Would someone please answer the following question for me: Why do Americans – actually, I think Westerners generally, but I will stick with Americans – believe art is something that must be approached so … well … seriously? With most art, most Americans seem to believe that, when looking at a painting or a piece of sculpture or seeing a play or listening to a piece of music, they are obligated, on pain of being branded as culture-phobic philistines, to wear a facial expression that announces to the world Pity me! I am dying of terminal hemorrhoids!
Well, before anyone makes any cracks about that remark, I will back up a step or two and say that, yes, to be sure, some works of art are explicitly intended to evoke play, laughter, and light-hearted dalliance. A good example is Carlo Goldoni’s rollicking A Servant of Two Masters, which I saw performed a few years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and laughed until I almost had a laundry problem.
Ditto movies like Singin’ in the Rain and Oklahoma! and plays like Noel Coward’s great The Importance of Being Earnest. Those works’ very titles pretty much give their audiences permission to just kick back and have fun. Rather, I mean other works by quote-serious-unquote artists like Shakespeare. Ditto Bach. Ditto Mozart. Ditto Haydn. (Wagner? Well … probably not, unless one is enamored of heavy-handed, unrelieved Teutonic seriousness. Hence Oscar Wilde’s assertion, also attributed to Rossini, that Wagner’s music “has some wonderful moments but some terrible half-hours”.) It might be healthy to look at some great art that that can be exuberant fun, but that often evokes reactions of pathological seriousness, and so too often is greeted with about as much joy as ham sandwiches at a Jewish funeral reception.
Take, for example, the following musical compositions, which positively call for dance, concert-hall etiquette be damned.
If you can listen to the gracefully galloping first movement of the “G Concerto” and not at least tap your toes, someone should hold a mirror under your nose because you may very well be dead. (Skip the damned ad as soon as you can and go directly to the piece.) In an inadvertent way, this YouTube clip was uproariously hilarious: the Pope and members of the most senior episcopal leadership of the Catholic Church sitting stock-still like Michelangelo statues or Egyptian bas reliefs while the music that was playing in front of them positively demanded, imperiously commanded to be danced to … anything except sitting the hell down! The technical term for the emotion evoked by the first movement of Mozart's “G Concerto,” Your Holiness, is JOY. Great roaring Joy. You may have heard of it, and, no, it is most decidedly not a rumor! And insofar as the experience of Joy can be instantiated in sound, Mozart did it. So stamp your feet. Clap. Sway back and forth in time to the music. Stand up, link arms, and do synchronized dance to the music like the women at the old Radio City Music Hall. Mozart was a genius. But he was a genius at being a child. Get down on the floor, bathe in his music, wallow in it shamelessly, and be a child with him. In other words … Mozart’s “G Concerto” invites us to be … born again! Lessee … where have you guys heard that before?
Some advice to morticians … if you want to make sure your client really is dead before you embalm her or him, play the “Third Brandenburg” over a good stereo system in the embalming room. (Again, skip the thrice-damned ads as soon as you can!) If your client starts to twitch rhythmically, especially in the feet and legs, and maybe wave her arms to the same rhythm, put the embalming fluid back on the shelf and call the paramedics. You just lost a client. I mean, who “cadaver” think of such a grave undertaking? I believe it is historically true that the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg, for whom Bach wrote this example of thrice-distilled joy, accepted the sheet music for all the “Brandenburgs” – then put the manuscript on a shelf to gather dust for God-only-knows how long. I do not know if he ever heard it performed. If not, his loss. Our gain.
My first exposure to Bach’s “4th Brandenburg” was in the music section on the mezzanine of the Wichita Public Library (WPL). I did not have a stereo, not even a Walkman -- remember those? -- so I would go to the WPL, find a vinyl record of the “Brandenburgs” and play it and play it and play it and play it. I do not know, but I may very well have worn out at least the grooves marking the first movement of the “Fourth”. I imagined myself wandering through a virgin landscape of unspoiled wilderness, accompanied by the songs of birds, rendered in the lilting rhythms of Bach’s incomparable composition. This is another case in point of knowing whether of not you are alive or dead, depending, respectively, on whether you can resist swaying in time to the movement of the music. If you can resist, and choose instead to observe the niceties of white-collar, Sphinx-like, formal immobility, then I feel very sorry for you. Also, again, this is music intended to induce radiant, irrepressible joy. There is no virtue in being able to resist. Unfortunately, all too many concert-goers can do just that.
