Sunday, January 6, 2019

Truth in Art

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
--John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

Keats notwithstanding, the notion of truth in art, or even beauty in art, is often challenged. Keats' poem, and especially the last two lines quoted above, sparked a critical debate as outlined in the Wikipedia article (linked above). While interesting, the debate seems to confine itself to literary matters, which is fair enough, but my first reaction re-reading those lines now is that they obviously relate to Platonic idealism. The Good, the True and the Beautiful are, to philosophers, known as the transcendental properties of being.
The transcendentals are ontologically one and thus they are convertible: e.g., where there is truth, there is beauty and goodness also.
 The idea is that, at the highest level, the level of the Platonic Forms, these transcendental ideals converge into one thing, perhaps this is what Plato had in mind when he spoke of the Form of the Good.

When we come to talk about actual works of art, however, the idea of "truth" in art is sometimes described in terms of truth to nature. A good artist might be striving to capture the effects of light on a seascape or the squalor of poverty, or the beauty of the human form or the character of an individual in a portrait. Sometimes these kinds of art are described as "realism" or "social realism" or "naturalism" and we find lots of examples in the late 19th century.

UPDATE: I decided to add a couple of visual examples as well. Here is a very fine watercolor landscape by Thomas Girton, The White House at Chelsea (1800):

The White House at Chelsea, Girton, click to enlarge
An example of truth to nature. And here is a famous example of expressionist truth, The Scream (1893), by Edvard Munch:

The Scream, Munch, click to enlarge

We have something of an equivalent in music in the trend in Italian opera in the same period towards a pared down and "realistic" approach in the sense of depicting events and emotions that were close to the audience's own lives and not as in the impressive and remote German operas of Wagner. In Italian this movement is called verismo ("truthism" in English). The idea was to avoid the traditional virtuosity in favor of a forceful simplicity. The origin of the style was in the writings of Giovanni Verga who wanted to give the impression of an objective narrative where the facts speak for themselves. Of course, the author chooses which facts. The impression of realism was aided by the use of regional dialect, echoed in opera by the use of folk idioms and "local color." For a good discussion, on which I have drawn, see Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, vol. 3, Music in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 658 et seq. Criticisms of these operas accused them of being melodramatic and manipulative. Many popular verismo operas like Cavalleria rusticana and I pagliacci end in brutal crimes of passion. Plainly "truth" in music is no simple matter.

In the early 20th century many composers rejected the kind of crude realism found in some verismo operas in favor of what we might call "truth in expression," what is usually called expressionism in music. As Paul Johnson remarks in his Art: A New History, this rather reverses the process of realism or naturalism where the eye observes closely, the mind processes and the hands deliver the result to the canvas. In expressionism, the mind or soul of the artist forms a mood or image, the hands create the painting and the eyes estimate its accuracy or truth to the original feeling. Musical expressionism is likely the most common theory of musical aesthetics in the public sphere, by which I merely mean that this is probably how most people conceive of it if they ever give it a thought.

But so much music, and particularly highly regarded music, is written in a quite different way. Take who is often the most highly rated of all, J. S. Bach. While his music, the cantatas in particular, contains many passages that are highly expressive, it is more of the universal sorrows of mankind and not Bach's particular inner self. An enormous amount of Bach's music is what you might call "structural" in that it is written in highly elaborated counterpoint. The very popular music of Vivaldi is similarly based on purely musical structures. The very successful contemporary composer Philip Glass' music is similarly written using repetitive musical structures. What is ironic and paradoxical is that attempts at "realism" in music can result in something akin to soap opera or reality television, i.e. something highly unrealistic! On the other hand, music that is more "abstract" can be universally enjoyable even though it seems to make no claims to realism.

The idea of "truth" in music is often associated with the idea of "authenticity" and some years ago the Early Music movement often made claims to "authentic" instruments or ornaments or just performance practice and expression. The reference was to historic authenticity. Richard Taruskin, in a number of papers, made the point of exploding these ideas as being largely mythical.

So what is a composer doing if he is trying to do a good job? There is a kind of aesthetic truth that one is seeking unless you are merely trying to generate another example of a particular genre. If you are just seeking to turn out a typical polka or pop song, then your methods are going to be completely different than if you are trying to make some kind of musical exploration. That is just a metaphor, of course. I like Jordan Peterson's idea that artists are people who venture out from the comfort of the fire to the darkness beyond. That's just a metaphor as well. We are reduced to metaphor because it is the easiest way to try and capture the sense of what artists do.

If you are trying to do something truthful in music (which hopefully converges on the Good and the Beautiful as well) then you are looking for an expression that seems to come from somewhere inside you and not be a mere reflection or echo of something you heard. You are trying to be true to the materials you are using and perhaps trying to choose materials that are themselves truthful in some manner. It is hard to be more specific because every individual piece, choice and expression is, well, individual. Every good piece of music is unique in some way.

There are so many pieces I could choose as examples, hundreds if not thousands, but here are a couple that exemplify for me truthfulness in music. The Quartet in C# minor, op 131 by Beethoven:

The Piano Concerto No. 2 by Prokofiev:

Verklärte Nacht by Schoenberg:

All of which are "truth in expression" pieces, but the Well-Tempered Klavier by Bach is equally truthful in a different way:

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