Is Beauty Useful?

25 Mar 2012 in Artforms, Music, Robert Livingston Blog

Last Saturday we went through to Nairn to hear Joanna MacGregor play Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It was revelatory. Bach fanatic though I am, I’d never really managed to properly engage with this hour-long display of compositional and keyboard virtuosity. MacGregor’s performance made me understand why: too many players approach the work with reverence. MacGregor grabbed it by the throat, and turned the thirty Variations, and the opening and closing ‘aria’, into a dazzling, phantasmagoric journey. The moment when, under the final chords of the last Variation, she brought back the opening Aria as a ghostly form of itself, as if it had been playing all the time in another room, was one of the most astounding coups de musique I’ve ever heard.

This performance blew away, once and for all, the legend of the origin of the Goldbergs: that Bach composed them for a pupil, named Goldberg, to play to his insomniac employer. That’s patently nonsense. Not just because, if played properly, the work is far too stimulating to be conducive to slumber, but, as MacGregor showed, it is all of a piece. The idea that young Goldberg might have extracted a few movements, as and when, to while away the dark reaches of the night is wholly implausible.

But the fact that the legend has persisted for so long points to an early example of the deeply-rooted belief that music has to be ‘useful’. After all, in Bach’s time, most of it was: either it was embedded in church liturgies, or it had a role to play in civic and state occasions, or it was simply to aid the digestion—the origin, of course, of the term ‘Table music’.

Bach supremely demonstrated the uselessness of music, not just in the Goldbergs, but above all in the towering achievement of The Art of Fugue, which is so far from being composed for any particular purpose that Bach wrote it in ‘open stave’ with no indication of the instruments for which it was intended. But even after a subsequent century and a half of Romanticism, the idea that music should be useful didn’t go away. In the 1920’s the young Paul Hindemith declared that he was writing Gebrauchsmusik—explicitly, ‘useful music’—for social or political purposes, or for amateurs. In the next decade that high-minded aim would take a much darker turn, as totalitarian regimes in Germany and the USSR sought to stipulate that all music—indeed all art—must serve ‘the state’ or ‘the people’.

And still, today, stale old debates arise, about whether art is of benefit to society, or is simply ‘for art’s sake’. There are several ironies about this. The first is that, despite overwhelming evidence from throughout the world, governments and government departments fail to grasp the concept that the arts—and perhaps especially music—can have huge impacts on crucial areas of policy and expenditure: health, education, crime. It’s horrifying to realise that almost a decade has passed since we all hailed First Minister Jack McConnell’s speech on St Andrews Day, 2003,  in which he stated that:

Culture cuts across every aspect of government – it can make a difference to our success in tackling poverty, it can make Scotland a healthier place and it has a significant contribution to make towards our economy.

Creative Scotland has just announced a three year Arts and Criminal Justice Programme. An excellent idea. But I believe I’m right in saying that the sizeable budget will come from Creative Scotland’s own coffers. Surely one of the Scottish Government’s smallest budget areas shouldn’t be subsidising one of the largest? That’s hardly in the spirit of McConnell’s speech, where he challenged his various departmental Ministers to come up with proposals for how they would put culture at the heart of government.

The party of Government may have changed since then, but not the issue of the centrality of culture. As Neil Mulholland argued in a recent Bella Caledonia post , what is the Independence project, if not cultural?

So, instead of the Golden Age some of us hoped for back in 2003, of a flood of new resources for the arts from the big boys among Government departments, it seems instead that increasingly the arts have to prove their instrumental worth to get funded even from dedicated arts budgets. This despite the fact that it is also a decade since the Editor of the British Medical Journal argued that diverting just 0.5% of the NHS budget to arts activities would have hugely disproportionate benefits—a view supported at the time by a great number of medical professionals

But there is a further irony. The evidence I referred to is increasingly showing that almost any engagement in the arts can be beneficial. That is, these do not have to be projects designed specifically to achieve a particular end, such as boosting personal confidence, or diverting young people from anti-social behaviour. Just experiencing the live arts as an audience member is beneficial in many ways, both social and personal, both psychological and physiological.

Let’s take as an example what some would consider one of the most outmoded, or elitist, forms of engagement in the arts: the chamber music recital. I’ve written before about the excellent At One with Music series of lunchtime concerts in Inverness Town House. Inevitably, given that these are held on weekdays, the great majority of the audience is retired—indeed many of them appear very elderly and perhaps a bit frail, so a lunchtime concert offers an excellent opportunity that doesn’t involve travel in the dark. Most of those attending are regulars, and they tend to arrive very early, so there’s a real social buzz. Now, the superficial benefits of such social interaction are obvious, but here’s where we get into more difficult territory: Does the act of listening to great music have a direct physiological benefit? And is that benefit greater if the performance is ‘live’, not a recording?

Let’s be clear, I’m not talking about the much debunked ‘Mozart effect’ here. But I firmly believe that if one really listens to good music—and I mean genres such as jazz, traditional and world, as much as classical—then there is a physical involvement. Most obviously we react to rhythm. But I think we also became ‘in tune’ (pardon the pun) with the pulse of the music and, in the case of something as complex as Bach, with its unfolding architecture. And so, when the music ends, we experience an elation, an exhilaration, that can be profound, and lasting. The effect of a great concert can, literally, buoy me up for days.

Give me time and space, and I’ll happily extend that argument into different artforms: contemporary dance, for certain; theatre at its best, and even the visual arts. Randy Klinger, redoubtable founder and Director of the Moray Arts Centre, argues repeatedly and eloquently that his project is about re-establishing the pre-eminence of ‘beauty’ in our lives. Randy understands well how uncomfortable many people can be with that concept of ‘beauty’. In our post-modern, ironic, self-conscious society, making a baldly stated commitment to ‘beauty’ is a bit like announcing that you’ve found religion. In both cases embarrassing silences tend to follow.

But what if Randy’s right? Humans (and indeed Neanderthals) were already making art at least 40,000 years ago—indeed the earliest use of pigment has been traced back to a date ten times earlier than that. Music is certainly at least as old—the oldest flute so far discovered is also from 40,000 years ago. The very new science of evolutionary neurology will argue—as its proponents are already doing about religion—that humankind developed art because it conveyed some form of evolutionary advantage. Others will reject such a reductionist argument. But art is not even a uniquely human concept: just look at the bower bird!

So, finally, what I’m arguing is that the long running stand-off between the intrinsic and the instrumental values of the arts is simply pointless. Perhaps the single most famous piece of classical music of the 1960s was the Sinfonia by Luciano Berio, the third movement of which uses an extraordinary tapestry of texts, ranging from Samuel Beckett to student slogans from 1968. At one point these words surface from the aural maelstrom:

And tomorrow we’ll read that ‘Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto’ [or the composer and title of any other work included in the same programme] made tulips grow in my garden and altered the flow of the ocean currents. We must believe it’s true. There must be something else. Otherwise it would be quite hopeless.

That’s my credo. Art matters, it’s as simple as that. Or it would be quite hopeless. Last Saturday Joanna MacGregor proved that, in spades.

© Robert Livingston, 2012