Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Bow, Bow, ye Lower Middle Classes!

I started my musings about art and truth prompted by the poor quality of liturgical music, and now I find that I have come full circle, thanks to a comment on Twitter by @cumlazaro, of the excellent Cum Lazaro blog.

He tweeted: ‘It’s perfectly clear that, objectively, a lot of Catholic music is extremely poor, both liturgically and aesthetically. And that matters.

Which made me reflect that there is something else I think worthy of comment. This is not directly about the quality of music, or art, but rather our (societal, and specifically ecclesiastical, and more specifically clerical) attitudes to that question.

My Parish Priest, for example, would not deny (I think) that most of the music perpetrated during liturgies at our church is pretty poor aesthetically, both in conception and in execution. However, he has little interest in changing that. Because his criterion of what is good liturgically is based on a different standard, one that over-rules all other considerations, and that is participation.

This widely misunderstood concept is the trump card: every other standard bows, when it is paraded.

Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!
Bow, bow, ye tradesmen, bow, ye masses,
Blow the trumpets, bang the brasses,
Tantantara! Tzing, boom!

That is why we endure readers who cannot read out loud without mutilating the text with misreadings and misleading prosody. It is why the Mass must be disrupted so that the children back from their ‘children’s liturgy,’ may parade in the sanctuary with their drawings. It is why icons written by masters who have studied the tradition for decades are out, whereas felt banners produced by parishioners with more time than taste are in. It is also why we endure poor music, poorly performed.

The notion that we might participate better by experiencing beauty than by engaging in banality is completely incomprehensible to many priests educated since the Second Vatican Council.

The notion of training the laity, and particularly selecting those with aptitude, to use higher levels of skill, would be seen as elitism, and excluding. Anathema sit!

And of course, if they do put their toe in the water, and have one piece of chant at Mass, they get complaints from the usual suspects, and announce, ruefully, that they were right and that ‘the people’ don’t like that kind of thing. (My post on Junk food and junk music refers…)

Tuesday, 24 November 2015


This is why I love blogging. I thought I had said all I had to say about objectivity and art, over the last week or so, in a series of blog posts, starting here.  Then Ttony and Part Time Pilgrim left comments on one of my posts, pushing me, and making me take my thinking further. I was already dimly aware of my underlying thoughts here: the criteria of truth and beauty refer, and some of the comments on Twitter also, about the recognition of beauty, really resonated.

So here is where I am up to...

I maintain that my approach is not gnosticism but rather its opposite. That is, I believe one can discern that there is a Natural Aesthetic similar to Natural Law. It is written in our hearts, but obscured by Original Sin, miseducation, current intellectual fashions etc. Hence the educational programme is firstly wide exposure and the stripping  away of the barriers.

Thus my posts on criteria were more like a primitive jurisprudence. We recognise the Natural Law intuitively, if we are both honest and undamaged. We know it is wrong to lie, to commit adultery, to murder and so forth. But it can get complex and there are certainly moot points, or at least points worthy of discussion (the issue of lying to expose evil in abortion clinics was one such recently). So jurisprudence is developed over the years: the collected wisdom of generations in determining how law applies in particular cases, and the extrapolation of broader principles from that, always subservient (if it is good jurisprudence) the the Natural Law and (if it is Christian jurisprudence) the Divine Law.

Likewise, I think that we recognise beauty and truth intuitively, if we are both honest and undamaged (or healed). We know that admiring the wonder of the stars, the mountains and valleys, the oceans and landscapes, in which we find ourselves, or the dewdrops on a spider's web, the snowdrop peeping through the snow, the snowflake itself, and so many more things in between, is not a mere subjective notion. These things are worthy of admiration, because they are the artistic works of the Creator. Human art is sub-creation, as Tolkien was keen to point out, and as such when it works, it reflects Him and His work. 

All my attempts to identify or define good art are really groping towards that fundamental truth. I have decided to call this approach Artisprudence, for the obvious reason. 

I am not the first to coin the term but can only find two prior uses of it. One is in Scholae Academicae an account of changes in the University of Cambridge during Victorian times, by Christopher Wordsworth, published in 1877. He uses the term once and does not seek to define it. The other use is as the title of a short story, written c. 2004 by Christopher Rowe, and revised in 2008.  I have not read either work, but believe I can adopt the word to my use for the obvious etymological reasons.

I would also suggest that our nervousness around this topic, that terrible fear of snobbery, elitism and so forth, is very much a product of our current intellectual and moral climate; and that we should not be afraid to stand up for absolute truth and objective reality in this sphere, any more than in any other - though we must necessarily be humble about claiming that we know what it is.


Sunday, 22 November 2015

An Artistic Education

All this talk of art and music, and especially my passing comment about the need for education in order to discern the good from the bad, made me reflect on what I meant by education in this context, and indeed on my own artistic education.

