Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pure Art

I have said that music is the highest form of art, and that poetry, being the closest to music, is the highest form of literature. This morning, as I was engaged in my quarterly chore of cleaning out the garage, I began to wonder why this should be so.

The answer, I think, must lie in that which music and poetry have in common. At first blush, this would seem to be rhythm. And while rhythm is at the heart of music, and may be said to be its essential quality, it is an aspect of poetry merely, though an important one. It may not be too much to say that this is why music is a higher art form than poetry: because, as it is essentially rhythm, music is purer than poetry, which is essentially language. But that language always and importantly embraces rhythm, and that, together with its intensity and the clarity and aptness of its images, is what raises poetry above the other forms of literature.

Now music, too, can contain images, and there are many wonderful examples of this, such as Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, Debussy's 'Images,' Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition,' Ravel's 'Le tombeau de Couperin,' and Vaughan Williams' Arctic Symphony. But when music sets out deliberately to paint a picture, it becomes program music, and to my mind, this form is inferior to what is often called pure music. It is for this reason that I consider Beethoven's Sixth to be the least important of his symphonies, since it is the most specific and concrete. In contrast, the organ music of Bach or the late Beethoven string quartets, especially the 0p. 131, are, to my mind, pure music; that is, unrelated to any material sense or experience. Because this is so, they are essentially spiritual in nature, and represent the highest realization of art.

It is when poetry approaches to a pure form -- that is, when the language is either so rarefied as to be almost detached from the images it seeks to convey to the mind, or when the language itself becomes almost one with those images -- that it finds its highest incarnation. This is seldom attempted, and even less often achieved.

I think G. M. Hopkins comes closest to achieving it in his spiritual sonnets, such as 'When kingfishers catch fire, when dragonflies draw flame,' and in 'God's grandeur.' In such works, the purity of language and the intensity with which words and images are interwoven renders the poetry pure in a musical sense. On one level the language is itself a kind of music, while on another, words and images become nearly the same thing. It is not that Hopkins' poetry is pure because it is spiritual; it is spiritual because it is pure.

And so, I suppose, as I was filling up the rented Dumpster in my driveway, I concluded that it is purity, spirituality and rhythm which the greatest music and the greatest poetry have in common. It is to these qualities that the best art attains, and this, in turn, raises the question: Why?

The answer is, I think, that the true nature and aspire of great art lies not in any sense experience or even in any idea, but, rather, in a reality that lies outside of those. What I am suggesting is that art is not born in the human heart or mind, but in the human soul, and represents a longing to embrace that soul's essential nature, and express the truth which the action of that nature in life implies. Art is truth in action, and in music and poetry, it is truth in rhythm. For life is made of rhythms: the rhythms of nature, the seasons, the revolution of the Earth, the beating of the heart, breathing and crying and laughing. It is the eternal cycle of coming into being, becoming being and going out of being -- life is rhythm. This is why music is such a natural and universal experience for man, since it echoes or replicates the inherent rhythm of living.

The best music -- and the best poetry -- reproduce this essential organic rhythm in its purest and most revealing form. For this reason, program music, being reflective of specific images or events, is inferior to pure music; since we sense in the purest music that native rhythm which in an undeniable way forms the foundation of our existence. This leads me to the assertion that the creation of art is not essentially a matter of expression but of inspiration; that is, the highest artistic impulses derive from outside man, and do not spring from inside him. They are, if you will, inhaled from a rarefied atmosphere which is the soul's natural domain. This, in turn, leads to the inescapable conclusion that there is a spiritual reality which transcends the material, and to the expression of which all art aspires.

Pure art lies closest to our souls. We recognize ourselves in its forms, and it reminds us, indeed, I think, proves, that we are essentially spiritual creatures, with a spiritual consciousness, and a spiritual destiny.