Saturday, May 16, 2015

What Ails Us

The other night, I attended a wonderful chamber music concert at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.  On the program were various pieces stretching from Haydn to Webern, so from roughly 1780 - 1905, and one contemporary piece from 2014.  Listening to those pieces in juxtaposition revealed what ails the contemporary world.

The purpose of art, whether visual or musical, was for centuries (I can’t speak to early eras) about uplifting the spirit, about bringing beauty into the world.  The object was not to deny or cover up the suffering and nastiness in the world that was self-evident to all, but to show that even in the worst of situations, beauty could be found and the spirit uplifted.  Listening to classical music and viewing “classical” art remains a very deep spiritual experience.

That began to change with WWI.  In the face of such devastating inhumanity, art felt that it had to be more reflective of the angst in the world … and the Modernist movement was born.  In the beginning, some reflected this angst while still creating profoundly beautiful and spiritual works … the music of Alban Berg (“Wozzeck” and “Lulu”) for example.  Others like the artists George Grosz and Otto Dix had no use for such niceties.

But as modernism continued to develop, art more and more reflected the increasing cynicism of modern culture.  “Surrealists and Expressionists devised wobbly, chopped-up perspectives and nightmarish visions of fractured human bodies and splintered societies slouching toward moral chaos.”  Beauty was absent.  All was discord and violence.  The idiom became the message.

And so, for example, the piece “Parallels,” while being composed to commemorate the artist who advised the assemblage of art which became the Barnes Foundation … a collection of inexhaustible beauty and complexity … was nevertheless all about the contemporary idiom.  While it was powerful and intellectually stimulating, it was not a work of beauty that moved the spirit.

This was and is certainly not true for all contemporary artists.  There are still composers (like Philip Glass and John Adams) and painters (I’m not as familiar with names in this area, the deceased George Brown of the Chicago school comes to mind) who are held in high esteem while creating works of contemporary individuality and profound beauty.  But the trend, pardon my using that overused word, is in the opposite direction.

Cultural organizations, both art museums and orchestras/operas/ballet, are almost falling over themselves trying to attract a younger audience.  Certainly if one goes to classical music events, the audience is mostly older with some music students mixed in.  

But try though they may, their efforts are doomed because the art represented by museums and classical music organizations does not speak to young people.  Not because it is out of date and not relevant; beauty is always relevant even if the context is out of date.  But because they have no faith, no belief in something larger than themselves.  They are not spiritual.  They are cynical about the world and the concept of beauty is antithetical to their experience.  Especially in the current technology-obsessed age, the only things valued are what reflect the now or point to the technological future.

This is a sad state of affairs.   The United Negro College Fund’s motto is, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”  I would paraphrase that and say that the human spirit is a terrible thing to waste.

But what we need is not a religious revival; or at least not a country full of born again people who nevertheless chase the almighty dollar and have contempt for those who dare not share their perspective.

What we need is a spiritual revival, in the sense of feeling that there is something larger than ourselves (meaning our ego) to have faith in, whether it’s faith in God, in a Higher Power, or in your true Buddha nature.  And believing that our only purpose in life is to offer others joy … to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  To turn our will and our life over to the care of our Higher Power, thus returning home, and be at peace, accepting that things are the way they are at this moment because it’s just the way it is, be grateful and compassionate, and find happiness in each moment.  Then we will once again be open to the beauty that exists everywhere, in every moment.

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