With the current trend in our culture toward instant gratification, we must wonder if the seeming lack of will and interest toward creating, promoting, supporting, and consuming “true” art – as inherently necessary to human life – is at the root of much of the epidemic bursts of “isms” we are seeing and experiencing all around us.
With all of our technological advances, the human condition seems to be devolving. Not only are we obese, ill, addicted, and miserable, we are becoming illiterate. Theatre, classical music, fine art, and literature have become synonymous with elitism and so has incurred a natural suspicion and bias by so-called “non-elitists”. Art is for snobs so it is “bad”. Which is as ridiculous as saying vegetables are for snobs, and therefore “bad”. Everybody needs good art as much as they need good food. We are what we consume: be it food, air, water, news, media, or art. The proof is in the pudding.
“The traditional view of true art is that it is moral; it seeks to improve life, not debase it” (Gardner 5).
True art may have come to the point of being demoralized, dependent, and patronized by the gluttonous elite, but it is not, nor ever was by its very nature, intended for the elite. It is meant to serve all of a human society. Shakespeare did this very well. So did Sophocles. So did Shostakovitch.
One of the greatest gifts of my life was the gift of having classical musicians for parents- my mother plays viola, my father played trombone. And, I was musical myself, gifted with musical literacy. By the time I was four, I could hear and identify all of the instruments in a full symphony orchestra. While other kids’ families had weekend cook-outs and pool parties, listening to Barry Manilow and Elvis Presley, my parents made music with their friend musicians, and socialized with other artists.
And I resented it. True, my parents were lousy parents, but also, my “friends” had no problem making it known to me that my family was just plain “weird”, and so was I. I am weird: I love classical music. Classical music creates images, stories, feelings within me that help me cope with the often, downright traumatic circumstances and events my upbringing incurred. I grew up with Beethoven, Telemann, Dvorak, Vivaldi, and on and on, and I still listen today. My whole world view is influenced by this music. It is beautiful.
While I enjoy and listen to many kinds of music, “classical” music is, well, different. For me, modern “pop” music – even some kinds of music like jazz, or folk- is like perusing a picture book, while classical music is like reading a book without pictures. Classical music – Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Impressionistic, etc. – requires the listener’s brain to engage with the material in an abstract way and provide the pictures or the content. So, classical music nourishes the mind and the soul in a way that popular, and some kinds of modern, music just cannot. “Classical” music is ineffable the way a sunset is. It is the way we react when we reach a mountain top, or the way the sight and smell of spring rain on green fields just feels. It is sustenance. It is nourishment. It is the intentional language of sound, with or without story, used by the composer (and musicians) that transcends the listener to this ineffable place. That is what true art is supposed to do.
“Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy” (Gardner 6).
Listening to classical music requires a certain kind of literacy (and effort) the same way reading a book without pictures requires a certain kind of literacy (and effort). We teach our children how to read in school, but schools don’t teach them the basics skills of artistic literacy any more: how to listen to music, how to look at a painting, or how to experience a play. And schools don’t include a basic artistic education anymore: how to play music, or paint, or write stories. This is simply a problem of intentional, or unintentional, artistic illiteracy, not elitism. And it is the real tragedy to our society, and species, because ALL humans are creative, not just some.
As writers, we are advised to read all the time, join or attend writer’s groups, writer’s retreats, etc. But this is like saying, “eat only one kind of vegetable.” Engaging in other forms of art, and good art at that, is truly holistic. It is medicine for the soul. And it increases our artistic literacy and appreciation. Listening to classical music, attending concerts, or plays, going to an an art museum, taking a painting, drawing, or dance class expands our artistic experiences. Good art begets more good art. Some of us may not be able to paint, play, act, or write as a ” true” artist, but all of us can certainly benefit from other artists’ gifts and do what we do well. And we may not be able to change the problems of a society that has an aversion to good art as much as it has an aversion to good, wholesome food, but we can certainly feed ourselves, and those around us, and lead by example. As Gandhi said, “We must become the change we seek.”
Thanks for reading.
Gardner, John. On Moral Fiction. Harper Collins. 1978.
A Fun Aside: My childhood memory of John Gardner is of him sitting, quietly lion-ish, with his thick swept back mane of grey hair, playing his french horn with my my father, (who played trombone) along with another brass musician, in our little living room. I was ten or eleven, and a budding trumpet player myself, but hadn’t been invited to participate in the playing, which had been fine with me. John made me nervous with his silent intensity. He didn’t talk a lot, but he seemed to see everything. And yes, he smoked a pipe.