• Christopher Tanner

What Art Might Tell Us, If Only We’d Listen

Each semester, I begin my World Music classes with a brief, general orientation that includes basic concepts and strategies for understanding the unfamiliar-sounding music my students are going to be hearing for the ensuing four months. One of the things I introduce right away is a taxonomic scheme for thinking critically about any artwork in any of the arts (the arts being our most-nearly infallible guide to the worldviews of all cultures – including, of course, our own). For music, the most important categories within that scheme are formalism, expressionism, and instrumentality. Other critiques are of course possible: much art invites and yields very well to a realistic critique for instance, or a feminist critique, or a Marxist one, etc. But for purposes of most of the music one is likely to hear, my proffered three-item taxonomy is sufficient to make headway.

By formalism, I mean the intention of the artist to create something beautiful, insofar as “beauty” has a more or less universal meaning (allowing for the fact that particular standards of beauty vary widely from culture to culture). Art that aims at being nothing more nor less than beautiful – the artist consciously intending to create an agreeable object through the contrivances of colors, shapes, contours, balance, harmony, and so forth – is said to have a formalist thrust. It should not seem strange that the foregoing short list of artistic devices consists entirely of words that are used with equal ease and weight of meaning in several of the arts, with some of those terms shared by all of them.

Expressionistic art, on the other hand, aims entirely at self-expression – and by “self” is meant the fullest possible extent of that term, which includes that vast reservoir of subterranean mental experience that Freud called the Id – an ugly word that basically means “it.” Expressionistic artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg aimed to dredge up something primal and powerful from the subconscious realm, to submit their technique to it consciously (which really does sound like a huge contradiction in terms) and to create art out of the experience: immediate art – unmediated, that is, by the selectiveness and regulatory demands of the superego. Making expressionist art is a very bold and risky thing to do: it is to strip naked in front of everyone and let them see your squamous body. Gustav Mahler was often poised right on the brink of expressionism, and from time to time he dipped more than just his toes into those waters. His is some of the music I love most, the music that most successfully appeals to both “heart and head,” the music most likely to reduce me to tears.

Then there is instrumentality. This is the category whose representative products are ubiquitous, insidious and dangerous. This is art that aims to manipulate your behavior: to get you to buy a certain product, choose a particular internet service provider, join a political party or vote for a particular candidate, change your opinion on some matter of grave – even existential – importance (like climate change or ocean acidification), or get you to convert to a religion or join a church (or to indoctrinate you if you are already a member of that church). We are absolutely up to our eyeballs in such art: a ceaseless bombardment of what might as well be called by its street name: propaganda. We’ve been swimming in it ever since Woodrow Wilson’s administration, and we’re currently suffering the inevitable outcome of its sustained project: the United States has become a dysfunctional nation of clueless, ignorant, overfed, overweight, mouth-breathing, brain-dead clowns who have no idea how to differentiate between argument and opinion, who imagine the comic likes of Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, Michelle Bachman, and Rick Santorum to be “presidential material,” and who dutifully show up at the polling station every two years to exercise what they imagine to be the ultimate expression of their illusory freedom. Such is the outcome of instrumentalist art. Welcome to humanity’s dying days.


If one presumes to be an art critic – and that is precisely what I invite my students to be for the sixteen weeks they spend with me – one must be certain that one has chosen the right assessment tool for the work of art in question before weighing in. If you choose the wrong critical rubric (indeed, perhaps it is the only one you know) and presume to evaluate an expressionist masterpiece according to the maxims and expectations of formalism, for instance, your critique will be as worthless as it will (certainly) be dismissive in tone. The bad review that Schoenberg’s Erwartung gets from a critic who can understand art only in formalistic terms is not the music’s fault.

Given the thoroughgoing subjectivity of both the formalist and expressionist experience, it should not be surprising that individually persuasive assessments of such art are so often at odds with each other: we can’t seem to agree on what is beautiful, or on the question of whether or not an expressionist masterpiece is a true representation of the artist’s mental state at the time s/he produced it. It is therefore difficult to judge the success of such art, except perhaps by the grotesque calculus of its market value (grotesque because it is completely artificial and contrived, even hallucinatory; the only people who are impressed with that ugly aspect of the art world – the “art market” – are those who have given up thinking for themselves and wouldn’t recognize beauty if it bit them in the ass).

It will also come as no surprise that the success or failure of instrumentalist art is quite easy to assess: simply look at the balance sheet in a ledger. Find out how many people joined the National Guard because of that cool video. Have a peek at the church membership rolls where a particular work of art (anything from a stained-glass window to a praise chorus) is used to persuade people to convert. In the case of instrumentalist art, efficacy can be quantified. Find out how many people bought that can of tuna-safe dolphin. This is not even an aesthetic matter, at least by my admittedly narrow definition of aesthetics. Aesthetics, in my view, has little to say concerning anything that cannot be made to yield to the formalist scalpel, anything that cannot be talked about in formalist terms.

