Did you ever notice that there are basic patterns in common even between the most avant-garde artistic event and a shamanistic village rite? Both involve a ritual element as well as some transmission of information from a giver to a group of receivers. And with both there is an element of trust that something meaningful is about to happen. As deep and ancient forms of cultural expression, the public are often drawn to art and religion on a search for meaning, even, sometimes, comfort. The producers and promoters of art might downplay such comparisons, but they themselves frequently resemble priests in their mystification of the work.
Neither art nor religion is particularly noted for its rationality, though both lay claim at times to systematic thinking, systems of belief for the former, artistic craft for the latter. Music and art share much else with belief systems: idolatry, group ritual, sacrifice, devotion, preservation of secrets, ancestor worship and access to altered states or rapture. There is an important difference of degree, but there remain what a rationalist might see as disturbing similarities of type.
For example, we often see in the arts and popular culture a form of idolisation of the artist, such that they transcend their boring humanity and become a totem for the feelings of the observer. To some extent this parallels what happens to the higher religious leaders, and of course it is where we get saints.
Group ritual in some concerts can be pretty unexciting, as it is in the ‘high-street’ religions. But a more recherché atmosphere is often created: at a classical concert the costumes and many of the actions are stylised group behaviours with forgotten origins. This may be a conditioned shortcut to a receptive state, or it may be hollow – take your pick.
Sacrifice and devotion are hardly paralleled seriously in art, except in a weaker sense surrounding the image of the self-sacrificing artist. But the transfer of secret knowledge through the generations is certainly a parallel that is obvious, and quite pronounced in the case of modernism in music: the first (and often last) question about a composer is: ‘who did they study with?’
Then there is the issue of ancestor worship. I am struck by how traditional musicians revere the ancestor – or at least the forebear. It is part of the values by which this music thrives that the players of yore are held to be hugely superior and thus figures to aspire towards. The same is true to some degree in the classical music world where the dead composers trump the living, and certain interpreters of past centuries become hazy legends. The need for centuries to pass in order to judge the worth of composers is trotted out in some quarters, but there is actually little rigorous logic to the argument that crowds plus time equals quality. Nevertheless, it’s an ancient part of the human condition to revere (while simultaneously misinterpreting) the cultural work of the past, and the only really rational justification for this instinctive conservatism is that it gives a sufficiently slow stream of context to allow large numbers of people to follow what’s going on.
Rapture or altered states of consciousness are also shared by art and religion, and in both arenas they are mentioned more than they are experienced. Transport, transcendence, trance – these happen in both. One can say that wonder (tending to the point of rapture) at what is all around us, or at well-made art, is perfectly possible within a rational and materialist view of the universe (as with the cliché about the garden being beautiful whether or not you believe there are fairies at the bottom of it).
So, if art and religion share these patterns, what is the essential difference? Surely the main difference is that the contemporary artist is not there to make you comfortable, or to work out and package for you what is meaningful (for you), which is something that, to a large extent, the priest does. The artist is more likely to say: ‘do those things for yourself’. This is why the avant-garde artists have a tricky relationship with audiences; discomfort and undermining shortcuts to meaning are part of the deal, though not all of the audience seem to get this. And for those who do, this too now has a ring of routine, almost ritual.
The contemporary artist or composer is usually a very secular beast, and is even styled as the product of a forward-looking scientific rationalism (itself something of a dated cliché?); they are not supposed to be interested in things like mystery. However, once a member of the public comes near, these things are brought into play, whether the artist likes it or not. Once culture is thrown open to non-practitioners, as it surely must at some stage, various kinds of mediation take place, and these tend to fall back into certain well-worn tracks, many of which are essentially ritual and mystic. People are hardly going to bother going to some quite abstruse artistic event except on the promise that they may experience a special moment, and in contemporary art that is often shrouded in the perfume of prophecy: come with us and hear the newest revelations of art. In essence, once the art is considered difficult, the issue of trust comes into play; so in fact the avant-garde is more attractive to mystic-seekers than the old classical music guard, which tends towards ritual.
Perhaps the greatest problem arising from that is with discourse, an issue I have written about before in these pages; the problem of perceived meaning, or purpose. Sometimes when I read the so-called explanations for modern dance or visual art – attempts to reach out to the public – I am swamped by a nauseous feeling of being immersed in mumbo-jumbo worthy of a scene by Rider Haggard. The public can’t really help themselves from asking ‘what is it about?’, or ‘why are they doing it?’, even though in many cases the nearest answers are respectively: ‘itself’, and ‘because it’s there’. Unfortunately, the arts mediators (promoters and curators) feel compelled to write some paragraphs of waffle that aim to spark the public’s interest without recourse to using the words: ‘you’ll be entertained’.
Where there is a narrative element to the art, then probing the meaning makes some sense: there is a vocabulary of allegory, metaphor, subtext and symbol that allows us to draw out artistic-sounding explanations of the artistic work. Such concrete discussion, however, often drifts into the ethical and moral, and not always in the subtlest of ways, often comprising the addition of the promoter/commentator’s ideas and so forth.
With resolutely non-narrative arts, the work may reference other work in a similar vein or it may reference itself, but it does not really do all this other ‘meaning’ stuff except in the heads of the mediators and the public. Perhaps those marketing the arts could place little logos standing for ‘narrative’ and ‘non-narrative’ in the corners of publicity for serious arts events, and we could agree a ban on quasi-explanatory discourse on the latter. If you really hear abstract music articulate itself well, it is a delight that requires no words, just like eating a fantastic meal. The same applies to the narrative arts. When Brendan Behan was asked about the ‘message’ of a play, he replied: ‘if I had a message, I’d write you a letter’.
Published on 1 February 2010
John McLachlan is a composer and Executive Director of the Association of Irish Composers. He is a member of Aosdána. www.johnmclachlan.info