Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Beauty

In the arts, the concept of 'beauty' has become suspicious, since many artists in the last century reacted to conventional, empty forms of 'beauty' which were mere commercial exploitations of the underdeveloped masses. The birth of modernism cannot be properly understood if not only the influence of scientific and social notions of progress are considered, but also the official art of the 19C salon with its imitations of traditional painting and sculpture, and the routine of the concert hall with its repetition of performing the classics, to which new but superficial and bland imitations were added with the aim of an easy success with the average, 'bourgeois' audiences. Truth, authenticity and originality should take the place that the notion of beauty had occupied for ages. Hence the emancipation of ugliness, disruption, fragmentation and the like as authentic expressions of modern times.

Another cause of the rejection of beauty in the last century was the idea of 'functionality', which was supposed to represent progress and improvement, and especially: an agent for cleansing the mind from cluttered convention. Hence the awful modernist extensions and interventions in the historic cityscapes of Europe. Also we see this 'functionality' in fashion, although women's fashion mostly kept something of the stylishness of old. But men's fashion became a riot of functionality as if beauty were something effeminate, and thus taboo for the proud male in a modern, functionalist world of science and enterprise.

The idea that form follows function - one of the tenets of modernism -  reveals a purely materialist mindset: namely, beauty is also a function, not a materialist one, but a function of the soul. Our environment influences our inner life, either consciously or subconsciously. Therefore, the human soul needs beauty to feel connected to the world, which in its pristine state is full of beauty. Almost all things in nature have beauty, in a stunning variety, and the human being as an aesthetic 'design' reflects one of the most accomplished natural creations. Since we have developed as a part of nature over the millennia, our faculties of recognition of the beautiful is a perfectly natural given, and its perversions or erosions do not diminish their importance. Hence it is perfectly natural that artistic expression if it is related to this core of our evolutionary heritage, will have beauty as one of its elements.

The misunderstanding of what beauty actually means, seems in these years gradually dissolving.

As philosopher Andreas Dorschel writes: 

"In contemporary discussions about aesthetics, the theme of beauty has become a concern of the best minds, like Alexander Nehamas: ‘Only a Promise of Happiness; the Place of Beauty in a World of Art’; Sir Roger Scruton: Beauty’; Paolo Euron: ‘Art, Beauty and Imitation’; Denis Dutton: ‘The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution’. "




The late British philospher Sir Roger Scruton produced a very notable BBC documentary about the concept of beauty, wholeheartedly recommended:
 


 

Thursday, 9 January 2020

Programming new symphonic music

Much new music which makes it to be performed by a symphony orchestra, is not really functioning according to the fundamentals of the performance culture of the medium. Or said differently: the new works chosen to be performed, are more often than not chosen with the idea that they should, somehow, represent modernity. And this notion of modernity is more often than not, a misunderstood modernity, as if ‘modern times’ force us to restrict our minds to a small number of choices. These choices often tend to conform to the idea that the music should offer associations with contemporary entertainment music, or with inaccessible complexity (because the modern world is complex), with sound effects 'never heard before' (to signify newness and progress) and recognizable as coming from modern industrial complexes or the world of computer technology, with bland repetitative processes reminiscent of certain pop music - in short: a connection with contemporary concerns or points of recognition. But all of these associations stem from outside the cultural tradition which is the symphonic performance culture, and tend to neutralize or to diminish the expressive means of the medium which have accumulated over a long period of time - from the late 18th century onwards.

Since orchestras are considered a remnant of bygone ages and of a culture that no longer exists – in terms of writing for them – the idea behind programming new music is that it should somehow ‘anchor’ the orchestra within the context of our own time, to somehow ensure its viability and survival in times with an increasing distance to the periods in which the classical repertoire was written. Ironically, since the choices are so often based upon a narrow and misunderstood notion of modernity (a straightjacket, with taboos), the choices effect the opposite: what is experienced as ‘modern’ by audiences, somehow does not fit in the symphonic culture, and does not appeal to classical music audiences. And this in turn confirms the museum character of the genre.

In short: the fear of being seen as ‘conservative’ by not programming pieces which reflect ‘modernity’, is undermining the orchestra's aim to preserve its place within contemporary culture. Trying to find new music which is both new, and in the same time respects and builds on the symphonic culture, is not conservative, because the existing repertoire is still functioning as a presence, and not as a collection of archeological relics. If progress is understood as improvement, choices of programming will look differently from a one-sided and simplistic idea of 'modernity', and that which is truly modern may happen to be improvement on the basis of artistic quality and in harmony with an existing and symphonic performance culture which is still very much alive.