Though We May Seem to Have Failed: Art, Academia, and the Self

Claude Monet Nympheas Nuages detail 2

by Nathan Cornelius

“Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light… For it doesn’t stop at being interested in paint, you know. They [eventually] become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations.” –C. S. Lewis

As a musician working in the world of higher education, I constantly feel a need to keep honing my craft, and strengthening my portfolio. Along with this comes the urge to get evaluation of my work to find out how I am doing in this quest. Academia is (in theory) a meritocracy, and there are nowhere near enough jobs to go around. Only the strongest works will merit acceptance into a festival or conference, only the strongest portfolios will get you into a graduate program, and only the very strongest candidates will ever get a job as a lifetime academic. Even after landing that elusive teaching position, academics must continue to produce at the highest level or risk being denied tenure.

To identify these best-qualified artists and works, the academic artworld has erected a facade of competition in front of the temple of creativity. Panels of distinguished judges are convened, works are judged on five-category rubrics, runners-up and honorable mentions are named, and a few lucky souls are granted prestigious honors, which they dutifully file away in their curricula vitae to bolster their chances on future applications. This competitive apparatus gives young artists a valuable opportunity to have more experienced professionals look at their work. But is objective technical evaluation really the best way to assess the value of an artwork? Do plays, paintings, films, and songs enrich our lives by impressing us with their own merits? Or do they communicate to do us on a deeper level?

A fellow composer recently told me that, although he felt his newest piece was his strongest work yet, he was concerned it would be seen as one of the weakest entries in his portfolio. When I asked him what he meant by this, he said he had felt very confident about his craftmanship in writing the piece and had worked through his material thoroughly. However, he had intentionally chosen a simpler, more accessible style for this piece, eschewing some of the complex, abstract structures he had used (often with remarkable adroitness) in his previous work. For this reason, he felt the piece did an inferior job of demonstrating the skills he had learned in music school. The very qualities that made it more likely to find favor with audiences made it less likely to find favor with those judges whose opinion would most affect his career.

The composer Martin Bresnick (who, it should be noted, also runs an academic department at a prestigious music school) has said a piece of music should, ideally, have three scores. The first score, he says, is for the composer’s own use, for her portfolio, designed to embody her compositional imagination in its pure, ideal form. The second score takes the demands of actually performing the music into account, serving as a medium by which the composer can explain to the performers what she wants them to do to realize her imaginative vision. The third score is made by the performers, translating the composer’s text into terms that make the most sense to each of them, from which they can actually read. These scores do not have to be written out literally to be operative in a musical work; often, they exist only in one’s mind or memory.

Bresnick’s model illuminates a distinction crucial to my understanding of the nature of art: the difference between evaluation and communication. The first score is typically used as a means of evaluation; the second and third are means of communication. Evaluation is objective, based on abstract ideas (forms, Plato might say) of the good or beautiful. Communication is subjective, based on an experience of the good or the beautiful shared between two or more persons. Evaluation pays attention to the quality of the artifice; communication, to the quality of the relationships involved in the experience of the artifact. For the artist, evaluation focuses, whether pleasantly or painfully, on her own ego; communication necessarily involves the personality of others.

When we, as audience members, experience an artwork, we are, to be sure, aware of the artist as an individual. But I would submit that the impression of beauty we gain comes from the recognition, not of the elegance and skill of the artist’s work, but rather of the very fact that we are participating in someone else’s experience of the world, seeing what she saw, feeling what she felt. We understand the artist as a fellow human being sharing her feelings, not as a genius wielding her technique. Although we may enjoy an artwork precisely because of its “artificial” qualities—the evidence that it has been made by another person—these exist  independent of the degree of flair or skill of the artificer.

Thus, technical virtuosity—whether of fingers over strings, brush over paint, or pen over words—does not benefit the artist by bettering others’ judgment of her. To be sure, this may happen in the short term, but attempts to pursue critical approval as an end will eventually lead to frustration, insecurity, and creative bondage. Rather, excellence of craft serves the artist by enabling her to share her vision, her beliefs, and her feelings with audiences in as clear and vivid a fashion as possible. But as soon as her technique calls attention to itself as technique, it necessarily draws audience’s eyes away from the vision it was supposed to communicate.

Conversely, it is also possible for a work to fail completely in terms of its technique and yet succeed in communicating its vision to an audience. If the artist strives unsuccessfully to express something she does not have the skill to capture, but the audience realizes what she is after and is moved to seek that same vision within their own imagination, has the work really failed? And this is the paradox: artists must dare to risk their own reputation as masters of their craft in the pursuit of sharing their art with others. It is not the artist’s identity as a virtuoso genius that matters, but rather as a sharer, indeed, a leader, in a communal delight in a vision of beauty. The artist must sacrifice the purely egocentric conception of her identity, which can only be judged on its merits, to the relational one, which can be known and enjoyed.

Sometimes you must lose your life to save it. But would not this kind of experience be far more valuable for an artist’s career than merely accumulating style points for one’s method of going about it?

And so I continue to struggle with this paradox as a musician in the academy. The prospect of a job as an artist-teacher is no less attractive for being so elusive, and the temptation to please the academic powers-that-be is not going away. But the solution is not to become the exact species of composer (or performer or writer) that any specific institution may want. Rather, I strive to do the sort of work—exchange of ideas, communion of experiences, probing of beliefs—that is both the raison d’etre for an institution of higher learning and the ultimate goal of my art. If I can accomplish this, I trust my career will take care of itself.

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