To begin with a quote…

I’m grateful that Bach’s Christianity was realized in both his conscious and subconscious mind.  But being a practising Christian is not part of the job description, and sometimes God chooses most peculiar people to be vessels of genius.  My mother used to sigh because her beloved Wagner was such a nasty man.  And I was horrified to have some students tell me that a lot of people actively dislike Robert Frost.  How does one separate the art from the artist?

I don’t think one does, and this poses a problem.  How do we reconcile atheism, drunkenness, sexual immorality, with strong, beautiful poetry, angelic music, transfigured painting?  We human beings don’t, and that’s all there is to it.  Dostoeyvsky’s magnificent theology is not always compatible with his agonized life.  Mozart wrote one of his merriest and most joyful pieces while he was frantic over his dying mother.  Mendelssohn, who helped give Bach to the world, was a Jew.

It’s all more than I can cope with–or, rather, it’s more than my conscious mind can cope with.  Jung says that we are far more than the part of ourselves we can know about, and that one of the most crippling errors of twentieth-century culture has been our tendency to limit ourselves to our intellect… The right hemisphere of the brain controls the left side of the body and the intuition, we are told; and the left hemisphere of the brain controls the right side of the body and the intellect.  And we’re afraid of that left, intuitive side…

From that misunderstood left comes prayer and poetry and song, and these have a healing power we are losing touch with in this technocratic age…

Maybe the job of the artist is to see through all of this strangeness to what really is, and that takes a lot of courage, and a strong faith in the validity of the artistic vision even if there is not a conscious faith in God…

‘Our identity is hidden, even from ourselves…. the doctrine that we are made after the image of God proclaims that the human being is fundamentally a mystery, a free spirit.  The creative artist is one who carries within him the wound of transcendence.  He is the sign that human beings are more than they are.’

~ from Walking on Water, by Madeleine L’Engle (125-128) (internal quote from Journey into Christ, by Alan Jones)

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2 thoughts on “To begin with a quote…

  1. In his article “The Dehumanization of Art,” Jose Ortega y Gasset says the following: “From Beethoven to Wagner music was primarily concerned with expressing personal feelings. The composer erected great structures of sound in which to accommodate his autobiography. Art was, more or less, confession. There existed no way of aesthetic enjoyment except by contagion. ‘In music’ Nietzsche declared, ‘the passions enjoy themselves.’ Wagner poured into Tristan and Isolde his adultery with Mathilde Wesendonck, and if we want to enjoy this work we must, for a few hours, turn vaguely adulterous ourselves. That darkly stirring music makes us weep and tremble and melt away voluptuously.”
    In your post, you brought up the question of separating the artist from the art they create. Gasset argues that this is impossible, and that to experience their music is to partake, even if it is in a superficial manner, in their lives. I think his argument is elegant and worth consideration, but I don’t agree with his conclusion that art must be dehumanized.
    I think the value of this article is that it challenges the reader to consider the nature of listening. Is music just a mediator between composer and audience? What is it about listening to Wagner that I enjoy? Is it precisely the things that Gasset suggests were created out of Wagner’s passionate immorality – the lush sonorities, the abrupt changes? Do I enjoy these things because they create in me the same emotions that Wagner’s immorality created in him?
    Gasset’s connection between music and morality brings up very interesting questions. These are questions it seems like you were beginning to reach in your post.

    • I agree that these questions are interesting, and to some extent fundamental to our understanding of our role as hearers and “enjoyers” of music. L’Engle’s statement that we cannot “separate the art from the artist” chimes with Gasset’s thesis, although I think they come to different conclusions. It seems L’Engle is saying that with our intellect, we are stuck with the incompatibility of transcendent art and fallen artists, but with our intuitive, “left” side, we can move beyond that incompatibility to the reality and truth of the art. Again, not that we can separate the two, but that somehow we are able to grasp the truth of what is beyond our limited intellectual scope. I think there is something to this, but I think you are right in bringing up Gasset’s point – I don’t agree that we are necessarily drawn into the immorality that may belong to the intent behind the artwork, but I do agree with you that we need to be asking ourselves the questions you pose… Perhaps we can allow our intuitive grasp of the value of the work to be moderated and tempered by our intellectual questions about our connections with the artist.

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