09 August 2009

Pater’s Nostrums

A subject fit for criticism

I’ve spent several pleasant hours reading The Renaissance, a collection of essays by Walter Pater (1839–1894). This eminent Victorian inspired a couple of generations of art historians, as well as the “Art for Art’s Sake” movement and Oscar Wilde. My direct contact with Pater’s work is overdue, and yet as I read, I’ve felt very strongly that most of my professors, starting with Sears Jayne, must have read quite a lot of Pater. The sense of recognition emanates from every page.

I was taught to be Pater-esque, if you will: to be unashamed of a thirst for beauty, to seek to harness that thirst, and to share with others. Pater concentrates on the fine arts, but in doing so he considers literature and history, too: when he turns his attentions to Michelangelo, he writes not of his painting or sculpture but of his poetry. My professors taught me to cast my net wide, too, when studying a subject, in order to capture its details.


Yet the most startling recognition came as I read Pater’s excuse for writing about Sandro Botticelli — for in those days, apparently, one needed an excuse. (After all, why bother with an unknown artist — as Botticelli was at the time — when there was so much yet to be written about the holy trinity of Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo?)

Suddenly I understood my own impulses, especially with regard to music. I had been chasing after several of my favorite singers, and writing about them (as you will have noticed in recent entries), though I have but scant qualification to do so, and though I’m writing for a general readership that, in many cases, probably knows even less than I do. And yet I was doing the right thing. Walter Pater told me so.

Susan Graham in recital

“There are a few great painters, like Michelangelo or Leonardo,” Pater writes, “whose work has become a force in general culture, partly for this very reason that they have absorbed into themselves all such workmen as Sandro Botticelli…. But, besides those great men, there is a certain number of artists who have a distinct faculty of their own by which they convey to us a peculiar quality of pleasure which we cannot get elsewhere; and these, too, have their place in general culture, and must be interpreted to it by those who have felt their charms strongly, and [these artists] are often the object of a special diligence and a consideration wholly affectionate, just because there is not about them the stress of a great name and authority.”

I hope my singer-friends won’t take it amiss that, for this present discussion, I relegate them to the status of a mere Botticelli. For it’s true that I have found in their work pleasures I can’t find elsewhere; indeed, I have felt their charms so strongly that I must seek them out, and sometimes, I must write about them.

Georgia Jarman & Lawrence Brownlee:
L’Elisir d’Amore at Caramoor

Music differs from painting in its transience: you can return to the Uffizi to see Botticelli’s Venus (which Pater describes quite beautifully), and the work will be more or less the same, even many years later. (You will be different, and so will the Uffizi, but those are different matters.) Music doesn’t work that way. It soars into the air and is gone. It will never sound the same twice. Probably this, too, is part of the reason I feel compelled to write: I’m seeking to capture by describing an individual, unrepeatable instant.

Toward that end, it’s futile to write, “She sang this note, then that one,” because that’s the sort of “technical or antiquarian” criticism that Pater assures us is reserved for lesser artists — and besides, since music is notated, one can always go back to look at the score, after a performance. (Or during, if you’re a jerk.)

Yet is it really illuminating to know that a singer transposed, or flatted, or missed a note, or nailed some other one? Not for most listeners, I think, and fewer readers. In any case, these things aren’t the true measure of a singer’s artistry, and they answer only with statistics the question of how she sang. And they do nothing to explain why we responded to her as we did.

Joyce Castle in Heggie’s End of the Affair

Pater will tell us something of a painter’s brushwork, but he doesn’t break down the paint by its chemical components; when he fixates on a small area of a painting, he does so in order to tell us how it fits with the whole, to describe the entire work so that we can share in its “peculiar quality of pleasure” — or, to use another of Pater’s favorite words, its “sweetness.”

This is surely what I was taught to do. What is unanswerable is whether I would have tried to do it, had I never been taught, or never picked up Walter Pater’s The Renaissance.

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