An Artistic work is a representation of reality.
That representation might be quite close to reality, or it might have gone through a number of filters that warp, reshape and invert it into something strange and wonderful. Either way, a real experience, emotion event or psychological state is usually considered the starting point of an artistic work. Music is a particularly abstract art form because musical sounds do not directly represent tangible object and events in quite the same way a novel or a picture might. Nevertheless, Music too is seen as a gateway into a reality, an internal psychological reality if not an observable one.
However, it isn’t reality, it is a projection of reality attached to the wall of an art gallery or pumping through a set of speakers or contained with a book. It is thus separate from all the real anguish, terror, heartbreak, ecstasy and monotony of reality. This fact alone detaches us from the real, it anaesthetises us to it in a way that allows us to contemplate it more objectively. This means we can contemplate its dark corners without fear and therefore examine them more comprehensively. A terrifying film gives us some sense of what its like to be terrified without stepping into such as situation. It develops some sense of empathy with states and situations that we have never experienced and may never experience in real life, allowing us to step into other’s shoes and the shoes of our future and past selves.
There is something else about the process of representation however. When we create art, we are also distilling reality, taking the most potent, transformative and interesting elements of it and giving them centre stage. Paradoxically therefore, after anesthetising us to reality, the arts then allow us to experience it as a spectator in a more concentrated and lucid form. This may help bring us closer to understanding the true nature of who we are and the experiences that unite us.
Which brings us to the third characteristic of Music and the arts. It is made for a collective audience, rather than a present from one person to another (although it can indeed be this too). When we absorb it therefore, we are aware that others are engaged in a similar process of absorption, and it is the collectively appealing elements of it that shine out and enshrine it in popular consciousness. A forlorn lover who listens to a song about heartbreak, is not just listening to the composer’s experience, but the experience of all the others who may listen to that piece of music and connect with the emotional truth of it. If we want to know why we enjoy listening to sad songs, it is this solidarity through shared mourning that comforts us. Whatever the emotion, understanding the wider social and cultural echos that our own feelings have is an empowering thing that frees us from the prison of our own private experience, and is one of the reasons we derive pleasure from music.
James Boston 2021