By artistic education, I don't mean teaching This is the canon: Shakespeare at the top and the rest in some sort of hierarchy beneath him;  or Mozart at the top at the top and the rest in some sort of hierarchy beneath him; or Leonardo da Vinci  at the top and the rest in some sort of hierarchy beneath him...

I think it a gentler and more reflective process; as much to do with exposure, the removal of barriers, and perhaps the discussion of context and why and how some works get their effects, why some are perceived as great, and so on.

The result of that may be an educated taste that goes a little deeper than the immediacy of an uneducated taste. I have likened this before to weaning children off a diet of junk food. 

If the only music a child is ever exposed to is what's currently in the charts, or used in advertisements, or accompanying tv programmes or computer games, it is pretty pointless to expect him or her, at first hearing, to enjoy the Beethoven string quartets, beautiful though they are.

I make no secret of the fact that the visual arts are not my forte. All I learned in art classes at school was that I cannot draw: a conviction it took me many years to shed. (For anyone similarly afflicted, I recommend Betty Edwards' book, Drawing on the Left Side of the Brain). However, I was fortunate that an enlightened General Studies teacher told me to go to the National Gallery and choose a painting, and look at it for thirty minutes. That seemed a tall order, but I decided to give it a go, and stood in front of one of Monet's paintings of waterlilies.

Prior to that experience, I had always preferred photographic realism: the more like the real thing it looked, the better I thought it was. Monet taught me to look differently.

My musical education was richer. My father was a fine pianist, so from earliest childhood I would go to sleep to the sound of him playing Bach, or Schubert, or Chopin, or Rachmaninov or... Then as a schoolboy I joined a good church choir, and quickly learned to love early polyphony. It was very obvious to me that Byrd, Tallis, Gibbons and so on were doing something rather more wonderful than Gregory Murray, Wilfrid Trotman or Joseph Gelineau.

Strangely (or perhaps not, given the historical context, early 1970s) we sang almost no chant. All I can remember is a version of the Ave Maris Stella, with alternate chant and polyphonic verses, which was magnificent. We also sang some Duruflé, based on chant melodies, which was also ravishing.  But my love of chant comes much later in my musical education, and is based on obedience to the Church, and then the discipline of learning to sing it, and, eventually, falling in love with it.

As I wrote that, I suddenly wondered how we have educated the children, artistically. They have not had the same opportunities as me: no good church choir locally, no National Gallery... But I think we have managed to achieve the same basics via different means. They have all learned to play at least two instruments to a reasonable standard, and played in the school orchestra and various other ensembles, which has given them a fairly good exposure to a broad repertoire. It must be a product of Original Sin that their musical taste (like mine) remains execrable. But while they may, for choice, fill their playlists with Disney songs, they genuinely enjoy it when we get the opportunity to go to a concert and hear, dare I say it, good music.

In the visual arts, their school education has been very much better than mine was; and not only have they learned to draw and paint, but they have been encouraged to do artists' copies, which again has exposed them to a range of works, and some understanding of both aesthetics and technique. In that field, as in so many, they are ahead of me.

And in literature, I do my best with them. Again, they read a ton of junk, but in between they occasionally read something worth reading; and again, genuinely enjoy the live screenings from the National or RSC (we saw the Broadway production of 'Of Mice and Men' this week, and very good it was too. And Dominique loved it).

So, a long and rambling post, but I think the point I am edging towards making is that the need for education to appreciate and evaluate art is not some induction into a world of snobbery; but rather a truly Catholic approach that exposes one to a wide range of works, and that good learning will ensue.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Ave Maria (Offertory for Advent 4)

We have been practicing for our next sung Mass, which is on the fourth Sunday of Advent. The offertory is Ave Maria, and is a truly beautiful chant.

Further to my previous post on the necessity of prayer in our troubled times, I commend this to you.

Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum.  Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui Iesus.  Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.

(Struggling with the Latin? - go here) 

Our Strongest Weapon

We must pray for our enemies: we are under orders.

Our strongest weapon against the terror unleashed by terrorists is prayer.

Lepanto was won by the Rosary, first.

The crisis in the West, the collapse in Christendom and the subsequent rise of militant secularism, of idle indifference, and of hostile Islam - all these are the fruits of a spiritual poverty.

Prayer is our strongest weapon.

Sub tuum praesidium confugimus, Sancta Dei Genetrix.
Nostras deprecationes ne despicias in necessitatibus nostris,
sed a periculis cunctis libera nos semper,
Virgo gloriosa et benedicta.

Jackson Pollock and Historical Perspective

In the second of my two recent posts (here and here) about reaching an objective judgement about the quality of works of art  (and in particular, music) I proposed some criteria for reaching such a judgement.