I always alert my students to two things they must know about the taxonomy I’ve been talking about. One is that those ways of examining art do not exhaust the possibilities, as I mentioned earlier. Another is that those ways are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It is to that latter point that I want to turn my attention for the next few paragraphs.


There is much art that yields equally well to more than one critical scalpel – and that is because it is in fact more than one thing. Take the great 13th- and 14th-century cathedrals of Europe, for example. If you circumambulate one of those buildings clockwise, looking up at the tiers of stained glass set in the stone lattices of the building’s higher reaches, you will usually discover that you are looking at the unfolding of three stories from the Bible – the Passion almost always, and a couple of other narratives thrown in for good measure. The reason for this is obvious: during those centuries, most people were illiterate. If you wanted to teach them about the eternal verities, you were well advised to use pictures. The stained glass of cathedrals was the PowerPoint of the late Middle Ages.

Everything about such a cathedral – and especially the feelings of awe and mystery stirred by sunlight filtered through an array of colored glass that a kaleidoscope would envy – is meant instrumentally: meant to persuade you to embrace the faith and submit to the whims of the Church’s princes. There’s no question that it worked – that it succeeded as instrumentalist art, a.k.a. propaganda. For over ten centuries, Europe was Christendom: those were two names for the same geographic region. The fact that the Church built the most beautiful buildings in the world is not unrelated to the staying power of a religion that otherwise would have evaporated almost immediately once the light of science began to illuminate the darkness.

But there is also no question that such buildings with all their aesthetic features can be talked about meaningfully in formalist terms: they are beautiful in the agreed-upon meaning of beauty: they have the power to move us, to fill us with admiration and awe. They are capable of changing not only our behavior, but of changing our mood, of granting us what Clive Bell called “the aesthetic experience,” which sometimes manifests itself as a tingling up and down the spine and a piloerection all across the forearms. Such buildings succeed wonderfully well on a formalist evaluation. They are far more awe-inspiring than the faith they were designed to promulgate. They are rightly considered aesthetic treasures (not merely religious ones).

What I have said about those buildings is also true of much of the music that has been heard in them over the centuries, starting with Gregorian chant. That musical tradition perhaps reached its apex – or at least the first of two – in the rich polyphonic Mass settings and motets of the 16th century, authored by such giants as Josquin des Prez, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Tomas Luis de Victoria, Orlando Lasso and others. I know of no music that is more beautiful than Renaissance polychoral music. It was of course instrumentalist in its intent, but its composers were also formalists in the richest sense of the term. Thus it happens that a leathery old atheist like me, for whom the words of the Mass have no impact (I consider them to be superstitious nonsense), can be and often is deeply moved by the music that conveys those words, and the buildings in which that music is most at home.

As a student of music history, I am keenly aware that the music I love most – music which is generally described as belonging to the great European classical tradition, ranging from the early 16th century through the early 20th – would never have existed but for two institutions which I roundly despise: the church and the aristocracy. I am never unaware of this paradox: we have paid an awful price for the crown jewels of the art tradition. Can we justify the existence and concomitant abuses of princes and prelates on the basis of the art they made possible? I don’t think so. Not to have the music of Mozart in such a world as we are forced to endure, would for me be an intolerable deprivation. But part of the allure of Mozart’s music is precisely its wholesome balance, its good-natured excellence, its serene style, its sheer bewitching beauty in contrast to the horrible banalities and criminal imbalances of the everyday world. In a just and happy world – a world characterized by fairness, justice, empathy, sanity and plenty – perhaps such music wouldn’t be missed.

I hope I succeeded in making the point I just tried to make, because a similar point exists with respect to the sciences. We are accustomed to hearing Christianity defended on the basis of the fact that so many great scientists were Christian believers (and were in fact not “evolutionists” – a meaningless datum marshaled by those who make their living preaching the verities of biblical creationism and selling their books and video lectures to the gullible). The inference we are meant to draw is that science is somehow dependent on religious faith, and that the two certainly are not at odds with each other. This is an empty argument. Most of those believing scientists whose names I see on creationists’ cherry-picked lists lived and worked long before Darwin gave the world a naturalistic explanation for the great variety of life on Earth. Before 1859, it would have been very hard to be an atheist: there would have seemed to be no way to account for the existence of living things without invoking supernatural agency. Even strong impulses toward atheism tend to hit a roadblock at the ontological question. (The unsolved riddle of abiogenesis still hangs some people up.)

