Reimagining the World

La Bohème: Act I, “O Soave Fanciulla” (“Oh Sweet Lady”) Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert Von Karajan, Luciano Pavarotti, Mirella Freni & Rolando Panerai

Reimagining the World

Description: Rodolfo’s garret – set design for Act I of La bohème for the world premiere performance, Teatro Regio di Torino, 1 February 1893.Adolf Hohenstein

Puccini’s opera La Boheme is about “Bohemians” or the starving artists that were associated with Bohemia in the European mind of the nineteenth century. In this song Rodolfo and Mimi meet for the first time and immediately fall in love. It is a Romeo and Juliet at the ball kind of moment. It even ends with Rodolfo’s friends calling to him to come join them, as Romeo’s friends call to him when he sneaks off to court Juliet. The story ends tragically but not because of feuding families but an incurable disease. The story was recently updated and became the Broadway musical Rent. In both Rent and La Boheme the artists are outsiders and their art under appreciated.

Public schools, and perhaps private schools as well, struggle to maintain an arts program. These programs are often dismissed as non-essential to the core mission of a school. Often people think of “art-types” like the characters in La Boheme, folks who are a bit outside the mainstream and a bit odd. Science and math produce all kinds of tangible results that everyone can see but the benefits of the arts are often more subtle and difficult to put a name to. Math and science change the visible world but the changes produced by the arts are internal; the arts change the person. These changes to the individual are not always observable and where they are observable are often attributed to other things.

There was a review in the New York Times Book Review section on a study of the role of art in human evolution. The book is called The Descent of Taste. When I saw the title of the book being reviewed I thought it suggested a study of how taste in art has declined over the years. I anticipated a book that charted a decline in artistic sensibility that compared the music of Bach to John Cage or the paintings of Rembrandt to those of Jackson Pollack. There are many in the art community that do not care for the direction the arts have taken in modern times and I thought this was another book written by “one of those people.” But when I read the review I found that it was about something else, the role the arts have played in human evolutionary development. The title refers to an instinct for art that resides in us all that has descended down to us from our earliest ancestors.

Lascaux Cave Painting

The painting is from a cave in France and was painted many thousands of years ago. It suggests that art, the desire to capture some aspect of the world around us, has been a part of human experience for a very long time. The book contends that the urge to create art goes back about a million and a half years. The book also suggests that this urge to create is a part of what separated humans from the rest of the creatures with whom they cohabitated. There is also the suggestion that skill at creating art made a person more desirable to one of the opposite sex, and perhaps this played a role in the evolution of the “art instinct.”

Saint George and the DragonRaphael Sanzio

As artists became more skilled at capturing the world around them the pictures they painted, as well as the sculptures they sculpted, became more lifelike. But is it the ability to capture the world as it is that makes a work of art, “art”? In this painting by Raphael the horse and the knight on the horse are real, the woman in the background is real, but what about the dragon? Is the dragon intended to capture a slice of the real world or is it more allegorical or symbolic? Perhaps it captures the world the way the painter believed the world to be once upon a time.

G. K. Chesterton once said, “Art exists solely in order to create a miniature universe, a working model of the universe, a toy universe, which we can play with as a child plays with a toy theater.” Does this view of art require art to be representational? Perhaps, but then as a novelist Chesterton often wrote novels that portrayed a world that was in many ways dissimilar from the world in which we live. In the novel The Man Who Was Thursday, for example, there are events no one would expect to find taking place in the real world, the premise of the novel is hardly realistic, and there are characters it is safe to say no one is likely to meet on the streets, then or now. But then the novel is satire and satire often plays by a different set of rules.

Cafe Terrace at NightVincent Van Gogh

Perhaps the first question that must be asked is what does the universe look like and does the universe the artist creates have to resemble the universe in which the artist lives? Van Gogh’s painting is recognizable as a café on a town street with people milling about. But though it resembles cafes we all have seen it does not look exactly like any café we are likely to see, even if we went to the street in Arles where this café could be found. Still, in the words of Chesterton a universe is created and Van Gogh seems to enjoy playing with that toy universe. But more importantly I am changed by looking at the painting. I do not know if a photograph digitized on a blog page moves the viewer, but seeing the actual painting does, or at least it did move me.

