OME TIME AGO, I published a piece here at Views from the Choir Loft, “Seven Theses for the Evaluation of Music”, which were intended to be short and provocative, as befits the genre (well, Martin Luther’s Theses were more numerous and lengthier, but they still had laconic force against the backdrop of decadent scholasticism). The article created a minor firestorm in the Musica Sacra forum, for which I was truly grateful, as the critiques and questions gave me the chance to clarify my thoughts and formulate them better.
It is easier to see the obvious ends of the spectrum or hierarchy (Mozart = good, metal = bad) than it is to sort out a ranking in between, and I, for one, don’t think it’s necessary to do that. Is Beethoven greater than Bartók? Undoubtedly; but Bartók was a genius too, and worthy of time and effort. Is Bartók greater than Babbitt? Absolutely―there’s not even a competition there. What about certain styles of popular music? They are as inferior to the great composers (of our age and of every age) as the crude singing style of a rock star is to the sublime vocalizations of an operatic singer, the apogee of human vocal development. I’m not a relativist or a subjectivist about truth claims any more than I am about the objective reality of human nature and the natural law, and I think that anyone who is consistent will see that, however much leeway is allowed for taste, nevertheless the beautiful, like its companions, the good and the true, is not merely subjective, but is based on objective criteria that already point us towards the divine.
My wife is a painter and iconographer, and I have enjoyed looking at her many books, both of great artists and of artists teaching how to paint, and listening to her discerning comments. There are definitely concrete things that make a painting great, from the combinations of colors and textures to the hard or soft edges of shapes to the overall arrangement (e.g., centered vs. off-center), to the vanishing point and you name it. I think something exactly like this is true for all of the arts, including music. Palestrina and Bach, for instance, are great not because they just happened to cough up inspired music, as if in an irrational spasm, but because their minds and hearts were beautifully attuned to the microcosmic and macrocosmic principles of harmony and rhythm. You can get a lot of different styles of beautiful music from these principles, but they are real and they are not created by man―they are discovered, internalized, embraced, and made fruitful.
It is so easy in our age, governed by the dictatorship of relativism, to subjectivize the arts altogether, as if artistic excellence were nothing more than a matter of taste. What’s at stake in this debate is nothing less than our need to undergo a radical conversion of intellect and will towards the beautiful, which is part and parcel of our salvation, and maybe even, in some sense, a precondition for it (and certainly a result of it―in different senses). Far from being merely a matter of taste or cultural conditioning, the nobility of the works of fine art is an attribute they possess, a reflection of the Divine, and a privileged path that leads man to God. Conversely, bad art, art unworthy of its vocation, mediocre and crass art, etc.―and there is indeed such a thing―lead men away from God and even from the dignity of their own nature.
So, to my mind, there is a lot at stake. I am content if I can stir up a debate that may cause people to think about the relationship between music and their immortal souls, but I’m resigned to the fact that, with music especially, lots of folks will merely dig in their heels, cross their arms, and say: “Fooey on you, I’m not interested in thinking about music―it’s all about feelings.”
HERE’S ONE CLARIFICATION WORTH MAKING. I have a large collection of music scores and recordings and enjoy the work of many, many composers (including a number of the “minor” ones listed above). Obviously if I thought that only Bach’s or Mozart’s music had worth, I wouldn’t lift a pen to attempt to compose my own music. But when I do write a piece, as unworthy as I am of this great tradition, I nevertheless strive to say something in continuity with it, inspired by it, and almost as an offering to it as well as to God and His people. And I see that to be true of the mentality of most of the great composers―they know themselves to be within a tradition and they defer to it and trust it, even while they innovate. The loss of a profound sense of belonging, imitation, and gratitude is a kind of mortal sin in fine art, and I think it has much to do with the rampant relativism of judgment that surfaces the moment anyone dares to suggest that there is something in the music of (say) J. S. Bach that transcends time and establishes a measure of the greatness of music.
I don’t think there can be an argument with a person who holds that all beauty (or all judgment of beauty) is merely subjective, any more than there can be with a person who maintains there is no truth, or that the good is solely determined by my appetites. As Aristotle says in Book IV of the Metaphysics, arguing with such a person is like trying to argue with a vegetable―no progress can be made, because the first principles of reasoning are being denied.
Aristotle, like his master Plato, was arguing with the sophists of their day, who denied that there was truth or that truth could be known and spoken. In our day, the problem has become particularly acute: moderns have an almost innate anti-philosophical bias, an irrationalism that is ill-suited to patient argument and disputation. So the Scholastics like St. Thomas or St. Bonaventure, through no fault of their own, end up badly off in a modern setting. As a teacher, however, I can say from much experience that if you take a classroom of young people with open minds who are willing to learn, then Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas (among others) will take them very far into an understanding of the mysteries of nature and of faith―not in order to “prove” them, which is impossible, but to delight in their mysteriousness all the more, to revel in their beauty, and, most importantly, to live righteously according to their lofty demands.
All great art is straining and pointing towards transcendence and ineffability (this is why I so love the music of Sibelius and Arvo Pärt, as different as they are: each is a prophet of the Absolute, a pilgrim of the yonder, one who utters boldly the unutterable). As a result, the principles that make art great cannot be reduced to a handful of finite formulas; one cannot merely “connect the dots” to generate a masterpiece. But this in no way cancels out the reality of objective principles that stand behind the works of fine art and serve as criteria for judgment. Perhaps it’s the word “objective” that offends, suggesting as it may a kind of detached and disembodied perspective, but granting the inadequacy of our existential situation and the non-ultimacy of our judgments, we do have potent intellectual equipment for this work of discrimination and valuation, which we first learn by sitting at the feet of great artists and soaking in the beauty they have revealed to us.
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