The Death of The Arts

A Long-announced Event That Never Comes but Never Ends

Originally Published on March 23, 2016 – By Leo Perez.

Photo Credit: Eva Rinaldi. Some rights reserved. Used under a C.C. License.

Non-commercial art seems to always be on the decline. The general public seems to be more concerned about Kim Kardashian than learning anything about how their cell phones work, and much less about classical music composers of any age. Music funds in schools are disappearing and commercial music is more popular than ever, despite of the rise of the internet and the democratization of creative means. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised; true art has always been something rather elitist, or at least something that belongs to a minority of highly educated, or maybe even snobbish folk? Is it really becoming irrelevant? Should “true” artists continue to endeavor to create for a small circle of people and perhaps risk leaving an invisible legacy on an audience more interested in what’s strictly commercially trendy?

We would like to think that a mature composer is a person who composes. Full stop. No more and no less. Fame, money and success should all be irrelevant. What matters is the creative process and its outcome, right? However, we know politicians should not crave power, but most of them are in power precisely because that’s what they are attracted to. We often hear how important government positions should be given only to people who “don’t need the job”. We strive for purity, for removal of all possible conflict of interests, and we would like to think that it should be the same in the arts. We certainly try to stay pure, but do we succeed?

I have to agree to a certain degree with this purist view, not just for musicians but also for any artistic creative individual. Some artists not only should but also in fact strive to be free of external constraints because there is a calling that compels them to create the best possible work they can do. The writer writes and circumstances will be circumstances. The world may be ending, the lottery may be won, contracts or commissions may be coming or not, critics may praise or condemn, it shouldn’t matter. A mature artist creates, just like the fly runs away from the hand that tries to smash it, and like the moth flies in fatal attraction towards the light bulb. It’s all inevitable, and perhaps not so unrealistic.

You may be thinking this all belongs only in some kind of artistic utopia. It may be so. However, I will try to make the case that regardless of what the current state of affairs is, striving for this purity it is not a fruitless endeavor, and we should in fact continue to make every effort for it, respect it, and honor it, perhaps above all other human acts. This is mostly due to the fact that doing so, is in synch with all that we hold dear in this world: order, harmony, ethics, pleasure, morality, aestheticism and love. I know this is a big leap, but please read on.

Photo Credit: Antonio Castagna. Some rights reserved. Used under a C.C. License.

Does the composer create because she thinks she is an artist? I would say that’s certainly not the case, at least for most people. A composer composes, and there is no reason for it. Art is not done for any reason in particular; art is done, because one does, because one must. Becoming an artist (at least in the strict sense of the word) is never a rational choice; instead, is a calling. If we push the issue, and ask any artist why beyond this “calling” Art is ever made, she may tell you that all Art seems to inspire, describe or direct our experience of existence to a lower degree of entropy (chaos or disorder) and bring about an aesthetic experience in the process. I would argue that more than a simple artist’s opinion, the act of creation is as fundamental and ingrained to human nature as food is to our survival. A young Nietzsche once said: “without music, life would be a mistake”. I do not believe this is very different from saying: “without food, we would die”. I do not mean this in a poetic or metaphorical sense, but in a literal way: of course we can live without music and survive, however, we cannot survive as a species, or even as living conscious beings, without unambiguously working in a direction that where cooperation, harmony, trust, moral behavior and love do not exist, and this is what “artistic” music is about.

Why agonize about creating aesthetic forms that have nearly no pragmatic use for the survival of the species? You may think that music and art is simply marginally useful because it may entertain, provide pleasure, relax or helps us focus. These are true statements, however, is this really all there is to it? And why does it feel like a calling? Is it simply a side effect of evolving our brains to look for structure and order for survival? Why do perfectly sane and talented individuals in fields like Mathematics, Science and Engineering dedicate their life efforts on something like becoming an artist which barely pays the bills in today’s society? Are we simply at the mercy of being unable to stop and following another evolutionary “glitch” that forces us to do meaningless stuff? Are we wasting our time producing impractical poetry, metaphors and collections of pitches in ordered lines? There are people out there who think music in the best of scenarios is just a form of entertainment, and others even consider it a full-blown waste of time. Well, is it?

Not quite and far from it.

Photo Credit: A Health Blog. Some rights reserved. Used under a C.C. License.

As Winston Churchill is rumored to have said: “[If we cut funding to the arts and dedicate money to the war efforts], what are we fighting for then?” I believe the act of creation is a force of nature in the most literal sense. For instance, as a composer, creating is something I can’t stop whether I rationally think this is useful in life or not; despite all of my ruminations, I must compose until my last breath, much the same I would go about working to feed and clothe my family. Why do I believe this is an important and ingrained human trait? Perhaps even more important than anything else? It’s important precisely because of what Mr. Churchill was intuitively pointing to: that the act of creating aesthetic forms goes beyond pure evolutionary accident, but in fact it describes why a conscious being can be clearly differentiated from an inert object in the universe and why our fundamental nature demands that we create, just for the sake of it.

An engineer may create extremely useful software or important infrastructure for societies to function in increasing order. You may argue that these engineering acts are essential for our survival and progress because they lower – at least in an informal sense – the degree of entropy or chaos that reality always brings plenty of, and you would be right to say so. However, all of these acts would be completely meaningless, unless conscious beings like us are there to experience and use them, and this is where music and the arts come to play. Everything we do, we do for one specific purpose only: to experience the aesthetical and subjective side of life, such as closeness with others, art and love. A universe without this would be pointless, and all the wonders of science of engineering would exist only to be shown to a hall without an audience. We are not here to operate computers and drive on highways, we are here to bask in the conscious experience of feelings, art and creation.

There are some parallels that can bring further clarity to the point I am trying to make. Imagine earth, billions of years ago, devoid of all bacterial life. The panorama consists of an inert stage of forces and matter without any presence of conscious agency that preserves or evolves higher forms of order and function. Now, forget that image for a while, and imagine pure noise, such as that which you would hear on a radio that hasn’t synched the right frequency or simply random pitches without any order in particular coming out of a set of speakers. These two images (early earth and random noise) are examples of what a “lower” level of harmony and order look like (higher entropy). Now, let’s picture earth’s ecosystems and human cities, bustling with activity, structure and function. Now let’s play in our minds Beethoven’s 5th symphony in all its glory, developments, instruments and harmony. This second picture (earth’s ecosystems, human societies and music) present a “higher” level of order that describes why the arts are so important and intrinsic to our being: because we are art before machines, but they are both sides of the same coin.

What is music is about then? Music is aspiration, inspiration, reflection and revelation. It’s what we live for, and this is why it’s important to stay as pure as possible to the arts. Not for money, not for fame, even if this is impossible to achieve in reality. Striving to do so is not only important to elevate our cultural baggage, but because it’s what we are: conscious beings in search of harmony and love which allows continuing our existence in the universe.

What do you think?

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