Thursday, July 09, 2015

Liberal Arts 4: The Value of Music and Art

Fourth post in my series on the importance of the liberal arts for civilization. Previous posts include:

A Vision for the Liberal Arts
The Value of Philosophy
The Value of History

1. It seems to me that music and art are the most human of the liberal arts, with literature following close on their heals. Obviously some individuals have more capacity in this area than others. In this post, I am not targeting those who recognize the value of art and music but don't have much ability. I am targeting those who would try to remove them from curricula altogether.

A squirrel intrinsically knows the value of a nut, but he can't dance with it or scratch a representation of one in the side of a tree. When I hear of legislatures cutting funding for art or music because they think they are a waste of resources, my initial reaction is to think of them as sub-humans. Mere gorillas, thinks I. How do you make a human being into mere road kill? You take away the part that distinguishes him or her as human.

The ability to appreciate music and art is almost entirely limited to the human species. I'm sure some other species sing to each other, but you don't find hole-drawings in a rabbit hole (unless you're visiting Watership Down).

Even the hyper-utilitarian Soviet Union supported the arts, even if they did so for the wrong reasons--to show their superiority. So the hyper-utilitarian capitalist on this score, who wants to remove "wasteful" expenditures on art and music in the public schools, shows him/herself inferior even to the hyper-utilitarian communist, for whom it was all about the benefit to the State.

2. Of what benefit is art and music? Oscar Wilde would say the question itself is wrong, but let's entertain it for a moment.

Aristotle and Marcuse both recognized the cathartic value of art. Again, many sins are no doubt committed in the public schools when art or music becomes a mere lesson. Some of my children had an art teacher whose main goal seems to have been to teach the children to hate art (the J. Evans Pritchard, PhD type).

But what capacity art and music has to release unhealthy energies! When I was in college, I would sometimes get into a spiraling funk of self-doubt. In such times, there was nothing like a good movie on television to pull me out, to reset my brain, to put me in a different world on a different trajectory.

Aristotle realized this catharsis that art offers. How sad music can vent sadness. How angry music can vent anger. I've often wished I had the talent to paint or play my feelings out. How fantastic it must be to have the talent of a great painter or musician! To be able to express one's feelings in such a channeled way!

Of course art and music can feed unhealthy emotions too. Music can lead us to God, and music can go hand in hand with unbridled sex and drugs. My parents' generation tried to suppress the power of the Beatles, but they lost soundly. Ideas don't hold a candle to the power of music and art, the wimps.

We should be aware of this power. An educated person is, a person who has studied liberal arts. Why have opinions changed so quickly on homosexuality in America? Is it not in large part because of the movies and media of the last twenty years, which have normalized it in our consciousnesses? The influence of movies and television are the power of literature intensely multiplied through art and music.

Art and music amplify the emotions of a society. If you live in a climate where the weather often becomes dangerous, you need to know how to respond in a storm or flood. So art and music can be healthy releases and they can be unhealthy. How shortsighted to think such things are insignificant parts in an education.

3. Of course for those who have a sixth sense, the importance of art and music is obvious. Like someone who has never seen or heard, how difficult it is to describe vision or hearing. Beauty is something God has uniquely given to humanity. Blessed are those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

In that sense, Christians should especially value art and music, as one of God's special gifts for humanity. They are arguably part of the imago Dei, the image of God. They are part of the glory and honor with which God has crowned us in the creation.

Like the emotions they feed and express, art and music are are neither good nor evil in themselves. But they can be expressed in good and bad ways. They can be sanctified. They can be vilified.

Tolstoy recognized the ability of art to point us toward the greater good--the love of God and our fellow human. They hold an immense capacity to bind us together, to help us see others as the same as ourselves. What does it mean to be human? Art and music are doorways to our inner humanity, much as literature, a door through which that Nazi, "Idea," cannot as easily pass.

4. Oscar Wilde of course pushed back against the idea that art must have an instrumental value at all. Art is valid for its own sake, he argued. (Of course the philosopher of art might note that art for him still served pleasure, and pleasure happiness, but we'll forgive this minor philosophical infelicity on his part)

"Life much more imitates art than art imitates life," he said. I don't entirely agree, but poets must be allowed their exaggeration. Certainly life does often imitate art. When cell phones went through the flip-phone stage, it was not lost on me that this form was inspired by Star Trek in the 60s. Indeed, how many careers in science were inspired by the artistry of Star Trek and other movies?

Art and music inspire. The artistry of a good teacher can set a student on a lifelong trajectory. Even sports is a form of art or can be seen to be such.

5. When you think of how much more powerful art and music are than science or courses on countless subjects that focus on ideas, how stupid we must feel to think that they are an unimportant part of an education!

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