Why are there several Arts? And not just one?

A simple question, really, but it appears there is no simple answer.  Last week’s lecture on Artistic Synthesis and Artistic Purity covered quite a lot of ground on the differences between art forms in terms of their apprehension through different senses and the distinction between artworks that exist in space and those that can only be seen (or heard) over time.  What, I asked, about theatre, which unfolds in both space and time?  There was an answer to that (something about dramatic works being seen as a form of poetry), but I didn’t find it very convincing.  If that were true, there would be no need for scenery or lighting in the theatre, and it wouldn’t matter if the actors moved about or changed their facial expressions – I believe they do so even in radio plays.

And a lot about Wagner’s idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk (roughly, ‘total artwork’), a synthesis of art forms gathered under the umbrella of Music Drama. The lecturer enthused about the Ring Cycle, and strongly recommended listening to the whole thing.  Really? Do we have to?

The mention of Wagner got me thinking about different ways of classifying the different forms of art, and it occurred to me that the lecture was entirely concerned with the production of art, and not at all with its reception.  Since art is fundamentally linked to communication, perhaps a more interesting way of classifying different arts would be by looking at their audience.  If there was a category of “art presented to smartly dressed people”, a Wagner opera would fit right in, whereas a “rock opera” (say, the Who’s ‘Tommy’) definitely wouldn’t, however pretentious and overblown it might be.  The difference is not primarily in the music itself (let’s leave quality on one side) but in the expectations of both artist and audience.  The opera audience expects a certain type of performance, and can be quite  vociferous when their expectations are not met (for some strange reason, booing is much more frequent, and more acceptable, in opera than in theatre).  Equally, the producers of opera select their audiences, partly through pricing, more through dress codes which have all but disappeared in the theatre and never existed at rock concerts.  Put more generally, all art is produced for a specific market, and the nature of that market in turn shapes the art produced for it – I think there is a symbiotic relationship between the two.

In the first half of the 20th century, the popular music recording market in the USA was split between records for white people and so-called “race” records, producing black music, including many masterpieces of the blues.  Live performances were similarly circumscribed – with very few exceptions such as Louis Armstrong, the majority of black artists were virtually unknown to the white population.  Since the market for this music was so closely defined, it developed on its own terms, independently of any need to cater for white tastes.  It was only with the emergence of white performers playing black music, starting with Elvis Presley and exploding with the arrival of the Beatles and Rolling Stones (English musicians who had not grown up with the racial divide) that some communication and commingling took place between the two sets of performers and audiences.  Even now, half a century on, there is still a recognisable gap between “black” and “white” popular music, even though styles have to some extent merged.

The point is, categorisation of arts by means of looking at the communications they convey, and the interaction between artist and audience, is potentially much more interesting and productive than just looking at the physical form of the artwork.

This entry has got a bit too long, although I had thought of more to put in – maybe I’ll return to the topic of the social categorisation of art.

Sorry, no picture this time.  Maybe to illustrate I’ll add one of Bessie Smith, one of the great blues singers, who was buried in an unmarked grave – she died after being turned away from a “white” hospital.  Significantly for my argument, a headstone was eventually provided by Janis Joplin, possibly the greatest white blues singer.

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