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Vol 1 Issue 9 - Art and The Unbroken Circle

2018 Sep 01

Welcome to Issue # 9!

One of the Core Practopian Principles reads as follows:

We believe that we humans create meaning for ourselves through storytelling, that this fundamental human trait becomes manifest in all forms of artistic expression, and that the resulting works of art are important elements of our culture.

This issue is devoted to a deeper exploration of what art means to us humans. It contains two original pieces. The first, written last year, talks about art in a very general sense. The second, written last month, drills down to talk about one specific artistic work, the song “Will the Circle be Unbroken”. And this second piece, by the way, is the first example of a new section on our website, devoted to Appreciations of Works by Others.

Enjoy! And feel free to share liberally with like-minded friends. If someone forwarded this issue to you, then you can sign up to get your very own copy on MailChimp.

Will the Circle be Unbroken Album Cover

Blog Post: Art and the Eye of the Beholder

I’ve noticed that Big Thinkers – people like Ken Wilber and Yuval Noah Harari – tend to get confused about art and why it matters. Unable to find a neat place for it in their developmental models of civilization, they end up citing that old chestnut of “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and leaving it at that, as an entirely subjective experience. Everyone’s idea of beauty can be different, they say, and they’re all equally valid. Whatever floats your boat. So now let’s stop gibbering about art and move on to more important topics.

Of course, I’ve never run across an actual artist who sees things this way.

Let me recount what seems to me to be the complete artistic process.

  1. A prospective artist learns some craft that allows them to manipulate images, sounds or words in a way that is appealing to others. They often learn this craft by emulating other artists who have come before them.
  2. The artist’s creativity is sparked by some new technique, perhaps enabled by an advance in technology.
  3. The artist has an inner experience about something – a feeling, a thought, an insight, or likely some sensation harder to pigeonhole – that feels unique to them. Insofar as they can tell, others around them are not having, or have not had, this same experience.
  4. The artist feels a strong desire for expression and communion.
  5. The artist uses her acquired craft to fashion an object that can be shared with others: a painting, a song, a story, or something else that can be observed in some way.
  6. This object proves to indeed be different from other similar objects.
  7. Moreover it is different in a way that betrays traces of its authorship. A sufficiently informed observer becomes aware that this singular work of art could only have been produced by this particular auteur.
  8. Contemplation of this object helps to replicate in its audience something of the original inner experience that the artist had back in Step 3.
  9. As a result of this shared experience, observers henceforth live different lives than they would have without this work of art. These may be big differences, or small differences, but they are in some sense important differences.

And so, by the end of this whole cycle, what exactly has been accomplished?

  1. We have had demonstrated for us the value of the individual, since what started as a unique experience by a single person has now enriched many.
  2. We have had demonstrated for us some element of our common humanity, for what started as a unique feeling has now been shared with a host of others.
  3. We have experienced personal growth. Individuals who have come under the spell of a particular work are now able to see the world in some new way.
  4. We have collectively expanded our notion of what it means to be human, for by accepting this new object as a work of art, we have forever enlarged our definition of the human experience.
  5. We have taken steps, in one way or another, to help create a more human world, an environment that is more welcoming and more caring for actual human beings.

So you can see that, if my claims are true, appreciation of art is much more than the purely subjective experience that some Big Thinkers would portray for us.

At this point, you may well ask my credentials for making such claims. I am not, of course, myself an artist because, if I were, I would probably be doing these things, not talking about how or why they are done.

But hardly a week goes by without me being on the receiving end of this process in one way or the other. Just a few days ago I had the privilege of hearing Sam Bush and his Band performing Leon Russell’s song, “Stranger in a Strange Land.” About a month before that I was lucky enough to be in the audience to hear Sarah Jarosz performing the Tom Waits song “Come On Up to the House.” Something magical happens to me in these moments, and I’m a changed, better person afterwards: more alive, more connected to others.

Don’t just take my word for it, though. Fortunately for us, some actual artists have spoken on this topic as well. Let’s see what they have to say.

For those such as Harari, who point to experiments in which computer algorithms have written music that can be confused with the works of Beethoven, I would remind them of these words from mystery author Raymond Chandler:

There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that. The growth of populations has in no way increased the amount; it has merely increased the adeptness with which substitutes can be produced and packaged.

And for those who think empires can be built on science alone, there are these words from poet William Blake:

The foundation of empire is art and science. Remove them or degrade them, and the empire is no more. Empire follows art and not vice versa as Englishmen suppose.

Countering the notion that the goal of art is the mere appreciation of beauty, author Anthony Burgess has said:

The excitement we derive from a work of art is mostly the excitement of seeing connections that did not exist before, of seeing quite different aspects of life unified through a pattern.

And expressing the power of art to improve one’s life, we have trumpeter Wynton Marsalis:

When I started learning about jazz, I wasn’t into any kind of art. I had no idea it could have a practical purpose. Now, more than thirty years later, I testify to the power of art, and more specifically jazz, to improve your life – and keep on improving it.

And in a similar vein we have author C.S. Lewis:

Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented.

And Marsalis again, talking about the power of the arts to increase our appreciation for humanity:

Jazz insists on the undisputed sovereignty of the human being. In this technological era we can easily be fooled into believing that sophisticated machines are more important than progressive humanity. That’s why art is an important barometer of identity. The arts let us know who we are in all of our glory, reveal the best of who we are. All the political and financial might in the world is diminished when put to the service of an impoverished cultural agenda.

