By David Gosselin
The experience of great art is similar to the experience of a great scientific discovery. There is a common sentiment of “epiphany”. It is the strangely familiar feeling of remembering something for the first time, or having our attention fall on something that had been there all along.
In both the case of art and science, we have the common experience of being made aware of something previously unconscious or “out of mind”—as if discovering the ancient relics of some lost civilization or of our own deeper self.
With the advent of twentieth-century ideas on aesthetics, this unique experience was often narrowed to a question of novelty. Thus, one of the fathers of Modernism, Ezra Pound, famously declared: “Make it new!” However, while twentieth-century avant-garde artists strove to make things “new” and to cause their readers to “feel intensely”, Western classical artistic traditions were increasingly framed as a thing of the past. It was argued that modern subjects could no longer be given a classical treatment in modern times, and that artists had to concern themselves with the “complexities” of the world.
The question arises: should the new necessarily come at the cost of the old? Should attention to the ugliness and complexities of the world—which Modernism felt compelled to address, considering the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century—come at the cost of the beautiful? Can’t even the most hideous of subjects be treated beautifully? Is this not one of the paradoxes resolved by great art?
Perhaps mistakenly, the idea of beauty in our modern age is often treated as some kind of naïve or purely Romantic ideal. Yet genuine beauty can include ugliness as much as it does pleasant thoughts and images; it can contain as much truth as it does falsehood. The key lies in the way great artists choose to treat their thematic material. The manner in which artists treat their themes is often the most telling aspect of how they think and view the world themselves, rather than any choice of literal subject or idea per se. How a theme is treated also largely defines the effect on the audience.
While we often speak of artistic freedom today, we seldom discuss the effect of various kinds of art on audiences: on their hearts, minds, and sensibilities. Today, many think it to be just a question of entertainment or “feeling intensely”.
What sets a great poet or composer apart from others is, in essence, the choice of treatment. Shakespeare arguably remains the best example: despite dramas like Macbeth and Hamlet being full of violence, bawdiness, and morbid puns, the overall treatment of Macbeth or Hamlet manages to impress upon its audience a particular sublimity, leaving us with much to think about. Despite all the elements, the beauty of the works is never overpowered by the sheer horror of their subjects. Horrific subjects are still treated in a sublime manner.
In the case of Shakespeare, they contain an overall harmonious and compelling dramatization of certain profound concepts, including conscience, the lust for power, the fear of responsibility, and the many monsters unleashed thereby, especially by individuals who refuse to recognize the tragic nature of their own axioms. Shakespeare often magnified these questions by treating the case of individuals who found themselves in particularly high positions of power, making the consequences of their actions all the more clear.
Take the case of Hamlet. Though it is a work often cited, its depth and ironical richness makes it difficult to exhaust. For example, in a sometimes-overlooked passage at the end of Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act III, the young prince utters the lines:
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered.
“Be all my sins remember’d” is a crucial passage, despite sometimes being left out of certain editions. It is an admission that Hamlet knows what he is doing is wrong; he is a conscious actor. His problem is his self-centeredness and the need to act on the many warring impulses within him, and not to change, regardless of the fate of his realm, Denmark. So, conscience doth make cowards of us all, because we know our conscience knows—our inner voice speaks—regardless of whether we choose to follow it into “the undiscovered country” rather than “bear those ills we have” and “fly to others that we know not of”.
Above all else, Hamlet fears the unknown. Shakespeare also opens the play with the characters Bernardo and Francisco guarding the gates for any potential enemy invasion, but the play ends with Norway’s Fortinbras walking right in. Denmark’s leadership had destroyed itself. Alas, the real enemy was never some outside foreign threat, it was within.
Therein lay the tragedy.
A similar set of images may thus be treated in subtly different ways, leading to fundamentally different or alternative meanings. One of the best examples remains the treatment of classical Greek myths, which in the hands of different poets and dramatists lead to fundamentally different outlooks or ideas. What set Shakespeare apart was how he was able to treat his themes, unearthing new and breathtaking amounts of wisdom, beauty, and truth.
Or we might take the example of music, and the depths of emotion and idea that a master composer like Brahms unearths with only two notes, as in the case of the theme of his Fourth Symphony, or Beethoven with his Fifth Symphony.
