, for example, lay bricks. So then the question becomes how to determine if a person is actually an expert... and then if that expertise is actually important. Which, of course, cycles back to the question of "What is art, anyway?"

Hmmm. Sounds non-rational to me.

So if art is important, how are we to determine such? Is there less art— transcendant, centuries-spanning creativity— now than in previous time? Is there more? Can we know?

I welcome your contributions.

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