Art, Music, Philosophy

Musings on Art–Visceral or Cerebral?

A close friend of mine recently saw Lisa Fischer in concert, and her description of that experience triggered for me a day of YouTube video-watching, plus some serious reflection about ART vs. ENTERTAINMENT. Ms. Fischer has always been a scintillating performer, but when you watch her in the film Twenty Feet from Stardom, and when you listen to her recent jazz-infused vocal interpretations, you realize she has metamorphosed over the years, becoming something other than the admittedly awesome singer strutting her stuff onstage with Mick Jagger—which is saying something, because Fischer can really rock a song. But the mature Lisa Fischer can take you to a place that is more cerebral before she provokes a visceral response to her music. I suspect that jazz itself—which I confess that I have never truly understood—requires a cerebral response from the listener who must analyze the way a musician moves “around” a musical line while never losing touch with that line.

“Early Lisa” and “Now Lisa” (Images courtesy of RocknVivo and Berklee College of Music.)

                Thus, I have been pondering if the greatest art, and the greatest artists, always possess a cerebral component that supersedes pure entertainment. Here is a literary example that provokes the same question.

A member of my family recently saw the Henry Fonda film version of The Grapes of Wrath, and after enjoying her viewing experience, she asked me if she could borrow my copy of the novel. Of course I agreed to lend her the novel, but I had some misgivings about what her response to the novel would be. The “intercalary” chapters of Steinbeck’s masterwork—almost like pure poetry, or pure philosophy, or a combination of the two (philosophical poetry? poetic philosophy?)—have become, for me, the greatest pleasure of the novel. In those chapters, Steinbeck achieves his greatest verbal mastery; his “prose” soars, and his observations about humankind illuminate and underpin the story he tells. However, they do break up the narrative flow of the novel, and understanding their connection to the novel as a whole requires analysis—it is an intellectual endeavor that only intensifies a story that is profoundly moving.

Sadly, those chapters provided too much of an obstacle for my relative. She returned the book to me without finishing it, telling me it was a bit “too literary” for her tastes. She wanted a “good story,” and there is nothing wrong with that. I read all of the time just hoping to lose myself inside a “good story.” The Grapes of Wrath most definitely has a powerful story to tell, and it packs a visceral wallop. However, that novel is more than a good read; it rises to the level of “art” because of (among other things) Steinbeck’s mastery of language, clarity of vision, unique narrative structure, and sense of humanity. To appreciate his achievement, a reader must be willing to analyze as well as to feel. In fact, precisely by ANALYZING, one FEELS even more.

I suppose that like all musings, my ART vs. ENTERTAINMENT meditation has led to even more questions. If true art must possess a cerebral component, and elicit a cerebral response as well as a visceral one—and I am not sure that is true, although I suspect it is—then is there some kind of perfect equilibrium between the cerebral and visceral in the greatest works of art? Does too much need for the intellect destroy our enjoyment of the art form, turning our experience of the form into a cold intellectual exercise?

I have no absolute answers to these questions. For me, a “good” painting, book, song, or movie has to touch my mind as well as my heart. Still, understanding examples of all of these genres may over-tax my mental faculties, leaving me cold and becoming empty intellectual mind games. Sometimes, I just like to have fun—reading for fun, listening to music for fun, letting a movie just carry me away from mundane demands. Nothing wrong with that!

I will conclude my musings where I began them, with a final observation about Lisa Fischer. She seems to possess various modes of artistic genius—she is a genius at expressing raw sexual power; she is a genius at expressing the deepest human emotions; and she is a genius at using her voice to make us think, as well as feel. She is incomprehensibly multi-faceted; she is cerebral as well as visceral; she is—as I said earlier—awesome.

And I am really, really jealous that my friend got to see Ms. Fischer perform live!