I also mentioned that Jackson Pollock's name had been mentioned in this regard, and now I want to return to that, and as a result propose one further criterion.

I do not like Pollock's work. I find it does not move me; I am not sure what it is trying to do, and therefore cannot evaluate how well it does it. I question whether it really demonstrates any skill, or any insight. So, in my judgement, it does not meet many of the criteria I proposed. However, I also recognise that all of that is a subjective perspective, and at least in part based on my ignorance. Others clearly think it is art of stature.

I compare my reaction to Pollock with my reaction to Mondrian. At first glance, I had a similar view of Mondrian's work; but the more I see of it, (particularly originals - his work does not reproduce well, I find) the more I question that. I think he really is onto something, though I would struggle to say what.

But again, I recognise that is a subjective view. And there is (a large) part of me that wonders if most modern art has lost its way, and is pulling a fast one, as it were. And that too is a subjective view.

So I am prepared to hold fire, and not have a strong opinion (well, I do on Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, but the less said about them, the better). Nor do I find there are many cultural or artistic critics in whom I have sufficient confidence to accept their judgements pro or contra

The same is true of some modern music: serialism does nothing for me, for example. But that may be a failing in me, not least due to a lack of education and understanding.

But the most important additional criterion, I think, is the judgment of time. Artistic judgements are subject to fashion. Even Shakespeare was out of vogue for a period, and during the Restoration there was a marked trend to improve his plays to conform to current tastes. But over time that shakes down: the genius of Beethoven or Van Gogh is clearer with historical perspective.

So I am happy to remain agnostic about Pollock and Mondrian, and let our descendants be the judges. But that does not, I think, detract from my central thesis that one can make objective statements about the quality of art. It just suggests that education, understanding and perspective may all be necessary in order to do so.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Some criteria for discernment...

In yesterday's post I spent most of my time making the easier part of my case for being able to claim that some pieces of music are intrinsically, objectively, better than others. That was the argument from craftsmanship.

That alone, I think, suffices to justify my claim.

However the second part of the case I treated rather lightly, though in fact I think it the more important aspect. I wrote: 'I would also argue that some forms of art are (when well executed) intrinsically better than others (even when well executed).

I then exemplified that by citing The Beatles  and P.G. Wodehouse (chosen because in terms of personal taste, they are favourites of mine) in contrast with Mozart, and Shakespeare.

However, I did not argue that case. So here I propose to do just that.

This is, of course (and particularly in our current intellectual climate - a fact I find very significant) a much harder case to make. Arguments of the 'What is Art?', and particularly of the 'What is Great Art?' variety are notoriously difficult.

The modern temperament on this topic is admirably captured at the start of the film Dead Poets Society, when the hero (John Keating, played by Robin Williams) tears up, in contempt, the opening pages of a worthy book on literature that attempts to do this by saying that one can determine great art by multiplying the greatness of the theme by the quality of its execution.

Keating's view, as far as one can gather, is the more fashionable one that great literature is literature that moves one, and that is finally a subjective judgement. That is, I think, the great Romantic conceit: the elevation of personal sensibilities to be the supreme measure of judgement.

That is not to say the the potential of a work of art (including literature or music) to move one is irrelevant: far from it. But it is not the only criterion, any more than 'greatness of theme and the quality of its execution' are the only two.

Since discernment is all the vogue these days (and my readers know how important it is to me to stay with the fashion) I thought I would offer a few criteria for discernment when trying to think about whether a particular work, or indeed a genre, is great.

I offer these with some trepidation, and am certainly open to suggestions for criteria I have missed, or better expression of the ones I have identified. And I make the claim for these criteria that Stoppard makes for the cricket bat in the passage I quoted yesterday: they do not exist because of some conspiracy by the academy, but rather because experience has demonstrated that they work...

My first draft criteria for evaluating a work of art as good:

  • It does what it sets out to do skilfully
  • What it sets out to do is worth doing
  • It moves the audience/viewer/reader/listener 
  • It moves the audience/viewer/reader/listener repeatedly when engaged with on second and subsequent occasions
  • It both demonstrates and provokes insight
  • It makes demands on the audience/viewer/reader/listener
  • It has some element of novelty or originality
  • It mediates truth and beauty (though that may be in the negative way: eg demonstration of evil at work etc)

I think that interesting, as one can then see both why a successful soap opera or a good pop song works (eg it does what it sets out to do skilfully, it has some element of novelty or originality, it moves the audience) and also why it is unlikely to be watched or listened to again by succeeding generations (it may not meet many of the other criteria).

I am also interested in the fact that many people will find this a difficult argument to swallow, but want to think further about that before I write too much more.

And I am also interested in the link between this argument, and C S Lewis' The Abolition of Man, but again, I want to reflect further on that before committing myself (others, of course, think I should have been committed years ago, but that's another story...)