Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Anonymous Artist

The common, perhaps predominant, concept of the artist is someone who expresses himself in his art, both as virtuoso and an individual with unique ideas. The art, in turn, is a reflection of him. He is the star of his art, which reflects his ideas about the world, his character, his style, his theories, and so forth. Art is particular instead of universal.

In contrast to this conception, seen in a long-running trend but typified and exalted in Nietzsche, consider the thoughts of some of the twentieth century's great artists on the idea of the anonymous artist.

Glenn Gould, in conversation in
Glenn Gould: The Alchemist (dir. Bruno Monsaingeon, 1974)
A funny thing happened on the way to the 16th century, to put a bad pun on a musical from a few years back. Composers went in search of identity. And identity somehow became, by what we think of as the high renaissance, equated with system: my system versus your system. On the way to the 16th century there were some characters who preserved something of the pre identity-quest sense.
The thing about [Orlando] Gibbons is that he is not a completely individual composer, he sort of straddles the era of delicious anonymity that the pre-Renaissance knew about and explored and the era of really, almost total, exploitative individuality of the Early Baroque, which was about to come.

He's quite different from his contemporaries. Contemporaries like. . . William Byrd, for instance who. . . played Richard Strauss to his Mahler. . . was much more virtuosic, much more obviously composer-like, as opposed to a more spiritual entity. . . Byrd is marvelous, but every canon is there to be admired.

Ingmar Bergman
Four Screenplays of Ingmar Bergman (1960)
There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed — master builders, artists, labourers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built the cathedral of Chartres.

. . .it is my opinion that art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God. He lived and died without being more or less important than other artisans; 'eternal values,' 'immortality' and 'masterpiece' were terms not applicable in his case. The ability to create was a gift. In such a world flourished invulnerable assurance and natural humility. Today the individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation.

T. S. Eliot
Tradition and Individual Talent, 1919
Poetry is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. . . significant emotion has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives not merely in the present, but in the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.


  1. That Bergman quote is wonderful. I looked it up to get its context. Unsurprisingly, he was an agnostic. Just from this glimpse -- I know his name and little else -- I see the same spirit in Bergman that animated Albert Schweitzer. In fact he could have been thinking of Bach when he wrote this...

  2. I'm inclined to think that the best of art has a sort of impersonal yet human universality. (A characteristic Eliot comes closest to articulating with any specificity.) I wonder if Bergman's work itself might fit this description and fulfill that aspiration of his. (For some reason Tarkovsky's 'Solaris' jumpt to my mind as an example.) Agnostic as Bergman might have been he certainly was a restless one. At least some of his films are very much confrontations with the question. I've been thinking of doing a series on Bergman (chronologically.) Perhaps this might be a touchstone.

    Of course there may not be a way completely around "style" but there is a synthesis and a "stepping out of" (what this amounts to in practice and whether it implies minimalism, which I don't think, is worth a dedicated look) which may permit a certain transcendence.

    Back to Bach: Gould said elsewhere that Bach probably didn't care about the sonority per se (I'm incline to agree, though musicians, other than keyboardists, get fussy when you say that!) but about the "integrity of his structures." I think this observation and Gould's above are quite compatible, complementary even. Gould criticized his earlier Goldberg recording as being very "pianistic," which in this case seems to imply being intrusive. There is certainly something to be said for this criticism and the need to step out of the structure, to let it be without adding virtuosity, tempo shifts, accent, i.e. your "take." WIthout these things there is something in Bach, even in the non sacred music, which is universal, transcendent, and "spiritual" even without symbolism.

  3. Also, one might consider the tradition of chant the ultimate example of such anonymity. The notion pairs beautifully with Bergman's example of the cathedral.

  4. >>> Agnostic as Bergman might have been he certainly was a restless one. At least some of his films are very much confrontations with the question.

    Yes, that is the sign of honest agnosticism, and in fact it is the mark of "moderate" (heh) atheism also, rare as they both are. See Schweitzer and Theodore Dalrymple, for example. We have a spiritual side, at the very least a fumdamental spiritual sense. To deny this is to willfully chose impoverishment.

    >>> I've been thinking of doing a series on Bergman (chronologically.) Perhaps this might be a touchstone.

    That would be a good approach, in my opinion. I find high value in the views expressed by those who straddle difficult problems without falling to one side or the other.

