The Medieval Definition of Humanities
A fourth-century grammarian defined the humanities simply as “education and training in the good arts and disciplines” by which he meant the skills that would most likely “humanize” a person. In the Middle Ages, these were a central part of the cathedral school curriculum, consisting of seven “Liberal Arts”: the Trivium (arts of words), i.e., grammar, rhetoric, and logic; and the Quadrivium (arts of numbers), i.e., geometry, astronomy, arithmetic, and music. We still define a “liberal arts education” as one in which a student has developed adequate communication and computational skills: how to think logically, speak persuasively, write clearly, and measure accurately.
The Modern Definition of Humanities
Modern definitions of the humanities derive in large part from the studia humanitatis of the Italian Renaissance, which included five disciplines—grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy—comprising the “arts” of action and communication. Art in this general sense comes from the Latin ars, which simply means a technical skill. The equivalent Greek word is techne, which is the root of our word “technology.” Since the Renaissance, the humanities have come to consist of six large fields of study: religion, philosophy, art, music, literature, and history. In our century, the humanities have frequently been paired with the sciences as “the two cultures” that form the foundation of Western education. People usually consider themselves either “scientists” or “humanists” depending on their major focus, but all educated people must be a blend of the two in order to function intelligently in today’s world. The 1965 act establishing the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) described the humanities as “the study of languages, literature, history, and philosophy; the history, criticism, and theory of art and music; the history of religion and science, and law”
Humanities are Interdisciplinary
Because the humanities are so broadly defined, one can find humanities courses in several different areas within a college or university, including religion, fine arts, languages, philosophy, and history. While studies in fields such as art or music tend to be quite focused and oriented toward developing practical skills (how to paint or sing), humanities classes themselves are interdisciplinary, which means that their purpose is to make connections between the larger fields traditionally known as the humanities. A humanities class might explore how the music or architecture of eighteenth-century America reflects the religious and philosophical ideals of that time and place.
Sophic and Mantic
An interesting way to look at this type of interdisciplinary approach is to consider the ancient division between the “sophic” and “mantic” sources of knowledge. “Mantic” comes from the Greek mantis, meaning “prophet” or “holy man” (as in praying mantis) and relates to our words “manic,” “mania,” and “maniac.” Plato thought that all inspired people, especially poets, were possessed with a kind of divine madness (daemon). “Sophic” derives from the Greek sophos, meaning “wise” and is related to our words “philosophy” (love of wisdom) and “sophomore” (a wise fool). This sophic/mantic split finds curious parallels in several aspects of existence, such as the divisions of the brain (the left hemisphere [linear, logical] and the right hemisphere [spatial, emotional]), and the geographical orientation of the earth (the western hemisphere [occident] and the eastern hemisphere [orient]). This parallel can also be seen in the academic disciplines (the sciences and the humanities–first articulated by C.P. Snow in The Two Cultures), and even in the humanities themselves (the liberal arts and the fine arts).
In contrast to the “liberal” arts, the “fine” arts encompass the performing arts, the visual arts, and literature. An interdisciplinary approach to the humanities, therefore, attempts to bridge the disciplines of these two arts by drawing on the tools of the liberal arts (critical reading, thinking, and writing) in order to understand and articulate our experiences with the fine arts (the aesthetic and sensory domains).
Breadth of Depth?
Recently there has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the basic course requirements for undergraduates in universities throughout the United States. Many have been calling for a return to core courses based on the classics of Western civilization. Others are calling for just the opposite: a loosening of general education requirements because they are seen to be either racist, elitist, or chauvinistic. Nonetheless, the statistics indicate that universities, in large measure, have become nothing more than vocational schools–preparing students for a specific career while largely ignoring the need to send well-rounded individuals into the work force. A humanistic or liberal arts education seeks for a balance between breadth and depth, between specialized and generalized knowledge. There are some who argue that if we all study the same things we will become alike. Lynne Cheney protests:
The Western tradition is a debate, though those who oppose its teaching seem to assume that it imposes consensus. What is the nature of human beings? One finds very different answers in Plato and Hobbes, or Hume and Voltaire. What is the relation of human beings to God? Milton and Nietzsche certainly do not agree. “Far from leading to the glorification of the status quo,” philosopher Stanley Hooks has written, “. . . the knowledge imparted by [Western civilization] courses, properly taught, is essential to understanding the world of our own experience, whether one seeks to alter or preserve it.”
In his book The Closing of the American Mind, Alan Bloom comments on the sad state of students who are no longer acquainted with the great works of Western literature:
As the awareness that we owed almost exclusively to literary genius falters, people become more alike, for want of knowing that they can be otherwise. What poor substitutes for real diversity are the wild rainbows of dyed hair and other external differences that tell the observer nothing about what is inside.
Finally, a humanistic education offers information and experience that is necessary to function well in a literate society. In Cultural Literacy, E.D. Hirsch argues that most Americans need not only more general information to participate fully in the life of their culture, but a context in which specialized terms are used. “Cultural literacy is represented not by a prescriptive list of books but rather by a descriptive list of the information actually possessed by literate Americans” (xiv). Hence, it doesn’t matter what we all read, so long as we hold in common the same wealth of knowledge. This basic idea is at the heart of Hirsch’s strategy: there is a certain body of information we all need in order to communicate at all since understanding lies not in the meaning of the words, but in their cultural context. We may all speak English, but we are gradually losing our shared cultural heritage because students don’t know their own culture. Learning about the humanities forges a vital link to our shared cultural heritage, the common ground that is lost when individuals are content simply to specialize in one particular field of study. Cultural literacy is a worthy goal for all human beings; it is second in importance only to literacy itself.
Augustine was a man of the Middle Ages, caught in the middle of an all-too-human dilemma: whether to follow the enticements of the flesh or the dictates of the spirit. His Confessions (397 A.D.) recounts the tensions of the divided self. As the spiritual autobiography of one of the greatest intellects of the Western world, it has seldom been surpassed. We have all experienced personal variations on this universal theme. Note Augustine’s words:
Many years of my life had passed by–about twelve–since in my nineteenth year I had read Cicero’s Hortensius, and had been stirred to a zeal for wisdom. But although I came to despise earthly success, I put off giving time to the quest for wisdom. . . . But I was an unhappy young man, wretched as at the beginning of my adolescence when I prayed to you for chastity and said: ‘Grant me chastity and continency, but not yet,’ I was afraid you might hear my prayer quickly, and that you might too rapidly heal me of the disease of lust which I preferred to satisfy rather than suppress.
Ancient to Modern: The Portrait of a Split Personality
This duality has been variously defined since ancient times. Plato’s indictment of the arts in his Republic centers on their power to feed the emotions and to muddy the intellect. Technically, Plato’s view of the human psyche consisted of three parts: the appetitive (the stomach), the emotional (the heart), and the rational (the head). Nevertheless, the ideal Hellene was, first and foremost, a rational creature. The reason/emotion dichotomy persisted into the Middle Ages, but was given a Christian slant by Augustine in his notion of flesh vs. spirit. In seventeenth-century France, Pascal described this tension as “an internal war in man between reason and the passions. If he had only reason without passions . . . If he had only passions without reason . . . But having both, he cannot be without strife, being unable to be at peace with the one without being at war with the other. Thus he is always divided against and opposed to himself.”
However one defines these polar tensions, human beings are drawn toward one or the other in their daily lives. Human nature and the conditions of life make these internal struggles inevitable and inescapable.
Human and Cultural Dichotomies: The Arts
It is possible to divide our two sides into categories that correspond to the division between the liberal arts, which represent our rational, thinking side, and the fine arts, which are primarily expressions of our emotional side. This, of course, is simplifying things drastically, but it gives us a jumping-off point from which we can discuss the apparent chasm that exists in both collective and individual personalities.
Human and Cultural Dichotomies: The Brain
During the past two decades there has been growing interest in the apparent division of the human brain. The theory posits the right side (or hemisphere) of the brain as the creative, spatial, emotional side while the left side is more analytical, linear, and logical. Thus we often hear people referred to as being “right brained” when they demonstrate some artistic gift and “left brained” when they pursue physics or algebra. Consider the things that you enjoy and the way you approach problems–are you more emotional or logical?
Human and Cultural Dichotomies: Two Ways of Knowing
Two words are often used to describe the cultural manifestations of these two sides of man: the Greek sophia (wisdom) and mantis (holy man). The word “sophic” is often used to describe a person who thinks analytically, who prefers fact over fancy. The mantic individual is one who relies more upon intuition and instinct than intellect. When we need guidance in our academic pursuits, we often seek the help of a professor–one who “professes” knowledge because of years of study and teaching. Yet sometimes we are impelled to seek a different type of guidance. Religious people, and almost all primitive peoples, look to a divine source for answers to profound questions about the nature of the universe or the causes of human behavior. For these reasons, the sophic search for wisdom is often conceived in somewhat horizontal terms (person to person), while the mantic approach is more vertically oriented (human to divine). And yet these two “ways of knowing” are connected and work best in tandem, somewhat like creative people who have their heads in the clouds but their feet firmly rooted in the practical matters of making things work.
The Quintessential Sophic Man
Socrates the Athenian
Socrates (469-399 B.C.) is probably the greatest Western example of a sophic person. He is sometimes called the Father of Philosophy. Although we have no record of his having ever written anything himself, we have many of Socrates’s teachings preserved through the writings of his followers, particularly his most noted disciple, Plato. Socrates’s memorable comment on everyone’s ultimate responsibility to know is found in the phrase, “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Plato 45), by which he seems to argue for an intellectually probing attitude toward knowledge. His own behavior in the marketplace in Athens reveals his tireless search for truth, not so much by experiment (as used in modern science), but by personal experience, a kind of wisdom borne of reasoned thought in action.
Socrates and Human Nature
Socrates had a great love of conversation. In contrast to the pre-Socratics, who were natural philosophers (interested in the origin and nature of the physical world), Socrates was interested in human nature and how people view the world. For him, learning gave the greatest pleasure possible in life, and his devotion to the pursuit of wisdom was uncompromising and inseparably connected to his stern moral convictions.
Curiously for someone with such a brilliant mind, Socrates was deeply conscious of his own ignorance. In the process of trying to prove the Delphic Oracle wrong in naming him the wisest man, Socrates sought one wiser than he by cross-examining those who “professed” to be wise, but these professors of wisdom withered under Socrates’s probing cross-examination. Thus, Socrates sadly concluded:
I am wiser than this man: neither of us knows anything that is really worth knowing, but he thinks that he has knowledge when he has not, while I, having no knowledge, do not think that I have. I seem, at any rate, to be a little wiser than he is on this point: I do not think that I know what I do not know.
The Socratic Method
For Socrates, therefore, acknowledging one’s ignorance is the first step in acquiring wisdom. He firmly believed that everyone’s fundamental duty was to inquire after truth. He pursued wisdom by means of a process we now call the “Socratic Method,” which involves questioning answers more than answering questions. By asking probing questions and then questioning his students’ answers, Socrates prompted others to discover the answers for themselves. He likened this process to the function of a midwife (his mother was a midwife): “I am a midwife who attends the birth of ideas.” This self-directed mode of teaching and learning contrasts sharply with the passive learning typical of contemporary school systems, in which students are rewarded for successfully aping the teacher’s ideas. The Socratic Method assumes that the answers are already within the individual and simply have to be drawn out. In the volatile political arena of fifth-century B.C. Athens, Socrates saw himself as a gadfly, prodding the horse of state on to action and improvement.
Although his radical teaching methods created a sense of insecurity in his students and got him into a lot of trouble with his peers, and even though he himself doubted much that shallower minds blindly accepted as truth, Socrates was nevertheless certain of a few fundamental values:
Virtue and wisdom are the greatest goods to which we can aspire.
Virtue creates an unshakable inner core of happiness and peace.
Our primary duty in life is to discourse on the good, the true, and the beautiful.
The Quintessential Mantic Man
Jesus of Nazareth
As Socrates’ rigorous cross-examinations make him the prime instance of the sophic mind, so the indirect spiritual mode of Jesus Christ makes him the perfect example of a mantic person. Socrates’ rigorous ego-threatening logic can be compared to Jesus’ compassionate spiritual discernment. While both men contended with their enemies in the marketplace of ideas, Socrates taught by syllogism, which means arguing from three propositions, two interconnected premises, and a conclusion, as in “All men are mortal (major premise); kings are men (minor premise); therefore, kings are mortal (conclusion).” By contrast, Jesus’ teaching method relied upon his sensitivity to human feelings (love, empathy) and the ability to imagine (hope) and trust (faith) in things that cannot be proven by fact or reason alone.
Jesus: Knowledge by Indirection
Rather than engaging his disciples in intellectual cross-examination, Christ taught by example and by means of parables (stories with a moral). It is obvious that he was not speaking to the sophic-minded when he taught the mantic “mysteries of the kingdom.” For example, his encounter with Nicodemus, a “ruler of the Jews” and member of the Sanhedrin, showed the communication gap that exists between one who speaks figuratively and one who thinks literally. Nicodemus was confused by the concept of baptism as a “born again” experience. How, he wondered, can a man re-enter his mother’s womb? (John 3:3-5) Christ’s answer was perhaps even more vague to one who was trained in biblical exegesis:
The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)
Jesus: Intellect and Intuition
For people living in a technological environment, developing a mantic mentality requires a great deal of trust and self-confidence, perhaps even faith. This is where the great internal struggles of life begins, with intellect and intuition battling for control and supremacy. But the truly educated individual is at home with both. Socrates often admitted that his knowledge came from some divine, mystical source. After the Athenian court sentenced him to death he took his friends aside to explain the meaning of what had happened.
The prophetic guide has been constantly with me all through my life till now, opposing me even in trivial matters if I were not going to act rightly. And now you yourselves see what has happened to me–a thing which might be thought, and which is sometimes actually reckoned, the supreme evil. But the divine guide did not oppose me when I was leaving my house in the morning, nor when I was coming up here to the court, nor at any point in my speech when I was going to say anything; though at other times it has often stopped me in the very act of speaking . . . [Therefore] this thing that has come upon me must be a good; and those of us who think that death is an evil must needs be mistaken.