What distinguishes the classical beauty of ancient Greek tragedies, the sublimity of a classical Chinese landscape, or the wrenching sadness of a German Lied is the manner in which subjects are treated. The ugliness of a story or subject does not preclude the beauty of the work. In fact, it may help. The ugliness and problems of modern society and our contemporary age are no exception, though they were often treated as an exception in modern times, considering that the naïve conceits of nineteenth Romanticism were thought (and understandably so) to be no longer tenable in the twentieth century:
‘Ah,’ said a woman in spectacles who seemed to be Glugly’s nurse or keeper, ‘that is because you are looking for beauty. You are still thinking of your Island. You have got to realize that satire is the moving force in modern music.’
‘It is the expression of a savage disillusionment,’ said someone else.
‘Reality has broken down,’ said a fat boy who had drunk a great deal of the medicine and was lying flat on his back, smiling happily.
‘Our art must be brutal,’ said Glugly’s nurse.
‘We lost our ideals when there was a war in this country,’ said a very young Clever, ‘they were ground out of us in the mud and the flood and the blood. That is why we have to be so stark and brutal.’
‘But, look here,’ cried John, ‘that war was years ago. It was your fathers who were in it: and they are all settled down and living ordinary lives.’
‘Puritanian! Bourgeois!’ cried the Clevers. Everyone seemed to have risen.
‘Hold your tongue,’ whispered Gus in John’s ear. But already someone had struck John on the head, and as he bowed under the blow someone else hit him from behind.
‘It was the mud and the blood,’ hissed the girls all round him.
‘Well,’ said John, ducking to avoid a retort that had been flung at him, ‘if you are really old enough to remember that war, why do you pretend to be so young?’
‘We are young,’ they howled; ‘we are the new movement; we are the revolt.’
C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933)
As has been known for a long time, a contrast of opposites is one of the most powerful tools an artist has. Whether expressed in the qualitatively different kinds of light cast in the grottos of Da Vinci, the tension between the thorns and petals of a rose in the verses of Shakespeare, or the sheer pregnant silence before the eruption of a Beethoven symphony, each awakens something within us.
Should art be beautiful? Perhaps a more fundamental question is: “Is beauty necessary?”
What happens to a society that no longer finds itself in a disposition capable of receiving beautiful conceptions and impassioned ideas, preferring instead the novelty and “intense feeling” found in the latest thing? What happens to a culture which prefers the endless pursuit of novelty and entertainment, rather than engagement with the kind of demanding and focussed attention needed to plumb the depths of works like Shakespeare’s dramas or a Brahms symphony?
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in many ways explored the darker side of this question. In a particularly compelling passage of his novel, Huxley writes that there cannot be things like Shakespeare in his “brave new world” because in Shakespeare there is tragedy. The denizens of a Brave New World must above all else be “happy”. They cannot be made to think too much or be challenged in the way great art and tragedy so often do challenge.
Clearly, the classical Greeks and Shakespeare saw the necessity of confronting the questions of tragedy and the paradoxes of life in ourselves, others, and society generally. And it is a necessary confrontation if we are to avoid becoming a tragic people or society. On the other hand, the citizens of a Brave New World must avoid these questions, lest they sacrifice “happiness”. Hence the unlimited amounts of novelty.
Modernism—as encapsulated in some of its most iconic literary works, including Eliot’s Wasteland, Auden’s Age of Anxiety, Updike’s Rabbit, Run and many others—reflected much of the neuroses associated with the twentieth century. But there is still a paradox for the artist: is art to be merely a mirror of its age, or can it be much more?
What becomes of artists and the society which they inhabit when the world becomes increasingly ugly, irrational, and self-destructive? Is the artist merely a vehicle to mirror and reflect the “real world”? Surely, art also contains the power to inform and change that reality by showing us what should be, even as society only seeks to remind us that this is the way it is.
In his second installment of the Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, the poet Friedrich Schiller wrote:
Ideal art must abandon reality and elevate itself with sufficient boldness above need, for art is the daughter of freedom, and she receives her rules from the necessity of the spirit, not from the pressing need of matter.
Do the greatest works of art not have the power to serve as anchors in precisely those times when everything around us seems most uncertain and changing, even if it takes the form of a simple reminder of humanity’s own capacity and longing for things beyond mere animal or mechanical life?
Unless the artist has a transcendental power, as things become uglier and more corrupt, society’s art will become increasingly ugly and deformed, since it seeks to mirror society.