    Schweitzer was grasping toward the theme of your post in the opening of his first volume on Bach, where he drew a distinction between "subjective" and "objective" artists. I assume the narcissism common to the present world was not yet accepted as the defining trait of the artist, so I wouldn't expect him to be able to make a statement like Gould's or Bergman's. And to be fair, Schweitzer was describing the difference between artists who generate new forms and those who concentrate what already exists. Yet you can see how our modern self-absorbed artist is a corrupted shadow of Schweitzer's subjective artist, and how the anonymous artist is closely related to Schweitzer's objective artist:

    "Some artists are subjective, some objective. The art of the former has its source in their personality; their work is almost independent of the epoch in which they live.

    [However in the objective artist] the artistic personality exists independently of the human, the latter remaining in the background as if it were something almost accidental ..."

    (As usual, an apology of sorts for my always diverting to or otherwise limiting my comments to Bach. That is what I am familiar with so it is what I can offer...)

  5. I''m not too familiar with Schweitzer's thoughts on music but that's a most interesting connection to Eliot, that of a fundamental difference between artists who work in old forms and those who create new ones.

    His use of "accidental" is also interesting and there is a certain mystery to the process. Who knows which and how ideas are going to intermingle in an artist?

    Synthesizing both points and paraphrasing Eliot: the poet expresses not his personality, but the medium. There must be a connection between this and Schweitzer's comment about old versus new forms.

    He also has several volumes on Bach. Woohoo!

    And it is always a pleasure to read you comments on Bach; many thanks. Fortunately, Bach intersects with quite a bit!

  6. Oops, I didn't pay attention to the Eliot comments the first time around. Of course there is a very satisfying connection between Eliot and Schweitzer, down to the use of particular words. I should have quoted more the first time:

    "Bach belongs to the order of objective artists. These are wholly of their own time, and work only with the forms and the ideas that their time proffers them. They exercise no criticism upon the media of artistic expression that they find lying ready to their hand, and feel no inner compulsion to open out new paths. Their art not coming soley from the stimulus of their outer experience, we need not seek the roots of their work in the fortunes of its creator...

    The art of the objective artist is not impersonal, but superpersonal. It is as if he felt only one impulse -- to express again what he already finds in existence, but to express it definitively, in unique perfection. It is not he who lives, it is the spirit of the time that lives in him. All the artistic endeavours, desires, creations, aspirations, and errors of his own and of previous generations are concentrated and worked out to their conclusion in him."

    I ought to say one thing at this point: I do find it a bit hard to believe that Bach would have been an objective artist in any world he found himself in. Were he alive today, would he have applied his genius to churning out radio hits, or perhaps movie scores? Would he really be "wholly of his own time?" That is not necessarily a compliment! I shudder to think of Bach living in the modern world and saying "it is not he who lives, it is the spirit of the time that lives in him.". If Schweitzer is correct, it is fortunate that Bach lived in a time when the existing artistic format and worldview could better support his capability.

    But anyway, the Schweitzer - Eliot connection certainly exists.

  7. "Super-personal": that works!

    That "the spirit of the time that lives in him" fits with something else Gould said about Gibbons, that if he (Gould) lived in Gibbons' time that he (Gould) would have written similar music. Yet as you say, surely this argument may be taken a tad too far. Perhaps we ought not to discount the subject matter apart from the style and that Bach (and many great artists) chose if not "elevated" themes (for that sounds stuffy) at least timeless ones. One can make skilful but insignificant art.

    Yet Bach's style and content, if we decide to make that distinction, shows such complementarity! The structure is the idea. A truly fascinating, and rare, situation.

  8. I have another quite remarkable connection. The following is from Tim Smith's commentary on the A minor fugue of WTC book 1:

    As a teacher of classical languages in the St. Thomas School in Leipzig, Bach was probably aware that the Greek word for creator is Poeiten from which we derive "poet." So there is an etymological justification for comparing what artists do with what the Creator does. In accord with Lutheran dogma, it is likely that Bach conceived of the artist as a trustee or executor, rather than as a "creator" in the theological sense of that word. Only God creates--humans assemble and arrange what God has created.

    Bach's music reveals a consistent recognition of this principle: the composer does not create but mediates. Bach understood that composition involved the utilization of processes whereby music is released from materials that God alone created.

    This view of the artist implies something, too, about the artwork. If the artist does not create, but arranges, then the artwork is a continuing manifestation of God’s creation. Sacramentally, it is a reflection, however dim, of the incarnation. God is with us in the work of art. God is also with the artist even as he rediscovers the created order and arranges it in beautiful ways.

    In conclusion, Bach's artistic conception was one of humility: music should not be used to express the self (a typically romantic concept) but should be a vehicle whereby one enters into something larger than himself.

  9. Wow! That's really fantastic. I mean, that's precisely what we've been talking about but in a much larger philosophical, theological context. I really have to reflect on this: Brian, thank you so much for sharing this!