We all know that civilization requires a supreme effort. Our technology will become outmoded, but the technology of the human soul does not change.

And for those who think that art is a mere adornment, the icing on the cake, something pleasant but nonessential, I’ll finish with these words from author Henry Miller:

Men are not suffering from the lack of good literature, good art, good theatre, good music, but from that which has made it impossible for these to become manifest. In short, they are suffering from the silent, shameful conspiracy (the more shameful since it is unacknowledged) which has bound them together as enemies of art and artist. They are suffering from the fact that art is not the primary moving force in their lives. They are suffering from the act, repeated daily, of keeping up the pretense that they can go their way, lead their lives, without art.

– Herb Bowie, first published at Practopian.org on Nov 15, 2017

An Appreciation: Will the Circle be Unbroken?

I first heard this song as the title track on the monumental 1972 album by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which they recorded with a number of country music greats who were still alive at the time.

This song is usually recorded under the title of “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” but it’s also known by the name “Can the Circle be Unbroken.” The song was the result of a reworking by A.P. Carter of the hymn “Will the Circle be Unbroken?.” The song was first released in 1935, on a single by the Carter Family.

There are a number of wonderful recordings of this song that I can recommend. I’ll list them in chronological sequence.

All three albums, by the way, are worth repeated listening in their entirety.

It’s certainly fair to categorize this song as a religious one, and more particularly as a Christian one, and yet, even though I consider myself to be a non-believer, my lack of faith doesn’t diminish my appreciation for this song in the slightest: if anything, I think it increases it. For unlike many songs that we could put in this category, this song does not seek to proselytize, or ask us to accept any particular religious teaching.

Let’s see how it does work, and consider what it is doing.

I was standing by my window,
On one cold and cloudy day,
When I saw the hearse come rolling,
For to carry my mother away.

Note how this first verse paints a simple but altogether complete dramatic scene for us. We can see the singer, and the sight that s/he is viewing. Just four simple lines, twenty-five of the simplest words in the English language, and yet it is hard to hear them without feeling a wave of desolate bereavement.

I’d like to save consideration of the song’s chorus until the end, so let’s proceed straight to the second verse.

Well, I told that undertaker,
Undertaker, please drive slow.
For this body you are hauling,
Lord, I hate to see her go.

Again, it is a very simple scene, described using common, everyday words. And so far we have heard no suggestion of religious belief. In fact, instead of painting a picture of some sort of spiritual afterlife, we are being given very graphic, physical images of corporeal death. Note especially the use of the word “hauling” in this respect. There’s no attempt to gussy up what is happening here: it is a physical person, performing a job, driving a vehicle, hauling a load, and ultimately taking that load under the ground.

Oh, I followed close behind her,
Tried to hold up and be brave.
But I could not hide my sorrow,
When they laid her in the grave.

Again, the story continues in a very simple, linear, physical fashion.

I went back home, my home was lonesome,
Missed my mother, she was gone.
All of my brothers, sisters crying:
What a home so sad and lone.

And now, in the last verse, we have the completion of this little tale. And in the spare telling we have more than a suggestion of the sparseness of the lives of these characters. There is no mention of flowers, no mention of a church, no word of a supportive group of family and friends in attendance, no meal, no food, no mention of any speeches eulogizing the lost loved one. In short, there are none of the usual conventions that we employ to soften the blow of death, nothing to gloss over this naked experience of loss that the song has just shared with us. Instead, we just have these very simple brush strokes.

Part of the genius of the song is that there are enough details here to place us fully in the story as it unfolds, to let us see and feel at one with the singer, yet there are no details that limit the universality of the tale. In fact, I listened to this song on the day that my own mother was buried in a country churchyard a few years ago, and there was nothing in that moment to separate the singer’s grief from my own.

So now, finally, let us consider the chorus of the song.

Will the circle be unbroken,
by and by, Lord, by and by?
(Please tell me) there’s a better home a-waiting
in the sky, Lord, in the sky.

(At the beginning of the third line I’ve inserted words sung by O’Brien and Scott in their rendition, because those words seem to provide a better fit for these last two lines in the greater context of the song as a whole.)

And so here, in this moment of loss, the singer asks if what has been broken, what has been lost on this day, may someday be restored, and once again be made whole? And who hasn’t felt this same longing? No matter what your religious orientation, no matter what your once or future beliefs, who can lose a beloved family member, a parent in particular, without feeling that something once whole has been broken, and without feeling a great yearning to have that family restored and made whole again?

This is not a song of religious dogma, it is a song that speaks to a wellspring of religious feeling, to a tragic knowledge of time and what it brings to all of us, and yet an inescapable human desire to transcend death in some way, to feel a part of something larger that will live on after death. This feeling is part of what it means to be human, to know that our parents meant so much to us, to know how much they passed on to us in terms of their knowledge and beliefs and feelings and love, and with that bequest also passed on an obligation for us to keep these gifts alive.

This is perhaps why the name of this song is so moving as the title for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album from 1972, because the recording of that album was itself an attempt to acknowledge the great gifts bequeathed to a younger generation by their elders, and to document those gifts in a way that could be in turn passed on to others.

So while this song comes from a Christian tradition, for me it is also a song of humanism, because it so vividly describes an important dimension of what being human means for all of us.

– Herb Bowie, first published at Practopian.org on Aug 15, 2018

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