I have often thought that, if the European Enlightenment of the 18th century were to have theme music, much like an American sitcom or drama, one could do no better than to select Haydn’s “F-maj String Quartet No.4” for that purpose. It is graceful and lilting – but, for that reason, also just sheer fun – to a degree that simply beggars description. Westerners, especially Americans, usually stereotype the Enlightenment of the 18th century – the culture that gave us liberal, latitudinarian, constitutional democracy, free speech, free thought, reflexive suspicion of authoritarianism, equal rights for all, etc., etc. – in other words, all the values, principles, and priorities presently under siege by the likes of Donald Trump, Victor Orban, Marine LePen, Alternative for Germany, and the leave-EU movement that is so nostalgic for a Europe of hard borders and separate currencies like the 1940s – such people stereotype the Enlightenment as too free, too cosmopolitan, too rational, too far removed from the Blut und Boden (“Blood and Soil”) derangement that gave us two World Wars. Haydn’s number-4 string quartet in F-major is a refutation of that slobbering crudity in the form of music that is no less liltingly graceful for being compelling. It is sheer fun and dance in the service of civilization, something the Orbans and Trumps will never understand.
But it is not only in musical art that fun may be discovered. There is also sculpture. One of the best examples of sculpture-as-fun is a piece I once encountered on a street in downtown Leipzig, Germany. If you can look at this piece and not laugh, then you really should have your eyeglasses prescription revised. The figure in the sculpture is evidently marching along the sidewalk in giant goose-steps while stiff-arm saluting -- but with his -- at least, I am pretty sure it is a man -- head discreetly retracted down between his shoulders. Words fail me. Take a look at the images and see for yourself.
In fact, this piece illustrates a weapon whose effect on authoritarian people, ideologies, and governments is nothing short of subversive: humor. It is the sculptural equivalent of Alec Baldwin's impersonation of Trump on Saturday Night Live. It is also a 21st-century parody in the tradition of Right In the Fuehrer's Face from World War II. (Make sure the sound is turned on in both your computer and on the YouTube clip itself.) Furthermore, remember that I encountered this sculpture on a sidewalk in Leipzig, Germany -- which was once a part of the dreary, gray, dystopian un-Paradise of East Germany until the Wall fell, and the Germanys united, to be followed by an efflorescence of art, especially music, sculpture, and architecture, the likes of which have not been seen since the Weimar Republic between the two World Wars. Leipzig was reborn. I know the old Leipzig only by reputation: I was forbidden to travel there or any Communist country on pain of having my security clearances lifted, but I have read a lot about the rebirth of that wonderful city of Bach, Wagner, Mendelssohn, et al., where even the street violinists are world-class musicians. Part of the art that blossomed in Leipzig would have been sternly forbidden by its former communist taskmasters, who have, if anything, an even more sclerotic aesthetic sense than American museum- and concert-goers. Communists were about equally inept at having fun, like other authoritarians -- Trump, Orban, et al. The political culture that built the Rundecke -- "Round Corners" -- the headquarters of the East German Stasi in Leipzig, would never have permitted the display of this sculpture in Leipzig. They would have had as little use for that sculpture as Trump has for Alec Baldwin and Saturday Night Live -- and for essentially the same reasons.
The moral of my story? Only this: yes some art is serious, some art is intended to evoke a sense of sadness and tragedy ... of course ... e.g., A Long Day's Journey Into Night ... but when any work of art evinces or evokes or provokes humor, playfulness, dalliance, and whimsy -- do not resist it. You will only be that much poorer if you do. Sophistication and taste do not equate to frowning, head-bowing, and chin-stroking. One's aesthetic sensibilities should make room for a good, tear-inducing belly laugh -- Marx Brothers' Horse Feathers as high art. Saturday Night Live and A Midsummer Night's Dream can -- and do -- meet and embrace.
James R. Cowles
Image and music credits
Leipzig statues … Personal photos
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" … Folger Library … CC by SA 4.0
"A Servant of Two Masters", Carlo Goldoni … (photographer's name in Hebrew characters) … Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Mozart … "Violin Concerto No. 3 in G" … https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-mA9OMP3DE
Bach … "Brandenburg Cto #3" … (Freiburger Barockorchester) … https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QLj_gMBqHX8
Haydn … Haydn: https://archive.org/details/Haydn__Franz_-String_Quartet_in_F_Major_mvmt_3&webamp=1 … Public domain
Bach … https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3b/Brandenburg_Concerto_No.4_in_G%2C_Movement_I%28Allegro%29%2C_BWV_1049_%28ISRC_USUAN1100303%29.oga … "By default, they are licensed under Creative Commons" (as of 2009-03-19, the source does not contain another license)
Bach … https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:BWV_1047_%E2%80%93_Brandenburg_Concerto_No._2 …
Marx Brothers ... Ralph F. Stitt ... Public domain