Similarly, the impact of Christ on his disciples was not solely emotional or spiritual. After his resurrection, Jesus walked incognito with two of his disciples on the way to Emmaus, reasoning with them and teaching them from the scriptures “beginning at Moses . . . the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). After he suddenly disappeared when they recognized who he was, they responded: “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?”
By curious coincidence, American culture has been most molded by these two great traditions: Greco-Roman philosophy and Hebrew-Christian theology. Their different worldviews represent a cultural analogue to our dual (sophic-mantic) natures. Their respective cultural artifacts (classical mythology and the Holy Bible) provide the major sources of subject matter for the arts in Western culture. Just as a person would be incomplete without a balanced commitment to the intellect and the imagination, so an education without a solid grounding in both traditions would be sadly one-sided and distorted.
Why Man Creates
Human beings seem to have a deep-seated need, not only to decorate their surroundings, but to give order to the world around them, whether organizing the agenda for a board meeting or spending the weekend sketching landscapes. But it is easy to overlook the importance of this basic need for beauty because it is not essential to survival, only for living. In the following paragraph, Ed Hart underscores this primitive instinct by associating creativity with something as mundane as decorating a pot:
Knowledge is its own end and beauty is its own end. When the most primitive human being added a design to the pot he had made, the design had no use. It did not make the pot either stronger or more leakproof. But it made the life of the maker richer for having conceived and executed the design; and it made the life of everyone who looked at it richer. That is the justification for the design on the pot, or for the design on a blanket or a canoe. The blanket is no warmer for the design, nor will the canoe float better; but to strip people of the means of responding to life in a distinctively human manner is to return them to a way of life indistinguishable from that of cattle.
What Does It Mean To Create?
Basically, creation involves the shaping of materials, like words, sounds, stones, movements, or colors, until they form a unity with some felt meaning. In successful art, this new whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Virtually every civilization has a creation myth describing how the world, emerging out of chaos or nothingness, became ordered and beautiful. In this view, the act of creation endows human beings with divine status. It also endows a whole age with great significance by virtue of its artistic achievements. In his book, Civilisation, Kenneth Clark has commented on the ways in which whole cultures attempt to preserve a part of themselves for posterity. Quoting John Ruskin, Clark writes: “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last”
The Creative Person
Creativity at its highest levels seems to involve both sides of the brain in a personal process that requires vision, inspiration, knowledge, and just plain hard work.
Howard Gardner’s extensive description of creativity in his recent book Creating Minds represents one of the most comprehensive definitions of the creative person, since it is based on his theories of multiple intelligences. According to Gardner, the truly creative person exhibits most if not all of the following traits: “The creative individual is a person who regularly solves problems, fashions products, or defines new questions in a domain in a way that is initially considered novel but that ultimately becomes accepted in a particular cultural setting” (35). While acknowledging the fact that creative people exhibit “a greater incidence of such personality traits as independence, self-confidence, unconventionality, alertness, ready access to unconscious processes, ambition, and commitment to work” (24), Gardner cautions that it is not clear whether people who already exhibit these characteristics become creative, or whether creative experiences endow them with these traits. At any rate, creative individuals seem to have unusual capacities to become totally immersed in one task for long periods of time, and continue to work despite frustrations. In fact, “many of them continue to raise the ante, posing ever-greater challenges for themselves, even at the risk of sacrificing the customary rewards”
These creative individuals, whether artists or inventors, who impose order on the chaos around them, often do so at a high personal cost. They do not see things like everyone else and, therefore, are often rejected by the majority as being peculiar or just eccentric.
The Creative Vision
Several modern artists (including Picasso, Matisse , and Klee,) try to recapture in their paintings the fresh originality of the child’s imagination. The arts beam their influence in both directions, for art is both a window through which we see into others’ lives and a mirror reflecting our own personal biases and attachments. The art work thus binds us to its maker in a symbiotic partnership: the artist taps into our common humanity (otherwise, how could a great work touch so many over such long periods of time?) and yet creates an utterly original slant on life (otherwise, how would it spark our intense interest?). Through the window of the work, we see reflected in the artist’s soul the burnished mirror of our own identity.
The Creative Process
We have already begun to answer the question “why do humans create?” but we still need to answer the question “how do we create?” The most exciting and exacting part of creation is the process. The rare sparks of sudden illumination are like lightning flashes in a thunder storm: brief explosions of light preceded and followed by long stretches of darkness. Betty Edwards, a practicing artist and writer of books on creativity, has identified five distinct stages of creativity1. They run parallel to the cognitive shifts she experiences while drawing. She has conceptualized them as alternating between left-brain/right-brain modes of thinking.
1) The first stage (first insight) involves seeing the “big picture,” a kind of puzzle with most of the pieces missing, a “vast and vague exploration” most congenial to the spatial orientation of right brain functions (42). Often the creative act begins with something very simple, even vague. The artist will sometimes gain inspiration from an occurrence that is rather commonplace. The great Swedish filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman, admitted that a whole film could emerge from one loaded impulse:
A film for me begins with something very vague–a chance remark or a bit of conversation, a hazy but agreeable event unrelated to any particular situation. It can be a few bars of music, a shaft of light across the street. . . . These are split-second impressions that disappear as quickly as they come, yet leave behind a mood–like pleasant dreams. It is a mental state, not an actual story, but one abounding in fertile images. Most of all, it is a brightly colored thread sticking out of the dark sack of the unconscious. If I begin to wind up this thread, and do it carefully, a complete film will emerge.
2) The creative process, however, is not a simple one. Although there may be an initial inspiration or serendipitous spark, the labor that must follow is often tortuous and drawn out. Thus, first insight is followed by what Edwards calls the saturation stage, in which the conscious mind becomes saturated with information up to the limit of its ability to contain it. This is the left-brain mode. This stage can create excruciating reactions in the creator. The following are excerpts from Flaubert’s letters to his mistress, Louise Colet, during the time he was struggling to complete his great realistic novel, Madame Bovary.
[January 12 or 14, 1852]: I am hideously worried, mortally depressed. My accursed Bovary is harrying me and driving me mad . . . Ah, I am tired and discouraged! You call me Master. What a wretched Master!
3) Because thinking eventually loses its structure in the saturation phase—the puzzle pieces refuse to yield to logical analysis—a third (right-brain) stage kicks in, what Edwards calls incubation. Existing outside of conscious logic through a kind of “visual logic,” this mode manipulates the gathered information in imagined visual space, trying for “the best fit” (43). This incubation stage involves both expansion and reduction in the subconscious searching process. Artistic choices are dictated by intuition rather than intellect. Ezra Pound’s experience writing his famous haiku, “In a Station of the Metro,” illustrates how the artist rearranged his initial impulse several times before the final solution presented itself. He wrote a lengthy poem based on a single moment in the metro (the Paris subway). Yet he was not satisfied until the poem was reduced to a single sentence, and this eighteen months after writing the first draft.
Three years ago in Paris I got out of a “metro” [subway] train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child’s face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion . . . I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it because it was what we call work “of second intensity.” Six months later I made a poem half that length; a year later I made the following hokku-like sentence:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough
The creative process can, of course, work both ways, by contraction and expansion. Over several months, Pound squeezed his lengthy first draft into two terse lines. Maurice Ravel, on the other hand, took a simple thirty-two-bar theme and spun it out into a fifteen-minute orchestral gem called Bolero. Each time the passage is played it is assigned a different instrument or instruments in the orchestra, becoming gradually louder with each new entrance. The two-part melody itself never changes; the same theme is played again and again (eighteen times). Bolero is probably the composer’s most famous work and illustrates the way the artist expands his original material to create a minor masterpiece. In even more dramatic fashion, Beethoven took a simple four-note motive (see image to the right) and expanded it into a magnificent four-movement symphony (the Fifth). It didn’t take much creativity to invent the “du-du-du dum” motive (some claim Beethoven borrowed the rhythm from a bird song in the Vienna Woods), but it took real genius to spin those four notes into the fabric of all four movements.
4) The subconscious process of incubation can go on for days, weeks, months, or even years, as in the case of Pound or Ravel. But eventually everything flashes into focus in a sudden “Ah-Ha!” illumination, like Archimedes in his bathtub. As the resident mathematician of the tyrant Hiero of Syracuse, he was assigned the seemingly impossible task of measuring the volume of the king’s crown, a gift from a subject, to determine whether it was made of pure gold. How does one measure an irregularly shaped solid, short of pounding it into a brick? Archimedes’ mind was occupied with this mathematical puzzle when, while settling into his bathtub, the solution came to him, and he exclaimed, “Eureka! I have found it!” He had come up with a right-brain solution to a left-brain problem.
5) What follows, according to Edwards, is one last stage, the left-mode verification, in which the artist (or scientist) tests the result to decide if it works: he or she writes the book, completes the sonata, solves the mathematical equation, or builds the machine.
In sum, the creative process involves five stages, generally alternating between left-brain and right-brain functions:
First Insight (R-mode)
Paul Klee (1879-1940) was Switzerland’s answer to modern art. A fine musician in his own right (he played violin), his love for drawing and painting led him into the visual arts, but his imagination never let loose of music. Thus, you will better understand his losing himself in a reverie prompted by a passing brass band and his subsequent attempt to give the music visual (rhythmic) expression. We call this loss of a sense of time and place that attends an aesthetic experience the “aesthetic stance.”
Thoreau: Toward a More Abundant Life
For many people, life from maturity to death is fairly mundane, only rarely and often accidentally touched with epiphanies. Thoreau (1817-1862) realized the dehumanizing effects of routine. In Walden he offered an antidote to the deadening monotony of mundane existence: “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn. . . . To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts” (134). Thoreau seems to be suggesting that a person can make an art of living by taking an aesthetic stance toward everything: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Conveniently, the fine arts can assist in this perceptual rebirth by heightening the impact of the senses on the psyche.
How do we come to this heightened awareness of the world around us, “to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look” (134), as Thoreau said? Henry James (1845- 1916) advised, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost” (53). He seems to be saying, “Don’t let anything pass you by. Be open to and aware of the variety of sensory experiences in the world around you; seek out and savor the sensuous.” Ironically, one of the greatest “sensuists” of all time, according to Diane Ackerman, was blind, deaf, and mute:
Helen Keller’s remaining senses were so finely attuned that when she put her hands on the radio to enjoy music, she could tell the difference between the cornets and the strings. She listened to colorful, down-home stories of life surging along the Mississippi from the lips of her friend Mark Twain. She wrote at length about the whelm of life’s aromas, tastes, touches, feelings, which she explored with the voluptuousness of a courtesan. Despite her handicaps, she was more robustly alive than many people of her generation.
Helen Keller (Watch Miracle Worker Clip)
*Read* “Three Days To See”
Duchamp’s Painting Critique
It looks like the explosion of a shingle factory,” “an assortment of half-made leather saddles,” an “elevated railroad stairway in ruins after an earthquake,” a “dynamited suit of Japanese armor,” an “orderly heap of broken violins,” an “academic painting of an artichoke,” a “diagram of a shudder, and a most clever suggestion of the thing, too. The downward, slightly swerving effect is unmistakable. Moreover, it is safe to assume that the shudder is reproduced in at least 99 percent of the persons who have seen the work.”. . . The director of the Art Institute suggested that viewers “whirl around three times, bump your head twice against the wall, and if you bump hard enough, the picture will be perfectly obvious.”. . . One contemporary editorialist wrote: “Crazy quilt art is not fit for children’s eyes, it is nasty, lewd, immoral, indecent, obscene and scandalous”
The above critical comments were made about the most controversial modern work exhibited in the 1913 Armory Show in New York City. It was the first time the American public came face-to-face with the modern art styles that had developed in Europe in the first decade of this century. It appears obvious that no one, public or critic, was ready for the “shock of the new.” President Teddy Roosevelt thought Duchamp’s painting looked like the Navajo rug on his bathroom floor. The point of this initial barrage of negative criticism is that anyone can make a prejudiced, uninformed judgment about new, unfamiliar styles in art (or at least about styles of are that are new to the viewer). Goethe’s Faust understood well the perennial human resistance to novelty:
We are accustomed to see men disdain
What they don’t grasp;
When it gives trouble, they profane
Even the beautiful and the good.
Arts Criticism Is Real
In light of this scandalous event in the history of American art, it is also important to realize that everyone criticizes the arts, that is, makes personal judgments about what they like and don’t like. The question is, how fair and informed is the criticism? Critical reaction occurs every time someone switches the TV channel or buys a new CD, but this kind of snap judgment doesn’t qualify for what we mean by informed art criticism. Most off-the-cuff critical statements made by people we might call “closet critics” are generally superficial and uninformed, primarily because they have not prepared themselves to meet the work on its own terms, or they are simply misinformed, biased, or perhaps accidentally on target.
American Arts and Arts Criticism
Americans in general find it more difficult than Europeans to enjoy such arts as opera or ballet, partly because our national heroes have been frontier people, like Daniel Boone or Calamity Jane–people of action who faced the challenges of frontier life. Opera and ballet, on the other hand, grew out of the aristocratic milieu of western European culture, which had created the repressive political situations our pilgrim forefathers sailed to the New World to escape. For most of our history the sword has been mightier than the pen. Unfortunately, we have often thrown the baby out with the bath water, culturally speaking, by resisting the artistic trappings of European culture. It is easy to understand why most Americans tend to reject or dismiss as effete the artificial atmosphere of illusion and fantasy found in most traditional operas and ballets. But this is no excuse for perpetuating cultural biases that have outlived their reason for being.
Common Critical Pitfalls
Here are three common negative reactions to the arts and some possible correctives:
1. “Well, I don’t know if it’s any good or not, but I know what I like!”
