Magazine article The Spectator

Knowers through Feeling

Magazine article The Spectator

Knowers through Feeling

Article excerpt

Where once people who had just encountered a powerful work of art, whether a painting, a novel, a play or an opera, said that they had been very moved or impressed by it, they nowadays more often tend to claim that it has changed their life. Some of the more volatile and impressionable reviewers tend to be not only shattered but to have their lives changed at least once a week. It is of course a way of showing that even though one may go to far more performances of opera, say, than are good for anybody, one hasn't got stale, one's responses are still fresh and ardent.

`It changed my life' has become little more than a cliche, yet the fact that it has - and specifically in relation to works of art, more specifically still in relation to performance arts - is worth looking into. It indicates, among other things, that art has assumed a significance that religion once had - hardly a new thought, but the particular idioms of conversion are a telling sign that we now accept that the experience of art can in itself effect a transformation, which certainly is a new thought, new, at any rate, to the Romantic age. The idea is that, thanks to whichever set of corrupting forces one puts the blame on - there are plenty to choose from - one has reached a condition where some kind of rite is required to make one new, unsullied. Attending a performance of a suitably affecting work is the kind of rite that might do the trick, given the proper circumstances. Wagner, one need hardly say, took this notion of the art-work having so profound an effect on its audience that neither they nor anything else would ever be the same to its lunatic limit: at one stage in his writing of the Ring he envisaged the whole cycle being performed in a temporary structure on the bank of the Rhine, entrance free, naturally. After a few performances not only would the temporary structure be burned but also the score and all orchestral parts, so that the work having fulfilled its purpose of cleansing the consciousness of its audience would itself be destroyed. It would no longer have a function.

One imagines, and certainly hopes, that Wagner laughed at this wild idea in later life. Yet it was nothing more than an extreme version of the Romantic notion that it is the actual experience, primarily an intensely emotional one, that is crucial in our response to art, and not any thought that may take place afterwards, thought both about features of the work and about the effect it had on us at the time. It is the secular equivalent of baptism, of being passed through or submerged in water and emerging purified. That archetypal pair Pamina and Tamino undergoing their trials become the symbol of the modern artlover, except that our ordeals are less demanding than theirs; but it is worth noting how many of the great artists bent on transforming our nature see art as something in which pleasure plays no important part. We become, as Wagner put it, knowers through feeling, leaving the prosaic processes of thinking far behind, since, in his, (and many of his contemporaries') view, thought, in its necessary employment of concepts, kept us wedded to the past, whereas the feelings which genuinely new art can create can make us free.

This all sounds now like an episode in the history of aesthetic theorising which is even quainter than the norm for that line of brooding. But in fact it lives on, and may in some respects be stronger now, in the sense of being held by many more people, than it ever was before. And the way in which they hold it is striking: they probably wouldn't want to articulate it, or at any rate they would find the attempt hard-going. …

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