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6. “All Art Constantly Aspires to the Condition of Music”—Except the Art of Music: Reviewing the Contest of the Sister Arts
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140 c h a p t e r 6 “All Art Constantly Aspires to the Condition of Music”—Except the Art of Music: Reviewing the Contest of the Sister Arts Lydia Goehr For David Rosand Musick is certainly a very agreeable Entertainment, but if it would take the entire Possession of our Ears, if it would make us incapable of hearing Sense, if it would exclude Arts that have a much greater Tendency to the Refinement of humane Nature: I must confess I would allow it no better Quarter than Plato has done, who banishes it out of his Commonwealth. —joseph addison, The Spectator, 1711 . . . but a silent Harmony is not true Music. —johann mattheson, 1713 1 W. J. T. Mitchell opens his essay “Going Too Far with the Sister Arts” by noting Emerson’s remark “that [in Mitchell’s words] the most fruitful conversations are always between two persons, [and] not three.”1 Mitchell uses this remark to explain why, when the sister arts have “set out to argue ,” poetry and painting have “held the stage,” leaving the art of music “something of an outsider to the conversation.” Mitchell explains music’s outsider status in two ways: that music has renounced the contested “territory ” of poetry and painting, of “reference, representation, denotation, and meaning,” and that music’s exclusion from the conversation has suited a “war of signs” construed according to a basic binary opposition between word and image. To the extent that this war has sought a resolution, it has drawn on a unifying semiotic theory that still, in Mitchell’s way of putting things, has found no place for music. One might think that by beginning this way, Mitchell would return music to the conversation. But he doesn’t, at least not in this essay. He retains music as an outsider, prompting one to wonder why he mentions “All Art Constantly Aspires to the Condition of Music”—Except Music 141 music at all. Still, he does remind his readers that, although music has been excluded, “all the arts” have long been held “to aspire to the condition of music.” He says no more, leaving one wondering what his reminder might mean. Perhaps he means that, in the quarrel of the sister arts, being an outsider is not to music’s disadvantage, or that, construed somehow as “a condition,” perhaps a divine or metaphysical condition, music affords a way of thinking about art that helps a semiotic theory that wants to overcome the alienation of image from word. To assign music this role would not be an odd thing to do; it has long been assigned this role in the history of the paragone—the contrasting and competing arts. As the old song goes, verbally and visually meaningless the art of music may be, yet construed as a harmonizing metaphysical condition, music carries the true significance of all the arts as, indeed, of the entire world. Nevertheless, as I will show, there is a deep problem in construing music as a condition, given how often it has meant excluding and denigrating music construed as an art. When Mitchell wrote in 1987 that “all the arts may aspire to the condition of music,” he had in mind what Walter Pater had written a century earlier, in 1877. Pater had looked back to the paintings of the Italian Renaissance, specifically to the “School of Giorgione” so that he could declare that not “all the arts” but “all art,” and not that “all the arts may aspire” but that “all art constantly aspires to the condition of music.” Only having made this statement had Pater then written that to the condition of music’s “perfect” and “consummate moments,” “all the arts may be supposed constantly to tend and aspire.”2 The transition between “all art” and “all the arts” and the idea of “constant aspiration” were both crucial to Pater’s argument. If, as he presumed, music has a certain condition, then music need not constantly aspire to attain it. This means in turn that “all the arts” refers to “all the other arts,” and music retains its outsider status. If, however, all art, and thereby every art also constantly aspires to a general condition of art, as Pater claimed in addition, then music is included as one of the sister arts. At the end of this essay, I show how Pater’s view moves in subtle ways between the exclusionary and inclusionary claims so that he can...