The apparent validity of this statement is based on the belief that art judgments are personal and therefore immune to error or criticism. The admission, “I don’t know if it’s any good or not,” contains an underhanded disclaimer of responsibility out of ignorance of the subject. Such a statement simply ends the discussion before any light has been generated; in the long run, such a comment will likely stifle further investigation, since this person apparently only accepts what he or she already knows. The common statement, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” similarly resists rejoinders. A more promising stance toward a puzzling or challenging work would be something like this: “I’m no expert, but I like what I know.” Our enjoyment of anything is directly related to the degree of knowledge and exposure: the more we know about something, the more we are likely to be interested in it and to derive pleasure from it.
2. “My little brother could do that good!”
Besides the grammatical error, the problem with this statement is fairly obvious: anyone could do it, so it must not be any good. In spite of the fact that people appreciate things that appear to have taken a lot of work, this reaction betrays a superficial understanding of the artistic purpose in overcoming the limitations of the medium (the material the artwork is made of), because one of the goals of any artist is to make it seem effortless. A simple example: what kind of aesthetic pleasure could a person derive from a ballerina whose leaps made her seem heavy? The quickest antidote to misinformed prejudgment is to “try it.” In fact, the best critics usually have some experience working in the medium they criticize, enabling them to gain an inside track on the creative challenges the artist faces. The “my little brother” syndrome is particularly true of people’s reactions to abstract art. One student decided to buy a canvas board and some oil paint to prove he could create an abstraction as good as Jackson Pollock’s. At the end of the term he showed his “magnum opus” to his teacher. It was a disaster and he knew it. Because we are conditioned to expect photographic likenesses in paintings, any work that deviates from realism tends to be judged inept by the general public. But all artists, regardless of their style, have to cope with the same basic challenges: to make the colors, lines, and forms work together harmoniously and meaningfully. Whether the result is realistic, expressionistic, or abstract has little bearing on its quality.
One further point. Some artists, especially the more modern ones (like Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso), are actually trying to do as well as someone’s little brother. They find children’s art spontaneous and true, devoid of the contrived effects some artists give their work. Picasso, while looking at some children’s art, once admitted: “When I was their age, I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to learn how to paint like them” (qtd. in Oppler 81).
3. “That’s not art!”
This comment is the easiest to make and the hardest to explain. If we define art as anything made by an artist, then calling a work “not art” makes no more sense than calling a chef’s unappetizing salad “not food.” The most we can say is that it isn’t good food. The same with a work of art. The only possible occasion for calling an object “not art” is in reference to natural objects like mountains or driftwood or sunsets which have some aesthetic appeal, but which were created by natural forces. Since the products of art are, by definition, “artificial” (a painting of a tree is merely an image of a tree), the artist can play the real against the illusory to great effect, forcing us to see familiar things “out of context,” in short, getting us to take the “aesthetic stance” toward something in our everyday environment. Marcel Duchamp was best known and, initially, most vilified for trying to elevate common manufactured objects to the level of high art. One of his most infamous “found” works was a urinal turned upside down and placed in a museum over the title “Fountain” (1917) and signed “R. Mutt.” One of the fun things about the works of many modern artists is their tongue-in-cheek wit. René Magritte’s painting of a large pipe with the title (written on the canvas) Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe!) humorously informs us that art is not life and yet has a life of its own. But both Duchamp’s and Magritte’s works may lose their value if their original novelty is not buttressed by skill and vision. A legitimate criticism of much modern art is some artists’ desperate attempts at novelty for its own sake. Sometimes the search for originality is their only ticket to financial and critical success. We must not forget that artists in our century are seldom subsidized as they were in centuries past, notwithstanding occasional government grants, so they often resort to unusual, even shocking, strategies to get the public’s attention.
What Is A Critic?
The word “critic” comes from the Greek kritikos, which means one who judges according to some criterion or standard. It would be helpful to consider the criteria required to become an informed critic of the arts. The first requirement is adequate exposure. A good critic can put things into the context of other works in the same genre. According to E.H. Gombrich, “The term ‘critic’ means something like ‘discriminator,’ a person who notices differences and makes decisions about them. A work in total isolation could be enjoyed, but it could not be criticized, because there would be nothing to compare it with”. Therefore, the more works we know, the more fine-tuned our criticism can be.
Although we all react negatively to criticism and critics, a good art critic cares about the subject. Otherwise why bother? The art critic’s goal is clear communication, maybe even conversion. However, amateur pontificating about the arts, whether it involves telling friends about an exciting new movie or making fun of a modern art exhibit, runs the danger of gravitating toward extremes. Common reactions to an aesthetic experience run the gamut from mindless praise (“My, isn’t that wonderful!”) to flippant rejection (“What a piece of garbage!”). Fair-minded criticism, on the other hand, navigates a careful course between subjective involvement and objective analysis, a kind of tightrope walk across the chasm of judgment. The tightrope image is apt, since criticism is a dangerous game–we run the risk of offending our friends and being hurt by others’ assessments of our own judgments.
Who’s on Trial?
A story is told of a typical American tourist visiting the Louvre and inside the Louvre, the greatest art museum in the Western world. The French museum guide overheard him saying as he left, “That was a waste of time!” The guide responded, “Monsieur, this museum is not on trial. You are.” In other words, what we say in front of a work of art says perhaps more about us than the work we’re criticizing. The other side of the issue can be illustrated by the reactions of an artist who happened through a gallery that was exhibiting some of his works. He overheard a young person say to his friend, “Can you believe that someone could ask money for such junk?” The artist was deeply hurt by this curt, insensitive reaction. Artists care about their work. This particular artist has never sold any of his paintings because they are like his children (his own creations) and he can’t bear to part with them. All works created by an honest, skilled creator deserve our patience and respect.
Creators and Critics
Creators and critics perform different, though complementary, tasks. Yet what has been said of teachers–“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”–applies to some critics. Tristan Bernard once said, “A critic is a virgin who wants to teach a Don Juan how to make love” (English 44). Nevertheless, the best critics have usually had some experience with the medium they criticize.
The Challenges of a Critic
Once a work of art grabs you, you naturally feel a need to tell someone about it. That’s the social value of arts criticism: It builds bridges of understanding between individuals through a shared experience. But the critic faces the almost impossible task of trying to articulate the ineffable. Writers great and small lament the limitations of words to express feelings. Writing about the arts presents us with a maddening kind of task: to do justice to both the meaning of the work and the meaning to the critic. The words form the bridge between the two. A good critic clearly and convincingly articulates his or her aesthetic experience.
al danger in criticizing the arts lies in what might be called “progressive exclusion,” that is, being ever more demanding of the medium until rarely anything pleases. To guard against this, it is wise to develop a “floating scale” of critical expectations. This means tailoring your level of criticism to the level of expertise possible in a particular performance. A wise teacher once said that it is unfair to gauge the quality of a doghouse by the criteria of a cathedral. A junior high assembly comes with a completely different set of aesthetic expectations than a Metropolitan Opera performance. Applied consistently, this flexible approach will enhance both the critic’s credibility and the reader’s acceptability.
1. What is it? Here we are interested in the genre (type) and what could be expected from this kind of work. For example, lyric poems are too short to accommodate the development of an extended narrative. An awareness of the genre helps us have the proper expectations, that we might judge it rightly for what it is capable of achieving.
2. What is it made of? In other words, what is the medium (material) that makes it possible for us to experience the work: colors mixed with linseed oil, music, words, steel-reinforced concrete, and what are the medium limitations?
3. How is it put together? This question probes the formal properties of the work, in particular the relations between the parts and the whole. Every successful art work is “well wrought,” meaning that the details have an integral connection to the complete work. This trait is sometimes referred to as a balance between “unity” and “variety.”
4. What does it mean? In other words, what is its expressive content? And how does the content match the form? Some poems, for example, are flawed because a sublime theme (God, truth, beauty) is poured into a sentimental mold. A good example is a poem about a loved one’s death written in a sing-song metrical pattern more appropriate to a nursery rhyme than a funeral dirge.
5. How does it mean? This relates to matters of style–not what is communicated, but how. Style reflects the deepest strata of the artist’s personality and comes out in ways even the artist is not aware of.
6. What difference does it make? Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves this question, whether we are switching television channels or deciding whether to buy a season ticket to the ballet. Our answers will often tell more about us than about the work we are criticizing.
Plato learned an important clue to good writing from his teacher, Socrates: learning is best activated by dialogue. As a mode of learning, writing is a form of dialectical thinking (examining by question and answer), a kind of inner dialogue of the writer with himself. Therefore, good writing is the corollary to clear thinking. In fact, we don’t really know what we think until we read what we write. This kind of circular reasoning suggests a “learning loop”
Clockwise Learning Loop
It is possible to start anywhere on the wheel and go in any direction and make some sense of what is involved in this broader definition of writing. In fact, it is virtually impossible to eliminate any of the spokes because each one implies and draws on the other three. For example, reading naturally leads to learning and involves placing the learning into some already existing mental context, which is what thinking is all about. And thinking, even on its most superficial level, involves what actors call “subtext,” carrying on conversations with yourself. We could call this “mental writing.” The problem is that we write in our minds with disappearing ink–the silent verbalizing lasts only a minute and then gradually fades away. Ideally, we should quickly jot down our ideas before they disappear. In other words, we should write out the thinking process, which again is what writing is all about. Every writer can tell horror stories of not taking notes and losing some important concept forever or failing later to recall some original turn of phrase.
Counter-Clockwise Learning Loop
Moving counter-clockwise, reading perceptively and actively leads to a dialogue with the writer, prompting you to agree, modify, or take issue with the writer’s ideas by writing down notes in the margins (an important part of the reading process). These notes provide convenient springboards for thinking about the issues raised; this leads to learning something new. This in turn impels you to read further in order to verify or contradict what you have learned. Eventually, your “glosses” (commentaries) on the text can supply the seeds out of which full-scale critical writing can germinate.
Whichever direction one goes on the wheel, writing should be the final step, because the written word preserves both the thinking process and what has been learned. This in turn becomes the basis for further learning, thinking, and writing.
Creating and Critiquing
“Artists cannot create art for ‘the people’ until people renew their capability for artistic experience. It takes as much talent to respond to art as it does to create it” (emphasis added, Highwater 17). Highwater’s claim seems somewhat exaggerated. Who spends as much time studying a painting, even one they like, as it took the artist to paint it? But his point makes more sense when we add the writing time necessary to fully explicate a work of art. An art work is a kind of pivotal point between the creator, the critic, and the audience: it is the culmination of the artist’s creative labors, a catalyst for the critic’s professional reactions, and a trigger for the audience’s aesthetic enjoyment.
Three Kinds of Writing
In high school and college, students typically engage in three kinds of writing activities: (1) reporting (writing book reports, research papers, essay answers on exams, and so forth); (2) persuading (writing critical reactions to issues raised in class, commenting on peer reactions, editorials to the school newspaper, and so forth); and (3) expressing (personal statements to friends or relatives, like letters home, love letters, and so forth). Of all the kinds of writing typically done by students, writing about the arts is one of the most overlooked opportunities for writing to learn that exists in higher education. Here are some of the more significant reasons for its importance in the curriculum:
1) The arts provide ideal occasions for writing.
The popular arts (rock concerts, dances, television, and film) form the most common bond of shared experience among college students, and yet students rarely express in words what they think or how they feel about these events beyond such empty reactions as, “That concert was sweet!” or “Totally awesome!” or “That was a real bummer!” or “My parents would like this!” Arts criticism is not alive and well on college campuses if these one-liners are any gauge of where we are. And yet, there are few more natural occasions for engaged writing than describing experiences with the arts, because everyone has an opinion about the movies they see, the music they listen to, or the books they read. These experiences carry definite emotional freight. Personal opinions and emotions are two of the most powerful motivators to speech and action that exist. Writing about the arts harnesses this otherwise maverick energy, giving it context and contour. To do this requires considerable discipline (taming the lawless emotions) as well as mastery of a new vocabulary specific to each artistic species.
2) Writing about the arts allows us to “articulate the ineffable.”
The need to articulate the ineffable is a constant struggle in life and in art. It is this fundamental human struggle we face in learning and writing about the arts. Pascal wrote, “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know” (222). In other words, the heart knows things the mind does not begin to understand. Students soon learn how limited their arts vocabulary is and yet how open-ended the potential for creative and critical expansion of their usual “Ahs” of approval or their grunts of disdain. The arts can generate truly moving aesthetic experiences, and because aesthetic experiences, by definition, engage the primary senses (seeing and hearing), writing about the arts heightens perceptual awareness and deepens emotional and intellectual involvement in ways no other writing can. Thus, writing about the arts brings critical thinking to bear on emotional experience, bridging the two sides of our natures (left brain/right brain, head/heart, and so forth). The traditional school curriculum emphasizes the development of intellectual skills over emotions and attitudes, and yet attitudes, more than skills, serve as primary motivators of human action. In short, few other occasions for writing require a student to verbalize an essentially nonverbal experience. In the process of learning to do this, thinking is sharpened as feelings are expressed more clearly, and feelings are deepened by verbal articulation. Writing about the arts experientially unites our two sides, the rational and the imaginative, from whence mature understanding emerges.
3) Writing about the arts is self-reflexive.
Writing brings things together and makes a personal statement that not only communicates your feelings and insights to others, but lets you know what you think and feel. Like the arts themselves, writing is both window and mirror. The best writing is both critical (public) and creative (personal). Writing about the arts provides an ideal occasion for self-discovery. In The Critic as Artist, Oscar Wilde speaks through his persona Gilbert:
That is what the highest criticism really is, the record of one’s own soul. It is more fascinating than history, as it is concerned simply with oneself. It is more delightful than philosophy, as its subject is concrete not abstract, real and not vague. It is the only civilized form of autobiography, as it deals not with the events, but with the thoughts of one’s life; not with life’s physical accidents of deed or circumstance, but with the spiritual moods and imaginative passions of the mind.
