UNIVERSALITY AND TIMLESSNESS:  CRITICIZING THE ARTS

            In the 20th century, both the visual and performing arts attempted to venture into untried territory, sometimes extremely successfully, and sometimes not.  At the end of the 19th Century, some people felt that art had said all it had to say that was new and different.  How untrue this proved is shown by the many distinctive examples we’ve had in this class of 20th century art. 

            Art and elitisim:  There have always been a group of people who “understood” art, but at times it has narrowed, and at times broadened.  The fine arts, in this past century, have been in danger of elitism—that is, the idea that only a certain educated class of people were able to understand both the art and music which was being displayed or performed.  Of course, there is a certain truth to the idea that knowing about art helps one appreciate it more and also knowing that it bears a message is important.  But there are times in the history of art when art has not attempted to pass judgment on society or bear a message, and there are times when it has.  This attempt may be subtle or not so subtle.  If it is extremely obtuse, art may become the property of the elite, and those who are not in the “inner circle” may reasonably feel excluded from the enjoyment or understanding of the art form. Quite frankly, one has a right to question the art form if it is so obtuse that only a few conosciuti can understand it. 

            Think of a few examples of art and music which is elitist in tendency. How do you suppose it got that way?   

             Art and prophecy: However, as I have stated before, art can be prophetic, and truly reflect the moods of a people and their times. Even when it is confusing and terrible, at the very least it can say that there is something very wrong.  But today, let us consider some of the strands of art in the 20th century—not just visual art, but music, theater, and what appears on the media—and see what has survived and what possibly will survive and appear in the annals of history.

             “Timeless” art:  When a probe was sent to the far reaches of space, it was decided that if there was life out there, we should show what kind of creatures our space-ship represented.  A drawing of a human being was carefully placed on the probe—along with the music of J.S. Bach.  I suppose that was the greatest compliment an artist has ever received: You represent the pinnacle of our civilization.  Your music is both so mathematically perfect and so humanly moving and inspiring that we want you to represent us as the pinnacle of artistic achievement.  Supposing we had sent to the far reaches of space the music and art of the 20th century. What do you think we would we send?   

            We could send the music of Arnold Schonberg.  It is based upon the 12-tone row and definitely represents a 20th century style that was used for many decades (some people still use it).  It has its own style of mathematical perfection.  However, there is some question as to whether or not strangers would find it easy to grasp.  Do you? 

            We could send jazz music and singing. It represents another kind of style.  In fact, Bach would probably be more interested in jazz than in Schonberg, because he would recognize artists who attempt to put their own originality into tunes they have received from others.  That is what he did himself.  (But, of course, that was not the only thing he did.)  While jazz represents a high level of achievement, of course, it also represents a rather narrow segment of society. Let’s face it: whatever we choose will not be representative of the human race, but only a part of it.  So (as the NASA team did) we will do the best we can. 

            We could send other forms of 20th century popular music.  But from which era? By the time the probe might be picked up by another “intelligent life-form,” it is thought that hundreds or thousands of years might go by.  Those who sent the music of Bach into space (possibly with other music that I’m not aware of) wanted something sent that would be somewhat timeless, and they felt that the music of Bach represented some of the best that was in mankind. Although there has been some outstanding popular music in the 20th century, much of the music presented has been of a very temporal variety, created to be popular for just weeks, months, or perhaps a year, and then to be replaced.  That is a characteristic of a society which is always looking for something new to say and new ways in which to say it. 

            Supposing you had to represent the human race, and our portion of it in particular, to a completely different but intelligent life form, with which you hoped to communicate in a meaningful and peaceful way.  (I am not suggesting that such forms exist.) What examples of art and/or music from the 20th century would you choose?             

            Consider the art of the Soviets and the Nazis.  This represented, to them, the best their society could offer.  It was idealistic, showing happy “citizens” working gladly together for the betterment of society, or showing the leadership of their parties in almost deified form. A stranger could certainly understand that human beings were represented in such art—but it would represent only a narrow segment of society.  The music would also be a political statement, because the best composers were ordered to write about certain subjects in a certain way—and they were to be different from the rest of the world society as they attempted to idealize their civilizations.

             What about “primitive” or folk music?  It (like the music of Bach) would represent only a small segment of society. Yet it might represent it well.  A number of examples of folk music could represent the peoples of the world rather well.  However, it does not represent the progress of a civilization in quite the same way that Bach’s more complicated music does.  It may be a splendid example of what we are really like—but it will not show the capabilities,  the development of the human mind, to the extent that his music shows it. In the 20th century, Bela Bartok and many other composers took folk music as the basis of their composition. Just as Bach borrowed popular music in his day, Bartok borrowed folk music in the first half of the 20th century to preserve the greatness of the people of his locale.  Folk music is an excellent place to start when building a memorable and important body of “classical” music.  Consider some of the composers of the 20th century who have used it successfully: Ravel (Bolero), Bartok (Romanian Dances, etc.), Bernstein, Aaron Copeland.  Probably those who are excellent composers and who use folk tunes as a basis for their compositions will maintain their reputation for many years.  

            So what was it about Bach that made the NASA people choose that music?   It contains these universal elements:

 1.      Craftsmanship.  It is extraordinarily “clever” music, often built upon very strict rules of composition.  It came from an era when polyphony (overlapping voices) was the order of the day, and especially the fugues of Bach have been imitated by composers through the succeeding centuries.  Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and many great 20th century composers (such as Hindemith) have studied Bach’s music as an example of how to write music.

2.      Feeling.  All instruments have certain limitations. For example, the piano is considered the pinnacle of keyboard instruments—but the notes die out quite soon after you play them, and you cannot make a swell on one note.  That causes piano music to be written in a certain way.  Likewise, in Bach’s day, he worked with harpsichords, clavichords, and organs.  His instruments were quite different from those in use today, for the most part, and yet he was able to convey a common human feeling throughout his music which speaks to people in many parts of the world.  People in Asia are as interested in the music of Bach as people in the United States (probably more so, at the present moment). Somehow, great music conveys human feelings—even through the medium of limited instruments, or the limited voice.

3.      Spirituality.  Bach was a Christian man and his music promoted the ideas of the Reformation.  Although the music which preceded the Lutheran Chorale in the church was very beautiful and deeply spiritual, it was not sung by the congregation, but was rendered by highly-trained choirs.  Martin Luther took the tune for “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” from a local tavern-song and started the people singing.  Bach later arranged it as the Chorale with which we are all familiar.  He was not afraid to use the commonly-understood sacred service, the Mass (both Lutherans and Roman Catholics used it) as a vehicle for the Gospel, and his ability to do this reached broad segments of society with the message of Christ.  Listen, for example, to the “Sanctus” of the B minor Mass: it represents a pinnacle of worship and devotion which can be understood not only by Christians of all denominations, but by those we are trying to reach.

Now, let us think of a 20th century composer or artist whose work exemplifies craftsmanship, feeling, and spirituality, and whose work contains folk elements to which we can relate.  It is likely that such an individual will retain his reputation for as many centuries as are left to this world.  Conversely, let us think of art movements or individuals who are likely to be forgotten, and let us ask ourselves why.  But then, Bach’s  great work, “The Passion (death of Christ) According to St. Matthew,” was discovered wrapping fish in a fish-market.  Being part of a “fad” has absolutely nothing to do with being memorable in centuries to come.