Leon Botstein: Art Now (Aesthetics Across Music, Painting, Architecture, Movies, and More.)

Leon Botstein: Art Now (Aesthetics Across Music, Painting, Architecture, Movies, and More.)

Hi, my name is Leon Botstein. I’m president of Bard College and I’m a musician
and a historian of music. My subject today is the arts and art and what
is it and why should we study it. Why is it part of university curriculum? Why is it something that an undergraduate
student should worry about and spend time taking courses in? So the first thing is to sort of think about
what the word means. Art is a word we use all the time. It is in ordinary usage, applied to lots of
different things and people get worried about something, you know is it artistic, is it
art, what distinguishes art from anything else that you might encounter in the world
and probably the simplest way to say it is that art is something that transforms the
everyday. It transfigures the ordinary. So a good example and a very sort of clear
example is in the period of pop art, the artist Andy Warhol took a Campbell’s Soup can and
made a work of art out of something we looked at ordinarily on the shelf of a supermarket. Take a photograph. Now you can take a photograph with your cell
phone. You can look through it and snap someone’s
picture. The question is, is that art as opposed to
a great photographic portrait? Take for example the great American photographer
Edward Steichen. He did a portrait of Charlie Chaplin. You look at that portrait and you ask yourself
is that art or is it just a photograph of Charlie Chaplin. Well there is something different about it. There is something unexpected. There is something that isn’t quite in your
ordinary experience yet it is related to your ordinary experience. Another example comes also from the pop art
era and that has to do with comic books, so the great artist Roy Lichtenstein made big
canvases where you had the same kind of visual impact that a comic book had, people with
bubbles coming out of their mouths with things being said and things very much apropos of
what comic books talked about, love, loss, a kind of soap opera story. So art is connected to what we experience
every day, but it represents some kind of transformation of the everyday, something
that is not actually entirely real. It can’t be found by locating it. It requires human intervention. It is the fingerprint, if you will, of our
existence in the world that has its impact on things we transform through the use of our imagination. So a good example would be to say music, which
is perhaps one of the most easy aspects of art to talk about. Now music doesn’t exist really in nature. Birds sing and there is bird song and there
is sounds in nature, but the system of Indian or Chinese or Western music, how we divide
tones, how we organize them in the west by half steps and whole steps, sometimes with
microtones and we organize rhythm and we create a grammar of sound and expectation, so a song
like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” is something that seems natural to us. We can identify when it starts and when it
ends and we have a pretty good idea of how it is organized. Now that is totally artificial. There is no “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”
song out in nature and there certainly isn’t anything as complicated as, in the Western
tradition, a Beethoven symphony or even an opera, which is very artificial in which people
are singing and talking and moving at the same time saying different things all within
a coherent fabric. This is completely fictive. It doesn’t have a real place in the world,
even when we try to be realistic. Go to a museum and you’ll look at a painting,
a genre painting or a historical painting, which depicts a scene that you think is really
quite realistic. Someone is fighting a battle. A person is looking out a window or you’re
looking at a landscape which you actually perhaps have seen yourself, but that frame
is very artificial and we allow ourselves to be caught up in the illusion of its realism. It isn’t really out there. It isn’t real. It’s somebody’s imagination of what is
real. The perfect example is TV, video and film
where we get caught up in a storyline that may take years and centuries. It seems real to us. The whole thing is only an hour and a half
long, but it has the illusion of realism and that is the artificial manipulation of our
sensibilities through the work of an artist. All the transformations I have described,
the creation of music or the creation of an artificial visual image are things that people
do regularly and things that don’t always qualify as art, so we can choose people who
designs boxes or packaging for products or people who even do fashion design, although
that is a contentious area and people who write jingles or commercial music or soundtracks
for TV shows. Now is that art? Now there is always a lot of debate particularly
among snobs about what is art, people who think they know what art is and they confuse
art with taste. It’s hard to talk about. We are not sure what constitutes art is simply
a matter of what I think is art or someone else thinks is art, but it’s quite clear
that there is a continuum. There are a lot of things that were not originally
thought of being art that actually strike us as artistic and we would defend it. There are many movie scores that really are
as good as something that someone wrote because he or she thought it was going to be art in
some kind of elevated sense. There are things in ordinary life that are
beautifully done that have an aesthetic capacity to persuade us that it is art. That is perfectly true of architecture, which
is always, in a way, useful. People live in buildings. We work in buildings. We take trains from buildings. We fly planes from buildings. We go into things that are designed, industrial
design and those things really are art. There was a period of time where people made
a very strict distinction between that which was useful and that which was not useful and
distinguished art as something that had no particular utility that was for its own sake
if you will. I’m not sure that is useful for us to consider,
but it is always the case that there is some aspiration, some insight, something that happens
in the transformation of the everyday through an artistic impulse that is entirely human
and therefore subjective. There is something that goes beyond the thoughtless. It goes beyond something that we would pass
by. It makes us stop and think about something
quite important in an entirely different way. It’s for that reason that already from the
Greeks the notion that art making was human was crucial. It was something like love that only mortals
could experience. Gods didn’t make art, but we made art about
the gods because our capacity was limited by our mortality, but yet our imagination,
which was distinctly human, which was our own impression of the world with very limited
knowledge and limited capacity. The way we escaped that limitation was through
an imaginary world which we could create the same way we escape our limitation of being
mortal by imagining ourselves to be in love and create a category we call love. Well here we **** a category of things we
call artistic or very often a word that is used with art, the beautiful, so we think
conventionally that art is about the beautiful and when we talk about beauty people get very
concerned about it because one person’s beauty is another person’s ugliness. There are people who think well you think
it is art, but it means nothing to me and then there is the notion that really great
art is often misunderstood because it reaches beyond the conventional judgment of most of
the people, so art often gets pegged as being something quite elitist. Most people don’t think it is art. So for example in abstract art when people
