Lately I’ve been thinking about the experience of Beauty as an operating principle—in both music and in life. The questions of where and what Beauty is, what it’s for, and how it works—these have fascinated me in recent weeks. I’m asking How does Beauty operate in your music career?
I’m not talking about the conventional sense of Beauty as something or someone pleasing to the eye. Instead, I’m talking about Beauty as the value that we aim our artistic work toward.
In music, the way we each perceive Beauty informs everything from the particular nuances of the arc we create in a phrase, to the way we shape a cadence, or choose to use a particular sound color.
And beyond music, the way we perceive Beauty impacts how we experience being in the world.
If we consider How Beauty operates in your music career (and life), there’s far more at stake than how we might fleetingly appreciate a sunrise or a moment shared with a loved one.
I’m thinking that Beauty operates as an internal orientation device.
Working in the background, Beauty directs our curiosity toward the specific material we end up reading, watching, listening to, and learning from.
And because it determines our particular influences, Beauty ends up shaping our distinct view of the world and our place in it.
Beauty can govern our decisions, dictate our behavior, and choreograph our lives—all without our conscious awareness of it.
We each steer toward our own ideal of Beauty in ways that we’re oblivious to.
After all, you can’t help what you’re drawn to, or what activates your insides. You don’t get to choose what you love. It just happens.
My shorthand for this theory in progress is that ultimately . . .
Beauty is about the experience of wonder and letting it have its way with you.
I’m not sure about using the word “letting.” It implies a choice. And yes, there’s Beauty all around us and we may choose to take the time to notice and appreciate it. But the experience is not always voluntary.
Sometimes Beauty is more like an assault.
It can catch you off guard and knock the wind out of you. It can pull you up short, get under your skin, and re-arrange your orientation to the world. This may happen in a moment, but the experience stays with you. It leaves its mark.
Years ago on a visit to the Guggenheim in New York I walked into a gallery space just off the atrium, and a Kandinsky stopped me dead in my tracks. It grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go. I was transfixed and couldn’t look away.
Out of all the other works in that space, why this one, why that moment, why me?
The shock was the immediacy of my response. There was a surge of adrenaline, a burst of synapses firing, and whatever happens to your breath and pulse when you’re suddenly more alive.
It seemed like I could feel the rewiring going on in my brain. Finding associations and connecting memories and visions with dream fragments from god knows where—the collective unconscious, I suppose.
The sense of the painting—its totality—came all at once. Like a blow.
The design of the abstract geometric shapes framed in the canvas imprinted itself behind my eyes. It had a tactile current of energy, like a map of a constellation in motion.
I was receiving some kind of download from it, a mystery wrapped in a metaphor disguised as an image. And here I am, decades later, still pondering what the painting set in motion in me.
So, in terms of “letting” it have its way with me, there was no choice involved. Just a mute acknowledgment that Beauty had me in her grips, and I needed to let go.
If Beauty is going to change you in some way—and that IS, after all, WHAT IT’S FOR—your job is to let it happen. To NOT interfere, judge, or resist.
* * *
I’ve had a handful of similar “Kandinsky moments” happen with music, as a performer and as an audience member. I’ve also had experiences like these with reading and with writing. Moments of stunned awareness and a recognition of a truth I’d never imagined.
These experiences of Beauty I would not describe as “pleasing.” Beauty isn’t supposed to be pretty and it isn’t easy. It can be dark and powerful. Beauty in the arts can also be dangerous and yes, frightening. Anything that threatens the status quo can rock our carefully constructed sense of selves.
But these moments can vary widely. And the medium matters. Music and literature—as opposed to the visual arts—unfold over time, as do dance and theater. The performing arts and literature work on us by playing with our perception of sequential events, with expectations and surprises, tensions and resolutions, and cumulative payoffs.
Epiphanies come in a variety of manifestations, and some register as slow burns.
The speed of that Kandinsky, though, was a full-on rush of sensations and an immediate leap of insight.
My guess is that we’ve all had at least a handful of indelible experiences with various art forms and that these had far more impact on us than we’ll ever know.
We’re each oriented toward our own evolving sense of Beauty, but in looking to make our best work, our most honest, most “beautiful” work, we all face the same challenge.
The difficult thing we must do is confront ourselves in the work, and that is where Resistance often shows up. But we must confront ourselves nonetheless, and own up to the fears and the lies that have gotten in the way of telling our Truth.
* * *
Enter Dave Hickey on Beauty
In exploring this topic, I’ve been re-reading the late “bad boy of art criticism” Dave Hickey. In his remarkable essay collection, “The Invisible Dragon,” in his final essay, Dave offers this on what Beauty does, on how it operates, and what it offers.
“The utility of beauty as a legitimate recourse resides in its ability to locate us as physical creatures in a live, ethical relationship with other human beings in the physical world. Natural and man-made objects reside at the heart of this discourse. The intentions and values that inform these objects bear no relation to any meanings they might acquire. These physical things provide us with a correlative, an interstice or pause, if you will, upon which the past and future may pivot. The past may create an object and that object create the future if we read the physical world as ancient oracles read the entrails of goats and the flight of eagles—if we are sensitive to the past, alive to present, and alert to the possibilities of the future.”
I love the idea that works of art help us situate our embodied selves in the physical world in relation to others. I love this understanding of why art is essential equipment for living.
And it’s helpful to remind ourselves that even without the aid of oracles reading goat entrails and eagles’ flights, we’ve all had our own “Kandinsky experiences” that have helped us pivot between what’s past and what’s possible in the future.
Dave ends the final essay with this, that with any work of art that we are drawn to, what we long for is to . . .
“join it in a pagan embrace that closes the space between ourselves and everything beyond ourselves. It’s hard to hold the world, of course, as we hold values dear, as we hold truths to be self-evident, but beauty, value, and truth arise out of the intimacy of that embrace. Beauty is and always will be blue skies and open highway.”
Thank you, Dave.
Here’s to more pagan embraces that help us become one with the world and with each other.
And here’s to finding—and creating—indelible moments of Beauty,
Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well