Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Bad Music is a Lifestyle Choice

I was just going to stick the link in the upcoming Friday Miscellanea, but it deserves more attention. The Wall Street Journal the other day had an opinion piece titled "The Suicide of the Liberal Arts", that had some well-crafted observations about a subject we often talk about here: the problem of the increasing inability of ordinary listeners to appreciate classical music.
When properly conceived and taught, the liberal arts do not by themselves make us “better people” or (God knows) more “human.” They don’t exist to make us more “liberal,” at least in the contemporary political sense. But the liberal arts can do something no less wonderful: They can open our eyes.
They show us how to look at the world and the works of civilization in serious and important and even delightful ways. They hold out the possibility that we will know better the truth about many of the most important things. They are the vehicle that carries the amazing things that mankind has made—and the memory of the horrors that mankind has perpetrated—from one age to the next. They teach us how to marvel.
Spengler at PJ Media writes an even better-crafted essay titled "A Thoughtless Age" reflecting on this one:
Western culture has become inaccessible to the general public because we have lost the ability to see the world through the eyes of those who created it. A generation ago, the literary critic Harold Bloom complained in The Western Canon that it no longer was possible to teach English literature to undergraduates because they lacked the cultural references to make sense of it: imagine reading Moby Dick without knowing who Ishmael and Ahab were in the Bible, or Joyce’s Ulysses without knowing that someone named Homer had written an epic about a certain Odysseus. (Outside the English realm, Bloom is guilty of the same sort of ignorance, but that is a different matter).
There is a deeper problem, though: Why should we read works by long-dead authors with concerns entirely different than ours, and if we should, how can we do so?
So much of the great classical literature deals with moral questions. I always think of Plato's great Socratic dialogue, the Euthyphro where Socrates, on the way to his own indictment runs into Euthyphro on the porch of the King Archon who is there to file the charge of murder against his own father. In questioning Euthyphro Socrates comes up with one of the greatest moral questions of all: do the gods (or God) condemn murder because it is wrong? Or is murder wrong because the gods condemn it?

Aesthetic questions, as David Hume realized, are philosophically rather similar to moral questions and both are vulnerable to fashionable claims of relativism: everything you do is a lifestyle choice whether it is to murder the innocent or listen to bad music. One of the great aesthetic authorities on music, Duke Ellington, once said that there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music. With the greatest possible irony, I note that the two words you are least likely to read in any music criticism these days are the words "good" and "bad". I honestly think that Alex Ross of the New Yorker would rather drive knitting needles into his ears than describe a piece of music as either good or bad!

Spengler's essay delves quite deep into the purposes of art and culture and ends with a challenge to some of my own views:
To some extent, the conservative movement is to blame for the suicide of the liberal arts, through its embrace of Matthew Arnold and the cult of “culture” as a substitute for religion. Apart from the fact that Arnold was a dreadful poet, and said nothing that had not been said better three generations earlier by Friedrich Schiller, he has the whole thing backwards. The great works of high culture arose in the first place from the existential concerns of religion, and are incomprehensible without it. To propose culture as a substitute for religion is a contradiction in terms.
I confess that, in my own life, music often acts as a substitute for religion. I make the claim that I just don't have a religious sense, but an aesthetic one instead. But perhaps this is balderdash and I just don't understand religion. For me the great works of music tend to be clustered in the 18th century, spilling over a bit into the 19th century and it is hard to see them as other than linked somehow to the great liberations of the Enlightenment. I wonder which of us has the right of it? Myself or Spengler?

The appropriate work to act as envoi to this post is probably the opera by Mozart, Don Giovanni, that a lot of Spengler's discussion focuses on. This is the Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera & Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, dir. Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1988):


Marc Puckett said...

I suspect that Goldman is right in what he says about our society ('as long as the ambient culture runs from the existential questions brought forth by religion, and as long as the religious public contents itself with the pap of popular culture, we will be shut off from access to the great works of the past') but the 'religion' that 'brings forth' these existential questions surely can embrace the profound insights of the classical philosophical tradition, too, and the fact is that the Christian Church recognises this, from the Apostolic Age onward, while also acknowledging that faith is not the same as philosophical insight. The sad fact is of course that the average Catholic is about five thousand times more likely to know about the Kardashians! than she is about the glories of Lope de Vega or Tirso de Molina or even Cervantes.

I used to read 'Spengler' as often as I could at AsiaTimes, I think, and he was a featured writer at First Things (known for its interest in promoting Christian participation in public life) for a while-- no idea why that didn't last... well, I can hazard guesses. He used to be an editor at Lyndon LaRouche's Executive Intelligence Review and that leaves a certain shadow about him, in my mind anyway, but, pft, it takes all sorts, eh. And he's such a clever writer.

cnb said...

Bryan, on the "art as religion" question you might appreciate Jacques Barzun's book The Use and Abuse of Art, which takes it up directly. Like Spengler, he argues that the cultural project to have art replace religion has failed, and as I recall he takes music as a special case for illustrating why. It's a good book. I wrote some flawed but perhaps instructive notes about it here.

Marc, I'm a reasonably well educated Catholic, but I confess I don't know who Tirso de Molina was. But then, neither do I know about the Kardashians. I suppose that makes me middle-brow? Heh, heh.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thomas Aquinas made his great synthesis of Aristotle and Christianity in the 13th century, but it is still the foundation of Catholic theology, is it not?

Barzun is a very wise man and always worth reading, but after reading your remarkably fine discussion of the book, I almost feel I don't need to. Thanks, cnb!! I think, from your use of the word connaturality, that you know your Aquinas.

I have to say that the linked essays and your comments have led me to a deeper understanding of the situation of Art in the contemporary world. This doesn't happen too often!

Marc Puckett said...

CNB, A wonderful essay there, on your blog! I was a reader until 2009/10 when I lived computer-less for a year or so, and unfortunately never 'recovered' some of the sites I had been used to read-- so am doubly grateful for your comment.

I confess to knowing T d M and Lope de Vega only because I spent a lot of time reading Hans Urs von Balthasar's theological aesthetics/drama/logic etc etc, which opened up many doors, hallways, palaces. The Kardashians do something in television, I believe, but are famous for being celebrities, pft.

Bryan, I wouldn't say that the synthesis of Thomas Aquinas is the 'foundation' of Catholic theology but it certainly remains the most well-developed synthesis of classical philosophy and Christian theology, sure. It's quite possible to have one's theology from St Augustine and the other Fathers or the Greek scholastics or the mediaeval monastic theologians etc etc but one has to go out of one's way to have Catholic theology without making use of St Thomas as a point of reference at the very least.

cnb said...

Well, thanks kindly for the encouragement. Since I wrote that review I've become a father three times over, and these days I hardly have time to read books, much less to write about them. (Indeed, I even have difficulty staying involved in comment threads on interesting blogs!)

Bryan, your ear is quite good: I expect that I did get "connaturality" from St Thomas.

About Balthasar's magnum opus: I've been too intimidated by it, Marc, though I'm sure you're right that it's a many splendoured thing.

Bryan Townsend said...

Triple congratulations to you, cnb, and may your family prosper!

I had never heard the name Hans Urs von Balthasar before, but now that I have at least read the Wikipedia article, I will perhaps try and investigate further. I have a stack of books to finish first.

Thanks to you both for adding lustre to my sometimes drab blog.