There’s a book I have read recently that I want to review. There’s one weird thing about it, though—it was published in 1953.
Much that we know has become obsolete in the past 60 years, but I have found this book to remain wholly relevant to the question of what constitutes art and how it is expressed. Moreover, I find it to be one of the greatest resources on the subject (or perhaps any subject) that I have ever found.
While I am not an expert in aesthetics, I have always been unsatisfied with definitions of music. Various textbooks and sources describe music as a “universal language,” an art form expressed in sound, a mimicry of human emotions, a depiction of real-world events, etc. All of these definitions have been problematic or incomplete.
It was with this search that I found Susanne Langer’s Feeling and Form. Langer (1895-1985) was an American philosopher who received her doctorate in philosophy from Radcliffe College in 1926.
I should warn readers that Langer’s writing is dense. This is not an easy read, as every page is full of deep thoughts about the philosophy of art and aesthetics. However, this book is essential to all those who consider themselves to be art intellectuals.
Langer first sets out to explain her working theory—that art “is the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling.” The idea of symbol is important to Langer—art does not express real feelings but instead the symbol or ideas of such feeling. It is in that context that we observe that art. It is not a real representation of an action or a feeling, but an abstraction the subject matter.
The following chapters then explore the various facets of art. Langer first tackles the subject of “visual art” in the chapter of Virtual Space. Painting, sculpture, and architecture are the three manifestations of art in virtual space. Langer takes special attention in including architecture, which is often overlooked because its practical functions are more evident. Langer describes it as a “plastic art, and its first achievement is always, unconsciously and inevitably, an illusion; something purely imaginary or conceptual translated into visual impressions.”
Then Langer discusses music, which is my favorite chapter. Instead of focusing solely on sound, Langer stresses the connection of virtual time with music: the idea that music “makes time audible, and its form and continuity sensible.” While music does contain sound, imagine if the notes were all played simultaneously. Or imagine if Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony were compressed and played in the span of 60 seconds. It could not be comprehended.
Langer takes a more traditional view of music—she dismissed the concept of music as “the organization of sound.” It is much more than that. “Even noise may happen to furnish musical phenomena; hammers, anvils, rotary saws, dripping faucets are very apt to do so; but real music comes into being only when someone seizes on the motif and uses it, either as a form to be developed, or as an element to be assimilated to a greater form.” No doubt Langer had strong views on John Cage’s philosophy of music.
Several chapters are dedicated to music. Langer also discusses what happens when music and literature are combined into one. Langer’s conclusion is that when “a composer puts a poem to music, he annihilates the poem and makes a song.” That is, the music overcomes literary expression, and it becomes another element of music. This highlights Langer’s view on the importance of rhetoric. Language is a not merely a way to communicate, but also has symbols in the selection of words and how they are spoken. Thus music, whether performed with text or without, draws upon this vital connection in our concept of melodic line. Langer writes: “It is not the sentiment expressed in the words that makes them all=important to Gregorian chant; it is the cohesion of the Latin line, the simplicity of statement, the greatness of certain words, which causes the composer to dwell on these and subordinate what is contextual to them.” Thus, the idea of combining elements of music, Langer concludes, is impossibility. Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk cannot be achieved—his operas are, in reality, “music.”
As for program music, Langer dismisses it as a “modern vagary, the musical concept of naturalism in the plastic arts.” Though it does not detract from the artistic elements, Langer believes it does not really enhance them, either. “Music affects most people, but not necessarily as art; just as pictures activate almost everyone’s imagination, but only clear and intuitive minds really understand the vital import, while the average person reacts to the things depicted, and turns away if he can find nothing to promote his discursive thoughts or stimulate his actual emotions.” In a sense, the narrative elements of program music merely serve as a literary synopsis that comment to the listener the composer’s own interpretation.
Other chapters cover subjects such as dance, theatre, poetry, and literature, the latter of which are covered separately. Langer states that the poet “uses discourse to create an illusion, a pure appearance, which is a non-discursive symbolic form.” Langer then concludes with discussions of tragedy and comedy, expressiveness, and the importance of art within the public sphere. “Indifference to art is the most serious sign of decay in any institution.”
I certainly don’t recommend this book to everybody as it is quite dense, but it is highly valuable to those who are thinking about aesthetics and about the importance of art. I have found Feeling and Form to be immensely helpful in my thoughts about music.