Learning to Resonate

For certain experiences no language is adequate. We refer to "indefinable yearnings"; "indescribable beauty"; "ineffable ecstasy"; and "inexpressible anguish." All deep emotional and spiritual experiences have this ineffable quality. So does genuine art. Always, however, another person may challenge the genuineness or depth of a work. Is it possible to have a profound inner experience in response to trashy or trivial art? Is it possible for your soul to marvel at the truth and wisdom of a creative performance that is actually tacky, meaningless, or evil? Possibly so.

When we praise the beauty of an artistic production or, for that matter, the richness of a religious liturgy, we may confront opponents who question the authenticity of our impressions and call our taste impoverished or our spiritual sensibilities underdeveloped. They may be right; some people, after all, do have poor taste. How can we settle such disputes?

Relativists simply say that there is no objective truth about beauty. It is all in the eye of the beholder. Full stop. That assertion may end one conversation, but it does not put the issue to rest. It is not our imagination that makes us experience the sunset as magnificent or The Magic Flute as sublime. (I, for one, am not capable of stirring up such feeling in myself just by intending to do so. I need the music or the sunset to make it possible. Likewise, I feel intensely when watching certain scenes of Northern Exposure but I cannot create the same sensation by an act or will or even by recalling memories of the same scene.

Yet there is no objective quality in the scenery or the sound waves that can reliably make such an ineffable experience occur, for not everyone witnessing the sunset or the opera does feel the ecstasy. We attribute that to their own insensitivity, their inability to perceive what is there, rather than to any actual absence of beauty from nature and music.

Where, then, lies the source of the profound experience - in the person or in the physical event she witnesses? Clearly, in both. Something that happens in the real world resonates with something deep inside the person - if that person is open to the experience and capable of resonating at the same "frequency." Another person may not have the same experience at all. Those who resonate, "get it." Those who don't, simply don't. Is there any way to resolve a dispute between them about whose perceptions are correct?

That is where dialogue becomes important. Individuals who have, alike, felt such responses, can compare them to some extent, while acknowledging that no language is adequate for depicting them. In such dialogue two people validate the power of what they have both experienced and, by recognizing each other, create a shared culture or a local subculture of specialized discernment. They also cultivate thereby both their appreciation of artistry and their awareness of their own inner workings.

But the production of art is an even more mysterious capacity. Beyond resonating to what is actually there; artistry consists of creating something new that will resonate in the souls of others. Rarely can artists explain their talent or share it with others.

It might be comforting to believe that great art emerges only from great souls, but that apparently is not the case. For instance, as portrayed in the wonderful play Amadeus (and perhaps in real life) Mozart was a blithering, silly, foul-mouthed twerp, incapable of interacting with other people in any sensible way. His rival, Salieri, bitterly resented God's injustice in bestowing heaven's greatest gifts on such a worthless human being. The ability to move and inspire others is no mere technique that can be acquired by rote, if indeed it can be acquired at all.

The mysterious nature of artistic genius is an obstacle in our campaign to improve the quality of culture on earth. We probably can, to some extent, improve our ability to appreciate cultural artifacts, but we will find it harder to enhance artistry in the production of those cultural products. It is discouraging to report this, but there are no simple formulas for improving the esthetic quality of our entertainments. I think we must settle for incremental advances based on institutional changes. I hope someone can show that I'm wrong.

However, the bright side of that conclusion is this: By cultivating our own esthetic discernment we will also be creating a "market" for the work of sensitive, creative productions. Since the experience is a resonance between the subjective experience and the objective work of art, no creator can deliver the goods except to people who are in tune with it. I don't like the idea that art is a commodity that runs on the basis of supply and demand, but it does. The only comfort that I can draw from it is that by cultivating one's own sensibility, one is also performing a service for other cultivated persons, helping make good cultural products accessible for everyone.