Only recently in life have I found that the term “Art” has much more depth of meaning than I ever imagined. I have been a highly-trained musician for the better part of my life, always knowing, clearly, what was and wasn’t art. This allowed my world to be confined to music, painters/sculptors, etc., dance, and contemporary photography, etc. Thus, my world view was small, yet I thought vastly large. What changed?
The epiphany for me was when I discovered history and philosophy, yet in my mind I could compartmentalize this discovery apart from art. I was so very wrong.
“Art is the unceasing effort to compete with the beauty of flowers – and never succeeding”. Plato
Now, before I lose you completely, I have come to understand that “study”; that which requires expanding knowledge of self, the past, the present, and the possible future; belongs in the Art category. How can it not?
Why? I love the Plato quote above as it is precise. When I study history, a direct purpose is begun that rarely resembles the end, if there is an end. When it transforms into writing, thought on paper, the same passion I have in music is transformed by as deep a passion for expanding that unobtainable flower blossoming. Thank you, Plato!
This leads me to such amazing beauty in historical study. It challenges my preconceptions of people, time periods, and events leaving me with no definitive answers, but more questions. Sometimes this is frustrating, but recently I have passed that milestone into joy of discovery and beautiful dialogue. It’s the same emotional high that I feel while listening to Chopin or Mahler, and when, at its sublime, matches performing a Mahler Symphony. The latter is something musicians feel when the music you are playing, surrounded by other musicians, engulfs your being to a point that you can hardly contain your emotions. You fight back your tears for elation, because who wants to see everyone on stage stop playing and weep. The audience doesn’t experience the same performance in this way, nor can a recording duplicate the experience. There is a purity in truth, be it music or history.
I have now found that same experience when I discover something profound to me in historical context that no one, that I have found, has discovered or thought of in quite the same way. This feeling, during the discovery, is not something you can completely share.
Why does this matter?? We are struggling, in the United States, to discard the instanced past, see it’s glaring mistakes, and accept the ugly truths of the past which devastate our impressions of American History. Historians, for the most part, are leading the charge into the future, yet they are attacked from every angle, especially from those who want so desperately to hold on to how the collective US history has been taught to us all. We, as a nation, can no longer remain neutral, thus the tremendous growing pains. Many proud patriotic Americans want to cherish that feeling of superiority over other nations and “others” in general. Nationalism, whether US or any other country, is only viable if it’s realistic and true. It can be used so horribly, and has in the past, as to crumple the same society that flaunts their belief in greatness.
Don’t get me wrong, I love this flawed country, but I do so as a father or sibling, yet not a child, realizing that admiration does not replace fact about the horrors committed by the same country. All nations are inherently flawed.
Back to “Art”. The parallels in artistic study and the humanities, which includes historical study in my book, is stunning. Musicians, painters, sculptors, photographers, etc. all know that the moments of sublime are few and fleeting. Yet, we work hours upon hours of honing our craft to visit these fleeting, highly addictive moments because our souls cannot endure less. How is historical or philosophical study and writing any different? It is not, we are comrades seeking the same thing. Yet, we divide our worlds.
Why should we care about this distinction? NOW, like pivotal times in history, more than ever, we need absolute unity where we are pushed to divide. I was disappointed in my music history courses because they did little to correlate the rest of history with music history. I need not know less about the contents of the Bamberg codex than the Plantagenet dynasty during this same period. Bach’s dates are used to codify the baroque period, 1685-1750. There’s a LOT of history happening during this period. Large German migration to America. Did this impact Bach in any way? Did these same German immigrants (many to Pennsylvania) bring German influences, musically, to America? One of the great writers of what color means for the artist was Eugene Delacroix who just so happened to be friends with Frederick Chopin, Franz Lizst, and the fiction author George Sand (the crossdressing woman). The same can be said for the study of history that does not include what is happening in the Art world.
These sample questions are just a stepping point to get students, and all of us, to think differently about historical context, especially in Art. I believe this makes the study more fascinating, likely to spark more interest, and more ability to absorb how both intertwine beautifully. Memorization of dates and details become unnecessary as it happens naturally in the bigger understanding of it all.
That’s what hit me today. Let’s just wait to see which direction I go next!