4) Writing about the arts helps us find out who we really are.
This text draws on many different writing strategies and exercises to release the natural tendency we all have to voice our opinions and to share our experiences with others. Everyone has opinions, and every opinion has some grain of truth, some spark of personal insight. “Everybody is original,” writes Brenda Ueland, “if he tells the truth, if he speaks from himself. But it must be from his true self, not from the self he thinks he shouldbe” (original emphasis, 4). It is tempting, when we are still apprentice critics, either to adopt someone else’s tastes or to slavishly follow some vaunted public authority. The power of some critics to make or break a work or a career has fostered the mistaken notion that only professional critics (the ones whose columns you read in newspapers and magazines or see on television) have a right to pontificate on artistic value. Their opinions are not necessarily unassailable, just more informed than the average person’s, because they have spent more time than the rest of us in learning their subject and craft. On the other hand, too many closet critics think that their own opinions are all that matter and that aesthetic judgment is relative and arbitrary. In spite of this great diversity of opinion, there are certain principles common to all the arts that a good critic should demonstrate, concepts which we will discuss as we deal with the sensitive issue of aesthetic judgment.
5) Writing closes the creative/critical loop.
The very processes of creation and criticism are mirror images of each other: the artist’s alternating right-brain/left-brain path from creative impulse (first insight) through labored analysis (saturation), to gestation (incubation) to the illumination that the work is complete (“ah-ha”) and, finally, the reasoned clarity of the finished work (verification) finds its parallel (in reverse order) in the viewer’s pathway into the work: first exposure (making sense of what is there); then having an aesthetic experience; pondering over it after the fact; then trying to put the experience into words (writing); and finally, coming to understand the work both analytically and aesthetically as the two sides of the brain finally come together in a holistic experience.
Learning the Terminology
William Zinsser claims that good writing about the arts should do at least two things: teach us how to perceive (look and hear), and give us the information we need to understand what we are looking at and listening to (103-104). The two tasks are closely related because the information largely determines perception. Words can uncover hidden realities. For example, because Eskimos have several words for snow, their arctic environment is tagged with more verbal detail than ours; therefore, they can literally “see” more than we can. Art is also a language we can learn to decipher. The first step is to learn its special vocabulary and then apply that vocabulary to experiencing each art on its own terms, namely in terms of its medium (material), its elements (the various parts), and its forms (how the parts combine to make a whole). For many, learning about the arts produces a miracle of personal discovery, a breakthrough into a more ordered domain than the fleeting chaos real experience presents.
Tapping the Metaphoric Mind
In The Metaphoric Mind, Bob Samples argues that human consciousness begins as a right-brain function. The infant’s first view of the world is a “blooming, buzzing, confusion” because it is solely spatial and affective. The rational left-brain functions begin to form “when the private mind goes public” and the child begins to attach word-labels to the unconnected fragments of its sensory experiences. But it is the maverick “metaphoric” right brain that gives form to the fragments (whether they be images or words) and makes writing vivid and interesting. The trick is to unravel the ball of thread that represents the spatial/emotional unity of the right brain into the linear, left-brain pattern of words on a page. This is what writing requires.
The Importance of Metaphor
Whether elevated or colloquial, writing is the most disciplined form of human communication. What distinguishes interesting from pedestrian writing is metaphor. The Greek root of metaphor means, literally, “transference,” or linking seemingly unlike things. A good example is Shakespeare’s “Juliet is the sun”. Romeo could have said, “Juliet is the light of my life,” or “She warms the cockles of my heart,” or “My whole world revolves around Juliet.” But Shakespeare’s four-word metaphor says it all and more. Metaphors appealed to Aristotle because they help readers grasp new ideas more quickly: “Now strange words simply puzzle us; ordinary words convey only what we know already; it is from metaphor that we can best get hold of something fresh”. Metaphor lives somewhere between the profound and the pedestrian. Metaphors were memorable for Aristotle because they make “hearers see things”, which is the basic reason for all writing, according to Joseph Conrad. Conrad said, “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel–it is, before all, to make you see. That–and no more, and it is everything”. What good writing makes us hear, feel, and see is connections, the building blocks of all learning. Good writing is the mortar that holds the blocks together in the mind.
Imitating Good Writing
Once you have learned the basics of an art form, the best way to refine your ability to express your judgment on the form is to read the best critical writing about it. Almost without exception, the best writers are also avid readers, because reading builds a large vocabulary and stores the mind with memorable turns of phrase that are indispensable to good writing. Writers learn their craft by imitation, in both a positive and negative sense. They are drawn to approximate in their own writing the style and persuasive power of the best art criticism they read, and to shun that which confuses or disgusts them. We must do the same. Our writing goal in this course is to build vocabulary, understanding, and aesthetic sensitivity to the major fine arts by drawing upon the enriching power of metaphor, culminating in the written expression of these newly discovered aesthetic experiences. For Aristotle, the perfection of a writing style combined elevated (metaphorical) language with clarity (perspicuity): “But the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor . . . [I]t is also a mark of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars”. The prime purpose for going through the agony of writing about the arts is to approach the ecstasy of insight that good critical writing affords. Your audience may be only yourself, but that is sufficient justification for the labor required, for it will open the door outward to a landscape full of sublime creations and inward to a discovery of your own greatness.
The Creative Challenge
The only thing more intimidating than a person confronting the great unknown is a writer facing a blank sheet of paper. Edward Hart captures the creative essence of all good writing.
A person facing a blank sheet of paper faces, on a smaller scale, naturally, the same kind of problem faced by God as he proceeded with the task of organizing our world out of chaos. And chaos is exactly the condition in our minds, no matter how crammed with information, before we begin to compose . . . and there is no greater feeling of accomplishment than that which comes from having organized chaos into the order of a well-written page.
Writing not only challenges your creative instincts, however; it can threaten your self-image. Craig Vetter warns the aspiring writer:
This is your enemy: a perfectly empty sheet of paper. Nothing will ever happen here except what you make happen. If you are stupid, what happens will be like a signed confession of that fact. If you are unfunny, a humorless patch of words will grow here. If you lack imagination, your reader will know you immediately and forever as the slug you are. Or let me put it to you this way–and you may want to tattoo this somewhere on your bodies–BLANK PAPER IS GOD’S WAY OF TELLING US THAT IT’S NOT EASY TO BE GOD.
Different Writing Styles
Compare the two examples of writing about writing that you just read. How are they alike? They are both writing about the same thing–the challenge of writing. How are they different? Their styles differ dramatically. Ed Hart, professor and poet, writes in an appropriately sparse, informative style. Craig Vetter, on the other hand, is a professional writer, whose financial survival depends upon grabbing his reader by the throat. Whereas Hart maintains his professional, yet friendly distance–after quoting proverbs, he writes, “One of the best ways to get understanding is to attempt to put down on paper all that we know of a given subject” –Vetter descends to the level of college jargon: “Don’t turn away, you wormy little cowards!”
Purpose, Audience, and Style
This brings up three important questions about writing in general: (l) What is your purpose? (2) Who is your audience? and (3) What style will best meet the demands of both purpose and audience? Writing a humanities text, for instance, requires a shift in style to make the information more accessible and interesting to a college audience. Both of these writers are addressing college students. But while Hart’s writing has the genteel touch of the academic, Vetter lowers his rhetorical sights a couple of notches to speak “your language.” Which writer is better able to engage your interest? Which one do you trust more? Both grab our attention, but by different means and with quite different effects. Thus, beyond developing your own “voice,” which should echo the “real you,” (not some English teacher clone), it is also useful to be able to modify the rhetorical level of that voice when addressing different audiences.
What is a Poem? Multidimensional Language
The word poetry comes from poieein, which means “to make.” Thus, at its best, a poem is a well-wrought thing of words. But its effects are various. For some, like David Smith (see “Why Poetry Matters” later in this lesson), poetic discovery is an eruption waiting to happen. For others, it is a soporific to be avoided like the plague. The expressive power of a poem comes from its ability to illumine our thoughts, engage our senses, and excite our emotions. It promises a holistic experience as all-embracing as a good movie. Laurence Perrine defined poetry as “a kind of multi-dimensional language . . . directed at the whole man, not just at his understanding. Poetry, to the intellectual dimension, adds a sensuous dimension, an emotional dimension, and an imaginative dimension” (my emphasis, 10).
Because poetry is meant to stir all sides of man–the mind, senses, emotions, and imagination–it takes a mental concentration equal to its verbal concentration to make sense of its form and content. We might call poetry freeze-dried experience. The reader’s task is to reconstitute it. We do this by bringing to the reading of a poem an acute mind, an open heart, and a familiarity with its sound and sense dimensions.
Our Poetic Heritage
Not many people with a few dollars to spend would go out and buy a book. Of those rare bibliophiles, even fewer would buy a book of poetry, or, heaven forbid, attend a poetry reading. “Publishing a volume of verse,” observed poet Don Marquis, “is like dropping a rose-petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo” (qtd. in Lehman 74F). It isn’t all the fault of poetry, of course. Modern society dotes on images, not words. As a consequence, poetry in our day has fallen on rather hard times, with a loyal but very small following in comparison to readers of best-selling novels or other popular fiction. It wasn’t always this way. In fact, the closer one gets to the ancient beginnings of the oral tradition in literature, the more magical and immediate the word becomes. Homer has been called the “singer of tales” because stories could only be transmitted via the spoken/sung word and, apparently, the actual delivery (voice inflections, etc.) carried as much meaning and provided as much “musical” pleasure as an understanding of the words themselves. Primitive religious incantations appeal for similar reasons.
Three Language Revolutions
Three major technological revolutions permanently changed the function of language in Western culture: the shift from an oral to a written culture (using an alphabet) in fifth-century B.C. Athens; the invention of printing in mid-sixteenth-century Germany; and, finally, the emergence of electronic media in the twentieth century (television). What has resulted is “the humiliation of the word,” according to Jacques Ellul (qtd. in Postman xiii). The power and prestige of the word have been significantly diminished because of the rise and omnipresence of visual forms of communication (films, videos, posters, billboards, advertising in general). Nevertheless, modern poets have continued to work their verbal magic, often drawing on extraverbal resources, like images and music.
Dylan Thomas (1914-53), the twentieth-century Welsh poet whose poetry partakes of the rich sound associations of the ancient oral tradition, originally became a poet because he fell in love with nursery rhymes. What mattered was not the meanings, but “the words alone . . . the sound of them [which] were, to me, as the notes of bells, the sounds of musical instruments, the noises of wind, sea and rain . . .” (qtd. in Hall and Ulanov 267). It is not easy to come at words as this poet does, savoring “their spring-like selves, fresh from Eden’s dew” (qtd. in Hall and Ulanov 268), when “botching hacks [have] flattened them out into a colourless and insipid paste” (qtd. in Hall and Ulanov 270). Words, for the poet, are living beings, shapes of sound that the craftsman-poet can “hew, carve, mould, coil, polish and plane . . . into patterns, sequences, sculptures, fugues of sound expressing some lyrical impulse, some spiritual doubt or conviction, some dimly-realized truth”
The Origin of Language
Ancient Greek philosophers like Pythagoras, Heraclitus, and Plato subscribed to the “ding-dong” theory of language origins. As Richard Lederer puts it: “They believed that the universe is like a great bell and that every object in nature has a special ‘ring.’ Strike an object and out comes a word the sound of which is inherent in the thing itself” (132). This is a fascinating poetic notion, that the sounds of words are somehow connected to the objects they symbolize. English teachers load us with a big word to define this word-sound connection, “onomatopoeia,” meaning that a word sounds like what it describes (“buzz,” “hiss,” “boom,” etc.), and treat it as a rather trivial poetic device. But if Plato, Lederer, and the rest are correct, this phenomenon reaches into the very essence of verbal communication. Consider the word for mother, or “ma” for short. This one-syllable maternal tag, according to Leonard Bernstein, must have been “one of the first proto-words ever uttered by man” (13). Most languages employ some phonetic variant of this “M” word for mother: mater (Latin), mère (French),madre (Spanish), Mutter (German), mam (Welsh), mat (Russian), Ima (Hebrew),shi-ma (Navajo), masake (Crow Indian), ma (Chinese); even in Swahili and Japanese they call her “mama.” “Could it be more than mere coincidence,” Lederer wonders, “that this pervasive m sound for words maternal is made by the pursing of lips in the manner of the suckling babe?” (132). This leads to some interesting speculation about the relationship between the sounds of language and the experiences common to all human beings.
Poetic Forms: Original Forms
The first clue that you are reading a poem is the way it looks on the page. The lines are usually short and the first letter of each line is usually capitalized. These are some of the characteristics we use to distinguish poems both in this course and in the text. The visual form of the poem is the first thing that draws us into the poetic experience, not unlike the first impression one gets walking into a gallery of paintings: they are hung on the walls in a certain pattern.
The Three Classical Genres
Our Western poetic forms began with the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome. These cultures fostered three kinds or genres of literature or verbal communication. The first is the epic (from the Greek epos–word, tale, song), which is a long, heroic, narrative poem in elevated style. Another is the lyric, which gets its name from a musical instrument called the lyre, since the recitation of these short, subjective poems was usually accompanied by this harp-like instrument. The dramatic (from Greek draein–to act) involved a narrative presented by actors impersonating characters. The evolving history of Western literature seems to follow this sequence of genres. The earliest literature grew out of the epic tradition. As cultures fostered individuality, lyric poetry prospered. And, at least in the case of Greek drama, theater in Western culture emerged from the recitation of mythic tales expressed in frenzied poems called dithyrambs.
One of the simplest and most enduring forms of poetry is the ballad. It retains the folk song patterns of its origins–four lines of iambic verse alternating tetrameter (four-foot lines) and trimeter (three-foot lines). A nineteenth-century classic is Wordsworth’s “Lucy.” Here the sing-song rhythms work because ballads narrate episodes from rural cultures, like southern Appalachia. More recently, popular protest songs, like “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley,” and popular ballad singers, like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, have revived the ballad form. Any church-goer is already familiar with this form, because most hymns follow this alternating tetrameter/trimeter pattern.
