Every once in a while I go to a local Op Shop (Opportunity Shop) where you can purchase second hand items for fairly cheap prices. Everything is donated and that means people have undoubtedly unloaded some of their books they no longer need or want. A few months ago I was at such a place with a few dollars to spend on some books, I always check the history section and occasionally fiction, though not often. At the end of my browsing I always make sure to check the somewhat hidden art section where the books on classical art, music and architecture are kept. On this particular day I happened across a few substantial books I knew I couldn’t pass up on, a very large book entitled “A World History of Art” by Sheldon Cheney, 946 pages, published in 1946 and another book on art “History of the World’s Art” by Hermann Leicht, 340 pages, published in 1963 as well as two books on music that I bought for my grandmother. One of these books was “The Understanding of Music” by Charles R. Hoffer. The book was in very nice condition and I knew my grandmother would take immense joy in reading it; I personally was somewhat interested in it even though I’m generally not one for music, let alone the classical variety, but there are a select few which I do enjoy and wouldn’t turn off if they were playing on the radio. Although I don’t listen to the radio unless in the car or using public transport. Regardless. . . I surprised my grandmother with the two books I bought her and in the process took a flip through The Understanding of Music where I came upon a page which piqued my interest. In the chapter entitled “Music as a fine Art” professor Hoffer gives us an undeniable look into what it takes to listen to music, understand it and appreciate it:

Closely related to a syntactical sense is skill in listening to music. Without this ability to hear what is happening in a piece, you are as helpless as a man with poor vision in an art gallery.

Charles R. Hoffer, The Understanding of Music (Wadsworth Publishing, Second Edition), Pp. 61

Perhaps this quote would mean more to the person who studies music, but as a layman I see it another way. You cannot, whether it is music or painting, ever truly take in an artistic creation until you can understand it’s parts, the subtly and composition of the work. You need to be able to comprehend the thought which went into the artistic expression you’re contemplating as that is what gives art life.

But this is just a small quote. What I found Hoffer write which to me gets to the very heart of the matter comes soon after this quotation:

There is one more area of learning in music. It is a mode of thought, a way of thinking. To understand music, you need to consider sounds with somewhat the same outlook as a musician. This statement does not mean that you must perform music, although that helps. Rather, it means that sounds are to be contemplated and valued for their own sake. Musician-like thinking does not regard music as something to have in the background as you study or socialize with friends. A musician is interested in the sounds and how they have been handled by a composer or performer. In this comic strip, the company’s intellectual may not be an artist, but he thinks like one.

Charles R. Hoffer, The Understanding of Music (Wadsworth Publishing, Second Edition), Pp. 62
Comic strip, Pp. 62

Not only is this essentially true for music, but this outlook is relevant to all aspects of culture. However the relevance to music cannot be underscored (haha get it?) because the art of creating music is surely one of the art forms which suffers the most abuse in the modern world.

Art and culture aren’t relative nor are they subjective. There is bad art and there is good art.

For example, nobody appreciates a badly acted film, or a film riddled with editing errors and production design flaws as art or culture. At best it’s simply entertaining, at worst it’s boring and forgettable.

Many artistic endeavors that are bad can be enjoyed for entertainment, by the very fact that they’re bad. This doesn’t make it art, it makes it a mockery posing as art. People make the mistake of equating ‘enjoyment’ with something of quality or value. This is obviously untrue, enjoyment can be sparked by many things, usually it’s just the motivation to avoid boredom. How much you enjoy something isn’t an indication of whether or not it’s of quality or significant.

This example in the book is focused on music. Music can be listened to by anyone, it’s supposed to be consumed and enjoyed, especially these days where music is made as a commodity like all other forms of artistic expression. When you can buy and sell art and produce it for the masses its quality goes down.

Success isn’t always a reflection of something that is of high quality or cultural value. Art can be made IN SPITE of the masses and achieve success or art can be MADE FOR the masses, in utter mediocrity. This distintion is essential for it separates what is of worth and which type of art must appeal to the most common denominator to gain success which swamps the masses with a deluge of garbage.

Garbage made for the masses can be enjoyed by all, but it will never strive to overcome mediocrity. For culture to grow into something of worth it mustn’t ever tolerate mediocrity.

When artists constantly improve their skills it will build talent in the artist and appreciation among those who view it. It allows art to be pondered, to carry with it the weight of the artists struggles and whatever be their message; a message accompanied with a meticulously crafted final product and thoughtfulness that will be noticed and leave an everlasting impression on those who view it, hopefully for generations.
There’s tons more I could say on this but perhaps that which I haven’t said can be left for another time!

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