In my community orchestra, the amateur musicians feel a self-conscious fellowship: the camaraderie of the misunderstood. We know that, somewhere along the way, “classical” came to mean “difficult” and “nerdy,” and serious art became the province of those strange birds who specialize in it in their concert-halls. As Emily Carde so convincingly points out, this attitude is dangerous. By giving literature to the academy, music to the nerds, and art to the museums, we emptied beauty out of our lives.
You could blame technology and the hurried twenty-first century lifestyle, or point to commercialism and pop culture. But there is another reason: People underestimate our common ability to apprehend the aesthetic.
To clear this misunderstanding, let’s start with one truth believed by many an artist and musician: Beauty helps to make us more human. Aesthetic experience makes us human in two ways: 1) it schools us in the range of human emotions, and 2) it allows us to connect on a deep level with others. To forget these two purposes of the aesthetic is to dismiss art and diminish our lives.
So we will always need art that resonates with us in our daily lives.
You don’t need a degree to appreciate beauty. In fact, most art (with the exception of modernists like T.S. Eliot and Schoenberg) can be accessed by anyone willing to spend a little time and attention. My young violin students prove this to me over and over, as I watch them enjoying pieces by Brahms and Paganini, both of whom are supposedly “difficult” composers.
One of my favorite lesson activities is to break a piece into phrases and ask the students to describe the character or mood of the music as it progresses. They always amaze me by pinning phrases with emotions that get at their meaning—sometimes in ways that hadn’t occurred to me. One student tells me her gavotte is like an argument between two people that resolves near the end into contentment. Weber’s Hunter’s Chorus is “jolly” and “robust.” That tumbling phrase in Handel’s Bouree is joyous, like a man who spies his long-lost fiance and runs down the stairs to meet her. These children are not prodigies. Some practice hard, and some don’t. They all sense emotions expressed in their pieces, not because they are geniuses, but because they are human, and because they have (voluntarily or not) invested part of themselves in the music.
There is a misconception among the educated classes that people prefer kitschy art over better things because they are intellectually lazy or uneducated. They’ll pick Disney over Dostoevsky and Justin Bieber over Beethoven because they don’t like to think, and the good stuff asks us to use our brains. To the common person, of course, this explanation sounds elitist. But it is also false. You don’t have to be intellectually brilliant in order to be moved by something beautiful. In fact, as many a literary critic knows, brainy analysis can crowd out appreciation.
This is where Roger Scruton’s categories (borrowed from Samuel Taylor Coleridge) of “fantasy” and “imagination” are invaluable. In his Guide to Modern Culture, Scruton argues that beauty reaches our emotions not through the intellect, primarily, but through the imagination.
The tragic Romeo and Juliet moves us, as reading the Psalms of David might move us, by taking us out of ourselves and our present concerns. We do not feel the emotions immediately as our own, but we do learn what it is like to experience those emotions: the longing and frustration of the lovers; the exuberance, faith, or despondency of the psalmist. And we expand our own ability to feel, and to judge the rightness or wrongness of our feelings. Beautiful art allows us, as Scruton says, “to understand dramatic events not theoretically, but by living through them in imagination and sympathy, as the fate of Demeter is lived through by the one who sings the Homeric hymn to her, or as the crucifixion of Christ is lived through by the choir and congregation during the St. Matthew Passion.”
Through this imaginative distance, art teaches us how to order our emotions, as Augustine might say. Art enables us to feel more truly and more deeply.
The alternative to imagination is “fantasy,” which is a fake aesthetic experience, what Scruton calls a “surrogate.” Think of Quentin Tarantino’s invented Nazis who get scalped for the audience’s pleasure, or a romance flick, with the nebulous hero or heroine who could just as well be you. Such works cater to sentimentality, the desire for immediate emotion that requires little imagination. The sentimentalist, says Oscar Wilde, “wants to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” The “cost” of a real aesthetic experience is an investment of the self—a willingness to encounter something outside your current desires and goals.
Very little of our popular culture asks us to pause our own pursuits. Commercial entertainment forms a background to our daily activities and emotions as we shop, drive, work, or recover from work in front of the TV. Using a song as an accompaniment to my current emotions, like a drug that intensifies or calms them down, doesn’t only happen with Justin Bieber; I can do it with Beethoven too. But in either case, “using” is no substitute for the real aesthetic work of engaging with the piece.
Beautiful things seem hard to us only because we have learned shortcut approaches to the arts, which prevent us from encountering them in a way that would genuinely move and grow us. So we discard them, assuming they are too difficult or old-fashioned.
But beauty is difficult only to the extent that we have trouble allowing an experience not immediately our own to intrude on our world. Shinichi Suzuki, the Japanese violin teacher who insisted that all children can become musicians, believed that this going-out-of-the-self was the same kind of investment that is necessary for all human love and virtue. That is why, according to Suzuki, “music exists for the purpose of growing an admirable heart.”
Whether with people or with art, learning to go out of yourself takes patience and practice. So how do we start the work of “growing an admirable heart?” Joseph Cunningham suggests we begin by carving out just fifteen minutes a day to engage with art. If you need some advice, you might find a theater, ask your bookworm friends for novel suggestions, or hunt out a local artist. Or you might visit the symphony and take the challenge I give my students: See if you can sense the emotions and tensions in the musical phrases (whether or not you feel them directly). Can you describe the mood at the beginning and ending?
Whatever you choose to explore with your daily fifteen minutes, don’t be afraid to try a few “classics.” Some of the things you thought were hard might just be waiting for you to approach them again with a humble and willing imagination.
Image by Unsplash via Pixabay.