But it is disingenuous to cite such believing scientists as Galileo, Kepler and Newton as evidence of religion’s indispensability to science: those scientists believed what they believed because the entire culture believed it, and it’s awfully difficult to buck a tide that overwhelming. (I’m glad I haven’t had to fight my way to a position of atheism against such powerful odds as they faced: I doubt I’d have been able, any more than they were.) But it’s also worth considering the corrosive effect that an increase in scientific understanding has had on the faith of believing scientists, as they begin to entertain doubts. We can read it in their private correspondence, as now and again they reference their misgivings and express deep inner conflict. Charles Darwin is perhaps the best-known example: after he came to understand what he understood, he could no longer continue believing as he had. By the end of his life, he had come to the conclusion that there is no good reason to believe: with allowances made for the flexible nature of certain words in the latter half of the 19th century, it is safe to say that Darwin died a full-blown atheist. That is the nature of evidence, and of its power.

The scientists I named above did not become scientists because they were believers (either a serious misunderstanding or an outright lie), but because they were curious about the world. That is true of every scientist I have ever known or read about. Science does not spring from religion: it springs from human curiosity (which is more often than not squelched by religion). And here’s the thing: I have never known a scientist who burned out in his or her quest for a deeper understanding of the world. Those passions that are awakened in some lucky few of us early in life, if followed, will continue to feast on themselves all through a scientist’s life. Those who have lost their childhood faith and are willing to talk about their journey, report unanimously that it has been a journey from darkness to light, from prison to freedom, from smug certainty to the heady thrill of lifelong risk. Scientists tend to die happy.

And here’s the parallel I’m trying to draw in this essay: the words of the Kyrie eleison – that ancient prayer for mercy – do nothing for me. They do not relate to any of my inner states: I’ve been an atheist for a long time now. But there are certain Gregorian Kyrie settings that give me chills, that are so beautiful in every one of their tiny details and in their large-scale structural sweep that I remember, on hearing them, exactly why it is that I fell in love with music in the first place so many decades ago.


In the case of the music I’ve just been talking about, we have examples of art that succeeds according to both the formalist and instrumentalist calculi that I discussed earlier. Such art might have something to say about the experience of a scientist, who has made a journey from religious faith owing to childhood indoctrination, to the more rarefied air of atheism, and whose joy has only increased as new discoveries shed light on old, and the terra incognito between what is known and what can be known shrinks noticeably with each passing year. Let me see if I can say it: by its very nature, the universe lends itself to a formalist examination; I have doubts that an instrumentalist analysis would have much to say about it that could be trusted. Of course, we know what that instrumentalist analysis looks like. It sprouts such parodic abortions as Ken Ham’s Creation Museum: Fred Flintstone, PhD. That’s not science, and neither is it an appropriate way to begin one’s discovery of the universe: one does not judge the ultimate formal paradigm – the universe, by which I mean absolutely everything in it – with the tools of a critic bent on discovering its instrumentality.

I am not closed to the possibility that there are religious practices that are extremely beneficial to the practitioners – that bring balance, harmony, serenity and hope to people who wouldn’t otherwise enjoy them. Those practices are of course informed by beliefs, and I don’t see too awfully much wrong with people believing that a merciful deity is watching over them and awaits them in heaven.

I do, however, think that when a person’s beliefs stand in the way of appreciating this amazing cosmos and the new things we’re learning about it every day – when a person shuts himself off from the rush of awe and amazement that has attended every one of the great discoveries I’ve ever learned about – that’s nothing less than a tragic waste of life. What we know is all we’ve got.

We live at the most astonishing time in history. Unlike the vast majority of the billions upon billions of humans who have ever lived, we can know amazing things about the world. We can know exactly what lies underneath our feet – all the way down to Earth’s solid nickel-iron inner core. How amazing is that? No one knew that a century ago. We now understand why earthquakes happen and volcanoes erupt: that’s because geologists have worked out the grand unified theory of their science, namely plate tectonics. We no longer have to fall back on guesswork, figuring that Satan causes earthquakes and God causes volcanic eruptions. We can know that we live in an expanding universe that is over thirteen and a half billion years old. No one knew that a century ago. We can understand the deep kinship of all life. No one could begin to imagine that until about a century and a half ago.

I have never been able to understand the mindset of the incurious (for example, people who adopted their religion in childhood, have always taken it as a given, and will never question it), nor have I ever been able to tolerate their company. Living now, of all times – how can they not want desperately to know all the wonderful things that can be known about the universe? Here’s a clue: they’re the same people who consume instrumentalist art, who wallow happily in the propaganda and drink deep draughts of the Kool-Aid, who have no basis for judgment of much of anything, who cannot to save their lives recognize the difference between an argument and an opinion. The difference between those whose minds have been awakened and those who prefer their somnolent, pre-modern, default condition is as striking as one might hope for. The distribution of red and blue on a political map of the United States tells so much of the story that I don’t think I need to add another word.

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