With A Feather And Sunlight

I carried around a misconception in my mind for at least a decade. I cannot remember when I first had the thought, but I have used variations of the following on a few different occasions in various contexts over the years: “High art is a gem in the crown of society. Once security and order are established, you then have the space to do things like paint paintings and write and perform symphonies. Until then you have to spend too much effort procuring the basic necessities of life such as food and shelter to have any time left over for such things. It is for this reason that there is no Mogadishu Philharmonic or Kabul Museum of Fine Arts.” I have since learned that there is, in fact, an art museum in Kabul, though it has been pillaged several times throughout its history.

This thought was important to me because it contributed to my decision to leave classical music as a life path. From ages seven to 19, learning to play the violin was the major defining project of my life. In my late teens I started to realize the world was bigger than I had known it to be and I wanted to contribute to the more concrete, required tasks of maintaining society rather than what increasingly seemed to me to be its luxuries. I headed in the direction of the study of policy, security, international relations, and government broadly.

I still do not think this view is entirely fatuous. In the event of societal collapse, or during its approach, it would be more useful to have someone in your tribe who understands some of the subtleties of human group dynamics than someone who could do a harmonic analysis of a Brahms string quartet. However, there is a significant flaw in thinking that the elements of society are built linearly and in stages, like the foundation, walls, interior, and facade of a building.

The flaw is that when Bach wrote the Cello Suites he did it with a feather, by sunlight, moonlight, and candlelight, and on land that had never seen a modern police force. Rembrandt painted “The Night Watch” in a realm devoid of indoor plumbing, electric light, modern medicine, the Internet, and any of the other amenities we now consider prerequisite for civilization and that are conveniently available for purchase from multinational corporations.

Above all, he did it in the midst of the cataclysmic Thirty Years War, which reportedly killed between four and eight million people, a greater proportion of the population of Europe at the time than World War II. The territory today called Germany was not overrun with war in Bach’s time, but the great Heinrich Schütz[1] and Samuel Scheidt[2] were also hard at work and prolific in that land during the Thirty Years War, as were Martin Opitz, who has been called “the Father of German poetry,” and Elias Holl, master architect of the late German renaissance. The case could be made that those conditions were worse than those of most or all modern war-torn countries.

This can be taken a step further when we notice that much of the art of the past is superior to much of the art of the present. The quality of the working conditions seem to have a negative, rather than a positive effect on the quality of the work. I was momentarily dumbstruck when I connected the seeming contradiction that the greatest music in history had been written under such austere conditions. It says something about the importance and power of the human component, the cost of underestimating that importance, and our tendency to over-weight the value of technology and other factors that are easier to acquire in general and which, coincidentally, happen to be the components that global capitalism can provide.

[1] Youtube.com/watch?v=_Gd1DqDUC2U, March 30, 2012.

[2] Youtube.com/watch?v=3tTJneklzIk, September 9, 2017.