Tuesday, July 31, 2007

An Abhorrent System

In my entry to my new academic institution, I was recently introduced to their academic culture module. One of the first few concepts they emphasised was on independent learning and inquiry. Upon coming out from the module, I felt like I've been waddling in a pool of mud. Here's a short summary. In the independent quest for learning, they taught four methodologies, namely survey, compiling documented information, experiments and reasoning. After that follows mandatory steps of justification and critical thinking. I wouldn't go into the details, but you get the rough idea they're advocating.

How am I supposed to reconcile this with the way I function in the artistic field? I'll give an example - aesthetics. Beauty is a central concept in the arts, at certain times even prized higher than values like truth and goodness. Here's an imaginary scenario of myself in a conversation with someone else upon graduation out of this academic institution...

(looking at an abstract form in marble in a sculpture exhibition)

Friend: This is beautiful...
Me: Why do you think so?
Friend: Huh?
Me: As in justify your statement, why is it beautiful?
Friend (hesitatingly, for now his statement concept of beauty is being questioned): The usage of the black marble and spheres, arranged in the simplest manner...
Me: Let's work this out one by one. How does black marble make it beautiful? How does the colour itself and material itself trigger your aesthetic nerves?
Friend: It just comes together. Marble, polished with such meticulous care, painted in black, would result in such a beautiful effect.
Me: So it's the shiny surface of marble. What if he had used glass or a form of well-polished metal for it? Wouldn't it achieve the same effect?

And so the conversation can go on and on, questioning each individual quality in the sculpture, to the way they interact and even on to our perception of beauty, the way we perceive it. (One might argue that aesthetics is such subjective issue that it shouldn't be subject to any justification or any form of rules or trend in the first place, how about issues like capital punishment, euthanasia etc? Aren't there so many perspectives and controversies around these issues? Despite that, they're still being brought up for discussion in such a systematic scientific way.)

How destructive such learning concepts are to the appreciation of artistic objects and forms. And here, in this renowned institution, such skills (based on these concepts) are honed until they're second nature to the student! The picture now. This institution, or rather most academic institutions locally, instil this raging desire to question, research, reason and justify in order to learn. All to the point that without an answer, they wouldn't be satisfied. No satisfaction without an answer. The students are pushed until they can see the inner workings and mechanisms of it all. Going far too fast. How can one fully appreciate and learn about an artistic work and form in such a manner? Can one learn about an artistic work after taking it apart into its smallest components like the way a technician learns?

I'll end off here with a passage by "Speaking of Beauty" by Denis Donoghue.

In "The Artist of the Beautiful" (1844) Hawthorne tells of Owen Warland, a young man who works as a watch-repairer but who lives his true life in search of the beautiful. He is gifted with a acute sense of the delicate and minute. Mind and hand are turned towards the exquisite. Owen thinks of his work as a tribute to Annie Hovenden, whom he loves and regards as his ideal companion, best recipient of the beautiful. For her, he makes a metal butterfly that perches on one's hand, flies off, and returns. It is a work of extraordinary refinement. But Annie marries Robert Danforth, the local blacksmith, a man of iron, and they have a child who resembles his father in that respect. Peter Hovenden, was once a watchmaker and Owen's master, but he is now retired. He is a materialist and despises Owen's yearning for the exquisite. (...) The implied narrator is on Owen's side, because he believes that the "deeds of the earth, however ethereralized by by piety or genius, are without value, except as exercises and manifestations of the spirit." After many tribulations and lapses during which he ceases "to be an inhabitant of the better sphere that lies unseen around us," he succeeds in making the butterfly, giving it his own life. One evening he shows it to Annie, Robert, their child, and Peter:

Nature's ideal butterfly was here realized in all its perfection, not in the pattern of such faded insects as flit among earthly flowers, but of those which hover across the meads of paradise for child-angels and the spirits of departed infants to disport themselves with. The rich down was visible upon its wings; the luster of its eyes seemed instinct with spirit, the firelight glimmered around this wonder - the candles gleamed around it; but it glistened apparently by its own radiance, and illuminated the finger and outstretched hand on which it rested with a white gleam like that of precious stones. In its perfect beauty, the consideration of size was entirely lost. Had its wings overreached the firmament, the mind could not have been more filled or satisfied.

Annie thinks it beautiful and wants to know if it is alive. Robert laughs at it. Peter wants only to see how it works. The child grabs it. In a few moments, meeting those roughness and vulgarities, the butterfly loses its beauty and dies...

8 comments:

Daland said...

Intriguing enough, Jeff!

Our problem is: where to put the border (between spirit and matter, form and contents, “finesse et gèometrie”).

Aesthetics: is it something we can describe, study, learn? And if so, how?

Question-1: do you need any particular study and “dissection-of-the-piece” to enjoy the “flower’s waltz” from Ciajkovski’s Nutcracker? Hopefully not…

Question-2: can you fully enjoy Brünnhilde’s “Justification” without knowing (and just the study can give you such a knowledge) that this theme comes directly from Wotan’s “Covenant” and has tremendous psychological links and dependencies on that? Hardly…

And yet: is Ciajkovski’s piece artistically poorer than Wagner’s?