began to make paintings that were really seemed to be only one color or very simple shapes
or Jackson Pollock did things with swirls of color that people thought well I can do
that, that is like finger painting, my child can do that. Well there is something about a child’s
finger painting that may actually not qualify in our view as art, not because of the prejudice,
but because actually there is something different between a finger painting of a child and what
Jackson Pollock does, but the fact is that from the very first moment his paintings were
recognized by some group it is not true that all great art exceeds the capacity of the
larger public, although as you get more rarified and study art you begin to see more in what
is out there than you would see if you didn’t think more carefully about it. So let’s take the finger painting. One of the important things about what makes
a work of art is the power of the human imagination to predict something, although there have
been strong traditions of art that are random, people who believe in randomness or in happenstance
or in chance. Most of what we think is art is the result
of people thinking about doing something and being carried away by either some plan or
some intuition or some imagination, so the child’s finger painting is probably distinguishable
from Jackson Pollock by its structure, its composition, its intent, its design. Now that doesn’t mean that some people won’t
be fooled and that’s why I have always been in favor of museums that would have no labels
and no identification. It’s very easy to look at a painting and
say well that’s by Rembrandt or that is by Monet or that is by Clint and therefore
it is good. Now imagine if we had a museum without labels
or we had concerts without names or programs. People would only have to respond to what
they liked or they disliked, but that’s already far down the road of discriminating
things we like from the things we don’t like. It’s far away from the generic definition
of what is art, art, which is in music, in painting and photography and architecture,
in video and film mediums. Art is really the attempt to create through
time and in space a work that has—or a statement or an event that has some coherence that derives
from, is connected to everyday experience, but is really quite apart from it and works
back in our experience of it to that everyday experience. It creates a vocabulary of sensibility, a
vocabulary of interpretation, a vocabulary of meaning that in one sense is beyond that
of language. Very important about art is that it is not
restricted to language. There is art in language. We see that in poetry, which is a different
use of language, the use of language in many art forms visual, architectural and in music,
but much of art and much of the art that we care about responds to something other than
the linguistic. We talk about it in language, but our experience
of it is somehow around language. It bypasses language. So we’re concerned with art that transforms
our sense of space, our sense of proportion, our relationship to the world, which is artificially
constructed by the spaces in which we live and those are spaces designed by architects
or really artists. We also think of ourselves in terms of even
the way we dress and the way we sit and the way we walk or move in the world. In a conceptual space it is influenced by
the way we see and the way we see is influenced by things that we use as models in the shaping
of our own imagination and then our hearing, our sense of sound, our sense of meaning. Many philosophers have argued that the visual
and particularly musical reaches an individual in a different way, not through the medium
of language and therefore is not entirely rational. It’s not something that we can say is right
or wrong. When we say we’re moved by a work of art
or that we’re inspired by a work of art we often find it hard to put that in words. The power of music for example is best expressed
in the way music interacts with words, so take a great moment in the operatic literature,
in Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro”. At the very end it is an opera about infidelity
and at the very end the Countess forgives her husband the Count for contemplating, if
not realizing infidelity. She realizes the loss of love, so as she forgives
the Count the music, which has no words to it, tells an inner story to the audience of
a sense of loss, a sense of distance from what she is actually saying that would be
impossible to communicate without music. The sense of nostalgia, of memory is so profoundly
evoked with music. Now that is an experience we can describe
in language as existing, but it’s very hard to induce only with a linguistic. The same is with the visual. If you go for example on the Hudson Valley
and you wait on a summer day to see the sunset in the west. To look at it and to be inspired by its natural
beauty we really have to think back that our view of that beauty has been deeply influenced
by the way artists have depicted it. In our common culture we have, whether we
like it or not, been used to, not in photographs, but painters, Frederick Church for example,
the Hudson River School that looked at nature and made nature beautiful to those of us who
are city dwellers for whom nature was no longer really accessible. We didn’t live in nature, so we imagined
a nature, a beautiful, glorified, kind, benign nature, not a nature of terrible thunderstorms
and hurricanes, but a nature that seemed to provide us an importance in the world, a sense
of sanctity, a sense of openness, a sense of hope, a sense of beauty uncorrupted by
human intervention. This illusion of nature is an artistic invention. It’s a product of our subjectivity. It is a way, a love of nature similar to the
love of the divine, both of which are enormous subjects of art making. A great deal of art has been produced to celebrate
the divine in some god sense and also the divine in some sense of nature. Now art is a human activity and in so far
as it is a human activity, which is quite universal. There are very few cultures that don’t have
something called art and there is also the effort to try to get the populous to appreciate
it because art often is not designed to be the most accessible or uniform kind of form
of communication, so it’s not a single message because art doesn’t exist without the user. It’s hard to know whether something exists
philosophically. One can become very concerned about well is
that tree out there really there if no one is looking at it. It’s safe to say then in the matter of art
the book doesn’t exist, the painting doesn’t exist, the movie doesn’t exist, the piece
of music doesn’t exist unless there is a listener, there is a reader, there is a viewer. Art is, in its core, a social activity. It’s an activity in which individuals seek
to communicate, which is why art can be viewed as dangerous by political regimes that don’t
like the expression of human intention or the making of art because it is designed to
reach somebody, so it is not a surprise that the one person recently imprisoned by the
Chinese now released, Ai Weiwei, was an artist. He wasn’t actually a political activist. Why was this artist dangerous? Why were the censors against art making, theater
and music in periods of tyranny in the early 19th century before 1848, in periods of extreme
tyranny under Stalin and Hitler? Why do these tyrannous regimes attempt to
control and manipulate the artistic community, painters, sculptures, architects, composers,
writers? The reason is because they somehow understood
that art is something that seeks a public and its impact on the public could be subversive
because it’s very hard to pinpoint. Its influence is enormous. In reading for example, a novel one of the