The colors of this painting when seen on the actual canvas have a “something” that the picture on the blog page does not. I do know if the right word is vibrancy, energy, or something else, I do not really believe there is a word for it. Real art often escapes language. A photograph of a great painting often makes the painting look more like an illustration; something designed to lend some color to the page. There are painters who work for interior designers whose sole job has become creating a canvas with colors that match the design of the room in which it will hang. The painter probably sees her or himself as an artist but does that make the person an artist.

I was once walking down Lakeshore Drive in Chicago and I was stopped by an elderly man. He pointed to an office building (I was on a section of Lakeshore Drive that bordered on the business district of Chicago) and said he started his career working in that office building. He started talking about his career as an artist. He said that he began as a commercial artist in the office building that we were facing. He said that at one time he did a portrait of the Duke of Windsor. He was an elegantly dressed man and his dress suggested he had been successful in whatever had been his career, so it was not impossible that he painted the Duke of Windsor, but I am not sure that it was likely. But if he had painted the Duke, would that make him an artist? Is it enough to capture faithfully an image?

No._5,_1948, An abstract painting by Jackson Pollock, taken from Art Market,_1948.jpg

This painting by Jackson Pollack is not at all representational. There is depth and texture to it. It conveys an energy and movement, but what is there about the canvas that causes some to see it as a great work of art? Why are some people moved by this painting in the same way that I was moved by the Van Gogh when I saw it on a museum wall? W. H. Auden wrote a narrative poem about the same time that this painting was painted called The Age of Anxiety. The poem characterized the modern world of its time. It was an anxious time. A war had just ended and people lived in fear of another war, a nuclear war. The painting and the poem both evoke a time of uncertainty especially about the future.

But to return to the original question, why study art, why make art a part of a school’s curriculum when there are so many more important things to study. Does art and the appreciation of art make people more humane? Probably not. The Nazis loved great art, but were also capable of great cruelty. Nor are the Nazis unique in this regard, history tells of many others. If art does not make us better people, than what does it do?

Art does train the imagination and art does reflect back to us the world in which we live. The paintings on the cave in France, the paintings by Raphael, the paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, and the paintings of Jackson Pollack all reflect back to people the world of their unique time in history. They were Chestertonian toy universes that re-imagine the universe in which the artists that painted them lived. Raphael lived in an orderly world, if not in fact at least in the popular imagination. Jackson Pollack at the other extreme lived in a world where order seemed to be collapsing.

Kenneth Clark Civilisation

Kenneth Clarke’s television series Civilisation (Mr. Clarke could spell, he just spelled as an Englishman) was very popular about the time I graduated high school. At the beginning of the film he talks about there being three books in which a civilization records itself, its history, its words, and its art. There are not many who know the names of those that reigned when Raphael painted or when Van Gogh painted. If we remember who ruled when Pollack painted it is probably because it is still recent history and it is our history which most spend a year or more of their lives studying. It is perhaps too early to tell whether or not we want to be remembered by the things that our leaders have done or by the things our artists have produced.

The Getty Museum carved out of a hillside of Los Angeles, as a museum provides a resting place for the art that has characterized the world’s civilizations but it also stands as a statement of the architectural art of our generation. The music of The Beatles, John Adams, and John Harbison will probably have more to say about how the present age is viewed in the future than any of the leaders that have led the nations of the world in our time. The science of Dante’s time has for the most part been forgotten (though the science of that day was instrumental in producing the science of our day), but Dante is still with us.

I do not know if there is a satisfactory answer to why we should study art as fervently as we study science and math but it is very likely that the art we produced will play at least as significant a role in defining who we are as a people to future generations as any of our scientific advances. Artists often look funny to the rest of the culture and often believe odd things. But what is to be said of a culture that can put a machine on the planet Mars that will take photographs of the Martian surface and test the Martian geology that cannot appreciate the sublime nature of that stark Martian landscape and does not know how to make a song about it.

What does it say about a culture that does not see the need to train its youth to understand and appreciate the sublime; to develop the eye of the imagination as diligently as it cultivates the practice of the scientific method? It is the artist in us that must be cultivated that can imagine more to Mars than reddish dust. This realization may not stop us from exploiting the resources of Mars, but it may encourage us to feel, like the Walrus, badly about what we do and that is a good thing. But even if it doesn’t the realization will remain with many that it is a beautiful thing that has been destroyed.