Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Art as experience

I don't know how long I've lived in a world where art is important--central, even.  How long I've sought it out or gotten lost in it.  In spite of our relative poverty as a family whose income came from a small radio and TV repair business, we had family tickets to the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra from the time I was about eight.  I remember vividly that if I sat back in my seat my legs stuck straight out.  I can also see the small white cotton gloves embroidered with flowers at the wrist that I wore to such occasions.  I can remember hearing composers like Copland, Bartok, Brahms, Wagner, who were not residents of our vinyl record collection, and being absolutely overwhelmed by these brilliant orchestral sounds.  I've written elsewhere in this blog about going to the library with my mother or to the bookmobile down the street.  Just as I can remember concerts, so can I remember being way too young to read Jane Eyre, but reading the "world's classics" (illustrated) copy I had brought home.  And the scene I remember most vividly?  Jane's rebellion against the restraints placed on girls--that we are to be quiet, better-behaved than boys.  I was constantly breaking that rule, and it was so comforting to meet someone who felt as I did.  I also remember walking alone, through the "ghetto" that separated middle-class neighbourhoods like ours and the city's downtown, to go to the small art gallery where the walls were covered in competent paintings of Madonnas.  Or seeing Alberto Giacometti's bronzes at the small gallery at the University of Michigan, the very under-attended gallery that I regularly visited.  I taught English literature classes for forty years, taking my students on the same journey.

So how is it that I've forgotten one of the half dozen truths about art:  that we enter any work of art through our experience of it?  In  English classes we foreground literature's formal and intellectual qualities through our posing of dozens of questions.  What formal choices does the author make?  What kind of narrator?  What poetic forms?  What is she or he doing with figurative language?  What is the ideology of the plot--its assumptions about how the world works and how the people in that world behave?  What does it all mean and how does it mean?

But when you pick up a book or go to a concert, these analytical questions are far from top of mind.  You read for the experience--for the chance to spend time in another world with people you've never met.  You've chosen this book because of the blurb on the back about the plot or the premise, because you loved the voice in the first paragraph.  The language the author uses promises a different perspective on the world--and besides, it's so beautiful!  You seek beauty, shock, terror, comfort.  You want to understand how other people in the world manage change and challenge.  Even Virginia Woolf, formalist as she was, said that we read to see the world through the eyes of other people.  She also said at one point that one of the reasons humans have created civilization is that we love reading.

Nineteenth-century thinker and aesthete Walter Pater once said that "All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music."  Never mind the tortured syntax--which explains why I can only read so much Pater at a time:  "aspires toward"?  But I think in some ways he's right.  Outside of university music departments, we seldom ask what Beethoven's Third Symphony means or what Bach's supremely abstract partitas or two-part inventions say about the world.  Much music "means" itself and has nothing to do with the world.  When I'm listening to Shostakovich's magnificent Ninth Symphony, which has all kinds of historical and political baggage, I don't hear the baggage.  Rather, I mainline its expression of feelings.  The same thing happens when I hear Ella Fitzgerald singing "Autumn in New York" or Fred Hirsh playing Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life."  Yes, I know that there are all kinds of racial issues swirling around these two performances, and I really can't listen to them without feeling race around the edges of my experience.  But that is quickly replaced by gratitude and then immersion in the song.  At least jazz gave gifted black musicians and composers an audience for their voices and stories.  But when all is said and done, it is the experience of the song that takes over, prompting me to sway my hips a little bit as I sing out loud to the cats--and then am silenced by the joy I take from Fitzgerald's and Hirsh's impeccable musicianship.

"A poem should not mean, but be."  I had to memorize Archibald MacLeish's "Ars Poetica" in grade nine for my English teacher, Mr. McElhany, whose question "Do you write poetry?" turned me overnight into a poet.  (I was sixteen and he was very sexy.)  We argued about this line endlessly, and I still can not quite sort it out.  Poetry, after a long period of "being,"--which I suppose I mean it didn't take a recognizably political stance, even though everything is political--has come out in favour of meaning, of using the power of poetry to address issues that still trouble the world, issues like race, poverty, injustice, climate change.  These issues of meaning vs. being will be settled in different ways by different generations living in circumstances unlike ours.  But I do think I can say this:  a poem has to "be"--to pull us into its magnetic field--before we're interested in what it means.

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