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There is a lively debate today about how to define art and what makes art different from entertainment. As we pass the modernist era, the different genres and styles tend to blend in one another, making it even harder to distinguish the originators from the clones. While most modern people assume a relativist stance towards art, claiming "all is just entertainment" and that "you cannot judge or grade art," this argument doesn't make any sense, since it would mean that Britney Spears and Ludwig van Beethoven are on the same musical level, which is an insane statement that few people would agree upon.

In order to understand how we are able to distinguish the quality between different artistic works, we must first and foremost define what "art" really is. It can be said that we generally have two different kinds of art; one being depictive (literature, sculptures, paintings) and another being non-depictive, or purely abstract (music). With depictive, we mean the way poetry for instance, creates images and relies on internal formations within the mind, very similar to the process of dreaming. When we read literature or study a painting, we re-create the images inside our minds, over time building up whole sceneries of ideas placed within the framework of life itself.

Music is a completely different form of art, which we claim is entirely abstract in essence. While it may be accompanied with images, most often in what we today call "program music," such as Ludwig van Beethoven's sixth Pastoral symphony, music does not rely on the depictive process of other forms of art. Instead it works with our senses and feelings, instructed with a logic guiding us through a narrative of closely related ideas. To further understand this dichotomy, we're going to take a closer look at what Friedrich Nietzsche says about art.

Nietzsche celebrated the Greek tragedy as an expression of the highest art form, understanding that pain is a necessary and beautiful part of life as a whole. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche claims there are two main forms of art: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Apollon was the Greek god of solemn dreaming, self-control, healing, common sense and distance. His diametric opposite, Dionysus, was the god of wine, excess, wildness, rage, emotion and passion. The depictive art shares the same features as Apollon, while Nietzsche saw music as the essence of Dionysus. Taking inspiration from his fellow poet Schiller, whom we all know as the man behind the "Ode to Joy," which Beethoven featured in his ninth symphony, Nietzsche tries to explain the relation between music and poetry.

Schiller claims that writing poetry relies upon musical ideas. He never begins by writing down images or thoughts, but by giving words to musical rhythms, and from there on form the finished product. Nietzsche uses this to prove how music is the foundation to the poetic art form. But in order to create art, Nietzsche says, the artist needs to find a balance between his Apollonian and Dionysian desires. From a practical perspective, this makes sense: a composer who doesn't structure his ideas so that they form something coherent, will end up with a symphony that doesn't make sense. On the other hand, an artist who tries to achieve success by moral discipline and calculation will produce a sterile, lifeless work of art, which will move no one's soul. A work leaning towards classicism will thus have to increase the Apollonian affects, while a romanticist like Johannes Brahms will have to give in to the desires of Dionysus.

However, understanding these differences, still doesn't answer the basic question: what is "art" and how do we define art? Starting with music, Arthur Schopenhauer says that music is the artistic expression of the will. Music captures the will in itself, without depicting its effects or results. Thus we end up with the most abstract art form, speaking to our senses and our existential being, as opposed to what our senses and our existence amount to. Poetry, or the depictive art form, is on the other hand an expression of the representation of the will; environments, feelings and images. If poetry is the shell of our existence, music is the core of life itself.

Ludwig van Beethoven celebrated life as process of transcendence through willpower and a belief in God as the spirit of nature. This view on art is different from that of the modern view, who says art is an "illusion" and that poetry really "doesn't exist." From an idealistic perspective, this is a logical error. How come, you say, we occasionally experience images when we listen to music? Why do we connect Wagner to heroism and war? Why does Anton Bruckner paint mountains and landscapes? How come people around the world find correlation between art and observations in and of life, if there wasn't a mutual relationship between the two of them?

Think of it this way: music expresses the will objectively without any intermediate link. In poetry, we experience the representation of the will in terms of images and ideas. Thus, music is a universal language through which you may express any feeling and existential state, by an endless series of melodies, either alone or in counterpoint. However, the mathematical combinations are not abstract, in the sense that they are "non-existent;" the musical expression of the will is real and can be discerned with the eye of an artist.

Most people can't say why they link Wagner's music to war, not because the relationship between music and life is an "illusion," but because they look at music the wrong way, confusing it with poetry. Poetry can easier be compared to life, since it's already in a state of representation, while music is not and requires one to first understand the will behind the tones, and then compare that to a logical representation which will match the will. It is therefore not a surprise that most people today appreciate the program music that was common during the romanticist period, where each piece was trying to be as depictive as possible, "creating images with melodies." However, it's worth to note that not all program music paint images; these "images" are rather a scheme of emotions. Beethoven, for instance, claimed his sixth symphony wasn't expressing actual images, but feelings closely tied to the narrative he presented along with his music.

When we've come this far, establishing that music is the highest abstraction of all art forms and that art is merely a language, expressing the existence of being, we are able to understand what differs Britney Spears from Beethoven. In popular music, including rock, jazz, blues, techno and most the current metal music of today, melodies are simply effects on top of the rhythmic layer. The reason to why we don't experience a journey when listening to Britney, as opposed to classical music, is that her music doesn't have any coherent narrative foundation. Instead, as you will notice by looking at the titles of most pop songs today, it's all about creating an aesthetic on superficial grounds, which comply with a general language known to express a given theme. Combining dress code, lyrics, tempo and chorus that roughly coincide with the intended "feeling" creates this. "I'm a slave for you" and "Requiem" express two different ideas, the former being a statement about an ego - or to be nice - about an individual, while the latter tries to express an experience of the will, of something that doesn't have to do with the individual at all, or is using it as a means to an end. When Goethe writes about Faust, the central character is used to portray ideas; Faust as an isolated individual is not relevant and hardly interesting.

In classical music, and neo-classical music in genres such as metal, ambient, synthpop and neo-folk, melodies are central to the development of the music. They are no longer aesthetic effects, but become a language requiring numerous tempo shifts and harmonic counterpoint, to achieve its goals. What's seen as the essence of Britney Spears as an "artist;" her body, her lifestyle and her appeal to popular ideas, is not relevant to art of higher forms. Life does not reward the will expressed in pop music; pacifism, naive love, equality and materialism. Instead, the classical music celebrates the core of life itself; inequality, tragedy and joy, war, conflict and struggle, but most importantly, it is an expression of the poetry and beauty of organic existence.Casper David Friedrich captured moments when the individual found clarity in transcendence, by immersing the human soul with the feral beauty of the wild nature. When at its peak, it doesn't even require a fictional motive, but becomes a will of itself, affirming why art has always existed and why it will continue to exist for as long as human beings roam on this earth.

Why art? Why not entertainment, since that seems to be more "fun"? The answer is simple; art helps us to understand how life operates, but its nature is not entirely Apollonian, because if we wanted to merely calculate ideas in life, we could turn to science or religion. Art is special because it justifies life and its own existence, as an aesthetic phenomenon. We celebrate art because no other human creation is able to capture the poetic essence of life. This poetic side to our existence is not an illusion or a fictional creation, but something buried within life. One could say it's magic, lacking better words for it. Science cannot calculate its beauty, religion only understands it in terms of myths, and philosophy can only describe its design.

To understand and appreciate art, we have to - like with life - experience it.

May 17, 2007

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