“I like that one”, “I don’t like it”, “Well, I could paint that!” are all common phrases said at art museums. These are people who focus inadequately to what is actually before them. The moment they identify their emotion toward the work, they walk away. Few give careful and recurring observation to what each work actually is saying.
In "An Experiment in Criticism", C.S Lewis describes these people in this way: “This attitude, which was once my own, might almost be defined as ‘using’ pictures. While you retain this attitude you treat the picture-or rather a hasty and unconscious selection of elements in the picture-as a self-starter for certain imaginative and emotional activities of your own. In other words, you ‘do things with it’. You don’t lay yourself open to what it, by being in its totality precisely the thing it is, can do to you” [emphasis mine]
He goes on to say: “Real appreciation demands the opposite process. We must not let loose our own subjectivity upon the pictures and make them its vehicles. We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations…We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way…The distinction can hardly be better expressed than by saying that the many use art and the few receive it.
Though Lewis only mentioned two ways people interact with art, It seems to me that there are 3 ways to experience art and music.
1. A surface level understanding. You can catch on to the tune or melody and may even join in singing this tune with the musicians. You recognize whether or not you like this tune or a certain scene depicted on canvas, but it goes no further than that. You use the work for your own interests.
2. A middle level understanding. On this level, you allow the piece to work on you. You receive it. You hear the way the composer organized the music, you recognize the form and textures etc. In a work of art, you may notice the artist’s use of lines and color. You can recognize the skill of the artist/composer as well as the skill of the performers of the piece. One may even place the idea of Art for Art’s sake in this category.
3. A fundamental level understanding. On this level you can understand the story beneath the story. You see through the actual work unto the invisible Reality. Through the work, you understand what it says about the current world and what it says about God.
Though there is a time and place for each of the categories, I think the best way to approach music and art is with a combination of all three levels. Art does not exist simply for our enjoyment and it also doesn’t exist for it’s own sake. It ultimately exists to show us the invisible, the reality greater than what our eyes can naturally see and what our ears can naturally hear.
In today’s culture, most people try to feed on popular music alone. There is very little substance in much of this music and only a surface level understanding can really be applied. Few know what it is to feast on a hearty piece of music and let it fill them. Even with concert music (or “classical music”), one may only experience a surface level understanding if they do not search for the deeper meaning. For example, this can happen if the music is simply meant for background music to create a peaceful mood in an area. It may also happen at the concert hall if a person only desires to hear a certain melody and ignores the other musical aspects of the piece. Perhaps it is difficult for us as a culture to understand more complex pieces of music because we are trying to have a steady diet of overly simple music and therefore struggle to digest anything other than popular music.
Music can reflect the complexity of the world in which we live. Music that is overly simple seems to me like displaying a world where only grey colors exist, or where there are only a three or four different species of animals. In reality, there is so much more to display. There is great tragedy and also great beauty, and these two seemingly opposites mingle with each other as they create depths and complexities. How wonderful when we encounter works of art that display these complex truths.
There is such a deep well of satisfaction available to us if we would simply sit and receive great works of art and if we would search them for the invisible treasures that exist.