great ironic examples of that is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary where the main character Madame
Bovary imagines her life through bad novels, but many of us have found ways to understand
life or ourselves through our reaction to fiction, not through real factual narratives,
but through fiction and have imagined our relationship with the world and with others
and with our society through the listening of music. Much of art is public. Art hangs in museums. There are installations. There is public art and the most important
public art of all is architecture. What do buildings tell us about ourselves? If you look at a fabulous building, for example,
the Helsinki Railway Station by Eliel Saarinen, fabulous building, massive, showing the public
the entire nation, the modern Finland embodied by the train, so it is a massive train station
similar to many that is in Europe, but it has a slight difference. It speaks to its public by making it much
lower and flatter so the relationship of the individual to the massivity of the railway
station is not imposing. It is not one of tyranny. It is not one of superior power. It doesn’t celebrate industrial power. It doesn’t celebrate wealth and in fact
it is much more intimate despite its scale. Furthermore, through it there are decorative
elements which remind the user of an imaginary traditional Finland, of a Finland of the Kalevala,
of a mythic past, of a tradition of a nation that was distinct from the rest of Europe. So local pride, folklore, national identity
all get communicated through art making, things that are completely artificial. You don’t need to have that kind of railway
station just to put trains in place. It could be a much more neutral, if you will,
solution to how to build a railway station. The capital of the United States is an architectural
statement that reveals ideals about what the builders thought the American Republic was
going to be about and so art is a public endeavor often that takes place in public spaces. It is also a private endeavor. It informs how we organize our private space
and how we use it. In days when people were amateur musicians
and sang and played together that was a form of a conversation. People sat down to play a string quartet and
that was a conversation with four people that used no language, just music. People sang together in their parlors. People went to choruses in church or in secular
circumstances to sing together. So art is not only the enterprise of the individual
art maker or the individual person who seeks to transform his or her experience of the
everyday by something that is not real, but transformed by a human being called art, but
they also have to recognize that art is about the way we live our lives in a public circumstance. When one recognizes that art is not merely
an act of an individual who exceeds his or her boundaries of experience in ways we cannot
predict parenthetically it’s important to realize that art is never something that has
to exist. In science we have the notion that what we
discover is something that somehow is out there. Now that is totally and entirely true. The way we describe it, our conception of
nature and of the world and of the laws of nature affects how we understand it and use
it, but there is a correspondence theory. There is some evidence. We have to show that the way we describe it,
the theories that we have to describe it actually are true and there is some evidence. So there was a great deal of speculation and
relief when relativity was proven by astronomical observation, by sort of **** experimental
evidence. Now in art what is created has no reason to
exist. It wasn’t out there before a human being
made it, which is why art is so significant to the individual because it is a reminder
both for the maker of the art and the person who engages with the art of his or her uniqueness
in the world. We would like to think, which is true, that
each of us has a fingerprint that is unique and a DNA sequence that is unique, which is
why we can be identified if we commit a crime, but they the same token the making of art
is a reflection of that uniqueness which has no predictive content. When you hear a piece of music, a new piece
of music written by a composer or you see a work of art at an installation, performance
art, a movie, any photography that one sees one realizes this is the imagination of a
single individual whose existence could not have been foretold. So there is a kind of uniqueness. That uniqueness has the parallel in the viewer. Not artwork is complete unless it has someone
who receives it. When there is no one in the museum the real
purpose of art dies. Those works come alive through the presence
of a viewer. A piece of music exists only if it is played
and heard and therefore requires human intervention. The important thing about that is that art
is one way, particularly in our current society to fight the sense of being superfluous. If one had to ask in contemporary life what
is the most important aspect of art to the individual is the recognition that in a very
large mass society in which most of the things we do are governed by efficiency, we can make
things with robots, we actually produce food immensely efficiently and with the promise
of biotechnology and information science it’s likely that those efficiencies will only increase. So there are a lot of people in the world. What are we here for? We once thought the primary reason for our
existence was labor, work. We were here because we had to. We had to till the soil. We had to protect ourselves from external
danger, rain, snow, weather. We had to take care of the necessities of
life and by so doing we had to do something useful and that useful thing could be rewarded,
rewarded either in money, which was a much later system or in actually goods, which would
feed us and our children.But that notion of work and labor is increasingly at risk. While we would like to see all of our society
very well employed one could positive a future where we are not needed, where there is an
easy pass for every function. You don’t need a toll collector any more. You don’t need an elevator operator. You don’t need a manufacturing person. You don’t need an artisan. So what are we here for? Well we’re probably here for the things
that are not useful. We are here for the things that have no utility,
that have no purpose, that are simply about our life and that essential sense of our purpose
being what we can do that may have no practical utility, that sense of the sacred character
of our capacity to create. If one believes the Abrahamic tale that we
were made in God’s image what does that mean? It means that God was a creator. He used language to create. Well we also use language to create, but we
also have the capacity for creation, for imagination. If God imagined the world we imagine things
and the things that we imagine often fall into the category of art, things that don’t
exist, things we put together, things we completely rely on our fantasy, our humor, our sense
of joy, our sense of possibility and our sense of the thing that wouldn’t ordinarily occur
if we just lived our lives in some predictive way, in some imitative way, which is why art
can be dangerous because it doesn’t follow rules. It rarely follows rules, but the important
thing about art both in its making and its absorption, its engagement is we reinvent
ourselves. We invent ourselves in our relationship to
listening to music, characters in the Enforcers novels for example. He was a great music lover. When they listened to Beethoven or even in
George Elliott. In many circumstances people who find their
lives transformed by looking at a beautiful building or a work of art or even a movie
or young people who will swear by a series of popular songs that seem to be very meaningful
