That classical arts recognize each other (3)

November 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

There will be another essay here on this topic, the middle section of the argument, whose objective will be to look at length at the similarities between the classical arts of different cultural traditions.

But today I will race ahead and state why looking at these similarities is important.

It is important, in my view, because it constitutes a prolegomena to a new theory of art:  it reveals something of aesthetic xx.

The usual view of art is that it is an activity which grows out of a particular cultural tradition; I don’t have a problem with this view — certainly new art often has something to do with the art that has gone before — except that on this view the “relevant tradition” is defined very broadly.  And thus Italian opera is assumed to grow out of the totality of all cultural phenomena present in Italy at the time of its creation; while, in my view, many cultural phenomena — and much of the human capital — of Italy was not just uninvolved in the creation of Italian opera, but probably antithetical to it.  Many Italians of the time remained indifferent to opera, or made fun of it just the way many people do today:  opera was invented by some people for some people; the name “Italian opera” is conventional, not revelatory; it is not clear that there is anything “Italian” about “Italian opera”; and it is certainly clear that there is nothing operatic about Italy, or the Italian people, or other Italian arts.

The spread of opera to other countries of Europe is consistent with this view:  some Frenchmen, some Germans, some Englishmen, some Poles found opera instantly appealing, despite it being “foreign” (“Italian”); but most did not; the invention of national opera (sung in national languages and on national themes) changed things only a little:  it helped secure state sponsorship and acquire some ideologically minded following (people who will “support” on ideological grounds); yet, for all this, opera has remained a minority pursuit, appealing only to a very narrow subsection of each society.

This is true as opera travels outside of Europe:  when it is shown in China or Japan or Korea, the same thing happens:  most locals remain indifferent, some ridicule it, and some, a very narrow minority, love it.

I take this to mean two things:

1) that classical arts appeal to certain kinds of minds which exist as a mutation across the globe, in all populations; this makes it possible for classical arts to cross borders and language barriers because through them like minds speak to like minds;  and

2) that in whatever the broadly defined milieu of the classical minds (“Italy” or “Europe” or “West” or “China” or “Far East”), the classical minds constitute a minority, an island, an isolated population within it, indifferent to the rest (non-classical) of the culture and often in an adversarial attitude to it.

Combined, the two theses amount to the claim that we, the classical minds, belong to the art world of the classical arts; and that this is our true fatherland, not “Italy” or “Europe” or “The West”.

This thesis has an important corollary:  that to the extent that the kinds of minds do not mix, kinds of art do not mix:  classical arts do not mix with popular arts; dumbing down a classical art so as to reach to a wider audience does not mean that classical art has reached further, only that the classical art in question has been perverted and — from the point of view of the classical minds — killed.

 

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That all classical arts recognize each other (1)

November 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

Perhaps Eco cannot help making observations like this:

The worst cases of befuddlement often occur when Westerners (and not just 15-year-olds) come across religious icons from other cultures — which happens increasingly often today as they travel to distant countries and people from those countries settle in the West.

I’m not talking about Westerners’ puzzled reactions when faced with an African mask or laughter at the sight of an enormously fat Buddha. The fact is that many shake their heads in disbelief when they learn that Hindus worship a deity with the head of an elephant, yet find nothing odd about portraying Christianity’s divine personage as a dove.

It is, of course, a semiotician’s professional disease — the focus on denotation:  art conceived of as manipulation of a set of symbols /meanings — whether mythological or political or otherwise.

Not that what Eco reports isn’t true:  enough people do respond to art the way he suggests (and perhaps does himself) — if they don’t get the story, they don’t get the art — “look, that’s the holy spirit”; but to me this is not the interesting story.

To me, the really interesting story is the (unnoticed) opposite:  that of a cultured western man coming — completely unprepared — face to face for the first time with Indian, or Chinese, or Indonesian art and — being instantly moved by it:  indeed, realizing its familiarity; perhaps not the political or mythological message, but something else, something much more fundamental, much more important.

All classical arts across the globe, no matter how isolated and how independently evolved, share certain features, certain conventions; they slot into our minds in the same way; which means that — sometimes, for some people — being steeped in one classical art is enough to access another.  A sitar raga is immediately comprehensible to some people with solid foundation in western classical music; many with good background in European baroque opera instantly grasp what is going on in Balinese dance drama; people familiar with Shang bronzes are often instantly moved by Benin plaques; some Iranian carpet lovers gasp when they see for the first time in their life Indonesian batiks.

Perhaps this has never happened to Eco; but this certainly does happen to some of those familiar with classical arts.  Perhaps this group are unlike Eco in that their appreciation of classical arts consists in paying attention to features other than those he pays attention to:  perhaps they don’t care what the dove means but about something entirely else; something of which Eco may have no inkling.

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