When I was young, it seemed logical to me that the most virtuosic performances should be the “best” music, and most worthy of my appreciation. As my tastes ran more toward classic rock than toward classical music, I was particularly an advocate of Led Zeppelin’s most fiery guitar and drum solos, or their more complex picking patterns in songs like “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” and “Black Mountain Side”.
As I grew older, however, I began to sense deep flaws in this way of thinking, as it privileged a proposition about music over the actual aesthetic experience of music. As I began to ponder this distinction, I noticed more and more how much I could be moved by the most simple of songs.
Don’t get me wrong; I still love Led Zeppelin! But I now love realms of music that at one point seemed illogical for me to appreciate. The same goes for visual art and literature. I have grown into an attention to and profound love of the aesthetic experience of art, rather than allowing myself to be led by rationalistic a priori notions of what forms the most powerful art “should” take. I believe that only after experiencing a work of art should one attempt to identify the objective features that create the possibility of a powerful aesthetic experience. In this way, the aesthetic experience is neither entirely subjective nor entirely objective, but subjectivity and objectivity coexist—indeed, must coexist—in the aesthetic experience.
Federico García Lorca examines that mysterious quality in art (for him, most particularly in dance, music, and poetry) that lends it power to transport an audience. He calls this duende, a dark force of the earth, something other than the “muse” or the “angel,” rising from the mortal center of the artist rather than arriving from without, and many other things besides. Lorca gives an example of an old flamenco dancer at a competition:
Years ago, an eighty-year-old woman won first prize at a dance contest in Jerez de la Frontera. She was competing against beautiful women and young girls with waists supple as water, but all she did was raise her arms, throw back her head, and stamp her foot on the floor. In that gathering of muses and angels--beautiful forms and beautiful smiles--who could have won but for her moribund duende, sweeping the ground with its wings of rusty knives. -from "Play and Theory of the Duende"
She gives an utterly simple, unadorned performance—hardly even worthy to be called a dance. But her performance is so impassioned, so full of the acknowledgment of death, so full of duende, that she is awarded first prize, over all the ornate performances of her young and beautiful competitors. This is part of what I’m getting at when I talk about the experience of a work of art. The superficial features one might expect beforehand to produce a powerful aesthetic experience are not reliably the ones that actually do produce the greatest effect. It is not perfect execution or virtuosity that is the most profound aspect of art, but rather its ability to evoke the heart of the human condition, to allow us to transcend the bounds of time and mortality for a moment through the unwavering insistence on those limits. This is a mysterious power that we can experience in two arenas: art and spirituality. At heart, I suspect that these two practices are, or can be, one and the same.
This mortal passion that takes simple artistic forms has an amazing ability to endure, to retain its power to move the reader or viewer or listener, no matter how many times the work of art is revisited. This is not to say that virtuosic art or more traditionally “beautiful” art doesn’t have this same power—think of Keats’ Grecian urn: “When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours, a friend to man…”—but it is suprising to speak of simple art this way because it seems counterintuitive to think that utter simplicity should remain powerful over time. The simple, unadorned poem or song is the most easily remembered, but because of its simplicity we might assume that its aesthetic effect would diminish over time, while more complex art would offer new layers of meaning and beauty to the searching subject. But often expressions of the most fundamental aspects of the human condition depend for their effect not on elaboration or adornment, but the opposite.
This is why, in the visual arts, I’ve grown to love Mark Rothko, whose best work is minimalistic, and yet strikes the viewer as perfect in the sense of being complete, final. In music, the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is a particular favorite of mine. For the same reasons, much Eastern poetry is among the work I most cherish. In the space of a handful of syllables, a poem can resonate as deeply as—dare I say it?—an epic poem by Dante or Milton. Buson writes:
The moth alights
on the one-ton temple bell.
On a branch
a cricket, singing.
Li Po writes:
The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and I,
until only the mountain remains.
We are the mirror and the face in it.
We are tasting the taste this minute
of eternity. We are pain
and what cures pain, both.
We are the sweet cold water
and the jar that pours.
The Toa te Ching, in Stephen Mitchell’s sublime translation, reads:
Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.
Simplicity: a door opening on the depths, a rung toward the heavens.