to them. That identification with the imaginary which
helps us define ourselves in some unique way, the way we put it altogether, the mosaic of
our own tastes those things allow us to give ourselves purpose where we could be very depressed
by a sense of uselessness and boredom. The most terrifying thing is the loss of life
and the sense of purpose by boredom and that creates envy and hostility to others. We envy the person who seems to be useful
and needed. We’re looking for a safe place where we
can feel ourselves important and significant, which is why many of us choose to join religious
communities or other communities where through some community identification we give ourselves
purpose, but art allows us as individuals to have a purpose as we make it, participate
in it, consume it if you will, engage with it and it reminds us of not our capacity to
create art, but to recognize it and follow someone else’s imagination along with him
or with her. Now the social utility of art, the fact that
it’s public, the fact that it’s pretty universal in the sense that most societies
creates some kind of system of it, the social utility has been the subject of enormous controversy. There are people who think precisely because
art is imaginary in some way, it isn’t real and it isn’t useful in some way, is a kind
of mirage that distorts our sense of value. Famously Plato had his doubts about poetry
and about certain kinds of art making and there is a long tradition of suspicion that
art first of all is a conceit among a very small group of human beings who try to make
themselves superior through a kind of Ponzi scheme of values that they all inhabit and
they exclude other people from. It’s a Ponzi scheme because it really has
no value at the end of the day. This notion of art is particularly prevalent
in democratic societies, which is why for example in the United States there is really
no public subsidy of the arts because people will say: “Look you think it is art. I don’t think it is art and these artists
are not really useful. Why should we support them and art is really
a matter of taste, so it’s no different from clothes buying. If classical music is so important it should
pay for itself and people who like it should buy it. If people like that painting on the wall and
they want to pay five million dollars for it I’m just as happy with a ten cent poster
I can buy down the street. Who is going to tell me that Normal Rockwell,
the famous illustrator is somehow inferior as an artist to some sort of strange thing
that is on someone’s wall in South Hampton who believes her or himself to be a real connoisseur
and collector and paid four million dollars for something I wouldn’t give ten cents
for?” So in a democratic society the majority wins,
which means what we might think is art perfectly reasonably is Hollywood makes money or Broadway
on the off chance it makes money and many of the noncommercial arts are considered it’s
a conceit of a minority. It is one’s own private religion and that
in mass society, in mass democracy there is no agreement about what is art and there is
not real much agreement whether art is necessary in a society. Now that’s totally seemingly persuasive
and actually is hypocritical because the government builds buildings so it chooses architects,
makes an absolute statement in what kind of architecture it chooses, but beyond that the
nation in its military has orchestras and bands. It recognizes that art is part of the fabric
of a community. It has always been part of the fabric of what
we consider patriotism, the songs we sing, our national anthem. It’s not so easy to say whether there no
art and there is also not so easy to say that it’s only those things that make money because
in fact all true things are not popular. Evolution is not popular. It may be true, but it isn’t popular and
there are many facts which are not pleasant but are true and hard to understand. The earth is not flat. We all operate as if it is. Now it’s very complicated to explain to
someone that it is round, but that fact that that is true and it is only understood by
a minority doesn’t make it wrong. Now the real debate in the arts is are there
criteria for art that could be persuasive in a democratic society to induce a society
to support it? Is there some objective way of saying well
a Beethoven symphony, a Wagner opera, a Debussy nocturne those are superior to something else,
that certain buildings, certain painters, certain sculptures are understood as critically
superior to things that are of the same type, but not as good? Is there a hierarchy of goodness? Is there some truth value to our judgments
about art? Is it reasonable to say well that just isn’t
art or is not very good art or bad art? If we could make those discriminations then
we might create a hierarchy of value where then we could justify society supporting it. In monarchies and aristocratic societies arts
were supported by patrons and the patrons happened to be the State in the case of kings
and queens and emperors and in certain eras, particularly communist era the Party and the
State had a very clear idea of what was art that was good for the State. Fascists had the same idea. Both Hitler and Stalin were art lovers and
they were music lovers. They had very, very specific tastes. In Stalin’s case he hounded Shostakovich
twice in his career, in the 30s and the 40s for writing music that wasn’t right, that
wasn’t really towards what art should do in the community. Now those were not necessarily aesthetic criteria. They were political criteria if you can separate
the two for a moment. They were about what made people feel part
of a working class communist proletarian nation. What kind of music should that sound like? What kind of painting should that be? Let’s call it socialist realism. In fascism it was a clear idea of how to portray
to Aryan purity and the Aryan race and Nordic superiority and music like Hamena Buhlana
[ph], a very famous piece that was designed to give people a sense of membership and solidarity
that manipulated people’s emotions so that it was consistent with the objectives of the
State, but that’s not about the truth value. That is about a regime’s belief in how art
actually can function to help that regime. So to return to the question particularly
for the United States in a democratic society we don’t support the art because we can’t
agree as to what would be art. We can agree what makes a profit, so if you
want to do art you can pay for it. Everyone is happy. People can go to it. But why should we subsidize opera companies,
museums, artists, performance spaces, independent filmmakers and photographers? Why do that? Why not leave it simply to the marketplace? And one way to solve that problem would be
to say well as in science they can be kind of peer review, an objective sense of what
is good, what is bad and if we could discriminate, if we could agree then we could say well these
people deserve support, these people don’t. Now this is a thorny question and there are
no fixed answers, but the tradition of arguing about it over many centuries has given us
some clue of how to think about this question. Clearly the more you think about each separate
art form, movies, films, buildings, music, painting, sculpture, performance art you develop
sensibilities, criteria. There was a great example for example in the
case of the composer Mozart. He had a pupil, Thomas Atwood who became a
court composer in England during the reign of Victoria. He was a fine musician, but not a great talent,
perfectly fine craftsman and wrote a fair amount of music, none of which has survived,
but very competent. Now his music is art music. It’s fine. It’s good. It’s interesting. It is historically interesting because every
age has its own artistic currents and it is very interesting to understand the past. Art is a terrific instrument for getting under