More: which one is your approach? Passive, leaving the (artistic) phenomenon to hit your sensibility and reacting accordingly? Or active, using your brain to control – and so to fully enjoy – that phenomenon?

Contra-contra question (Wagner-addiction): knowing precisely the chemical receipt of an opium-based drug, does this prevent you form falling intoxicated when taking it?

solitudex said...

Beautiful questions, Daland!

I wasn't really clear on my stand in my post above. This academic system, focuses totally on scientific and systematic way to learn and inquire in orderto acquire more knowledge. Despite my disagreement at this system, I do not stand at the other extreme of this spectrum. I do see the merits of this systematic mode of independent learning and inquiry, but at the same time, I believe one needs to be able to just hold back the logical mind a little and let our God-given senses and spirit to come forth.

Yes, our problem. Where do we put the borders between spirit and matter, form and contents, and if we extend to a bigger sphere to include polarities such as light and darkness, hate and love, lightness and weight? Are we truly able to make a distinction between all the different polarities, and each side of a polarity itself? There're so many grey areas! But that's how the scientific way attempts to study everything, to isolate them, to make sense of them, to understand them, to gain knowledge and then to gain satisfaction from that knowledge. And in fact, most of them, even both sides of a certain polarity co-exist mutually to create a desired effect.

As for aesthetics, maybe those terms like 'describe, study and learn' aren't the proper terms for it. But nonetheless, in this institution, such a systematic way of acquiring knowledge is also imposed on the philosophy field, which includes aesthetics. I can't exactly put my finger on it, but it involves more feelings and thoughts, and I dare say that it's a very spiritual journey, instead of a scientifc and systematic one.

Take your example for instance. The Waltz of the Flowers from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. The first time I heard it a couple of years back, my first reaction was "such beauty! This is the first (and probably the only) waltz I've listened to with such a heart-rending weeping section by the basses!" Such emotions just didn't fit into a waltz, but just in this particular movement, this emotion was juxtaposed in the most coherent manner with the charm and elegance of the waltz, resulting in such an exclamation on my part. That's part of my learning process here and it cannot be questioned in a scientific way as it is an individual's sensory experience. I would certainly love to hear another's experience of it, but it wouldn't be right for me to question their sensory experience of it.

Of course, Wagner would be different in some ways, but one can't swing to the other extreme either. I have to agree that it would be difficult to appreciate the links between various themes if one doesn't dissect them and compare them scrupulously and systematically. But on the other hand, how can one be able to fully appreciate the beauty of the prelude to Act III of Die Walküre or the prelude to Tristan und Isolde? Especially the latter! The tension snowballs and the orchestration thickens. Enjoying them is a completely sensory and spiritual experience! Breaking them up into individual themes, instrumentation, harmonies or more just serves to spoil the entire picture.

That's the thing, Daland, when one analyses music in such a scientific and systematic way, the ending product or conclusion upon breaking everything up can easily be used for comparison. One can say that Composer A's music is more meaningful, coherent, well-orchestrated than Composer B's, does that mean that Composer B doesn't deserve to be performed? If that's how music is studied, then all 'inferior' works shouldn't be performed or played. What an awful loss for everyone if that happens in the artistic world!

I would believe in the artistic field, the senses and spirit comes first before the mind, though both are to co-exist to fully appreciate a piece of music. Both are not mutually exclusive. And I don't think I share your use of opposing passive and active terms. Both I believe are active parts on our side. I find that drawing out those senses and spirit is an active than passive action as well. A total passive state would mean to me closing up to music, expecting some miracle in music to hit them. (I've met pathetic people like that!) How about you, Daland?

And for your last question, why not put it this way, for Wagner alone, after knowing the effects of this opium-based drug, I all the more desire to be intoxicated... I would believe that it's the same for Wagnerites like us, isn't it, Daland?

Daland said...

Jeff,
your sentence “I find that drawing out those senses and spirit is an active than passive action as well” perhaps best describes the ambiguity that is at the core of this whole matter! Yes, because to be “passive”, you just have to “turn on the receiver that is within yourself”, while any “active” approach requires a previous, positive investigative effort! Can we blend these two apparently antipodic sides? To me, yes, in the only way that is given to a human being: first, investigate – then, enjoy!

Only after having explored – perhaps with hand lens – its fresco paintings and its mosaic and chisel works, you can appreciate in its magnificient whole a gothic – or baroque, romanesque – cathedral (or a mosque, by the way)! No doubt either that your spirit can feel lifted just entering such a place and closing your eyes…

As to the attitude required to enjoy Wagner, A.C.Douglas explains the concept (better than I would do) in Part I of his: Wagner's Ring: A Guide For The Willing But Perplexed.

