Art is a vehicle for self-knowledge. Whoa, that’s heavy. With apologies, yes.
I sometimes imagine a discussion with a visitor from outer space.
Space Alien: What did you do last night?Why indeed!
Human Person: I went to a big box.
There were about 1500 people there. They turned off the lights, and in a corner
of the box some people made noise.
SA: EEW! How long did you have to do
HP: It took about two hours, and I wanted to do it.
SA: So they
must have paid you well?
HP: Actually, I paid a handsome sum.
(scratching its left nose) Hmmm. I have just one question.
I have never seen myself. Don’t get too smug — you’ve never seen yourself either. I’ve seen my face in a mirror, I’ve seen photographs of my face, I’ve seen my lower extremities, the backs of my lower legs, parts of my arms. I’ve never seen my back, my rear end, or parts of my arms. I’ve never seen the essence of my physical presence to the world: my eyes, my mouth, my nose, my ears.
My understanding of who I am is limited to the absence of what I am not. I know that I am not the table, the computer, the window, those trees. I am not the glass or the flowers. I am not the air or the smells. I am not the omelet, nor am I the taste of the omelet. I am not the death of my friend, nor am I the sadness. I am not the joke nor am I the humor. That thing that is missing from all the things I am not — that’s who I am. So the more defined, more present, more vivid to me are the things I am not, the better I understand my own being.
Ordinary understanding — or consciousness — is a three-part process: subject—mode of consciousness—object. If I see the Tower of London, I am the subject, the tower is the object, and seeing is the mode of consciousness. If I remember the tower, I am the subject, the tower is the object, and remembering is the mode of consciousness. If I imagine the tower, I am the subject, the tower is the object, and imagining is the mode of consciousness.
So here’s one answer to the “Why?”: we consume art because it helps to define us to ourselves. I read a novel; it has meaning for me to the extent that I relate the events in it to my own experiences of the world, it makes them more vivid, it heightens my awareness of the world external to me, and it brings my own essence into better relief. I see an opera or a play, or a Warhol Campbell’s Soup Can, I connect deeply with the loves, the losses, the joy, the sadness, the soup, and I have a more pronounced understanding of my loves, my losses, my joy and sadness, my soup. The external world is more vividly limned, what that world is not is in greater relief, and the “what-it-is-not” — me — is better defined.
Ah but visual art — and music — can do something else, something different, something — yes — BETTER!
Part 2: When is a Tree not a Tree?
When is a tree not a tree? Or, more precisely, in observing a tree, when am I not observing the tree?
Some 25 years ago I lived in an apartment in a rural area. Outside the apartment was a tree, a large one, with many branches. I saw the tree as I was coming and going, every day for two years. It was a tree. One day, though, leaving the apartment, I glanced up, and observed that tree. It was beautiful, and I was struck by it. And I was left with this nagging question: what was different about the tree when it provided an experience of beauty from when it was just there as part of my general observation of the world around me?
Kudos to you, honored reader, who has presumably made your way gamely through part 1 (and more kudos and sincere apologies if you remember it!), but we return to the structure of consciousness of our ordinary experience, which is: subject — mode of consciousness — object. I (subject) see (mode of consciousness) the tree (object). The experience of beauty is different from that of ordinary experience. In an experience of beauty, the object comes to me in such a way that I absorb it. It takes me over. I lose myself in the object. And in “losing myself” in the object, in a very real sense I become that object. There is no longer a subject or an object, what remains is just consciousness.
So what was different about the tree? Nothing. What was different was me: my openness to the possibility of losing myself in that visual image. Perhaps it was the incipient sunset in the background. Perhaps I approached it in a pensive moment of inner peace. Nonetheless, the visual image of that tree enabled me to absorb it, become it, and be moved. When the tree comes to me as beautiful, I am observing the tree but I am not observing it, because I am the tree.
Now this extraordinary experience couldn’t happen from just any old tree. That particular tree had numerous branches fanned out in a particularly gratifying shape. And the experience was fleeting, to be sure.
But there is an experience of beauty that is deep and profound: it is the one available from visual art, and from music. We open ourselves to the aesthetic object – the Rembrandt or the Picasso, the sublime performance of Mozart or Brahms. We focus on it, and it alone. We absorb it, it takes us over, we lose ourselves in it, we become it.
And in so doing it takes us to a magical place: ourselves. Our Selves. In this act of becoming the object, neither subject nor object participate in the conscious act. What remains is the very essence of our being, our consciousness.
Toward the end of his life Handel led a performance of Messiah. Afterward, legend has it, he was approached by a friend, who said, “Maestro, surely you have provided a great entertainment.” And he responded, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them, for I had hoped to make them better.”
Why music? We can know the very essence of our being, and we can be better.
This essay is adapted from the April and May Maestro’s Musings columns in Duluth Superior Magazine (reproduced by permission of the publisher). Markand Thakar’s book, Looking for the “Harp” Quartet: An Investigation into Musical Beauty is published by the University of Rochester Press and available from all good booksellers.
For the month of February 2011 readers of From Beyond the Stave can order Markand Thakar’s book at 25% discount from our website. Simply use the discount code HARPWEB25 during our secure checkout.
Or you can wait for the movie.