The arts, beyond the Age of Reason

I want to find the key to enjoying opera, ballet, and classical music. Honest I do. But what can I say? I like modern dance. I like paintings from the 20th century. The more recent, the better.  The arts of the last centuries followed a pattern of innovation and codification. This codification raises the level of abstraction and complexity. In much of the arts, this complexity reached its peaks in the 17th to 19th centuries, when opera, ballet, and classical music reigned supreme. It was the innovators themselves who codified, then further innovators codified further until a complex language was built. This all happened during the age of the rationalists, when people believed that reason was the critical path to knowledge. Art got enveloped in the march of reason. Since then, the arts appear to be returning to their hunter-gatherer origins, to mankind’s “natural” state, but using the new tools attained. Why are we all wearing tattoos, drawing Miro “child art” on any wall we find (“street art”), trance-dancing to the beating drums (albeit an electronic drumbeat in the clubs)? Perhaps we recognized that reason took us as far as we could go. Science is still giving us new tools, but since Einstein, it looks like the great scientific discoveries may well be in the realm of backing up ancient philosophers’ intuitive beliefs: the energy of “chi”, the pressure points in the body, our sixth sense, the Tao . . .

Innovators build on codes already created. Some innovators manage to tear some codes down. Most artists simply create their art using these codes without any lasting effect on others. Chinese philosophy/religions certainly built up codes over centuries, but it was prior to the rational overdrive that occurred in the West. By the mid-20th century, pretty much all codes built up in the previous centuries had been torn down. Artists are now totally free to use these codes or not during composition.

So how does primal art affect us emotionally as opposed to classical art? I happen to love African drumming. I haven’t discovered the same love for classical music, so I can’t compare how the two affect me at the emotional level. I’m sure a classical music lover is not bowled over only on the left side of their brain. I can see they’re entranced, even though they’re not tapping their feet. Does classical art take more learning to appreciate the complexities? Or does Mozart really tame the wild beast better than African drumming? Maybe drumming incites the beast.

It’s interesting to note how new tools can bring to bear on the primal arts. Hardly any new musical instruments have been created since the 18th century, but they have been electrified. The DJ/rave parties don’t sound so far from the shamanic trances of old.  Perhaps we’ll find our way to an electronic tattoo?