The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
I’m smiling these days on behalf of Kay Larson, my fellow editor at Curator: The Museum Journal and a longtime New York art critic. Her new book, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, is getting great reviews. I concur: it’s a terrific, unusual read that humanizes an arcane composer and reminds us that classical or ‘composed’ music is too often talked about as if it were a purely intellectual or technical activity.
We knew Kay was working on the book, but we didn’t realize what a singular contribution it would make. Kay’s own Buddhism gives her a unique empathy for Cage’s story and his art, a kind of identification with her subject that lets her speculate fruitfully and intuitively in areas that few other biographers or critics have tread. Academic music history this is not, although it’s plenty rigorous and deeply researched.
While reading Kay’s book and as many reviews as I could find (NY Times, LA Times, Slate, and especially this one on Brain Pickings), I was struck by the possibility that it may be part of a broader re-acknowledgment of spirituality in the arts. The development of Western music was tied so closely to the church that we might say one invented the other (and not necessarily in the obvious direction). Something similar could be argued about the visual arts. And in indigenous cultures the arts and spiritual practices have always been inseparable. But with gathering momentum in the late 19th century, and through about the end of the 20th, music and art were secularized and walled off from those roots, and indeed from anything else that might make them seem like mere supporting players in some other pursuit.
In these postmodern times, though, something’s shifting. For the last three years, Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival has tried to reassert the connection between music and transcendence, with popular results. (Lincoln Center’s language betrays a little academic reluctance to really go there, though: instead of being openly spiritual about the festival, artistic director Jane Moss promises to “explore the spiritual dimension of music as manifested in different cultural and musical traditions, from masterpieces of the Western classical canon to Muslim and Hindu musical linkages in northern India and the mystical minimalism of the Baltic region.” This could be wall text at an art museum.)
Just last week, a NY Times piece by veteran critic James Oestreich described “a wave of spirituality that is surging through the world of classical music,” from the Salzburg Festival’s Spiritual Overture and the Lucerne Festival’s “Faith” season to the Pittsburgh Symphony’s “Music of the Spirit” week.
Then there are the recent calls by British freelance intellectual Alain de Botton, in his book Religion for Atheists and many talks and interviews, for the arts (and the sciences, for that matter) to reverse their historical secularization and reclaim their power to seduce and lift us spiritually. ...
And now Kay’s book on Cage, which reinterprets some of the twentieth century’s most mind-bending, seemingly abstract aesthetic games — his compositions, many of which relied on chance juxtapositions and famously flirted with both noise and silence — through the lens of his Buddhism and his all-too-human struggle to escape himself. These aren’t just games; they’re a form of passionate, troubled self-discovery, even when what he was discovering was a way to leave the self behind.
In other words, biography to the rescue. And that’s a big change. The Modernist musical establishment, which still holds court at many large, prestigious organizations, tried to scrub away biography, personality, and other human contingencies, leaving only the music itself. Transparency, not subjectivity, was the ideal.
But these days the tectonic plates are rumbling the other way. We want to know not only the what and how of the art, but the who and the why. We want to see the process as well as the product, and isn’t the process always, at bottom, a spiritual one? There’s some irony here, since I am celebrating exactly what Cage himself wanted to free himself from: emotional self-expression. But my friend Kay, by bringing her own powers of compassion to this enterprise along with her keen eyes and ears, has helped remind us that making art — like listening to it or looking at it — is first and foremost about figuring out who we are. Art is life and vice versa. All we have to do is listen for the heartbeat.
Kay Larson Photo: Bernard Handzel Photography / SF
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