the skin so to speak of a past era. Now Thomas Atwood studied with Mozart. Now Mozart was not much of a teacher. He did it only for the money and the strange
thing about Thomas Atwood is that it’s the one complete record because he was English
and very meticulous he kept his lessons with Mozart. It’s the only record we have of Mozart teaching. We don’t have any real records of Beethoven
teaching. We have people telling us sort of what he
did, but he was not a systematic teacher. In Mozart he gave Atwood lessons and exercises
and there is a great example of a minuet dance in which he gave Atwood a baseline and asked
him to fill it out. You have one line. You had to fill it out and give it melody,
so he gave him a baseline, a kind of foundation in which to write the minuet, which is a dance
in three meter and the fascinating thing is when Mozart was correcting it he made slight
changes and if you play Atwood’s exercise that he gave back to Mozart and Mozart’s
just to fill the time, just think about it, editing and changing of it you see the difference
between the ordinary and the great and blindfold and audience who has listened to a lot of
18th century minuets will identify the Mozart one right away. So there are many such examples where actually
works of art and music catch an imagination or seem to appeal to some criteria of craftsmanship,
perhaps even beauty, imagination, novelty, surprise. One of the things about art is that it breaks
your expectations unlike a train ride where you would be shocked if there were a sudden
stop or if suddenly it turned upside down and kept moving or as in all those Harry Potter
films you could levitate and go into an imaginary place with some wand. Well art is like that to the human experience. It sets up expectations and then changes them. You think you’re going down one road. You go to another. You think something is going to happen regularly
and then it just stops happening regularly. You think well it is going to look like this
and doesn’t. It makes you look at the world around you
in a different way. Well the unexpected comes in varying degrees
of sophistication and so in every art form there are criteria that have been developed
that are both historical and go beyond historical periods. Where we can discriminate from the more persuasive,
the less persuasive to some degree of agreement and then it deviates because the judgment
of history isn’t always right. We rediscover artists that we never thought
much of and bring them back. A good example would be for example, the Austrian
painter Gustov Clint who in the 50s was not an important figure, but by the year 2000
was a very important figure even though he had died in 1918. The same, there was a great Hungarian painter
Munkácsy, greatest painter, hugely patronized by Americans and by Europeans, a forgotten
figure now, but in his lifetime highly touted. The most expensive canvases to be sold before
1900 were by the Swiss German painter Arnold Bocklin. After that his importance almost vanished. He now is experiencing a revival. So tastes change and judgments change and
you cannot always rely on the so-called verdict of history because there are many political
and other factors that go into a person’s success or failure, but there are areas of
discussion where one can look at a novel, a poem, a painting, a building, a movie and
say this is a great movie and that is why and many of those things are separate from
the content of the movie itself or the painting or nominally the piece of music. These are things we call formal and those
are criteria of construction, the use of the materials, the use of space and time. They are criteria of the way conventions of
storytelling or construction are used by the individual artist, so there are ways we can
discriminate. At the very end much of it is subjective,
but there are many, many areas where great human achievements do require some more sophistication
in the way we read, the way we look and the way we listen. It can’t all be naïve. At first blush a Mahler symphony doesn’t
seem comprehensible. **** actually sustain one’s attention over
75 minutes of just sound, but then as one sort of listens to it and goes back and listens
to a Beethoven symphony and a Heiden symphony and a Mozart symphony and a Mendelssohn symphony,
even a Sibelius symphony, a contemporary you then get an idea of what the possibilities
are. The first movie you see well you’ve never
seen another movie. You see a lot of movies, you begin to discriminate,
not only by the narrative or the subject matter, but by something about the form of the movie,
the way movies are made or can be made or might be made, the same with photographs. Eventually you can look at your own photograph
that you took of your friend or your parents or a sibling with your camera in your cell
phone and realize it isn’t quite the same as a portrait by Irving Penn or by Diane Arbus. There is something about what they did with
the same basic medium that shows you that there is something you might learn, you might
think about, you might be able to do it yourself. The question that we face increasingly is
to what extent in a democratic society or any society, particularly in what we might
call open or free societies should we encourage the development of the aesthetic sensibilities
of our citizens? To what extent should art be encouraged as
part of what we foster in the conduct of both private and public life? Is art a constructive constituent activity,
art making, art viewing, art buying is the artistic conversation if you will, an important
part of what we would like to see in our society? Is it consistent with values such as freedom
and justice? Now these are once again topics that have
a long history of philosophical and political debate. It’s important to say that in un-free societies,
in societies where there has been an enormous amount of censorship and repression art has
usually been an avenue of dissent that is the place of last resort. One’s speech, pamphleteering, public, political
activity was banned and restricted. The last refuge of freedom ended up being
the arts, poetry, painting, particularly the arts that were not representational. There are a group of arts that are close or
closer to nature. They might be painting, photography, film,
which trade on the illusion of realism and fiction, prose fiction and then there are
those that are less tied to nature seemingly that is poetry, which doesn’t really use
language in the ordinary sense and then there is music clearly, which seems entirely abstract,
the most abstract perhaps of the arts and those become the most resistant to effective
censorship and therefore, art can be identified with courage and with breaking the habit to
conform, especially if conformity is associated with tyranny. We simply go about our business while some
people are harmed, killed, oppressed, exterminated and we are beaten into submission and the
resistance that submission can often be the arts. By the same token, arts can serve the State
and they can be used to justify tyranny. Sergei Prokofiev, the Russian composer who
returned to live under Stalin wrote a cantata for Stalin’s birthday called “Zdravitsa”
for his health whose text is unimaginable praising Stalin for every good thing even
the rising of the sun and the health of children. Now this fawning to one of the most evil people
in recorded history doesn’t make an advertisement for the virtue of the arts per se. Interesting about the arts of course is that
while they may even be created to serve a particular political purpose they are also
susceptible to being reinvented. One of the best examples is again from music
is the “9th Symphony” of Beethoven, which has a final movement whose text is by the
