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  • Nathan Weakley

"(Briefly) On Music and the Sublime"



In his book A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce says that beauty in art is marked by the most satisfying relationships of the sensible. That phrase always stuck with me because it’s so simple yet so profound, and it can be applied to all kinds of art. A great poet is able to take in aspects of the world around him and transcribe them—to take the wide, incredible range of human emotion and somehow put it, piece by piece, into words. A great painter is able to, through evocative color palettes and brush strokes, capture an image—not only its appearance but also the way that image makes us feel. Put differently, there’s a certain truth of the world, a universal and abstract truth that is only revealed to us through our senses (whenever I say the word feeling, I mean it somewhat vaguely as sensory information); and, though it eludes description, an artist attempts to locate this truth by way of their chosen medium.


It can be said that any artist who aims for the sublime ideal has set before themselves an impossible task. Because while a work may be infinitely entertaining, it can only capture so much of the universal, sensory truth. This is the artist's struggle, and it is the reason that art continues to be created after thousands of years. Whatever that abstract truth of the human experience is, we haven't figured it out yet, and we never fully will.


But there’s more to the enjoyment of art than the sublime admiration of beauty. In addition to artwork, which displays sensory information to us, the artwork is also a piece of sensory stimuli in and of itself. In other words, art can be evaluated not only by how it reflects our feelings, but also by how it makes us feel. This second quality is especially prevalent in movies and music. What I mean is that an intense action movie would not be beautiful by Joyce’s definition, but it would be enjoyable because it’s exciting and because it’s entertaining. The same could be said for a hard rock song. This might be called the immediate ideal.


Say you're reading a book and a scene or a paragraph makes you cry; is it the characters' pain you're feeling, or is it your own? This is another way to illustrate the difference between the immediate and the sublime ideal.


There’s more to be said on this subject—that the sublime and the immediate are rarely separate, that they often rely on one another within an artwork, and that the distinction between these two ideals defines the unnecessary and snobby boundary between “high art” and “low art," but I’ll leave all that for another time. What I’m here to talk about is the sublime ideal in music.


Some artists make music to dance to. This is great, and I love them for it. Immediate artists are for everybody, and they stake a rightful claim to much of popular music. But when a musician aims, above all, to communicate feelings to the listener and relate some aspect of the human experience through music, they are chasing the sublime.


John Coltrane chased the sublime. With A Love Supreme, he caught up to it and got it to hold still for an album’s length. As did the Velvet Underground a few years later with their self-titled record. And Joni Mitchell soon after. These artists, among many others, were able to express something real and personal through their melodies. They gave us a part of themselves through their music, and for that, I’m grateful.

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