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Alain de Botton is a…

Well, I haven’t actually read him, so I don’t know, but Fisun Güner makes a pretty good argument that at least when it comes to art and art appreciation, he’s “a moron.”

Güner’s harsh, but understandably so: there’s always someone out there who’s ready to explain to people who do get art, and celebrate it, why they’re doing it all wrong because people who don’t get art aren’t getting art. It reminds me of a drummer I knew in music school, who scolded me and a few of my friends for not seeing in our heads the same picture he saw in his head while listening to Bedřich Smetana’s “Vltava” (from Mà vlast, better know to a lot of Anglophones as “Die Moldau”):

Of course, the picture this drummer saw in his head involved himself flying over some river in a folksy European countryside in a black cloak, swooping down and thrilling villagers. (Coppolla’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula had come out not long before, and his vision seemed inspired by that as much as anything.) We were much less thrilled, because each of us heard other things–or, apparently, saw other things, and the prescription made by this drummer did not add to our enjoyment of the piece… far less, when he insisted we try and see it his way. The drummer interpreted “Vltava” as a kind of fantastique adventure experience; for Smetana, it seems to have been intended as more of an expression of Czech nationalism and of his love for, and appreciation of, the marvelous city of Prague, through which the Vltava (a river) flows.

Of course, there is such a thing as programmatic music. Jean Sibelius’s amazing “The Swan of Tuonela” (Tuonelan joutsen) is written with an English horn solo that’s supposed to evoke the sound of a swan’s voice, from a section of the Finnish epic The Kalevala where the swan circles the island of the dead. That comes across nicely in the music… if you know the story:

… but even if you don’t, it’s a haunting, wonderful piece of music. Hell, most of the people who’ve heard it didn’t know the story, but recognized its musical value. And for those out for a laugh, there’s always Mendelsohn’s invocation of the donkey-head that Puck bestows on Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in his overture for the play, starting around 8:30 in this recording:

But music mostly isn’t programmatic, even when it is presented as if it were. If you listen to those pieces above, their sonic evocations are minor facets of what they represent, and what the represent is the performance of particular sounds, in a highly specific sequence devised by a composer. They don’t “represent” something extramusical any more than a delicious meal represents one’s homesick joy at travel, or the reminder that one ought to be careful in life. Meals and music are both pleasures-in-themselves, and this, I’d argue, is the same of all great art.

Of course, if de Botton is as bad as Fisun Güner makes him out to be, there’s no way in hell that he’s going to push that: he’d be implicitly calling for better literacy education, too… and more well-read people would not bother with an author as trite and lazy as the one Güner describes. After all, I personally trace the popularity of drecksters like Dan Brown to the poverty of literary education in schools. I’m not saying we ought to be reading more Shakespeare, of course: the Shakespeare lectures I got in high school were all woefully inadequate to the man’s work, and I never really got a good handle on Shakespeare till I read him as an adult. But then, the literary education I did get in secondary school could have ruined anything… and to my horror, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game went onto the curriculum a few years after I graduated from high school. (Anyone who reads this blog knows that it’s not because Card writes SF that I’m horrified, but because Ender’s Game is such a horrible book in so many ways.)

We read nothing I’d say was of value besides a few short stories, most of them “prairie lit” or American southern gothics, and spent plenty of time scrambling our way through Shakespeare and even modernized verse versions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, another text I did not appreciate till later… and did not really enjoy till I read it in the original Middle English. The thing is, appreciating great art takes work. Most people who’d rather be watching America’s Next Top Model–or the local equivalent–aren’t likely to get more out of it if we talk down to them in the way de Botton suggests, anymore than the finest works of literature will gain an audience if we can only rewrite them using monosyllabic words, or, as Reader’s Digest tried, to abridge the longest of them into shorter form. The truth is, if you want people to come to the museum and have a fulfilling experience, you need to get the education programs going: art appreciation, art techniques, how to read a painting, how to read a sculpture, maybe some instruction on why people hold Rodin or Pollock in such high esteem.

Which takes work, and which most people will never do. That’s fine. It’s better than trying to popularize Chaucer by making a sexy cable TV show starring David Duchovy as a bawdy young Chaucer “researching” the vulgar pleasures which will turn up later in his poems, or something like that.

That, to me, is what it sounds like de Botton would pitch. Let’s make art relatable!  Relatable? To whom? To people who aren’t willing to try? You can sell caviar at a loss on the street, but I guarantee you most people will look at it–and at you–funny as they walk away. Putting ketchup on the caviar may help move product, but it won’t “help” the caviar, to be certain. Perhaps it’s just easier to resign oneself to the limitedness of serious audiences for serious art in this world. That, at least, is nothing new.


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