Quote from his writing:
"Wagner's melodic and harmonic metamorphoses, permutations, and contrapuntal symphonic development of these leitmotifs are at the heart of music-drama, the Ring most especially, and one would imagine that an intimate knowledge of all the Ring leitmotifs (with their permutations and metamorphoses they number over a hundred) would be prerequisite for one's understanding of the tetralogy.
You'll be relieved to learn, I'm certain, that such is not the case. One's understanding of and response to the Ring would be immeasurably deepened by such intimate knowledge most certainly, but some experts' notions to the contrary notwithstanding, Wagner created his music-dramas to speak directly to the emotions of a theater audience, none of whom he counted on to be trained musicians or musicologists. The leitmotifs will speak to you and work their magic whether you're aware of their individual presences or not, so you may put your mind at ease concerning them."

ACD’s position, in few words: “Wagner is different from all traditional opera composers, and the best way to enjoy his dramas requires “knowledge”, but you can enjoy them “without knowledge” as well”.

Yes, a very very pragmatic position, reflecting the way 90% of the folks do approach Wagner. It’s what I called the “passive” attitude… the one that will take you no less than to exasperation during Walküre act II, scene II (Wotan’s memory to Brünnhilde)!!! (A piece that – if properly grasped - is one of the most extraordinary phenomenon of musikdrama).

On the other side, the “scientific” approach to Wagner can also lead to misuse (soft term) of his artistic opuses (in the hands of one Winifred or the like) as we have witnessed in the first half of 19th century!

So, we are still in front of my “pills” question! If the pill is the right one for you (who decides? your General Practitioner?) you can safely take it, without knowing its chemical receipt… But in turn, knowing the receipt doesn’t spare you, if you take that pill in the wrong circumstances!

Daland said...

Errata corrige to the previous comment: 20th century was meant, not certainly 19th !!!

solitudex said...

I'm overwhelmed by your explanation, Daland. Such insightful statements which send the rusty gears in my mind into motion.

Yes, I do see the coherence of it all. And I'm surprised that you have remarked that 90% of listeners approach Wagner without, uhm, using their brains. I first approached it that way and I couldn't get as much out of it as compared to a Mozart opera! Coincidentally, it was that experience which sent me straight into the scores, commentaries and guides to find out more about it(instead of merely kicking Wagner aside as an incompetent opera composer). I hadn't regretted it since then, and have understood so much more about him.

Yes, Daland, I do see where such a systematic way of analysing Wagner can take us, with the lessons from near history. But I don't think such events happened because they were influenced by Wagner's philosophies, more probably because their moralities were flawed right from the start!

In my personal spiritual walk, I've gotten much closer to God, partly because of the presence of such ideas in this artistic field which I'm deeply interested in. I guess right inside, I do know I need the strongest anchor before sailing out into the deep seas.

You've lost me there with the pills question, Daland! What do you mean by taking the pills in the wrong circumstances? Is there a wrong circumstance in approaching or listening to Wagner?

Thanks for sharing so much, Daland! Truly appreciate it!

Daland said...

Jeff, I’m moved by your comments to my post! I don’t deserve either the advertising you made me on your blog.

To the “pills” issue and Wagner: with “wrong circumstances” I referred precisely to the perverse use that was made of Wagner by the “Winifred-gang”, that convinced people in the millions to take Wagner just as a dope. And that was really “scientific” in the make!

As much scientific as are today’s theories on Wagner’s early-nazist political aims in writing his dramas: some of them spring from genuine disgust for that misuse that was made of Wagner’s works, many are really influenced by Wagner’s own biography, writings and sayings… while “in the only repository that artistically counts” (the actual scores released for print) there is absolutely nothing to be reproached to Wagner on the racist and anti-semitic issue, to the contrary...

Now, back to the Grüne Hügel, the Norns are about to sing their memories, in a musical atmosphere as pealing as requiring 7 flats in the key signature of the opening (Cflat!)

solitudex said...

Daland, good things are meant to be shared! Just thought that if anyone would bother to read my posts on Wagner, I would be kind enough to point them to a more informative place!

And so I see, the misuse of Wagner's operas. I've heard much of it, by the people in the Wagner family. I have read much about it, but to talk about them here would take up uncountable posts! Maybe if there's a chance for me to visit Bayreuth (you reside in Bayreuth, don't you?) or even go for the Bayreuth Festspiele (what a thought, how incredibly far that dream is!), we can meet up to discuss about this. Let me rephrase it, we can meet up so that you can teach me more about Wagner!

Now, it's time to go back to indulge in this grand orgiastic feast in the finale of this grand opera!

Daland said...

No, Jeff, I live in Milan, Italy…

Yes, some 10 hours-drive from Wagner’s temple, which I was able to visit just in that virtual life that Internet is!

I have almost given up the idea – the dream – to be once in that temple (I don’t even know how to have any chance of getting tickets for). So I thank god that radio first and web recently could let me – and millions like me and you – listen live to the Festspiele’s performances.

If you click on my Wagner2013 blog, you’ll find a rather crushing feedback on last night’s GD, that has brought to my ears the worst Thielemann ever.