On High Art

In David Byrne’s book How Music Works, he spends a lot of time complaining about how much money is poured into what is perceived as high art, whilst neglecting so many other art forms. He questions the very notion of high art, but that’s maybe because he doesn’t know the history of it.

He cites Goethe visiting the Dresden art gallery and describing it as like a church; well, why not? Until recent times, the only place anyone saw art – wall paintings, sculptures, stained glass, music, was in a church, so how could this parallel be otherwise?

But Byrne is also missing the origin of the notion of art which improves the masses. It comes from the early church, the stained glass windows were called The Bible of the Poor, which told stories of the Bible in images so that the poor could understand them. They were not great art in isolation; they were valued for their role in storytelling.

Similarly, the images of Christ and the many saints were not noted for their accuracy, as nobody knew what they looked like; they were valued for showing their piety, their faith in enduing great suffering, that they did for the rest of us, so were meant, like many of the Bible stories, to demonstrate the importance of sacrifice for the greater good. They were meant to help the poor endure their suffering as god had ordained all.

After the Reformation, Protestants rejected these images of saints, and set up their own secular ones; either turning to classical imagery, or the great military leaders and later, politicians, became pictures that were praised and recommended to the poor to show how these great men – they were always men!- had sacrificed for their country, so again acting as social glue, both by knowledge of their great events, and in appreciating their sacrifices. The huge turnouts for the funerals of Nelson and Queen Victoria show how potent these images were.

This is why great art was recommended for the poor, and why there was such a drive to build public museums, and then to make them accessible to all.

Byrne cites the Whitechapel gallery which was opened in the poor East End of London. It functioned in the same way, by promoting images of national importance, and the great and the good, not on the basis that this was necessarily great art per se, but the stories they told were. the local vicar who promoted the gallery would lead the poor on tours of the gallery, as a means of welcoming them into the temple of art, but also telling them the stories of the art, so it was educational rather than leisure.

It is also fascinating how Byrne notes that donating to high art in America is a means of cleaning up a person’s reputation. And that this is how the great symphony orchestras and operas have been maintained. He jokes about why the mafia haven’t got in on the act, opening Joey Bananas’ Opera House. I think I’d want to go to that one.

But yet again, there is nothing new in this. In the past, people gave money to the church, for prayers for their souls, to gain faster access to heaven; in modern, multi religious  America, the Christian churches have been largely replaced by the arts as a means of cleaning up a person’s reputation – the least of which could be the greed that led them to become so rich in the first place.

No matter what changes, things stay the same.

But there is also something inherently important in art, literature and music, that people have striven for and made culture an important part of our social glue. For poor people, the church used to be the only place they could escape from the misery and squalour of their existence; some colour, music, the smell of incense could lift their spirits; in many cases, it was the only thing, apart from perhaps alcohol, that was available to them.

In earlier times, when wars were common and touched every level of society art seems to have had an important restorative element that people then recognised. This is from John Williams book Stoner:

“A war doesn’t merely kill off a few thousand or a few hundred thousand young men. It kills off something in a people that can never be brought back. And if a people goes through enough wars, petty soon all that’s left is the brute, the creature that we – you and I and others like us – have brought up from the slime… the scholar should not be asked to destroy what he has aimed his life to build.” 

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