One of the most rigorous poetic forms is the Sonnet, a strict metrical pattern consisting of fourteen lines arranged in a particular rhyme scheme. Traditionally, there are two types: the Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet, in which the fourteen lines are divided into two rhyming groups, an octave (abbaabba) and sestet (cdecde), to present a problem and then to resolve it; whereas the English (or Shakespearean) sonnet is divided into four sections, three quatrains and a couplet, typically rhyming abab cdcd efef gg. This form lends itself to three variations on a theme with a pithy concluding couplet, as in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 “That Time of Year”
A longer and more elevated form of poetry is the ode, an extended lyrical verse dealing with one central theme. In ancient times, odes were accompanied by music (the word comes from the Greek ode–to sing) and appeared in Greek tragedies as poetic occasions for the chorus to comment on the action. The “performance” of the odes involved a three-part pattern: the strophe as the chorus moved up one side of the stage, the antistrophe moving down the other side, and the epode, chanting while standing in place. There are basically three types of odes in English that draw their inspiration from classical forms: the Pindaric (with three strophes following the classical design above), as in Gray’s “The Bard” the Horatian (with one strophe), as in Collin’s “Ode to Evening” and the irregular (less bound by line number and rhyme scheme), as in Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations on Immortality.” One of the best-known odes in English is Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” an irregular ode (containing five strophes) but with the conventional ten lines, written in iambic pentameter, and with a rhyme scheme that combines the Shakespearean quatrain with a Petrarchan sestet: abab cdecde (the last three lines depart from the pattern). The last strophe contains one of poetry’s most memorable and oft-quoted lines: “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’–that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Of the most common nontraditional form, free verse, Robert Frost once said, “I’d as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down” (qtd. in Lehman, 74F). And yet, since Walt Whitman wrote “Song of Myself,” a poem that was tantamount to a “declaration of America’s poetic independence” (qtd. in Lehman, 74F) in 1855, American poets, like William Carlos Williams and e.e. cummings, have celebrated the poet’s freedom to create new forms for new ideas. Cummings engaged in both typographical and syntactical or grammatical experimentation by rearranging the words on the page for certain effects. He also placed words in unexpected relationships in the sentence, such as making nouns out of verbs and adjectives out of nouns, as in his delightful “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” “In Just-spring” represents one of his most enduring and endearing mature poems. It is the first in a group entitled Chansons Innocents, poems portraying the innocence and vulnerability of childhood.
Cummings’s experiments with word placement have given rise to more recent poetry in which the words function less as carriers of meaning and more as elements of construction. This is reminiscent of the visual poems one finds in the seventeenth-century poetry of George Herbert, “Easter Wings,” for example, or some of Lewis Carroll’s whimsically shaped poems from Alice in Wonderland, like the “long and sad tail of the Mouse.”
The technical term for such poems, carmen figuratum, refers to poems so written that the form of the printed words suggests the subject matter. Instead of a word sounding as it means (as in onomatopoeia), the poem looks as it means. Contemporary poets, such as Eugen Gomringer and Max Bense, push this visual dimension to the limit, creating “concrete” poems in which the verbal meaning is merely incidental to the shapes of the words on the page. In fact, the resulting poems are designed to be as easily understood as traffic signs. “Forsythia” is an example. The word is made into an acronym (a word formed by combining the initial letters or syllables of a series of words to form a name, as in NATO) of telegraphic succinctness: “Forsythia Out Race Spring’s Yellow Telegram Hope Insists Action,” with the beginning letters strung out to suggest the spreading branches of the spring-blooming, yellow-blossomed bush.
Some of the most original works of twentieth-century art grow in the borderlands separating one discipline from another: iconic poetry, on the one hand, and narrative paintings on the other, art which includes printed words or phrases right on the canvas, like Rene Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe. This is a surrealist painting of a large pipe with caption painted directly on the canvas: “This is not a pipe.” Picasso also plays with the tensions between art and reality. Such works often cause us to think, to puzzle over the nature of art and its connection to the real world. These types of mongrel works amuse and often point to deep paradoxes in human experience.
The Power of Form
In mentioning that the lyric poem was once accompanied by a lyre, we have noted the ancient “musical” roots of poetry. These roots come through in John Ciardi’s theatrical definition of a poem as “a living performance, an exercise in self-delighting form.” What is so delightful about poetic form? In the first place, poetic form can stand alone, can delight without meaning, as in this nonsense poem This poem was given in a BYU forum address by John Ciardi. A reasonable search of Ciardi’s work has been unable to identify further sources. Any additional information would be appreciated.
Big Chief Pottawattami
Sat in the sun and said:
“Me hot am I.”
Sat in the shade and said:
Such is the life of an Indian ruler.
This kind of doggerel verse provides some comic relief from the mundane cares of our lives. In the second place, poetic form shapes the content–the message–by predisposing us to read it a certain way. We read free verse, for example, with less concern for the unity of sound and sense, while sonnets adhere strictly to a set meter and rhyme scheme. Good poems are like good people–the outward form conforms to the inner content. Otherwise there is no wholeness, no integrity. A common flaw in poetry is mismatched form and content, most often the error of amateur poets who unwittingly insert profound sentiments in a sing-song metrical pattern.
Two noted American poets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries make no distinction between the sound and the sense of a poem. Edgar Allen Poe said that poetry is “music . . . combined with a pleasurable idea” (qtd. in Perrine 152). Because both poetry and music are sound mediums, they share a common element which gives them life–rhythm–not unlike the essential rhythm of the body, the heartbeat. As musical rhythms are determined by time signatures (3/4, 4/4 time, etc.) repeated each measure, so poetic rhythms are measured by the type and number of rhythmic units (called “feet”) in a line. In English, the five standard feet are: iambic, trochaic, anapestic, dactylic, and spondaic.
(five “iambic” feet in a line, the English “classical” meter)
“I will not be afraid of death and bane,
Till Birnam Forest come to Dunsinane.”
(Shakespeare (1564-1616); Macbeth, Act V, scene III, lines 59 and 60)
“Peter, Peter, Pumpkin eater
had a wife and couldn’t keep her.”
“T’was the night before Christmas and all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”
“Ever to come up with Dactyl trisyllable”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“Warm day, cold night, wet feet.”
Tone color (timbre) represents another musical element that figures prominently in the appreciation of poetic sounds. Each vowel and consonant has its own special evocative tone: short vowels in a line of poetry create different rhythms from long vowels, like the difference between staccato and legato in music, particularly if they are linked with certain consonants. Basically, we can divide the consonants of the alphabet into pleasant and harsh sounds: the harsh sounds are created by a kind of explosion, like the “plosives,” p, b, t, j, etc.; smoother, more pleasant sounds are created by the “fricatives,” f, v, th, etc.; the sibilants, s, z, sh, etc., the “liquids,” l, r, etc. and the “nasals,” like m, n, etc. These sound choices in poetry, are like music: euphony (pleasant) and cacophony(unpleasant) = consonance and dissonance in music.
Robert Herrick’s (1591-1674) poem Upon Julia’s Voice beautifully exploits the pleasant range of word sounds to approximate the lilting quality of his lover’s voice.
Upon Julia’s Voice
So smooth, so sweet, so silvery is thy voice,
As, could they hear, the Damned would make no noise,
But listen to thee (walking in thy chamber)
Melting melodious words to Lutes of Amber.(110)
The amorous and delicate mood of this poem draws its effect from the soft timbres of the sibilants, liquids, and nasals. The rhyme scheme of the two couplets is not exact, but approximate. It is called slant rhyme and creates an effect similar to a musical cadence, where the voiced s in “noise” creates a more conclusive sound than the unvoiced c in “voice,” and the flat A in “Amber” gives a lower, more final sound than the long a in “chamber.” The following excerpt from Tennyson’s (1809-1892) Morte d’Arthur shifts from harsh “onomatopoeic” sounds describing his “clanking” descent from the cliffs to the lake, where the sounds suddenly shift to fit a more serene scene.
Dry clashed his harness in the icy caves
And barren chasms, and all to left and right
The bare black cliff clanged round him, as he based
His feet on juts of slippery crag that rang
Sharp-smitten with the dint of armed heels–
And on a sudden, lo! the level lake,
And the long glories of the winter moon.
(lines 186-192, pages 197-198)
Here there are no end rhymes. It’s the final shift to mellow sounds in the last two lines that marks the moonlit arrival at the lake. Under the watchful eye and ear of a great poet like Tennyson, such details are almost invisible, so seamless are the borders between sound and sense. This marriage of music and meaning marks all good poetry. The sounds, evocative as they may be, are never mere decoration.
Other languages, because they contain some completely different sounds, offer a rich alternate variety of timbres to draw upon. The concluding stanza of Detlev von Liliencron’s (1844-1909) Die Musik Kommt (“The Music is Coming”) deliberately emphasizes the harsh sounds of the German guttural r and ch sounds to create a rather humorous effect: the martial sounds of an approaching brass band juxtaposed with the description of a butterfly coming around the corner (the German word for butterfly, Schmetterling, creates a jarring contrast to the thing it symbolizes, a reverse kind of onomatopoeia).
Die Musik Kommt
Klingling, tschingtsching und Paukenkrach,
Noch aus der Ferne toent es schwach,
Ganz leise bumbumbumbum tsching,
Zog da ein bunter Schmetterling, Tschingtsching, bum, um die Ecke? (lines 31-35)
What Does a Poem Mean
Robert Frost provided a somewhat cryptic answer to the above question when he said, “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting” (295). To the practical-minded, such double-talk smacks of downright foolishness. Most uninitiated readers of poetry get a bit impatient with the poet’s beating around the bush. A common reaction is “Why doesn’t he just say what he means?!?” Part of the reason lies in the fact that half the fun is in the journey, not the destination. As mentioned before, poetry is multidimensional language. Its purpose is not just to tell us something, but to savor the telling. As e.e. cummings might have said, “more the ‘how’ than the ‘what.'” “Message hunting” in poetry is often maligned by poets, even those who plant messages in their poems, because of the ease with which we mistake the poetic quality for the reducible moral or content and thereby miss the pure pleasure of savoring the words themselves. Perhaps part of our uneasiness with the poet’s meandering indirection comes from our desire for certainty. A “Cliff Notes” mentality just wants “the answer.” Some people also display a Puritan passion for goal-setting and thereby mistake the means for the end. The poem is a road map leading us on an imaginative journey through a forest of symbols that invite us to invent a personally conceived landscape of meanings.
Connotations and Denotations
A first step in the process of deciphering a poem is making the distinction between denotations (dictionary definitions) and connotations (the related associations). For example, spring denotes the time of year when vegetation starts anew, but it connotes or suggests warmth, rebirth, love, etc. People who learn a foreign language for the first time may know a word’s denotation, its dictionary meaning, but they may not realize its connotations. A person learning English may use the word “molest” to mean bother and not realize it also has an especially negative connotation. Both poets and prophets prefer figurative or connotative meanings to literal or denotative meanings because they are more engaging; they invite participation in the making of meaning, rather than imposing a pre-established order on things. Notice Emily Dickinson’s (1830-1886) evocative connotations in her poem, “A Book”:
There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry;
(lines 1-4, page 234)
Imagine what would be lost if she had replaced the adventurous connotations of frigate with ship, or the romantic lands with miles, or coursers with cattle (Perrine 33). The poem would lose its central appeal. Who would even want to go on the journey with such pedestrian prose?
The Literal and the Figurative
The literal minded have a particular difficulty with figurative language. The Bible is full of poetic figures. As mentioned before, when Jesus is trying to teach Nicodemus about the necessity of baptism, He says: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God [and] Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” (John 3:4-5). The truth, taught with metaphor and parable, eludes any strictly rational interpretation or translation. And yet we use such figurative language all the time, sometimes not even realizing it, in order to “dress up” our speech or to call attention to our style of language, or simply to speak more interestingly. To learn some of the most common “figures of speech,” imagine that your roommate has just come in out of a downpour, and you say:
“Well, you’re a pretty sight!” (saying the opposite of what you mean is irony)
“Got slightly wet, didn’t you?” (saying less than you mean is understatement)
And your roommate replies:
“Wet? I’m drowned!” (saying more than you mean is overstatement or hyperbole)
“It’s raining cats and dogs outside, (making direct comparisons is metaphor)
and my raincoat’s just like a sieve!” (using “like” or “as” is simile)
The following are some poetic examples of these figures of speech
“Brutus is an honorable man. So are they all honorable men.”
Shakespeare (1564-1616), Julius Caesar, act 1, scene 2, lines 82-83.
“Last week I saw a woman flayed [skinned], and you will hardly believe, how much it altered her person for the worse.”
Jonathan Swift (1667-1754), page 115.
“I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence”
Robert Frost (1874-1963), “The Road Not Taken” (written in 1916), lines 16 and 17.
“Juliet is the sun.”
“Somewhere high up in the heaven’s gorges, in the wind’s blast, the stars like molting pure-white flowers in darkness fell”
“The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening”
What Is Dance? Emotional Fever Chart
Dance movement is the fever chart of human emotions molded by time and place. Because dance requires only a moving body to exist, it has been called the “mother of the arts,” the primal medium for creative human expression. The natural impulse to move rhythmically is built into the living processes of the body: our life forces pulsate in regular patterns, like the trochaic beat of the heart (thump-thump thump-thump), or the tension-release of breathing, or the fall-recovery sequence of walking, etc. This may be why dance came first among the arts. But the question of its priority among the fine arts is less important than its potential for artistic expression and expansion. Perhaps the closest thing to the magic of dance movement can be found in a group of small children dancing spontaneously to their favorite music. In these moments of youthful exhilaration, children reveal the inherent emotionalism of all dance. As Araminta Little once said: “Dance is a quicksilver experience . . . changing, amorphous . . . much like a child–a human changeling suspended between being and nonbeing” (8). In fact, it would be impossible for children not to move to music. Yet their flailing arms and erratic jumps are not yet dance proper. Dance starts when the movements take on form and a profile that traces the movements of the creator’s mind and the performer’s emotions. Dance takes on many forms, from Indian rain dances to abstract, unaccompanied movements by the modern dance pioneer, Merce Cunningham. The variety and purposes are virtually endless.