German poet Schiller and it is nominally about human brotherhood and so-called the “Ode
to Joy”, but it was performed on a regular basis by the Nazi’s to celebrate Hitler’s
birthday and to celebrate the heroes of the 1941 attack on Russia and it was also used
to celebrate the fall of the Berlin wall, two completely opposite political purposes
using the same music. It resists appropriation partly because music
has never been useful and therefore, to be taken into a purpose that is useful since
it is useless by definition it never quite fits. It doesn’t fit as a constituent element
in somebody’s scheme entirely persuasively, but the question in a free society or one
where highly fluid in terms of what we individuals can do, especially a consumer society where
we in a way like to think of our freedom mostly as freedom of movement, where we can go and
what we can do using money as a metaphor of movement, so there was a great American artist
Barbara Kruger who had a painting with sort of a spoof on the Cartesian phrase “I think
therefore, I am”. Instead she had, “I shop therefore, I am”,
in other words, the idea that our self identity is as consumers. Is art a useful instrument of criticism, constructive
criticism to the conceits of our society? Now that is a hard thing because much of art
in the United States in our society is patronized by very wealthy individuals, so it is odd
to see very wealthy individuals collect or support art that has huge amounts of social
criticism, so people living in big houses and mansions buy art that somehow utilizes
the suffering of others or tries to point out injustice, social injustice. There is something slightly hypocritical about
these uses of art and artists who in visual arts make a lot of money trading on a kind
of sympathy of the very wealthy and powerful for the plight of the poor and underserved,
but really do nothing about it. People go to a play that shows the suffering
of an Afro-American man and they feel ennobled by having wept in the theater at the sight
of the suffering portrayed on the stage and they think they have done something to advance
that cause. There is not a lot of evidence that that is
true, not a lot of evidence that except for making myself feel more noble because my sympathies
were in an artificial context onstage or in a movie with a protagonist who is somehow
disadvantaged while I was very comfortable and advantaged in some way that that emotional
identification through art is constructive. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau
argued that that actually is the very opposite, that all art does is allow us to be more complacent
with injustice. Art prettifies in some aesthetic way all the
evils of human society. Art is really the worst servants of the State
because they dress up all that is bad in the world in a way that makes it palatable and
in fact the conceit of my being superior by being an artist allows me literally to pull
the shades in my window as I see the injustice in the street. I allows me to exempt myself from a sense
of social responsibility because I’m superior and there comes a whole conceit of the artist,
the Bohemian, the person who doesn’t play by the rules, who thinks she or he is superior
because they are artists and therefore, they are exempt from having to do what we all have
to do, which is somehow contribute to the world around us and make the world better
in some constructive way. So it’s not clear that just generically
art is constructive, that art is always about freedom or always about individuality, it’s
always on the right side, not clearly so and that the values that it puts forward are not
always ones which we would find totally defensible, but the important thing is to think about
the question as an activity and as a repository of human achievement. Is it something that needs to be fought for? And at the core of that question is, is there
a relationship between what art does and the good, morally good, ethically good? Is there a connection as the 18th century
philosopher who would have liked to think was the case between the good and the beautiful? Now the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy really
said beauty isn’t the issue and in fact, beauty is the problem. Art shouldn’t be about beauty. Art really should be about community and about
goodness and the function of art is precisely to use the imagination to remind us that we
are all the same, the same as children of God, in his case a Christian God and a Christian
world, but the fact is that he was suspicious of individuality, although he was—in the
end of his career, although he was himself supremely an individual in the individualistic
sense and he was very suspicious of art short of some moral ethical purpose. Teaching of morality was kind of an instrument
of religion and he was very suspicious and he was in a long line of thinkers who held
art in suspicion because it separated some human beings from others. It was against the notion that we’re all
created equal. We’re all the same people. Now I happen to think the art medium is very
powerful, but requires an answer. I’m not sure they have the answer. Art has some relationship to what is good
if one thinks about that. It also has some relation to what might be
true. Art isn’t completely arbitrary because it
comes out of the human imagination and becomes something that we then need to respond to. There are things about it which seem to be
susceptible to creating a conversation among human beings that advances the cause of what
is good and what might be true. I’ll give you an example. In the performing arts the great thing about
the performing arts is that there is no object. There is no residue. A painting or a photograph or a movie can
be reproduced. It never really gets lost. Now the original might get lost, but there
are pictures of it and if you preserve it, it can last forever. So we can go to museums and look at artworks
that were made thousands of years ago. We can see things that we now consider to
be art, although they were made to be useful because art doesn’t have to be useless,
a piece of pottery, a jug, especially from the ancient world, in the Mediterranean, these
are great artworks. The transformation of the everyday with which
we started this lecture is really inherent in even the way we design what we live with. The decorative arts are among the most important
arts that we can study. What we eat off, what we sit on, what we sleep
in, those are really objects of huge creative design and imagination. So utility doesn’t disqualify a work of
art, but the important thing is that where the truth and goodness comes in is that in
the performing arts it is only there when it is performed and then in the memory of
the people who have performed and listened. So the performing arts cannot be standardized. We now live at the end of the age of recording. The great thing about the internet is that
it has destroyed high fidelity recording. People who used to buy records and listen
to them now we can listen to these records, but the MP3 file or the digital file that
we now use doesn’t sound particularly good, but it’s sufficient for us when we’re
running or we’re sitting around, but we realize when we go to a real live concert
whatever form of music it is there is a kind of visceral acoustic sensuality and we realize
something that was always true, that the work of music or the work of theater is in its
presence, seeing that actor up there, seeing how she speaks, seeing her perspire, seeing
her act and every night is different. The performance exists not on tape. It exists only in the viewer’s reading of
that performance and no two viewers’ reading of that performance is alike, therefore, the
arts have a fundamental function in redeeming the sanctity of every single human being and
since we believe that the sanctity of every single human is actually a true belief and
