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What Art Requires Of Us

An Evans-Manning Award to commenter Another Matt, a professional composer who offers these remarks on yesterday’s religion and creativity thread:

Re: “Self Expression”:
The best artists I know care very little about “self expression.” They have too much respect for their art to expect that their purpose as an artist could be that self-centered. And plenty of them are overtly religious (but their art isn’t necessarily). However, these people tend to be far less interested in self-promotion, and often get passed over for careerists and those who spend a lot of energy on the administrative side of things. Goodness knows I need a manager!

But on the other hand, we do have a “crisis of meaning” as others here have described. The constraints on art are still constraints, but they aren’t nearly as universal as they were even in the 19th century. Even religion is less institutional and more individual. What this means is not just that artists aren’t all working with the same cultural assumptions, but not even with the same cognitive assumptions (which obviously are influenced heavily by culture, but good to keep a little separate). The cognitive assumptions in South-Indian music (example— what kinds of things are relevant, or even what can be heard or learned to be heard — are totally different from, say, those involved in Mozart. And Mozart’s are just as different from 14th century music (here’s an example).

The trouble is we have all this going on at once now, and sometimes within a single piece of art. Many of us hew to quite rigorous constraints, but not everyone will get it. And honestly, I don’t know many people who aren’t musicians who even understand what’s going on in a piece by Beethoven (many of my fellow musicians seem to miss a lot of it, and I’m sure I do as well).

Re: Why aren’t there any great artists now?
Way too much ink has been spilled over this. The short answer is that a huge majority of art is crap. There’s a reason we don’t remember most of the thousands of Raphael’s contemporaries. But in our own time, we are unlikely to see more than a handful of great works among the hoards of mediocrity. We like to say that “history will separate the good from the bad,” and it’s true in two senses: it forgets the bad, but in some cases it also discovers the good, who were little-known or little-respected in their time.

The longer answer has to do with consumerism. There are many prudential reasons why an artistic genius might not actively pursue their art — it’s really hard to make a living at it even if you’re really good, since so much of success is a matter of luck and connections. While it seems unbelievable that a modern-day Haydn or Shakespeare wouldn’t go into music or playwriting, someone of slightly less drive to create (Sibelius, e.g.) would have lots of reasons to do something more secure.

Meanwhile, I think most people do not have enough interest or training in arts to to know how to engage them. There’s a persistent romanticism about it which imagines “the beholder” as totally passive — as though art were supposed to “wash over them” and do something to them. In reality, appreciating art takes a great deal of concentration and active engagement, and if you want to go below the surface at all you need a little training. We’ve become used to thinking of “a song” as too long if it is even just 5 minutes — and in most cases in pop music today, it’s true because the mass-produced music doesn’t have enough interesting material to sustain attention for 5 minutes.

We worry so much about “accessibility” that artists have tremendous pressure to create art that doesn’t offer any challenges to its audience. And members of the audience don’t feel any responsibility to meet the artist halfway and make an effort to understand. Even merely good art is hard to create under these circumstances.

In short, there just isn’t enough cultural infrastructure to support great art — and though it’s tempting to blame it all on modernist artists, it’s not all the artists’ fault.

A lot to think about there. I especially like the point about people demanding easy intellectual and emotional accessibility to art, meaning that they don’t have to work to enjoy its spiritual and aesthetic rewards. I think you could say the same thing about church.

Note to everyone: we’re having problems with the TAC website after migrating content to a different server the other day. I use Google Chrome, and I notice that you have to refresh your browser twice to get new content.  One of you wrote to say that you’re having the same problem. They’re aware of this at the TAC mothership, and are working on it. Meanwhile, thanks for your patience, and please don’t forget to refresh your browser twice, especially if it looks like nothing new has been posted for a while.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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