In his ninth letter, Schiller addressed precisely this paradox. He cautioned aspiring artists:
The Artist, it is true, is the son of his age; but pity for him if he is its pupil, or even its favorite! Let some beneficent Divinity snatch him when a suckling from the breast of his mother, and nurse him with the milk of a better time that he may ripen to his full stature beneath a distant Grecian sky. And having grown to manhood, let him return, a foreign shape, into his century; not, however, to delight it by his presence; but terrible, like the son of Agamemnon, to purify it. The matter of his works he will take from the present; but their Form he will derive from a nobler time, nay from beyond all time, from the absolute unchanging unity of his nature. Here from the pure aether of his spiritual essence, flows down the Fountain of Beauty, uncontaminated by the pollutions of ages and generations, which roll to and fro in their turbid vortex far beneath it.
With the advent of Modernism, the question of beauty in high art was deemed increasingly irrelevant, in favor of “intense feeling”, novelty, and technical aplomb. While the feelings generated by a work of art may be said to be “intense”, one should ask: are they lasting? Are they anchored in something more enduring? Today in art, we are usually told such questions are irrelevant: we should admire the artist’s craftsmanship and enjoy “feeling intensely”; nothing more.
Novelty and Originality; Depth and Complexity
In the hands of a great artist, the seemingly simple may have infinite depth and complexity; the infinitely complex may be treated with sublime simplicity. How this depth and complexity is metaphorically captured often determines the quality of artistic effect—what some call “the Beautiful”. As Edgar Allan Poe articulated in his essay on the Poetic Principle, Beauty is not a thing—a noun—so much as it is an effect—a verb—compelling something deep within readers or viewers and making it a conscious object of attention. It is that something which arises from the process of bringing together various (sometimes familiar) thoughts and images into new constellations of meaning or experience.
Indeed, in the realm of music, the greatest and most monumental works are still drawn from relatively simple themes comprising only several notes. In the hands and mind of a great artist or composer, this theme can be explored and developed with unparalleled depth and scope, with seemingly countless new variations and degrees of meaning.
In great art, the new and the old, the timeless and the mutable, the simple and the complex meet seamlessly. From the bronzes of the Yoruba people and the sublimity of Classical Chinese landscapes, through the dramas of Aeschylus and the plays of Shakespeare, to the symphonies of Beethoven and the stunning architecture of the Moors, we find exemplars of this throughout the cultures and classical ages of various and diverse civilizations across history.
While worthy art will be rich with complexity, there is always harmony, with certain seemingly simple truths presented with an almost inexhaustible variety.
In modern times, the concept of metaphor is often confounded with that of symbolism. While they may appear similar, they remain distinct, albeit complementary in the hands of a great artist. Symbolism identifies what already exists using alternative images (which is why the occult is saturated with symbols); metaphor is a transference that establishes new relationships between things thought previously unrelated—it creates new thought-constellations.
This may be done more abstractly, as in the paintings of Bosch and the etchings of Goya, where the viewers are presented with something akin to visions of the imagination or subconscious (rather than the realism of the material world), or it can be effected with something as relatively simple and concrete as a mountain emerging from the mist in Classical Chinese landscapes.
Metaphor transports the mind—it is verbal. Symbolism conceals a meaning—it is nominal. Metaphor may introduce something fundamentally “new” into the old or make something new strangely familiar. Symbolism depends on a pre-established meaning; metaphor compels the mind to generate new meaning.
From the standpoint of metaphor, images serve as shadows that allow viewers or readers to establish new sets of relations found within the artist’s mind, but which remain unutterable and unperceivable until imparted into some material through some timeless new Form, whether in marble, music, painting or some other medium. Thus, Schiller gives the example of Greek marbles: what we see are not stones, but human beings—in action—with the mind in motion. The marbles become metaphors, such that in a very real way the “stones cry out”.
The compositionally stunning abilities of Alma Deutscher, the wonderfully transcendent paintings of César Santos, and the ravishingly beautiful verses of Michael R. Burch all uniquely capture a quality of timelessness unique to their own age.
So, a great metaphor is new, but also transports us into the realm of the timeless. It makes us feel; but these feelings lead to new thoughts and horizons.
Dante’s descent into Hell was nothing new (the Greeks were very familiar with the underworld), and Dante would have been exposed to precisely this Hadean theme in the Latin of Virgil. However, Dante’s ascent into Paradiso was new, linking the ancient classical era with the modern Christian world. The transformations found between the three canticles of the Commedia led to something divinely new. It made his contemporary readers participants in the divine disposition, as it makes us participants still today.
While Shakespeare used old stories, the relations among the actions and their significance were deeply new. One might even argue that were Shakespeare alive today, he would not be writing for the stage, but for the screen. He would be crafting screenplays.
That quality of artistic composition—some call it “classical”—may be applied just as much today as it was centuries or millennia ago. The materials may change, the times may change, but through the Form imparted to such works they become eternal, teasing us “out of thought”, like Keats’ urn.