The dance historian, Curt Sachs wrote that “Music and poetry exist in time; painting and architecture in space. But dance lives at once in time and space. The creator and the thing created, the artist and the work are still one and the same thing” (3). From the beginning of history, people have moved instinctively to music with their built-in instrument, the body. Tribal cultures have even felt in rhythmic bodily movements some magic tie to the cosmos-thus the religious importance of fertility dances, rain dances, etc. By curious coincidence, the circular patterns of movement in the macrocosm (planets revolving around the sun) parallels the movements of subatomic particles (electrons encircling the nucleus in an atom) and provides compelling association with the earliest dances of which we have any visual record: the ring dance.
Dance as Ritual
We know from cave paintings that ancient peoples, sometimes costumed as animals, danced in ritualistic ways, as certain primitive tribes still do today. Egyptian tomb paintings depict religious dancing connected to funeral processions patterned on the legend of Isis and Osiris. Also portrayed are exuberant, acrobatic secular entertainments associated with those rites. This dual nature of dance ennobling and intoxicating was evident in Greek culture also. Plato noted: “Movement of the body may be called dancing, and includes two kinds; one of the nobler figures, imitating the honorable, the other of the more ignoble figures, imitating the mean” (Laws VII 814). Havelock Ellis defines the duality of dance more specifically. The art of dancing represents “the supreme manifestation of physical life [love], but also the supreme symbol of spiritual life [religion]” (238). Thus, dance binds humans to their god, to their world, and to each other.
From Ritual to Performance
It is important to realize that we don’t fully understand the role of dance in primitive societies. Dance is not central to our religious life anymore. We are used to viewing dance as mere entertainment, whereas primal people didn’t separate the performance from life. “So the specialness of the ‘artist,’ as understood in the Western world, and the individuality which has become dominant in the white world’s view of artistic expressiveness, are alien to tribal peoples, for whom ritual is the pervasive mode of communication and the exclusive form of public expression” (Highwater 19). Ethnic dances became codified into culture-specific forms over time, as in the ceremonial dances of Cambodia and India, or the Noh play of Japan, a highly abstract kind of “god-dance” consisting of noble posturing, dancing, chanting, and acting. Early folk dances probably developed out of the most persistent of the primitive ritual dances. In the beginning there was little difference between ethnic and folk dance, but folk dance eventually branched off as participation (social) dances, while ethnic dances became entertainment (spectacle) performances. It is only when the cohesive social values of a people disappear that the arts take on a separate function and importance. That process occurred in Western culture with the shift from ancient tribal rituals to conventionalized Christian religious ceremonies and, finally, to the self-serving spectacles presided over by Renaissance princes, the nucleus of a major dance form–ballet.
From Ballet to Modern
Although in the Middle Ages the church banned dancing as a low form of bodily pleasure, a variety of entertainers-jugglers, acrobats, conjurers, minstrels, and dancers-were familiar at medieval fairs and marketplaces. It wasn’t until the Renaissance, however, that public dance spectacles and dancing masters emerged to form the basis for what we know today as “ballet.” Domenico da Piacenza, author of the earliest extant dance instruction book, viewed dancing as a synthesis of movement, space, and music. During the fifteenth-century Italian Renaissance, Lorenzo de Medici (the “Magnificent”) established Florence as a “cultural capital” of Europe and staged great pageants both in and out of doors. These spectacular court dance displays, called balletti (from Ital. ballo-to dance), became a regular feature of important events, like royal weddings, state banquets, etc. For example, the marriage of the Duke of Milan to a Spanish princess was celebrated in 1489 with a lavish “dinner ballet,” complete with danced interludes between courses, called “entries” (entrées). A special dance for each course was chosen from classical mythology: the fish was brought in by attendants who then performed a ballet about the sea gods; Hebe or Bacchus would bring in the drinks; Pamona, the fruit; etc. In 1494, King Charles VIII of France marched into Italy and claimed the throne of Naples. He was so impressed and delighted by the dance pageants (balletti) given in his honor, that he imported Italian dancing masters and musicians into France. Lorenzo’s great-granddaughter, Catherine de Medici, became queen of France in 1547 and greatly accelerated the establishment of ballet as a national art form in France. When Catherine’s grandson, Louis XIV, came to power, he was already a dancer himself and founded the first state-sponsored Royal Academy of Dance in 1661-one of the many reasons why ballet terms are in French. The Academy consisted of thirteen dancing masters who set about codifying all the court dances , positions, arm movements, steps, etc. Until almost the end of the seventeenth century, only men danced in theaters. Mademoiselle La Fontaine may be regarded as the first true ballerina. She took the principal female role in Lully’s Le Triomphe de l’Amour in 1691. Thus, Louis established the principle of royal or state patronage of dancing, later copied by many countries, most notably Russia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The Ballet Russes
The one performance in all ballet history that most dancers wish they could have seen occurred in Paris on an evening in May 1909. It was the European debut of the Ballets Russes, the birth of a new era in ballet, inspired and carried out by Diaghilev, the famous Russian impresario. No one has ever assembled a finer roster of dancers, some of whom became legends in their own lifetimes. Leading danseur (male dancer) was Vaslav Nijinsky , possessor of an incredible elevation (ability to leap), a magnetic stage personality, and an acting ability to match his fabulous dance technique. Heading the list of ballerinas was Anna Pavlova, one of the legendary prima ballerinas of all time, whose fragile loveliness and memorable interpretations helped her achieve a popularity hitherto unheard of in the world of ballet.
Stravinsky and Balanchine
One significant musical sidelight of Diaghilev’s impact on Western Europe came in the person of a young unknown Russian composer named Igor Stravinsky, who was commissioned to write ballet scores for the Ballets Russes. From his pen came three incomparable early twentieth-century scores: Firebird, Petrushka, and Rite of Spring. Another luminary from the Ballets Russes who had an incomparable impact on American ballet was George Balanchine. Lincoln Kirstein invited the young Russian dancer/choreographer to New York to establish the School of American Ballet in 1934 (later changed to the New York City Ballet [NYCB]. By his death in 1983, Balanchine also became a legend in his own time, creating a distinctive American style of ballet, freer in its forms as a result of the influence of native American dance (tap, jazz, modern, etc.).
One of the chief founders of modern dance was Isadora Duncan (1878-1927), an American dancer from San Francisco, whose early exposure to ballet was decidedly negative. She wrote in her autobiography, My Life, “When the [ballet] teacher told me to stand on my toes I asked him why, and when he replied `Because it is beautiful,’ I said that it was ugly and against nature, and after the third lesson I left his class, never to return” (21). A typically “liberated” woman (a free thinker and daring innovator), Isadora left ballet for the freedom of interpreting music in looser flowing costumes and with more spontaneous, expressive movements. She became both the scandal (she was wont to dance barefooted and barechested in front of admiring audiences) and the delight of Europe during the first two decades of this century.
The other major American figure responsible for the emergence of modern styles was Martha Graham (1895-1991), the recently deceased grande dame of modern dance. Her legendary discipline places her style somewhere between the rigorous demands of ballet and the expressive freedom of modern dance. In all her works, there is a psychological truth, as she draws many of her timeless themes from the conflicts found in ancient Greek myths. Dance for her was a kind of fever chart of the emotions. “Movement,” she once wrote, “is the speech of the basic instrument, the body, which is an instinctive, intuitive, inevitable mirror revealing man as he is” (47). She was particularly attached to associating dance with the other arts, especially poetry. One of her most famous early pieces was Appalachian Spring (1944), danced to the music of Aaron Copland. Copland’s theme was borrowed from an old Shaker melody with the simple poetic text: “`Tis the gift to be simple, / `Tis the gift to be free, / `Tis the gift to come down / Where we ought to be” (qtd. in Downes 265). Martha Graham believed that dance was the loftiest, most beautiful of the arts, because it represents the essential movements of life itself. Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman all began their careers at Denishawn school founded by Ruth St. Denis and Ted (“Papa”) Shawn, who became dance partners in 1914. Their school was the first institutional dance theater in America (Coe 129). Shawn was fond of quoting six words from Ouspenski: “Art is the communication of ecstasy”
Ballet and Modern Dance Merge
A typically American blend of ballet and modern dance has emerged recently in the dancing styles and choreography of two Russian defectors, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, both of whom have brought a masculine respectability to ballet and, also, because of their incredible skill and charisma, have achieved a kind of superstar quality that has made them as recognizable to the general public as any rock or movie star. It is refreshing to discover that Baryshnikov takes modern dance lessons to expand his dance vocabulary. The results of this “cross over” can be seen in the film White Nights, where he pairs up with tap dancer, Gregory Hines, in some stunning dance sequences combining ballet, modern, and tap, the latter being America’s unique contribution to the art of dance.
Some other major figures in more recent modern dance innovations include the following: Paul Taylor, along with Martha Graham, artfully combines the best of ballet and modern. His best works span a range from classical ballet to the avant garde. His style is characterized by humor and a sense of the macabre. His Epic (1957) was an almost motionless dance performed to telephone time signals. Alwin Nikolais, on the other hand, is an artistic eclectic, who boasts that he seeks “a polygamy of motion, shape, color, and sound” (qtd. in Anderson 424). He is a kind of one-man show: he choreographs the dances, composes the music, and designs the scenery, costumes, and lighting. His works are “abstract mixed-media pieces of dazzling complexity” (Anderson 425). Merce Cunningham is perhaps best known for his collaborations with the composer, John Cage, where chance (indeterminacy) governs the movements expressing some of the unpredictability of life itself. Some of the most innovative recent modern choreography is being done by Twyla Tharp Her dances are another “hybrid” mixture of ballet discipline and modern freedom, but in an even wider sense than Graham or Paul Taylor. Her iconoclastic style draws inspiration from pop dance forms (jazz, tap, and social dance) making her tight discipline seem wholly improvised. One of her most memorably American “pop” creations is Eight Jelly Rolls, eight dances set to the music of Jelly Roll Morton. Her dances greatly appeal to both dance experts and the common man, because she bridges high and popular art so convincingly.
What to Look For in Ballet
Because ballet was first formalized in the royal courts of France, French became its language. Ballet exercises, steps, body positions, and movement directions all use French terminology. But the style of ballet dancing varies with time and place. The court ballets performed at Louis XIV’s court at Versailles in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries set the basic patterns for classical ballet. When performed outside, however, they looked more like military countermarches than dance, because the performers wore heavy costumes and sometimes rode on horses (our word “carousel” comes from this French custom). Nineteenth-century Romantic ballets were more a matter of storytelling and mimed gesturing than twentieth-century ballets, which became more athletic and abstract. One can even perceive differences among different national companies: the French remain more classical, emphasizing charm and elegance; the Russians strive for physical strength and technical perfection, while the British style is less flamboyant and more serene; the emerging American style is a blend of French, Italian, and Russian influences (Balanchine, after all, was trained in Russia), but tends to be freer in style, influenced perhaps by the wider expressive range of modern dance.
Ballet training requires years of rigorous discipline and immense physical stamina. Edward Villella, Balanchine’s former lead dancer at the New York City Ballet, once claimed that “It takes more strength to get through a six-minute pas de deux than to get through four rounds of boxing” (qtd. in Treaster 29). He had been a welterweight boxing champion in college. Strange as it may seem, the Institute of Sports Medicine in New York says that ballet is second only to football in the severity of its physical requirements, making it a notch tougher than hockey. To accomplish graceful movements under such physical stress requires great physical control and mental concentration. There are three essential preparatory steps before a ballet dancer can begin to train properly:alignment, turnout, and extension.
Alignment essentially means good posture; that is, the various body parts-head, shoulders, arms, ribs, hips, legs, and feet-are all in correct relative position to one another. Any departure from the balanced posture will strain muscles and ligaments and cause undue friction on the joints. If one segment of the body is out of line, all others will be affected. For example, if the ballerina’s body isn’t absolutely straight, she will spin off point when doing a pirouette, much like what happens when you try to drive a car with a bent drive shaft.
Turnout refers specifically to the rotation of the hips from the pelvis. Most people stand and walk with their legs roughly parallel-with little or no turnout. But ballet requires that the dancer develop the ability to rotate the leg from the hip (not the knee) socket, and a series of positions have been established that facilitate this type of turnout. Historically, complete turnout developed slowly-by 1700 the angle of turnout was 90 degrees; by 1800 it was 180 degrees, the turnout required of today’s professional ballet dancers. A student’s training also progresses by slow degrees.
Extension means that the dancer’s limbs are trained to create the longest, most lyrical line possible. This accentuates the vertical line of the body and allows the hands and feet to become expressive extensions of the arms and legs. This is particularly important for the ballerina, who must learn to dance on point, on her toes. To do this, she wears special shoes which have a padded, extended toe. By training her ankles to extend forward, she can stand on her toes, thereby extending the length of her whole body. Dancing on point also allows her to navigate complex movements in more graceful ways, like doing a pirouette, or holding a precarious position, such as an attitude or an arabesque. Because it is difficult to maintain balance on point, she often needs a male dancer for support. One of the most elegant parts of a ballet is the pas de deux, a duet between the male dancer and the ballerina, where the elegance and grace of her movements are complemented by the power and nobility of his.
There are many different ballet steps that provide the vocabulary for the ballet choreographer (literally, designer of dance). Below are schematic drawings of several commonly used steps in ballet. When you see a ballet performance, you will get more out of it if you can begin to “read” the movements and respond to the technical expertise of the dancers. In spite of the formulas required to dance ballet, the best dancers can execute these set movements with stunning virtuosity and deep emotional expressiveness.