we think it’s the right belief that my recognition whether I’m onstage or I’m in the audience
that in this specific time and this specific place in some village, in some city, outdoors,
indoors, day or night that musical performance, that theatrical performance, that form of
performance art, that concert was a moment in time that can never be recaptured since
time moves in one direction and that it becomes a constituent element of my memory. The sense of a commonality of that human experience
is quite significant because it transcends the most ordinary experience and fear of birth
and death, the fear of hunger and the fear of pain. While we might think now that that would be
sufficient to make us feel common with other human beings the more sophisticated our society
becomes, the more literate we become, the more instruments of differentiation we accumulate
the more important things like art are to recognize our interdependence and our equality. So I would argue that an aesthetic sensibility
deepens the sanctity of life and in so far as you deepen the sanctity of life you create
some potential of resistance against violence and cruelty and against tyranny. Now that is very optimistic and very religious
of me if you will and it’s not something that I can defend entirely by evidence. A good historian would demolish my argument
by saying you know all the Nazis were music lovers, the communist elite were art lovers,
every second two-bit dictator has been some kind of art collector and even amateur artist,
but I would say to that that doesn’t disprove the possibility. It does prove that making of art is the reflection
of an exceptional amount of ambition and courage. People who are artists are more likely than
not people with more of a drive than is probably healthy. Most artists are in that sense slightly deviant. The same people are always in the audience. They are not the people who made the pictures
in the museum. They’re the people who go to the museum
and I have greater respect for the audience than I have for my fellow artists in terms
of sanity and perhaps even human kindness, but the activity itself and the recognition
that we’re capable of it has some kind of uncomfortable potential not yet realized relationship
to what we might think is both true and good. Now the 18th century philosophers were not
off the mark. Our capacity to create something that is not
useful, that is only understood by mortals, that is only within the human experience and
that is beyond the provable and everyday, that is unpredictable that is the highest
praise we can give for being human, therefore, the historical residue in all cultures in
history of that impetus and that impulse seems worthy of study and it is deeply encouraging
to our sense of our own lives to look at the works of the imagination in all their forms,
whether it be the visual, the spacial, the decorative, the useful, the auditory or even
the physical in terms of dance and movement. It would never occur to me to look at a classical
ballet or a modern dance and see how space, time and the human body can be organized in
ways which are beyond and above our experience and so looking at the history of art and art
making and then looking at what we in our time would do as artists to put ourselves
in the imagination of the artist is I think very good use of a student’s time. My recommendation for students would be not
to be passive, not to take only art history or music history or theater history or dance
history, but actually to do it. The most important thing about art is the
capacity of each human being to make it, so if you’re interested in music don’t just
study it. Do it, sing, play. If you’re interested in movement do dance
and movement. If you’re interested in the visual arts
make visual art. If you’re interested in performance art,
dot it. If you want to make movies, make movies. Take photographs, but in a more sophisticated
and more disciplined way than with your iPhone and cell phone. It is the cultivation of the ability to organize
the world in this way which will help you in other ways. The hidden secret of the arts is that they
have collateral utility, so for example, a student who learns how to abstract an image
in a drawing class, take a figure that is seated and just do the exercise. Draw that figure, but make sure the figure’s
boundaries touch all four sides of the page. A very hard assignment, but the analytical
capacity to manipulate one’s sight and one’s capacity for abstraction is hugely powerful
as a skill in life. The ability to write a canon or a song, the
ability to play an instrument, to sing, to dance, these are disciplines of body and mind
which have unexpected utility in whatever one wishes to do. It was said and I think plausibly so that
in the organization of his ideas and in the presentation of his ideas Einstein in the
early part of his career was deeply influenced by his musical sensibilities. He was a mediocre violinist, not a very good
one. The school records we have are not particularly
complimentary and he really never played very well and his tastes were very limited, but
he really loved the classical tradition, which was really Heiden, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert
and he liked really early and mid Beethoven, not the more experimental late Beethoven,
but it could be argued that his notion of beauty and elegance in scientific explanation
had a lot to do with a sense of proportion, clarity, transparency and logic that was enhanced
by his musical sensibilities. People often speak about the Mozart effect
where young children become more effective as learners because they have been trained
in music and there is some evidence that that is the case. I don’t know if it’s the case or not,
but even if it is not true it is worth selling as if it were because it doesn’t do any
harm. There is no evidence that becoming musical
damages your thinking capacity. The ability to draw and to paint, to sculpt,
to use the mediums of the film and the photograph and the computer too, all these instrumentalities
to create an imaginary world is a very important discipline and therefore, I would recommend
against just studying it as a consumer. That leads to sort of false hierarchies and
snobberies and just becoming a sophisticated consumer Is no different from being Imelda
Marcos collecting shoes and that’s not particularly noble, but I do think the making of art and
the experience of trying your hand at it is the best route to appreciating the experience
of art and the experience of music and all the forms of art and allows you also to fill
your day in moments where there is nothing useful for you to do in an activity that reminds
you how special you are and how independent you might actually be of the terrifying uniformities
which govern our lives. So I thank you for your time and patience. There are many opportunities for each of you
to study the arts, both inside the university and outside. The great thing about the arts is they are
in every city, in every town. There are things from drawing classes to dancing
classes, to music lessons you can take. Your opportunity to study the arts is not
limited to the university. However, the university has resources in it,
particularly in areas that are not so easy to access such as architecture and that I
would suggest that universities are also places where there are museums and there are tremendous
holdings in institutions in everything from theater to music and it would be a tragedy
to go through a university life without a deep engagement with the arts. It’s one of the few things in a university
that in student’s experience that has a lasting impact on the conduct of adult life
long after one graduates. So I encourage you and I thank you for your
time and for your interest.