Art or Entertainment?
In his ninth letter on the aesthetic education of man, Schiller addressed the artist’s role in the following manner:
The seriousness of your principles will frighten them away from you, but they will accept them in play; their taste is more chaste than their heart, and that is where you must take hold of the shy one who is fleeing you. You will besiege their maxims in vain, to no avail will you condemn their deeds, but you can try your formative hand with their indolence. Chase away what is arbitrary, the frivolity, the crudeness from their pleasures, and in that way you shall banish these, unnoticed, from their deeds and finally their beliefs. Wherever you find them, surround them with noble, with grand, with brilliant forms, surround them with symbols of what is excellent, until the appearance vanquishes reality, and art vanquishes nature.
Regardless of our philosophical outlook, how an artist treats or represents his or her theme can have markedly different effects on the audience and represent significantly different ideas. Thus, Homer glorified his heroes, but he also cautioned his audience against the pitfalls of their pride, arrogance and wrong-headed notions of “glory”. Schiller recognized this, identifying what he called the moralische Anstalt—the moral sentiment, a key concern of the philosophy of his place and time. He pointed out that art can make one better, leave one indifferent, can entertain, or simply make us more cynical, if not worse (as in the case of modern Hollywood priming).
Without being judgemental, we can observe our own culture and ask what kind of effects its works of art have on us.
In dealing with this question, Schiller elaborated the idea of the “play instinct”. Our minds are freest and most capable of making discoveries when they are freed of preconceived notions; that is, when they can play among phenomena. This, ironically, is how the greatest truth is arrived at, or better said, how the truth finds us. Keats referred to this as a “Negative Capability”—something he saw a great deal of in Shakespeare. Thus, the greatest truth requires the greatest degree of freedom. Schiller viewed art as one of the unique realms in which this freedom could be best cultivated, allowing people to pursue the great paradoxes and challenges of life without being assailed by the vanities and arbitrariness of their age.
There, in the realm of the beautiful and sublime, lay the potential for the greatest degrees of insight and freedom of discovery. This quality of imaginative freedom is also precisely what informed some of the greatest scientists, from Kepler to Einstein—both of whom viewed music as the key realm in which to develop their own creative instincts.
Thus, in the same way a Bach may have treated and played around with a simple set of notes, subjecting his themes to various boundary conditions and inversions, and discovering a great new wealth of richness and irony, so the great scientists crafted their bold thought-experiments and hypotheses—soaring beyond the mere “facts” and discovering new physical principles. They challenged humanity’s most basic assumptions about the nature of the world, and in so doing they changed it. They were true artists.
Thus, while the creative process is often framed as simply a question of “freedom” or “fancy”, the true philosopher or artist should ask: “what kind of freedom?” Is it an arbitrary freedom? Is the kind that allows one to discover the nature of gravity and natural laws of the universe, such that man can learn to fly? And were Da Vinci and Rembrandt not at their freest once they had achieved a true mastery of form and could therefore freely draw from the depths of their imaginations, rendering their subjects in new timeless forms? Didn’t this freedom allow them to pursue the most daunting artistic tasks, to capture the most immutable paradoxes, and offer the greatest amount of depth, as opposed to merely describing the latest depravity or creating some fleeting titillation? Were their minds not rigorous in proportion as they were free? Could there ever be one characteristic without the other?
How important is it to have such art in our culture and society; that is, to have works that offer as much beauty as they do truth, as much wisdom as they do delight? We should ask ourselves: if a population is not in a disposition to receive such impassioned and beautiful conceptions in the realm of the arts, how are they ever to discover them in the real world?
By allowing our imagination to free itself from the strictures of our own age, its prejudices and the many psycho-spiritual binds that characterize our own modern Narrative Matrix, we become free to play among a realm of eternal forms, reflecting not only on what history might or should have been, but what our future history could be.
As the world busies itself obsessing over the latest scenes of perversity, horror, and unbridled grotesqueness, let us play among the many possibilities, and like true classical tragedians, imagine not only what could or should have been, but what may truly be.
Let us be true artists.
 Asked where Einstein drew his insights from when he made his great breakthroughs, he famously responded:
It occurred to me by intuition, and music was the driving force behind that intuition. My discovery was the result of musical perception.
David Gosselin is a poet, translator, and linguist based in Montreal. He is the founder of The Chained Muse poetry website and writes on Age of the Muses Substack, which is dedicated to publishing and promoting 21st-century classical poetry.
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