Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Is Art Powerless Against Reality?

From Romain Rolland, as quoted by Stefan Zweig: "Art can bring us consolation as individuals, but it is powerless against reality."
This simple statement has been rattling around in my brain for the last 24 hours. Romain Rolland, who, in addition to writing novels, plays, and essays about art wrote a great deal about music. [The internet archive has some of his musical writings here, and you can find the text of his well-known book, Beethoven the Creator here.]

Rolland lived in France during a time when I thought that art (or Art) was considered a vital part of reality, but I am learning, little by little, that a general "reality" is something controlled not by the people who make art, but by the people who have a great deal of power. We have had, during the past few centuries, people of power who were consumers of art. The world is indeed indebted to the artistic tastes of Elizabeth I, Louis XIV, Frederick the Great, Ludwig II of Bavaria, the Princess de Polignac, and those three Americans named Henry: Frick, Huntington, and Higginson.

Cue Herman's Hermits for a bit of comic relief:

It seems to me that many of the people of wealth and power living in this century (the one percent, and the politicians representing them) aren't particularly interested in art, music, and drama beyond celebrity and investment value. I fear that art has lost even more of what little power it might have had when Rolland considered it powerless against reality.

I think I'll poke through those Rolland essays now. I'm hoping for a bit of consolation in them.


Anonymous said...

Musical art has served well in carrying forward themes such as high-minded liturgical forms like a Missa Solomenis as well as the broad scope of theatrical and storytelling forms such as Don Giovanni or the Ring, and composers have fashioned their own complex constructions like unto the 32 sonatas or the dynamism of a Rite of Spring. This Western canon has come under attack from the modern, post-modern game which detests a supposedly "guilty" Western civilization in favor of tearing things down and discarding work of abiding value for the pop and consumer disposable but mass money-making of today. When one considers the creativity of not only major but minor composers as well, major and minor poets and playwrights and authors together, painters and sculptors, one sees what a Bronowski might capture in a phrase as the "ascent of man," or a Kenneth Clarke might find as man's measure. Much of this was of individual effort and much was underpinned by that wealth and power which saw a stake in building, not discarding a past. The contemporary game in which all is political seems to be shoving this aside, in favor of a new wealth and power based on something which seems less intent on adding to culture, but rather tearing away. Perhaps this is too dark a picture, but perhaps it is accurate. So is art then powerless against reality? I think not, because today's tools for the individual and for small, independent consortiums are many-sided, and there are more arts being "committed" though we may not see that for the noise and surface tension of politics-all-the-time. It seems time to refuse the modern seekers of wealth and power their aim to dominate our thinking, and just to committ acts of art, so to speak. Rolland sought peace, which was made ironic by the Kaiser and then National Socialists, but what have we today but fifteen years of the Bush-Obama pursuit of war and regime change politics practiced in this supposedly peaceful, prosperous time? We seem not to have progressed from Rolland's era in terms of politics, yet artists continue their pursuits. You do, as an up-close-and-personal example. So perhaps the best lesson is not the seeming skepticism by seeing in Rolland's quote that art somehow stands powerless against reality. Perhaps the better reading is that art -- as consolation, at the minimum -- is the better response to reality than becoming dour and adopting some personally oppressive perspective from the political, war-making world. That is real, but so is a string quartet standing in the winds of war and singing its consolation. Best wishes.

Elaine Fine said...

Thank you for this extremely meaningful (and even consoling) comment, Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Maynard Solomon's "Mozart, a Life" (New York, HarperCollins, 1995) ends this way:

Ultimately, we are left with the unexceptionable utopian affirmations - love, marriage, the good society, brotherhood, innocence, virtue, reconciliation - and a need to believe in the power of music. For a while, at least - and even longer, because music is endlessly repeatable - Mozart succeeds in offsetting the fears of separation, betrayal, and silence which his operas evoked in the first place. These affirmations may be defective, but they are all we have. We will have to make do.

It is suggested we agree with Mozart, and less so with Solomon, because we might better think the affirmations applied to one's self are not "defective." Rather powerful for each of us, individually, because creativity for composer as for player as for audience member is and will always remain individual.

So Mozart succeeds. So shall we. So should we.

Best wishes.

Elaine Fine said...

Thank you again. It is so important to remember that creativity, by its very nature, will always remain individual. And therefore in our created worlds (and kingdoms) art must continue to matter, even when faced with "reality."

Gypsyjazz said...

Thankyou for this extraordinary blog post, I am totally agree with your every pooint of this article i also believe that music is endlessly repeatable