Beethoven vs. Shakespeare vs. Michelangelo. And the winner is! … or does the question even make sense?

Comparisons can be odious, as the adage goes. But they can also be fun. Perhaps there are no exact criteria that can declare Beethoven’s 5th Symphony to be a superior work of art compared to Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Michelangelo’s David. But nonetheless, debating the relative quality of work across different forms of artistic endeavour is a fascinating exercise.

Music has always been for me, the purest of artistic expressions. I think of it along the lines of what you might call “resistance”. When you look at a painting or a sculpture, there is a degree of intellectual analysis. Firstly, you are aware of the work as an object separate from yourself as the observer; a relationship between the two comes into being. This can change over time, but it always takes some time.

Secondly, one’s background and knowledge has some influence on this relationship, and so you make judgments according to the genre of a particular work and how it sits in relation to that, and the artist’s peer group; or the artist’s technique or vision is assessed according to the aspirations of the relevant artistic movement. Thirdly, and probably always influenced to some extent by the first two, is one’s gut reaction; whether you simply like it or don’t like it. So you might say, one’s emotional response is coloured to some extent by intellectual judgments or what you might call “lines of resistance”.

Music, however, is a little bit different I think. There is no apparent separation of observer and object. It is all happening immediately inside the listener. One’s emotions are instantly engaged with very few hurdles to cross in the process. One is very quickly feeling rather than thinking. Later you can think about and assess what you have heard, but in the moment – you are very much just that: in the moment. So “purity” here refers to what you might call the “line of least resistance”.

But having said all that, I have also read particular books that so engage the imagination that the intellectual activity of reading, comprehending and interpreting becomes an unconscious process; completely subservient to the imagined world inhabited by protagonists on some quest or journey, where they encounter and overcome or surrender to various challenges. It is precisely this experience which underlies the opinion “the film was great but the book was better”.

Obviously, you wouldn’t expect this level of imaginative engagement to occur with writing of a lesser quality. But there are enough great books around to stimulate this in a reader, and most people will have a short list of books they have enjoyed to this extent. There is also something interesting that I’ve noticed in this rarefied realm of great writing. Take the sublime prose of Patrick Suskind’s Perfume. I was so enraptured by this, that as much as I was captured by the inimitable sensuality of the story and its visual realisation, I kept stopping to savour his sentences – like they were also “works of art”; quite apart from what they were describing!

So there you go, perhaps I’ve just played devil’s advocate to my own case. Perhaps a musician too, on listening to the work of a great composer, can become so appreciative of the musical composition that he or she can become engrossed in that side of it, as distinct from the pure emotional response or enjoyment of the piece. And so the question is “has the purity been lost?” In this sense, is it better to not be a writer to appreciate the pure aesthetic of Shakespeare, to not be a sculptor vis-à-vis the pure aesthetic of Michelangelo or not a musician vis-à-vis Beethoven?

Curiously, the reverse may apply in relation to an artist in the process of creating. They must first acquire skills in using “the tools of their trade,” so to speak: for a writer, a facility with language, grammar and vocabulary; for a musician, one or more musical instruments and for a sculptor, their chisels, hammers, welding torches and so on. But having mastered to some extent the technical side of their art, they must then in a sense, forget about it, so as to become pure channels for the creative spark of artistic expression.

Does my euphoria at reading Perfume equal the bliss of a concert of Steve Reich’s music or the awe of standing before a Rodin sculpture? To be honest, I can’t really say and I’d prefer to put the question out there and see what comes back. If I weren’t a writer, I probably would not have even asked it!

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3 thoughts on “Beethoven vs. Shakespeare vs. Michelangelo. And the winner is! … or does the question even make sense?

  1. Pingback: It’s Just a Theory: Why Does Everything Else Need a Creator but Evolution? | Julie's Fresh Air

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