Recently I had a discussion online with someone who claimed that a specific type of music wasn’t music and that instruments shouldn’t be used to play that kind of music.
I deliberate left out of that sentence the genre of music, because I know many people look down upon it and therefore their evaluation of that claim would be biased. But suffice to say, it’s a genre of music that low-class, uneducated people like. The music is very simplistic and the lyrics range from the obvious to the silly to the vulgar.
Yet, I think that even if you take into account that consideration, most people would concede that anyone is free to enjoy and play the type of music they like, even if they greatly dislike that type of music. And I also think that 99% of the people would agree that if you buy an instrument with your own money, you can play whatever you want with it.
The episode reminded me of an old program I heard from the 50s or 60s where a musicologist was asked about his opinion about popular music. He was asked in specific what he thought about rock’n’roll. His answer was “It’s not music. It’s popular but not music.”
In the light of what we know today, it’s easy to think of him as being ridiculous. However, let’s remember that rock’n’roll was new back then, and it was something that many people found in bad taste, much the way most people today think of, let’s say, Justin Bieber’s music.
Which led me to wonder to a much deeper and much more important question than “what music do you like?” which is “What is music and what isn’t”?
My personal belief was that music wasn’t taste. Taste is, after all, subjective, and therefore depends on each person. I believe than when people say “this is good music,” they actually mean “this is music that I like or music that people I admire like.” Because we have different tastes, I concluded that there is no “good” or “bad” music. Also, complexity isn’t necessarily a factor in taste, therefore the fact that a certain type of music is simplistic doesn’t disqualify it from being music. I even opened up a dictionary (actually, I didn’t, I looked it up online, but it sounds better that way) to get a definition. I found many and I selected this one: “a sound that’s pleasant to the ears.”
Later on, I started to think, what if I was wrong? After all, I’m no expert on music or art. I also had to admit to myself that I chose that definition in specific because it proved my point, because it adjusted better to the construction of my argument rather than for its truth value.
What to do? Fortunately, I remembered there is a conference about art by Leon Botstein, who is the president of Bard College and a musician and historian of music as well a professor in the arts and humanities. I figured that a guy with those credentials might know a thing or two about art and music. Certainly more than I did in any case.
The conference starts with what Art is. I must say that I was disappointed because he didn’t give a cut-clear definition of what art is. However, through the conference, I was able to get some points here and there and use it to construct my own definition of art. And in consequence, of music. After all, music is just the application of art to sound.
The exercise also made me realize why there is no easy definition of art, and that’s because art is a much more complex concept than what most people think.
In my experience, art, for most people, is one of two things. The first one, which I supported, it’s that art is anything that’s pleasant to an audience. So, as long as there is an audience that likes it, there is art, be it Mozart’s Don Giovanni or Justin Bieber’s “Baby.”
The second one, which I opposed, is that art is a group of very specific artistic expressions and everything else is not art. According to this definition, Mozart’s Don Giovanni is art because it’s opera and opera is art, and Justin Bieber’s “Baby” is not art because pop music is not art.
My main goal in looking for a definition of art and music is finding a formula or a method that was objective and through which any person could apply it to any assortment of sounds and come up with a confirmation or denial that the sound was music. And that this result would be no different if any other person would apply the same method.
The task was more difficult than what I thought, and maybe that’s why Professor Botstein abstained from giving a clear-cut definition of art and focused more on examples. It’s not that I think that he wouldn’t have been able to, but the complexity of the explanation would have distracted from the purpose of his lecture. He was also right to focus on examples, because I found out that it’s far easier to appreciate and recognize at least the most obvious examples of art than to define art.
Anyway, here is my conclusion, which is by no means complete and holds no authoritative value:
Art is the transfiguration of an element into an expression. In the case of music, this element is sound.
However, there are several requirements for such transfiguration to be art. I didn’t include them in the definition because it would have made the definition much more complex and difficult to understand. Nevertheless, here they are:
-Art is an expression. Art is meant to communicate something from within the artist. Common concepts are love, beauty and sorrow. However, any idea can be communicated as art. Therefore, “good” or moral concepts like patriotism, solemnity, and greatness, are as valid as “bad” or immoral concepts, like irreverence, mockery and treason. Some pieces of art can include more than one concept, something that I have seen in literature.
-Art is not natural. It has to be done by a human being. Art is an expression of a human idea, concept or feeling. You can listen to a bird’s singing, and it’s beautiful, sure. But it’s not art.
-Art is pre-meditated and has to have a structure. An artist has a pre-fixed, approximate idea of what the specific piece of art is going to be. Even if the art somehow involves randomness, the artists has a good idea right from the start the degree of randomness that is going to be involved.
– Art has an audience. Art, like almost all of human activities, is something that connects us. It’s a message that an artists sends to an audience. If it fails to connect with an audience, then it fails to be art and it’s just an individual act. And yes, the moment it connects with one person, it becomes art.
– The quality of a piece of art depends on the number of people it connects. A child that draws a heart on a piece of paper to express love for his mother can be considered art (provided he started with the idea in his head) if his mother understands the message and doesn’t appreciate it only because it came from her son. In fact, a good test would be to see if other mothers can get the message and appreciate his piece of art.
Even so, it’s not going to be great art. In fact, it’s going to be terrible art. The number of people that it’ll connect will be very small. More likely than not, the adorable piece of paper will be mostly appreciate it by the mother, who will try to convince other mothers that his son’s piece of paper is art, while the other mothers will try to do the same with the pieces of papers of their sons.
That’s why the truly great works of art are universal. They connect not only with the people around the artist. They connect with people from different cultures and eras. They are truly a representation of what humanity has best to offer. People from all over the world get the message of love of Romeo and Juliet, the beauty of Mozart’s 40th, the majesty of the Taj Mahal. And while today’s expressions of art have not yet passed the test of time, some of them seem to be on the right path.
As humanity evolves and technology creates new ways to create art, the challenges of defining what art is will increase. I think that eventually webcomics, fanfics, blogs, vlogs, wikis, video games, machinimia will fight and win their right to be considered valid expressions of art, just like movies, music videos, electronic music and photography once did.