Art and the necessities of life  

Posted by Denis Haack in , ,

The economic crisis has trickled down to schools, and people are discussing what subjects need to be funded and which are optional. The debate is usually cast in utilitarian categories, in terms of what we can afford, but that doesn’t get the heart of the issue. What education should consist of is rooted in what we think it means to be human, and what makes for significance in life.

Fortunately, by God’s grace, the truth about such things is not lost. Steve Froehlich, pastor of New Life Presbyterian in Ithaca, NY emailed me a link to the transcript of a wonderful talk on art/music you can read here. The speaker was Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of music division at The Boston Conservatory. The occasion was a talk to the parents of incoming students at The Boston Conservatory (September 1, 2004). In his lecture Paulnack reflects on music and meaning, and in the process touches on what it means to be human:


One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940 and imprisoned in a prisoner-of-war camp.


He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose, and fortunate to have musician colleagues in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist. Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire.


Given what we have since learned about life in the Nazi camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture-why would anyone bother with music? And yet—even from the concentration camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”


I recommend Paulnack's entire address to you. You can read it here.

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