Introduction to Modern Dance
A pivotal moment in the separation of ballet from modern dance came in the early life of the American pioneer of modern dance, Isadora Duncan. She started her first school of dance when she was six years old. Her mother came home one day and found that she had collected half a dozen children from the neighborhood and was teaching them to wave their arms. Her mother sent her to a famous ballet teacher in San Francisco, but, Isadora said, “his lessons did not please me [because they were] ugly and against nature. . . . I dreamed a different dance” (21).
The new dance Isadora Duncan dreamed of was one unfettered by convention and formulas, one free to express emotions directly and spontaneously. John Martin, the pioneering dance critic of The New York Times, described ballet as “spectacular dance” and modern dance as “expressional dance,” each with distinctly different purposes (Terry 91). Ironically, most modern dance designers returned to ancient themes for their inspiration: Isadora Duncan to classical Greece; Martha Graham to Greek tragedy and early American culture; Ruth St. Denis to ancient Egypt and the Orient. The press and the public were often disoriented or disgusted by the new dances, partly because there was no clear story line and partly because the dancers often broke social conventions by dancing in bare feet, bare legs, and bare midriff. In addition, modern dancers didn’t use the set vocabulary of ballet. In the spirit of Picasso’s counsel to paint each object (tree, animal, person) in a style to fit that object, modern dancers viewed each dance as an invitation to reinvent the vocabulary of movement to fit that specific dance design. While the ballet focused on the limbs, modern dance followed Isadora Duncan’s discovery of the solar plexus as the center (“soul”) of all movement, and emphasized the trunk.
Ballet vs. Modern
A simple way to recognize the fundamental distinction between ballet and modern dance is to consider the force of gravity on the human body. In all dance, gravity is the one constant; it is the force against which all dances must work. The grace of the ballet dancer is a direct result of the discipline necessary to defy gravity. The exhilaration of seeing Baryshnikov execute a grand jeté comes from our awareness of how difficult it is to make a virtuoso maneuver seem effortless (graceful). Grace is the quality Balanchine said was the key to the beauty of ballet. But whereas ballet works against gravity, modern dancers often work with it, exploring its expressive effects on a falling body. Doris Humphrey, Ruth St. Denis’s protégé, stood in front of a mirror and experimented with falling off-balance, trying to discover how far she could tilt without crashing to the floor. The excitement of dance grew out of the audience reaction to a body precariously poised on an arc between upright and horizontal. Whether the public understood her principle of “fall and recovery” wasn’t important, as long as viewers could respond to the dance feats which evolved from this principle
Two Useful Approaches to Modern Dance Criticism
John Martin’s four characteristics of modern dance are as follows:
Movement as substance: Modern dance seeks to rediscover the central role of dance in primitive cultures, when people confronted birth, suffering, or death, things that deeply moved them.
Metakinesis: This refers to the need to express the “inexpressible residue of emotion” (14), which words or pantomime alone could not convey, like the singing and dancing chorus in Greek tragedy.
Dynamism: Modern dancers strive to create an unbroken sense of dynamic movement, “the ebb and flow of muscular impulses” (32).
Form: We need to discard all traditional requirements for form and accept the new principle, that “each dance makes its own form” (33).
Cathy Black’s advice to the first-time viewer of modern dance is as follows:
Preconceptions: Modern dance is eclectic, personal, and abstract. Don’t go with any pre-conceived expectations of what the dance should be like. Think of yourself as an empty cup waiting to be filled. Don’t expect any meaning in the narrative sense of the word. Go to experience the dance, not to understand it. “Do you ever ask a bird to explain its song?”
Judgment: Only judge after the performance, not before, and never during. There are many levels of perception in dance-visual, musical, dramatic, kinetic, even philosophical-not all of which can be found in every dance. Apply the levels that match the purpose and style of the dance in question. The kinetic is most often central to modern dance and transcends intellectual analysis. As John Martin argues, “the dance is the expression . . . of concepts which transcend the individual’s power to express by rational and intellectual means” (84).
Postconceptions: Promise that before you make your final judgment, you periodically immerse yourself in several modern dance concerts, because modern dances are harder to “get into” than ballet or folk or ballroom. It takes time for the “soft focus” to crystallize. Modern dance choreographers are anxious to “speak” to members of the audience by inviting them to plug their own life experiences into the interpretation of the dance. Seeing dancers rolling across the floor is an invitation to remember what it was like to roll down a grassy slope when you were a child
Choreographer George Balanchine
Balanchine, even after his death, remains the most formidable figure in American ballet. His New York City Ballet, with a huge Ford Foundation grant, became a showplace for a new kind of ballet, which veteran British dance critic, Arnold Haskell, described as “visual music” (Terry 33). By playing with the interrelations of dance gesture and musical sound, Balanchine initiated an aesthetic revolution in the 300-year-old history of classical dance, minimizing story, sets, and elaborate costumes, and replacing them with pure choreography that mirrored the style and rhythm of great music. His masterpiece, Apollo (1928), choreographed to Stravinsky’s music, was the turning point in Balanchine’s career. It is also one of the most difficult and coveted roles in the male dancer’s canon.
My first real collaboration with Stravinsky began in 1928 when I worked on Apollo. I consider this the turning point of my life. This score, with its discipline and restraint, with its sustained oneness of tone and feeling, was a great revelation to me. It was then that I began to realize that to create means, first of all, to eliminate. Not a single fragment of any choreographic score should ever by replaceable by any other fragment; each piece must be unique in itself, the “inevitable” movement. I began to see how I could clarify by limiting and by reducing what seemed previously to have multiple possibilities.
A Dancer’s Reaction to Balanchine’s Apollo-Edward Villella
Edward Villella is a former lead dancer with the New York City Ballet under Balanchine and presently director of the Miami City Ballet. His masculinity has helped to dispel the impression that male ballet dancers are effeminate. He grew up as the block bully in an Italian working-class family in Queens, where he had to defend his study of ballet with his fists. He witnessed, first-hand, the golden age of American ballet, “an amazing era in which George Balanchine single-handedly transformed the art. I watched him do it. I was part of it all. He showed me what he wanted me to do in such ballets as Apollo and Bugaku by demonstrating the choreography. I imitated his movements and was able to grasp the roles. I often felt he was not only the greatest choreographer I’d ever seen but also the greatest dancer” (10).
My reaction [to Balanchine’s invitation to tackle the role] was pure terror. I believe that Apollo is the ultimate challenge for a dancer, and I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to get my body in condition so that I could even attempt it. . . . It combines bravura technique and attack with pure neoclassical lyricism. It’s a series of sophisticated dances as opposed to bursts of bravura. A flexible strength is necessary to execute these steps and gestures and link them smoothly. Linkage, a smooth, pure line, is important in ballet. As Balanchine said in a program note to accompany the ballet, Apollo’s about eliminating. It’s about elongation. It’s clear, open. . . . The role can’t be done working from tension.
Two Critical Reactions to Balanchine’s Apollo
Edwin Denby (October 23, 1945):
Apollo is about poetry, poetry in the sense of a brilliant, sensuous, daring, and powerful activity of our nature [the birth and maturing of a god]. . . . What you see onstage is strangely simple and clear. It begins modestly with effects derived from pantomime, a hint of birth pangs, a crying baby, a man dancing with a lute, and it becomes progressively a more and more directly classic dance ballet, the melodious lines and lyric or forceful climaxes of which are effects of dance continuity, dance rhythm, and dance architecture. And it leaves at the end, despite its innumerable, incidental inventions, a sense of bold, open, effortless, and limpid grandeur. Nothing has looked unnatural, any more than anything in Mozart sounds unnatural. But you feel happily the nobility that the human spirit is capable of by nature. (329-330)
Deborah Jowitt (May 21, 1979):
What Baryshnikov presents us with is not so much the young reckless Apollo becoming mature-and without the birth scene, why would we suppose this anyhow?-but Dionysus becoming Apollo. He seems in the process to be molding and channeling his own wild pleasure in dancing as much as he is harnessing the Muses. In his solo, when he brushes one leg across himself to the side and swings both arms in the opposite direction, he emphasizes neither the jazzy asymmetry not the archaic two-dimensionality of the step, but shows with fierce zest how one part of the body is pulling against another. With the , he is tender shepherd and straining horse tamer and companion; he gives us the sense that he is learning his own nature through the course of the dance. (25)
Other Dance Styles: Introduction
Most dance histories focus on ballet and modern because these two styles of dance have most occupied the creative energies of choreographers in the past. But Walter Terry lists a third style of dance that dramatically differs from the two traditional “art” styles: jazz dance, which embraces the tap dance virtuosity of Fred Astaire, the remarkably subtle body language of Bob Fosse, the acclaimed choreography of Jerome Robbins, and the ice dance elegance of Olympic gold-medalist, John Curry, who argues that skating and ballet share the same quality of movement (Saal 125). A recent derivative of jazz dance is aerobics, sometimes called “aerobicize” or “jazzercize” (Williamson 10). From this diverse list, it is clear that the line separating high from popular culture is very thin and perhaps unnecessarily rigid. We will conclude this discussion of dance by focusing on two important popular dance styles which have become major exhibition styles: folk dance, whose roots can be traced back to dance’s ethnic origins; and ballroom dance, which grew from social dance styles in the U.S., Europe, and Latin America.
Folk dances are, by definition, dances reflecting the values of the “folk,” the people of a certain geographical locale. Originally they were primitive man’s attempt to favorably influence supernatural forces for human interests (Armstrong 5-6). Later they served to express the characteristic temperament and environment of each unique culture. In some countries, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, they are still a vital part of community life. The Israelis have made the hora (an ancient round dance for mixed couples) the basis for many of their folk dances, of which the most famous is the Hava Nagila (“Come let us be merry”) (Buckman 222). In many Western countries, folk dances have been artificially re-created to be performed on stage. Sometimes the impulse to preserve a dying culture lies behind efforts to preserve and perform a country’s native dances. The popularity of folk dancing may even reflect an attempt to counter the dehumanizing effects of an over industrialized society. Two countries which have most successfully translated their folk dances into theatrical forms are Russia and Poland, with the Yugoslavians and Bulgarians trailing close behind. Igor Moiseyev, whose dance company exhibits great technical skill in portraying Ukraine culture, once explained his basic approach to folk dance:
If we analyze the movement of the dance of any nation we find that, in its basis, each system of folk dance possesses only a limited number of different movements. The movements upon which is based the entire system of dance we call root movements. If we know a number of fundamental movements, a number of the roots of which the language of dance is composed, and are familiar with the laws of connected movements, our own fantasy will make it possible to add a number of new movements . . . in the same system.
Given the ancient preference for ring dances, it is instructive that, of the nine basic folk dance formations, seven are variations on the circle (Jensen 18-19). The circle is symbolic of the sun or wheel of life and suggests eternity (it has no beginning or end). Other important symbolic dance formations are the square (symbol of man and woman as complementary opposites), the diamond or lozenge (symbol of rebirth), the “V” shape (representing bull’s horns), and the triangle (sacred symbol of the Earth Mother goddess) (Armstrong 8-9).
Folk dancing is a significant cultural and artistic phenomenon. There are numerous annual festivals held throughout the world. These intercultural exchanges have made folk dance a kind of international language through which different cultures can communicate with each other. There are many U.S. festivals held each year. Some of the more recognized are the Murfreesboro Festival in Tennessee; the Folkmoot Festival in Waynesville, North Carolina; the Rexburg Festival in Idaho; and the Springville Folkfest in Utah.
Here are some of the more common root movements associated with different countries to look for when attending a folk dance performance
The Morris Dance is a very old dance, consisting of a number of variations around a common theme of regeneration (imitating a fertility symbol like a horse, bull, or unicorn), and traditionally danced only by men of a certain social status. The term “Morris” probably comes from the word “Moorish,” since some of the dancers blackened their faces. It involves leaping, stamping, and making phallic gestures, and was originally associated with the Maypole (a phallic symbol of the green tree of regeneration).
The Highland Fling involves dancing on one leg while “flinging” the other. Another popular Scottish folk dance is the “Schottische,” where a double circle of couples moves with a “Schottische” step (step-hop pattern).
Germany and Austria
The Schuplattler from Bavaria and the Tirol is a wild wooing dance, where the man claps his hands, slaps his thigh, and yells to attract the girl’s attention. The Ländler from the Austrian Alps is a direct descendent of the medieval man stamping out the rhythm as he turns the girl’s face close to his.
The Jota, from Aragon, is an energetic couple dance in 3/4 time with a placed kick from a bent knee, usually performed to the accompaniment of castanets. The Fandango (which means “go and dance”), a couple dance in 6/8 time, is the ancient prototype of all Spanish dances. It begins slowly and works up to an intense climax of frenzied spinning movements. The Flamenco is perhaps the most familiar Spanish folk dance, which really isn’t a particular dance at all, but an improvised style of flamboyant heel-stamping with many regional variations. It is a couple dance where the man plays the matador and the woman is the cape.
“Because Italy didn’t become a unified country until 1870, there are no traditional Italian folk dances, but the Tarantella captures some of the flavor of the Italian character. A courting dance, its constant movements and rapid turns were supposed to help in working the tarantula’s poison out of the system.
Unlike Italy, Greek folk dances trace their ancestry to ancient times. One of the best known descendants is the Kalamatianos, in which the group is led by a singing dancer who waves a handkerchief and performs solo jumps and turns. The Misirlou, based on the Greek Kritikos, originated among the Greek-Americans. Its simple grapevine/two-step sequence has many variations.
The Hopak is the national dance of the Ukraine and poses one of the greatest challenges to the folk dancer. Every step used in this dance can be found in numerous Russian dance styles (pas de basque, Russian polka, prysiadkas, buzz-step turns, lunge steps, etc.).
The Kalvalis (which means “little smith”) originated in Lithuania in the middle of the nineteenth century. The hand-clapping in the refrain represents the hammer striking the anvil.
