Fine arts more valuable than many believe

I hope Chris Trejbal will reconsider his desire to banish the performing arts to academic Siberia as he indicated in last week’s column.
Wisdom is not really an antiseptic thing devoid of emotion. Literature, music, dance, theater and the visual arts capture human feelings. Gerald M. Edelman, after a lifetime of studying the brain and the “mind” (as it arises out of brain function) says, “What is perhaps most extraordinary about conscious human beings is their art — their ability to convey feeling and emotion symbolically and formally in external objects such as poems, paintings or symphonies.”
In our age, there is a reluctance to acknowledge the profound; it somehow seems to carry the stale odor of elitism. Surely we can rise above the realm of car chases and advertisements. Richard Wagner tells of an untalented theater company that, as the audience grew drowsy, would unleash two black knights who would do battle, not because they had any connection to the plot, but simply to stir up excitement. Can we aim for something better than that?
Likewise, dance need not be a trivial pursuit. Like all things, it can be the entry point to profound study of our culture. Some years ago I was in charge of the musical program for an Elizabethan festival. One of our participants was a wrestling coach who, from his sport, got an interest in Renaissance dueling, then in Renaissance dance, which naturally led him to become a scholar of all things Elizabethan — but also one of our best dancers. The cultured athlete may be a rarity but does exist. We could foster that development.
None of this is to deny that many people in the arts seem so engrossed in technique that they know little else. Years are necessary to develop a technique that is the servant of expression. The days of teaching someone only to raise a finger, place the feet in fifth position, or “wield a paint brush,” (incidentally a much more complex art than that term would suggest), etc. are long past. Before World War II, singers were still sometimes “coached,” not taught about their art and its meaning. The result was disastrous. I recall one broadcast of Wagner’s “Die Goetterdaemmerung.” In the final scene where the leading soprano sums up the meaning of 16 hours of German myth, the “coached” singer with a glorious voice, but little knowledge, could not even find her entry and so we heard the distant voice of the prompter who had to sing some two or three pages before she caught on, leaving the meaning of the artwork in shattered pieces.
Today complete technical competence is required, but so is complete stylistic competence, which means a grasp of the historic period and the essence of a text if there is one. Even at Juilliard, among the people who want to play faster than any living person, are many who realize that music is more than notes. Mme. Samaroff, one of the most successful teachers at Juilliard, used to have students study history and theater. She also sent them to museums and dealers to study 18th-century furniture and costumes.
Martial Singher, the baritone, used to strive for the exact mood of each phrase through complete knowledge of the poetry. His audiences were a little puzzled at first, but soon caught on to the expressive power of the music and forgot about the showoffs who could hold a high note or sing a cabaletta.
The University has a notable heritage in recognizing the expressive capability of the arts. I can speak for music. In 1894-95, Harlow Stearns Gale was appointed as a teacher of psychology. He not only brought the latest laboratory techniques from Leipzig but also organized a chamber music series. He lectured before each concert on the psychology of music. Soon he expanded this to a full course that seems to have been the first such course given in the world. In 1925, Donald Nivison Ferguson (of Ferguson Hall) discovered the psychological mechanism that led to the arousal of specific feelings from music. Ferguson taught both in the music and philosophy departments. Others at the time found music an essential in their intellectual lives. Professor Elliott, the psychologist after whom Elliott Hall is named, was a friend of Roger Sessions and contemporary music. Professor Wulling, the pharmacist and much more after whom Wulling Hall is named, was a man of broad culture honored by the Evergreen Club for his understanding of and contribution to music in Minneapolis.
Mastery of an art takes many years — and years of enjoyment I hope. One must live with an art to comprehend it and its connection to mankind’s culture and history.

Robert Laudon is a professor emeritus of musicology.