Art that is Heard is Not Like Art that is Seen
Writing about the New York Philharmonic Biennial, the New Yorker’s music critic, Alex Ross, wrote, “As the title makes obvious, the Philharmonic is emulating the glitzy rites of the contemporary art world, which has no fear of confronting the public with novelties and extremes. . . . This Biennial fell somewhat short of its models: the programming . . . failed to create the buzz of scandal that seems essential to any successful art fair.”* There are reasons—and not trivial ones—why such a similarity cannot be expected.
People who are considered to be cultivated tend to be “consumers”—usually in unequal gobs—of the visual arts, frequenting galleries and museums, as well as listeners to music, attending concerts. This fact, call it a social fact, leads observers of the art scene to make comparisons of the two art forms and of their presentation, as does Mr. Ross’s comment just quoted. Yes, of course paintings are seen and symphonies are heard; nevertheless, both Rembrandt and Beethoven are transcendently great artists.
Of course. But that fact does not wipe out the profound differences of the two art forms—I would call them ontological differences if that were not a bit pompous—differences that are rooted in the senses by which they are apprehended and hence experienced, that is, in particular, two fundamental differences between hearing and seeing.
Hearing, to turn to the first dissimilarity, is coercive in the way that seeing is not. Assuming that a healthy person, senses intact, is brought into the presence of a painting. She looks at it, sees it and, after a moment or minutes, she looks away and doesn’t see it any more. It is her choice as to how long to see it or even whether to see it at all. Looking is voluntary. Now think of the same person entering a concert hall or, for that matter, Grand Central Station. There sounds are emitted, musical ones in the first place, a mixture of noises in the other. No way can our model listen away. (Unlike looking away, that’s not even an English expression.) If need be, she can put her hands on her ears—very uncouth in Carnegie Hall—and would thus shut out the sounds, if not very effectively. Indeed, one would have to go to some length not to hear at all; hearing is the normal waking state.
The second fundamental dissimilarity is that hearing takes place in time. When talking to you, your friend does not convey his meaning at an instant; he tells you what he wants to say one word at a time, getting done in a minute or an hour, depending how much he wants to convey. Similarly, music is conveyed—via the ears to the brain—in time. The Minute Waltz takes one minute; Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony lasts about 40 and for the first act of Götterdämmerung you have to sit still for three hours. Most gallery goers will spend that waltz’s length of time on a particular work and only devoted professionals devote as much time to a painting as the duration of the average symphony.
These two differences between seeing and hearing account for a good deal of the dissimilarity of the reception by the public of modern and contemporary art and music. You go to a Whitney Biennial and wander around the Breuer building—indeed, for the last time. You look here, you look there; if you like what you see or find it interesting, you linger, if not, you move on to another display. If something strikes you as particularly awful, you turn away promptly. You are of course not in charge of what you will see, but you are very much in charge of what you will look at.
Music doesn’t work that way. If indeed it is fortunate that you can look away, concert goers are
not that lucky. Once they are in the hall, they are stuck. While the Minute Waltz is by far the
shortest piece one is likely to hear at a concert, they have to sit through and hear whatever is being
played. There is a German saying, “mit gefangen, mitgehangen”—caught with them, hung with them. Accordingly, being afraid of what might be dished out, audiences stay away of what they think of as modren music. Or, worse, they walk out when the suspected piece is about to be performed. As a mere member of the audience, I was deeply embarrassed, mortified, when Michael Tippet attended a Pittsburgh Symphony concert and watched a significant portion of the audience walk out when his piece was about to be performed. You can look away, but you can’t hear away.
I am not sympathetic to that, call it conservative, rejection of post-romantic music, but I think I understand it. And, again, the difference between seeing and hearing is central. Of course there was fierce criticism—perhaps too mild an expression—when the impressionists and their still more radical successors forever changed the visual arts. Max Nordau, as I recall, could understand what was going on in his day only by supposing that those new-fangled “impressionist” painters were suffering from defects of their eyes.
Yes, plenty of vehemence was directed at the various movements that changed painting from, say, Ingres realism to Fauvism and Cubism and points north. But while there are similarities in the reception of changes of the two art forms, there are significant differences that hang from those fundamental differences between seeing and hearing. It was surely a very rare hyper-sensitive creature (if there was such a one at all) who was literally pained when gazing, say, at a Braque still life. The anti-modernists were primarily not complaining about what it felt like to look at those odd paintings. Rather, they had theories about what paintings should be doing—that is, depict the world in the way it actually looks. Their objections were cerebral rather than visual.
On the other hand, the people who walk out of performances of contemporary music are unlikely to have any theories at all about what music should be doing. They are not objecting to the fact that there was no development section before the second theme was introduced; what they don’t like is the way the so-called music sounds. Not all that dissonance, please; and give us tunes that we can hum.
So, da capo. If these observations about the differences between seeing and hearing are correct, even the bravest Alan Gilberts of this world will need to worry about filling their concert halls and keeping their customers from chasing out, while the managers of the likes of Whitney Biennials can do their damndest.
* The New Yorker, June 23, 2014, p. 86.