I have a framework in mind for a dialogue about music. I witness beauty in the world, and I’d like to capture that beauty in contemplation at my instrument, but with the world the way it is, the political landscape being as such that beauty might not seem enough, I find it useful to comment on the phenomenon of witnessing beauty in this world.
Now, to me, good music always has at its edges something profound, the idea that it is, at any time, potentially under threat from forces outside of its creators’ immediate control. Beyond this paradox, for me, lies the understanding that somehow beauty, hard as one might try, cannot be taken away — by the ugly, the violence, the misery — that it somehow contains the latter, and that the precept of beauty as a sovereign entity unto itself is false. I admit that at the point of intersect between myself and my music, and oftentimes between nature and art, lies the root of my curiosity at the fault of this potentiality, like a sapling growing out over the edge of a cliff.
My line of thought goes back to Plato and Aristotle’s conversation about the theory of mimesis, (which Susan Sontag writes about in her essay, “Against Interpretation”), in which Plato concludes that art is useless because it is nothing but an imitation of natural forms, and that natural forms themselves are no more than an imitation of transcendent forms and structures.
In her essay, Sontag pinpoints Aristotle’s disaccord with Plato as occurring only in his belief that art is useful “after all, […] medicinally useful in that it arouses and purges dangerous emotions.” When I think of these emotions, I also think of their taking-root in the mind as thought, and in the heart as bitterness. “The hardened hearts of humanity,” calls Leonard Cohen, “the real weapons of mass destruction.”
At this point I would like to raise a question that in some ways might seem rooted in its reasons-adherent to guilt, or to some form of binary understanding of impact, be it positive on the one hand, or negative on the other. Art can be questionable. It can be good, it can be bad, and the same goes for music. But is music-making “action?” When I think of the mode of understanding that Aristotle employs for seeking out the usefulness of art (i.e. its medicinal use in that it arouses and purges dangerous emotions), I have to question the motives of Plato to begin with in trying to find a “use” for art. That being said, Plato didn’t live in 21st century America where the media is running rampant with racism and climate denial, while enabling the people who seem to have the most control in exercising some sort of solution and yet are doing –– not only nothing, but far worse –– much more damage than good in the situation. I don’t know enough about the Greeks to even begin to comment on the context of Plato’s inquiry. However, if music-making is action, what would make that action most effective in “arousing and purging” those “dangerous emotions” that lead to more violence, more hatred, more greed, less compassion –– that lead us further from a solution to our problems, not only as a nation, but also as a species?
If it is harmful action into which these dangerous emotions transform themselves, aroused but unpurged, do we not have a responsibility as musicians to be not only honest and compassionate, but raw in our emotional expression as we perform? If one sees no reason why we should worry for music, one need only to look at the basic tenets of our current (i.e. musical) industrial infrastructure, where music is streamed, often at no cost at all, and then there is therefore little revenue, most of which goes into the pockets of the shareholders of Spotify or Apple Music, or whatever. Besides, we all know that things are different; if they were not, why then would an artist place so much attention — put so much care into the form and consistency of their work to begin with? One might operate on the assumption that art is self-serving, that the artist believes they will be led to the resolution of their own “dangerous emotions” or whatever, on their own, in a natural way, through and by their art, an art which is sovereign and all encompassing; one might daydream a little: “beyond the denial of natural forms — how could art make itself more useless?”
In 1960, the poet Paul Celan received the Georg Büchner prize. The acceptance speech he gave called for a “radical calling into question of the sovereignty of art.” In 1970, only ten years later, he drowned himself in the Seine.
Now, if we see this in terms of the artist’s psychic collaboration with their audience — the viewer, the reader, the listener — we have only an inkling of what Celan might have meant. Art and music are not the same thing, nor is poetry their triplicate, the idiom in which the poet dedicated himself. Is the artist sovereign over their work? Only in creating it, and even that is in question, but certainly not after. And if so, it follows that art itself is not — that which exists in the realm of abstraction — sovereign. Over whom? The listener, the viewer, or the reader? Over artists themselves? Perhaps, for as Sontag, in her essay, quotes D.H. Lawrence: “never trust the teller, trust the tale…”
Paul Celan survived the holocaust, lost both his parents, and suffered in exile for the remainder of his years in Paris, something that we all should think about before testing the waters in this manner. What he meant was not lost on us.
Wasn’t it James Baldwin who pronounced to the artist, “you are being used, in the way a crab is useful, in the way that sand certainly has some function.” Susan Sontag sheds some light on this in a different manner. She says, “it doesn’t matter whether artists intend, or don’t intend, for their works to be interpreted.” Sontag argues against interpretation in that “all observable phenomena are bracketed, in Freud’s phrase, as manifest content.” By interpreters. It is easy to talk about art, Celan said as he received his accolade. Quotes Celan, “Long live the king!” George Büchner’s Lucile –– at the end of Danton’s Death, when all the artists in their art-serving way are on the gallows, as puppets –– “cuts the string” in Celan’s words, “paying homage to the majesty of the absurd as witness for the presence of the human” with her phrase which Celan equated, for the time being, perhaps his time, perhaps only temporarily, with poetry itself.