Picasso's Guernica. The idea of trying to shock and disturb the public has become a paradigm of “serious art.”
- “To send light into the darkness of men's hearts - such is the duty of the artist.” – Robert Schumann
- “Art is whatever you can get away with.” – John Cage
With no concerts to go to, I’ve been exploring quotations from composers and artists. These two struck me as being in complete opposition.
These words are separated by about 120-150 years. A lot happened in that time span. There were two world wars, a Cold War, a half a dozen holocausts, the atomic bomb, and landing on the moon.
Apparently, the role of the artist or, in this case, the composer has changed dramatically. I am forced to say that both of these quotations are true, but which one is more appealing?
Schumann, Symphony No. 3, "Rhenish"
Riccardo Muti conducting (1994)
I think the answer is obvious, so why do we continue to put up with the sentiment of John Cage’s quote? What Cage is saying sounds as if it is the confession of a con artist.
In The 48 Rules of Power, authors Robert Greene and Joost Elffers say of Pablo Picasso, “Pablo Picasso never allowed himself to fade into the background; if his name became too attached to a particular style, he would deliberately upset the public with a new series of paintings that went against all expectations. Better to create something ugly and disturbing, he believed, than to let viewers grow too familiar with his work.”
Picasso was able to continue evolving his style and kept himself positioned as the most famous and successful artist in the world. He was able to keep a “true voice” in most of his numerous styles.
Do we like the artist in the role of a provocateur or as a bringer of light? Can’t we have both? In the case of Picasso, yes. However, not every artist is a Picasso and this leads us to John Cage’s quote becoming true.
The idea of trying to shock and disturb the public has become a paradigm of “serious art.” In the concert hall, at the conclusion of a new piece of music, the go-to comment by audience members is, “I like when they challenge us.”
Two seasons ago, the San Diego Symphony performed a piece of music that was about the loss of glaciers in Glacier National Park. At this point, I can’t tell you a single thing about the music except that it was tedious, lacked any sense of melody or beauty, and I hated it. However, we were being challenged to deal with the issue of climate change, and that means something. Right?
That issue divides any crowd right down the middle because it is politicized, and no one is able to agree on the correct course of action. Instead of composing a piece of music based on the experience of Glacier National Park, we were challenged with a vague sense of guilt.
If we take Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, performed during the same season, we get Schumann’s experience of the Rheinland. Schumann is expressing to us his feelings on the natural beauty of a journey down the Rhein River.
The opening movement shines the light of natural splendor into our hearts with heroic dotted rhythms compelling us down the river. We can all agree that nature is splendid and if it is threatened we might have a better chance of coming together to preserve it.
The composition about receding glaciers tells us that we have dark little hearts and that’s why the glaciers are receding. None of us is guilty of climate change and, at the same time, none of us is innocent but we need to be challenged?
The challenge approach to art has been, except for Picasso, a complete failure. Maybe we can go back to shining some light.