100 thoughts on “Leon Botstein: Art Now (Aesthetics Across Music, Painting, Architecture, Movies, and More.)”

  • I haven't listened to the full talk yet, but this question just occurred to me. He says in "democratic society" commercial art is more appreciated and other forms considered frivolous. I would probably not consider that a problem with democracy. I think it a capitalistic society, that is the case.

  • I'm a complete ignorant of art, not having studied it. I found it interesting but I had to pause and review some bits because I didn't understand them at the first view. However, I found the video very enlightening and I think I have a much better idea about what art is and how to tell it from a hole in the ground. Like most bigthink videos, you don't become an expert but you understand complex concepts in a very short amount of time.

  • I'm sorry, but what happened to the script? I desperately need them since I'm not completely familiar with English, and I saw there was one for this video before midterm. Now the midterm ended and I come here back, but it has no script now…

  • 43:20
    I found myself at an incredibly strong disagreement in regards to art & social injustices. I dont believe art always merely masks or downplays social injustices just so someone can feel noble. That feeling depends on the listener more than the artist. I've seen music change listeners' views & perceptions, as well as introduce ideas in which listener would otherwise know nothing about.

    This sounds like a mere over-generalization of the pretentious artist.

  • Do cars exist in nature? Just because we make it doesn't make it natural. A definition of natural could maybe be "that which intelligent life does not make."

  • I am a 15 year old male living Ireland. I have to say I agree with you completely. I personally try to fill my day with as much knowledge as I can and this channel is a great help.

  • i hope we all look back on this generation and say what a great achievement youtube and wikipedia and other democratic websites are. i mean, this is just the sort of thing the net was made for – sharing real experiences, feelings and ideas between people without an overbearing state or commercial interest twisting it all.

  • many people in the middle class of the developed world still work a lot. see great protests in europe 2011-2012

  • Leon Botstein (paraphrase): art is the thing which has no utility.
    Clifford Stoll (paraphrase): science is the thing which has no utility.
    therefore (me): art = science

  • i like meditation
    meditation is a kind of 'internal science' (see Shinzen Young)
    a persuit of an internal subjective truth
    this persuit fits well with the western persuit of objective truth in the regular 'external science'
    in fact it fits so much so that the Dali Lama said that in the case of a contradiction between buddhism and science, science wins

    i think are is also a kind of persuit of an internal truth, just like meditation, and therefore it fits science in just the same way

  • it's nice to talk about art. to try and define it. even in very flexible terms like Leon is doing.
    it's also true that art is everything and anything and can not be defined in any terms.
    both are right.

  • Hmmm see i am in the same boat as you. However, I don't run around announcing who I am to an WIDE audience of people, nor need i brag about how I think different from younger individuals of my generation, tell me why one would go around giving there age, sex and semi-location and tell everyone how much I think differently, what you said is very condescending and if you did not intend it to be why wouldn't you say I enjoy bigthinks discussions on different topics, instead of going off about you.

  • I checked this video recording since I got really concerned about the economy and had not a clue what direction to go. Money certainly does not mean anything nowadays. Therefore I chose to do a bit of research and found Goldiverse. I am so fortuitous, I can switch my savings from cash to various currencies, to any precious metal anytime I like. The federal government can go and take a jump for all I care. Just Yahoo and bing it Goldiverse.

  • This is a fantastic talk very enlightening and though provoking. Is this (or a similar discussion) available in essay form or would someone recommend a book perhaps?

  • It only becomes art once the viewer has seen 1000s of other better paintings and is then prepared to reflect on how interesting it is that the painter decided to not make any of those better paintings, but instead to draw a red line down a white canvas and call it "red line on white canvas".

    I joke, but that is definitely the hardest idea for me to get my head around on an otherwise stellarly argued video.


    All that jazz about "You can do anything" was actually right….

  • Agreed – I don't see why he needs to go around implying that he's some special young intellectual. no one cares.

  • The only thing i can see in your text is: "Ahem…..Omg I 1s s0 sm4rt, b3c4us3 i 1s w4ch1ing th1s v1dzzzz. ! 1s s0 b3tt3r th4n oth3r 15 y34r 0ld p30pl3!!!"
    You should have stopped when you said it was a good video if you want to learn something. Don't compare yourself to other 15 year old people.

  • wow, I had three lectures covering this material…I should have saved my time and watched this. Incredibly thought provoking and interesting. Thank you.

  • At 42:25 He says that "great art resists appropriation"…

    Thats a fine theory – but what about "Guernica" by Picasso? That was used as a political statement protesting the bombing of a city, and is regarded by many as being great.

  • I'm a newly conceived zygote, fresh from having my father's sperm join with my mother's ovum, and I have to say I greatly enjoy learning blah blah get me I'm better than all the other zygotes.

  • Entertainment, especially if it appears to have had a lot of effort or intelligence put into its creation, and even more so if it tends to be consumed by intellectuals, is called 'art'. That is all art is. End of lecture!!

  • thats perfect. penny stocks trading needs good patience and advice from experienced professionals. its not a joke, I heard that there is a well-known professionals team attracting lots of people who want to commence investing in stocks. its worth a try here >> bit.ly/148DwQ3?=tuktgz

  • His advice at the end is absolutely spot-on: people too passively consume art without trying to make it. For example, once you pick up a guitar and start trying to play, you quickly realize why certain artists receive so much praise. Likewise, once you start making your own art, you gain a new appreciation in a gallery, in a movie, at an exhibit, etc. Praxis fosters sensibility.

  • greetings . 

    if view daze solve the nurtured psychology of subject matter , an enlightened dream , , appears quiet naturally, trance forming the conscious perception of space .

  • I'm pretty sure I've watched this before, but I can't remember most of the points, so I'm watching it again this time in a different light. I know who Leon is!

  • As said in the video: "Art transforms everyday experiences into something new and unexpected." This to me seema a good aspect for understanding art. 🙂

  • SPOILER ALERT: he does not tell what art is. I mean, he does, but it is just a bunch of characteristics of what could be art, not a defenition of the core that distinguishes everything from art. Imho, defining art is a waste of rational effort.

  • If
    only they knew how little fucks I gave about them, how I wanted to die, how I
    thought I had convinced myself that the school was nothing but a glass
    ceiling—noise preventing me from the killing silence that I possess within me,
    the silence that wants me for itself.

  • "Art transforms everyday experiences into something new and unexpected."
    Still too vague. Can i call technology "art" ? Can i call science "art" too, by this way of defining "art" ?
    Is The Bible a piece of "Art" ?

  • Beauty must show wisdom as beauty and wisdom are sister spirits.
    Wisdom is communication, morals, education, intutive knownage.

  • Art has no reason to excexist?
    This is to say GOD made a mistake when he created the human soul, anyone who has the lease understanding of the spiritual knows you give what you have or you lose what you got ,
    Art is iconic language, your screw up ass apes today tell me all about how screw up spiritual they really are and lost wirh out GOD.

  • There's no objective definition of art, it's manufactured by tastemakers,gallery owners, the ridiculous art market, etc.

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