Just thinking about beauty and the ability to appreciate beauty. And sophistication, which is, I suspect, what fans of sophistication would call the ability to appreciate and understand beauty. But I’m not sure. I just got done reading a 2007 article from the Washington Post by Gene Weingarten about a social experiment in which Joshua Bell, widely regarded as one of the world’s most accomplished violinists, positioned himself inside a metro station in New York and played pieces of great beauty and sophistication for three quarters of an hour to an unsuspecting public. The goal was to see if people, busy people on their way to work, would be able to appreciate beauty for what it is, even taken out of context.
The report takes many factors into consideration and examines many points of view, from Kantian philosophy which says that beauty must be appreciated in context, to Plato’s questioning of the possibility of objective beauty, but all the questions and deconstructions of the event, indeed all the discussion surrounding it at all, proceed from the unshakeable foundation that Chaconne and Colors for a Large Wall are beautiful.
Okay, I know that even printing that sentence is enough to get me labelled as a philistine, but stop for a moment and hear me out before you go firing up your torch. First of all, it is a commonly accepted truism that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There have been thinkers and philosophers who’ve tried to assert that the mind works this or that way, and that certain constructions must therefore strike chords on some deep physiological level — so-called rules of aesthetics, and people with deeper insights than me are still in debate about the validity of supposing any such rules. And I’m certainly not arguing that these pieces are inherentlynot beautiful. Or indeed not beautiful at all. They may very well be. What I am arguing is the assumption that they are, or that such a thing as beauty exists. It might be better to say that appreciation exists.
I think about going back. Waaaay back. To a time before there was anyone with a right to assert anything like sophistication. Lucy is wandering around, foraging and scratching herself with her stone hand axe, and she sees a butterfly settle on a nearby outcropping of stone. It’s wings reflect all the myriad colors of the rainbow in the brilliant light of the early afternoon sun. The world around her is largely unshaped by the exploits of her fellows, and grasslands spread out beneath the baking sun as far as her post-simian eye can see. Does she perceive beauty in the scene before her? Of course there is no way to tell. I mention this moment in her life only to point out that these things have not always existed. That one could easily imagine a world in which Mozart and Picasso had never created their works.
I mean — What is beauty? This is not a topic which, for sheer magnitude and complexity, I have the strength to even consider looking into, so I will simply say that, setting beauty as such aside, one can most likely recall having had an experience of liking before. That is to say, having liked something — a piece of music, a painting, a poem, a sculpture, or some other form of human expression, or some form of nature. There has been, for each one of us, most likely in our lives at some point an experience which we have liked. Whether that is to say that it has soothed us, or excited us. For the purposes of this discussion I am excluding those experiences whose appeal is predominantly sexual or appetite-related (not sure if I should do this, but perhaps that is in itself a discussion for another time). I am therefore confining the motivation for the ‘liking’ to aesthetic reasons — not because the experience or object fitted into some need, or because it got one off, or because it had economic appeal, but simply … because. That possibly Lucy, stopped short in the act of ripping skin off of a proto-gazelle by some movement, was inexplicably struck on some level she had no understanding of, by the sight of that butterfly for no reason at all other than just because. Did her successors, uttering the first ever words of human speech, become arrested in their ever-more industrious life-styles by moments of breathless wonder, seeing flickering firelight seem to give motion to their painted bison and deer?
I guess my thoughts are breaking down into really two different streams here.
• Does beauty exist in some objective form, or at all?
• Is there such a thing as banality, and is it inherently of less value than beauty?
See, in the Washington Post report, Weingarten points out that Bell, in his experiment in L’Enfant Station, chose not to play catchy tunes people would be familiar with. No show-tunes, no violin-ized versions of Queen or Journey, and no 1980’s cartoon theme-songs. He stuck strictly to high art: classical masterpieces that have withstood the test of time, selling out packed theatres and recital-halls for centuries to crowds of wealthy aristocrats and literati. While the educated and elite for all those years were enjoyng Bach, Schuman, and Beethoven, what were their (far more numerous) social lessers whistling as they skipped to the pub after a long day of drudgery? Some bawdy sixteenth century version of Baba O’Riley, probably.
So is the music of the masses always inferior to the music of the masters? Is it ever? I question these systems of aesthetic value which tend to favor the theme: ‘The more inaccessible the work, the greater the genius of its creator.’ Maybe those commuters were busy and had unforgiving bosses who wouldn’t understand ‘I heard a master-violinist playing in the metro and I just had to stop and catch the last movement of the Ave Maria’. That is quite likely. Maybe they didn’t hear because they were on their iPods or their Zunes or whatever and they literally weren’t reached by the sound. Maybe they were broke and didn’t want to seem like deadbeats when they didn’t toss in a quarter, so they just hurried on. Or maybe they didn’t care. Maybe they didn’t care for the music. Maybe they would have stopped for something they recognized; something they liked. Something they could nod their heads and tap their feet to. And this is at the heart of one of my two questions up there. Would that, that preference for the familiar and for something that gives delight, would that make them plebian? Would it make them lesser than someone who preferred the long and drawn out, complicated rhythms and structures of Chaconne? Is wine always better than lager?
Yep, you’re thinking, I knew it. He’s a philistine. Wish I hadn’t wasted three minutes reading this drivel.