Beauty Before Content

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“I take satisfaction in belonging to a species of creatures with the ability not only to conceive and perform, but also respond appreciatively to such a work.” This declaration comes from Nelson Edmondson’s thoughtful essay, “An Agnostic Response to Christian Art.” Edmondson, an emeritus professor of art and art history at Michigan State University, is the agnostic in the title. The “work” he is referring to is any classic of Christian art, graphic or musical. His attraction to such pieces, despite his lack of faith and regardless of his artistic ability, is a hallmark of our species. We need not be wrapped up in an artwork’s message or subject matter to be moved by it, or to appreciate the skill involved in its creation. Intellectual investment can deepen our involvement, but absence of commitment does not eliminate our emotional susceptibility. To a great extent, the meaning of the work is secondary to its aesthetic force.

If any example proves this point, it is the confession of evolutionary biologist and self-professed “militant atheist,” Richard Dawkins. Dawkins recalls an appearance he had on Desert Island Discs, a British radio show. When asked to choose the eight records he would take with him on a desert island, he included “Mache dich mein Herze rein” from J. S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion. “The interviewer was unable to understand how I could choose religious music without being religious,” Dawkins recalls. “You might as well say, how can you enjoy Wuthering Heights when you know perfectly well that Cathy and Heathcliff never really existed?”

The beauty of Bach’s oratorio does not spring from the text, but from his own musical imagination. In Bach’s time and place, the church was the only institution that could have supported an opus of such grandeur. The words, culled from the Gospel of Matthew and librettist Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici), provided Bach a platform upon which to apply his genius. But financial source and linguistic ingredients should not be confused with inspiration. There are numerous cases of composers jumping between sacred and secular subjects, and rarely do they make discernable distinctions. Bach can be grouped among them. Their style, passion, and approach remain virtually the same. Moreover, there are some composers, like Ralph Vaughan Williams, who suspend their own agnosticism to sincerely and convincingly set religious words to music.

More important, our response to these creations is not determined by their ideational content. The music or visual art tends to hit us before we realize what it conveys, and even after we recognize the image or implication, we can stay enthralled. The same occurs when we gravitate to a pop song. The lyrics might be repugnant, imbecilic, or otherwise offensive (if they are intelligible at all), but the music still moves us.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

5 thoughts on “Beauty Before Content

  1. Badda Being

    I’m not saying you should try this at home, but I wonder what interesting things will happen if you combine “beauty before content” with “the medium is the message.”

  2. John Morton

    It’s interesting that you use the word ‘content’ to mean something different to the meaning I ascribed to it in my last blog ‘So what IS art?’.
    Personally, I can achieve aesthetic pleasure, also, from the ‘engineering’ of a piece, for lack of a better word.

    I occasionally visit a local Aerospace Museum where I study cut-away exhibits of jet engines, again experiencing an aesthetic pleasure.

    Serial music is almost entirely engineered but it still does not connect with audiences very well, of course, probably because it requires an appreciation of the procedures involved.

    Despite all this, my own Desert Island Discs would include such bubblegum music as ‘Lightning Strikes’ by Lou Christie and a minor hit by one-hit-wonder band The Regents called ‘Seventeen’. They would be called rubbish by many observers but I get the same kick out of them as I did at the first hearing.

    Interestingly, I find myself relatively unaffected by Bach or Beethoven which, from what I’ve said above, one would expect not to be the case.

    Once more, the answers to the questions we pose are complicated.

    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      Complicated questions, indeed. I tend to avoid autobiographical examples in my posts, but my desert island musician is Frank Zappa. Truthfully, though, I’d probably prefer a silent island.

      To me, content is the measurable aspect of art (i.e., the substance or material), while meaning is something brought in from the outside (i.e., from the perceiver). Meaning is not an intrinsic element of art.

  3. John Morton

    Thank you for your continued interest in my comments.

    “Meaning is not an intrinsic element of art.”

    I need to think about this, but it’s an interesting comment. At first glance, it appears to take us in a circle in the history of our exchanges. Also, it implies a totally subjective response to art, implying the existence of millions of different ‘takes’ and this troubles me, at least so far.


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