Why I Hate Most Art Criticism: Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament and Music

“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions…”
David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature

Emotions first, cognition second is the best way to perceive art, even contemporary art.

We feel independently from the way we think. Feelings are our only true motivations. Feelings conflict, reason can help us sort out feelings, but cognition is an intellectual mask over feelings.

Painters paint, sculptors sculpt, composers compose. If they wanted to use words, they would have written.

When Beethoven needed words to express himself he wrote – in one of the most remarkable artistic statements of all time – the Heiligenstadt Testament. Facing his growing deafness, his fear of its effect on his music, his growing sense of social isolation, he contemplates suicide.

He decides to live for the music he could express — not for writing about music.

Our seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching are not neutral sensations reflected on by a cognitive mind, but processed, altered, felt, and directed, by a biased brain. As we see, hear, smell, taste, touch a work of art, we associate them with past memories, and their associated feelings and thoughts. Our lives are embedded in a world of past associations.

If we want to share our feelings with others, we have to use words. In the best art criticism the feelings drive the words. The abstractions are an attempt to universalize the feelings.

I am not against learning about history, artists, their environments, their methods, their influences, or similar information, but not as a substitute for engaging with the work of art itself. Cezanne’s brush strokes were driven by the feelings and ideas he expressed in his work.

Watch people in a museum and you will see people being perplexed over works of art. Most spend a brief interval and then walk away. Some glance briefly at the label, hoping for some sort of enlightenment. You have to spend some time to engage the work of art, something most museums do not make easy.

I remember going to exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. More people spent time clustered around historical and biographic explanations than before the works themselves. Yet in a few discussions with other patrons, it was clear some shared my views.

I find the explanatory tapes given out in museums insipid. I promised myself I would never listen to one ever gain. It as if the commentary on the tapes is afraid of engaging people’s passions for fear of offending someone.

If I ever could make a large gift to a museum, it would be contingent on putting more benches in the exhibit halls so people could sit and look and try to figure out art on their own. Some private art galleries are better than public museums.

What about artist statements about contemporary art?

Those statements are about context. What we experience is dependent on what we expect. In the past, cultures generally shared expectations that an artist could depend on. In today’s world of fragmented cultures, an artist cannot count on a shared context. The artist seeks to provide one to guide our sensual processing.

8 Replies to “Why I Hate Most Art Criticism: Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament and Music”

  1. I wonder why we call it criticism rather than commentary? The ability to critique implies some absolute scale available to the critic that does not exist.

    I find myself wondering about nature vs. nurture on the consumer side of art. It is well established on the producer side that people are born with the talent and training can refine it. It seems to me that the same process applies on the consumer side as well. I have to have the ability to understand the artist’s “language” which I can refine with training.

    Certainly I can interpret an artistic piece in my own context, but that would be unique to me, but would give me no basis to offer broad commentary.

    • What is the difference between criticism and commentary is a much debated question. Two good essays that I know of are William S. Burroughs, “A Review of the Reviewers” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Perfect Critic”.

      You are absolutely right about the consumer side as well, and I have written about that in “Understanding Art”, https://artandsoftware.com/?p=483.

      Actually, you do share contexts with other people. That is why certain works of art became famous, or popular. That is why some works of art are easier to appreciate or love. That is why popular opinion rejects works of art, or people find it easier to share their appreciation of it with others. This issue really comes to a head with public art, a topic I want to address in the future.

  2. I didn’t mean to imply that my context is necessarily unique. It might simply be different than the artist’s and thus could leave me unable to interpret within their intended context.

    It seems to me that the entire artistic endeavor becomes suspect if the consumer has to either be in alignment with the producer’s context or lucky enough to have a piece produced in one context be meaningful in the consumer’s non-overlapping context.

    I think rather than shared context to explain why a piece can become broadly popular it is more likely that the artist produces within a broad enough context that is more inclusive.

    • No question, if you want to understand an art work you have to understand the context in which it was created.

      Why is the artistic endeavor suspect if there has to be alignment with the viewer of art and the artist? All human communication is subject to that problem.

      The reason I phrased it the way I did, is that there are many artistic movements (such as Impressionism, Modern Art) where the artist produced art works in a narrow context which was not very inclusive. Only later, as more people understood that context it become more popular or at least more interesting. Your formulation does not explain why art comes in and out of fashion.

      • Other forms of human communication have the opportunity for iteration and refinement in order to achieve a common understanding. Art either clicks or it doesn’t and I suspect that earlier art movements had broader contexts which facilitated their popularity rise. It seems that after the 19th century the artists contexts seem to narrow leading to narrower audience connection. The theory about Jackson Pollock’s work representing fractal patterns is one example.

        • How are you disagreeing with me?

          Art offers the ability of iteration and refinement as both the artist improves their craft and the viewer improves their understanding.

          • Disagreeing is not the right word. I just realized we are talking about two different aspects of the artist-viewer relationship. My comment, especially the one about the artistic endeavor being suspect, have been targeted at single transactions. Once a piece of art is created there is very limited opportunity for the viewer to improve their understanding. It is what it is. They get it or they don’t. As I believe you have covered elsewhere in these missives it is very difficult to explain the piece using a different medium, words, what is being missed.

            I do agree with you that when switching to the world of new art over time there is much more opportunity for the artist to improve how they communicate through the art itself and for the views to understand the artist’s language.

            I would reiterate my comment about post-19th-century art. The artists have been narrowing down the context which lowers the likelihood of an intersection with any given viewers context.

          • Given the abundance of excellent music recordings, semi-decent reproductions, museums, and books I would argue that today there is much opportunity to improve ones understanding of a work of art. It has taken me about 25 years of listening to appreciate Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. On the other hand, the more I look at Gauguin’s “D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous” (which is in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts), the more I detest it.

            As for the current narrowing of shared context I do not disagree.

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