The Tinikling dramatizes the story of the long-legged tickling bird as it runs through the weeds and rice paddies. The natives try to catch the bird by hitting its legs with long poles. The dancers represent the bird and their ankles occasionally get caught between the bamboo poles.
The Fan Dance represents a beautiful movement of a flower blooming as a circle of female dancers with fans moves to small, specified foot patterns.
Country dances were imported to America by immigrant settlers from Europe. They were originally labeled “contry” or “contra” (contrary) dances because of the opposing lines the dancers moved in. The “Virginia Reel” is typical: the “top couple” breaks off, performs a figure, and moves down one place. These “contra” dances were important precursors to the modern square dance.
Square dances came to the U.S. during the War of 1812 (from British contredanses and French quadrilles). The Americans changed the style of music and added the caller. “Calling” helped the dancers know the order of the figures and enabled the caller to “create” a dance by juggling the order. The calls are familiar to most people-promenade (walk), allemande left, grand chain, etc.-and create an interesting design of interweaving couples. Square dancing appealed to the American desire to level European social hierarchies.
Round dances were originally those partner dances that the church criticized as being too intimate: the waltz, polka, schottische, and varsovienne. Gradually, American round dancing combined the rhythms and steps of the waltz and other ballroom favorites with the square dance to add variety
What to Look for in Folk Dance
How well do the dancers express with their bodies the basic rhythmic patterns of the folk music? This involves keeping time with the beat and expressing in body language the quality of the beat (percussive, lyrical, etc.). The more closely you can feel the basic meters (2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 6/8), the easier you will be able to detect the groupings of rhythmic patterns (usually in multiples of four: 8, 16, 32, etc.). Folk dancing differs from social and square dancing in that the sequence of dance steps is fixed (Jensen 10).
This involves two levels of performance: (1) the dancers’ appearance on stage (posture, carriage, etc.); and (2) the more subtle sense of nationality behind each dance. Pay attention to the country and its cultural identity as revealed in the style of the music and costuming. Some of the more common types of costumes: dirndls and lederhosen for the Alpine countries; the elaborately embroidered dresses and tightly fitting pants of Hungary; the simple matching of blue and white costumes of Israel; the long sequined skirts, ornamented jackets, and large hats of Mexico; the kilts from Scotland; and baggy pants and colorful streamers of the Ukraine.
Basically, this involves physical stamina and mental concentration. This is particularly important for the male dancer, who occasionally must execute very difficult, even acrobatic maneuvers, as in the Russian prysiadka and “coffee-grinder.”
In the Middle Ages there was little difference between social dance and folk dance. To get a feel for the cultural milieu that spawned social dance proper, look at some of Pieter Brueghel’s scenes of peasant life in sixteenth-century Flanders. His Peasant Dance (c. 1568) captures the frivolity and gluttony that characterized a Netherlandish kermis (church fair), as strangely indifferent couples highstep on the village green. Their mismatched dance positions suggest a jolly free-for-all. Sometime near the birth of ballet in the Renaissance courts of Europe, the lusty folk dances of the peasants were transformed into the mannered dances of the kingly courts. The dancing moved from the town square into the royal ballroom and finally onto the stage. It was from these courtly social dances that ballet was formed in seventeenth-century France. The aristocratic taste of the French court held sway in cultural as well as dance matters until the French Revolution.
Dance and Cultural
Probably no dance style in history has been more closely tied to the prevailing cultural revolutions than social dance. In the eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution urbanized European culture and the French Revolution wiped out the French aristocracy, as well as its dance. Short bobs replaced powdered wigs and dark coats replaced colored silks. But George Washington still opened his inaugural ball with his favorite dance, the minuet. By 1815, however, the waltz had precipitated a dance revolution. As the spirit of naturalism invaded social dance, men held their partners in closed position, their bodies actually touching (although the rule was to keep one foot apart). By the Gay Nineties, the two-step had been added to the waltz, as well as assorted country dances, like rounds, jigs, reels, and squares (Ellfeldt 105).
The nineteenth-century cotillion, a group mixer that provided a pleasant way to get acquainted, gave way to freer, more individual kinds of dance positions and formations. Exhibition ballroom dancing emerged from the “social dance revolution” of the early twentieth century, as dancers moved out of the exclusive clubs into public establishments, where people of all classes could perform. This dance revolution was, again, an outgrowth of a larger cultural revolution taking place in the United States: industrialization created a culturally diverse urban population; the increased leisure that followed rising prosperity attracted the middle class to new mass entertainments, such as vaudeville, films, and the cabaret; technological advances, such as the automobile and telephone, allowed increased intimacy between the sexes; the women’s suffrage movement encouraged women to pursue leisure activities outside the home, like attending afternoon tea dances, popular between 1910 and 1915
Three important influences on the popularity of exhibition ballroom dance were (1) the rise of cabaret society in large cities, (2) the emergence of vaudeville, which reached hundreds of cities and towns across the country, and (3) the popularity of ballroom dancing in musical theater.
The cabaret brought ballroom dance out of private homes and small meeting places into a more public setting, uniting men and women of different social and economic classes, while at the same time providing an arena to popularize exhibition ballroom teams.
Vaudeville cleaned up its act and began appealing to a large middle-class population. Many ballroom teams actually began as struggling vaudeville performers. Comedian George Burns, for example, got his start as a ballroom dancer. His brief foray into ballroom dancing was invaluable for his career as a professional performer (Malnig 54).
The Hollywood musicals of the thirties and forties featured some of history’s greatest dancing pairs: Irene and Vernon Castle were originally cabaret stars who made it big in musical theater (the 1914 production of Watch Your Step was one of the first musicals to glorify the contemporary ballroom dance craze); Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers starred in a series of movie musicals and rewrote the book on exhibition ballroom dance by (1) popularizing new dances (the Carioca and the Continental) and (2) greatly expanding the vocabulary of ballroom dancing. Fred Astaire was more than a ballroom dancer; “he was a virtuosic performer who fused tap, ballet, and ballroom to create a highly personal style” (Malnig 124). But his virtuosity impeded his impact on grassroots social dance; the public simply couldn’t duplicate his dancing pyrotechnics.
Ballroom dance competitions began in the 1930s and fueled what Julie Malnig has called “The Contemporary Renaissance” of ballroom dancing in the 1980s (137ff.) Hundreds of competitions are held each year. The competition is tough. Often only six finalists are chosen from fifty or more entries.
Ballroom Dance Styles
International Latin Rumba
The most famous of the Latin American dances to gain popularity in North America and Europe, the rumba arrived in the U.S. from Cuba in the late 1920s and immediately became popular after being performed in film by George Raft and Carole Lombard. It combined African and Caribbean rhythms in a dance which was originally highly erotic. It requires a special style of dancing called “Latin motion,” which is achieved by moving the hips in opposition to the foot in motion. Rhythm: duple meter (2/4 or 4/4). Step: forward-back-side, back-forward-side.
Another Cuban dance requiring “Latin motion,” the cha-cha became popular in the mid-1950s among old and young alike, partly because it is relatively easy to execute. Its name is supposed to have come from the hissing sound made by the heelless slippers worn by Cuban women. One contemporary critic considers it to be “a curious combination of sexy come-on and staid standoffishness” (Buckman 200), perhaps because of the cross-over and half-chase steps, alternating close and open position. Rhythm: the triple mambo in duple meter (rest-2-3-4 & 1). Step: forward-back-step-close-step.
Originally a group dance first performed by African slaves in Brazil, the sambabecame a couple dance when it came to the U.S. during the 1939 New York World’s Fair and was popularized by Carmen Miranda in the movies (you remember, the Latin dancer with fruit-laden headgear). It has virtually become the national dance of Brazil. Everyone dances it in the streets of Rio during Carnival. A jazzed-up version of the samba, the bossa nova, was popular during the early 1960s. Its characteristic movement is a bounding and dropping action. Rhythm: uses a chasse rhythm (quick-and-split-1-and-2) to counts 1-and-2-3-and-4. Step: forward-back and side, with the upper torso leaning back on forward steps and forward on back steps.
This dance originated in Spain, although it is said to have entered Europe through the influence of Louis XIV, who saw a bullfight and wanted a dance to capture its rhythm and excitement. The key to performing this dance is affecting a “matador look,” lifting the upper torso and proceeding almost march-like around the floor (the man is the matador; the woman is the cape). In competitions it usually ends with a flamenco flourish. It first gained popularity in Europe and the U.S. in the 1930s. Rhythm: duple meter (fast 4/4) intermittently interrupted by a fanfare. Step: walk step.
Shortly before World War I, at a reception for foreign diplomats assigned to his court, the Russian Tzar Nicholas II greeted each one personally. As his aide whispered the name of the Argentine Ambassador, the Tzar exclaimed, “Ah yes, the tango!” (Castro 1). The tango is unique as an example of “cultural colonization” (Buckman 171). It apparently originated in the “tangano,” a dance peculiar to the African slaves sent to Haiti and Cuba in the eighteenth century and combined with the rhythms of the habañera (“Havana Dance”) of nineteenth-century Cuba, then taken to Argentina by migrating blacks, to mingle with the milonga, a popular dance in the slums of Buenos Aires. When it arrived in Europe in the early twentieth century, its steamy eroticism had to be tamed. This tamed version was Rudolph Valentino’s model for his performance in the film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). The modern tango bears little resemblance to the originals. It is now a staccato dance performed with great control, “one in which partners truly move as one” (Dow 71). To a ballroom purist, a well-executed tango is “as satisfying as is a flawless downhill run to an Alpine skier” (Dow 71). Rhythm: slow-quick-quick alternating with long pauses and stylized body positions.
International Modern: Waltz
The waltz originated in Germany in the eighteenth century, although it had its roots in folk dancing. Its swinging turns required the dancers to hold on to each other for balance, which got the dancers into trouble for dancing “chest to breast.” A German book proving that “the waltz is a main source of the weakness of the body and mind of our generation” proved popular as late as 1799 (Buckman 124). Its proper execution requires the dancers to glide around the floor in a lyrical rising/falling motion. Rhythm: the only exhibition ballroom dance in 3/4 time (1-2-3 1-2-3). The Viennese waltz is performed at a faster tempo with more turns and less steps.
A child of the jukebox era of the 1950s, jive is like American triple swing or jitterbug (Lindy), but tighter and with slightly different step patterns. Rhythm:fast 4/4 but with 6-beat step pattern: 1-and-1-2 3-and-a-4 back-step. An interesting sidelight: obviously inspired by Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster film,Jurassic Park, composer-pianist Irving Fields has written “Dance of the Dinosaurs,” a piano composition played over the taped sounds of instruments imitating adult and baby dinosaurs clumping about. He is looking for a recording company to immortalize his “Jurassic Jive.”
A perfect dance to demonstrate ragtime music, the foxtrot derives its name from Harry Fox, a vaudeville star who executed a trotting dance to ragtime in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1914. Since the Roaring Twenties, the foxtrot has become America’s fundamental ballroom dance form. Its original jerky movements have been smoothed out over time. Rhythm: basic 4/4 time with emphasis on the first and third beats. Step: slow-quick-quick slow-quick-quick.
As the foxtrot proper got slower and slower, another dance was born, which is essentially a fast foxtrot: the quickstep, a dance that could be performed at a fair speed but with smooth “walking” movements. The required rise and fall in the quickstep is performed on the ball of the foot, the knees alternating flexed and straightened. Rhythm: even 4/4 time in a quick tempo. Step: slow and quick-steps together in any order; invites improvisation.
American style ballroom dancing is a grab bag of international, Latin, and modern, but the American style tends to be freer (more “laid back”) than its European counterparts. It also includes additional dances like the mambo, two-step, polka, and swing. The mambo comes from Cuba and is characterized by a beat in every bar on which the dancer takes no step, somewhat like a fast cha-cha without the cha-cha rhythm. Its steps are embellished with kicks and body wiggles. The two-step requires a smooth ball-change to either side in 2/4 rhythm. The “swing” is similar to the jive but requires different foot work. The “west coast swing” has a basic 4-beat syncopated rhythm, but with a six-count step pattern (so the dance is often out of sync with the beat). The couple moves on a track, toward and away from each other.
What to Look For in Ballroom Dance
In the highly competitive world of ballroom dance competition, performances are judged on four general criteria: (1) timing and rhythm, (2) hip movement and head control, (3) accuracy of footwork, and (4) level of difficulty. But there are also specific expectations for each division.
Dance position (elbows high, shoulder relaxed)
Clean, precise footwork
Quality of movement (flowing, uninterrupted line)
Latin (hip) motion (in rumba, cha-cha, and mambo)
Clean, precise footwork
Correct interpretation of different Latin rhythms
The Physical Coordinate
Here is a simple final formula to keep in mind when viewing any dance performance. It charts three elemental tensions that create excitement in dance. The first we might call the physical coordinate. The tension generated here is the one we have just been talking about: weight vs. weightlessness, centered on the vertical axis of the back bone as the dancer strives to overcome the downward pull of gravity. Ballet seems especially appropriate to this coordinate because ballet training emphasizes vertical extension. The result is a grace of movement seldom equaled in other styles of dancing.
The Psychological Coordinate
The second could be called the psychological coordinate because the most elemental manifestation of its tension is breathing in and breathing out (inspiration and expiration). Margaret H’Doubler contends that all movement, no matter how complex, is built up on this instinctive expansion and contraction of the body when breathing. Because the central movement of breathing occurs in the solar plexus (the diaphragm), modern dance seems most fitted for exploiting the expressive potential of this coordinate. Notice how modern dance movements seem to expand from this center in undulating extensions.
The Social Coordinate
The third coordinate goes beyond the dancer’s body and establishes relationships between two or more bodies moving in space: the social coordinate. This tension involves the dynamics of attraction and repulsion, which is perhaps most evident in the pas de deux between the male dancer and the ballerina, as in Romeo and Juliet (with music by Prokofiev). The space between the lovers is electric with desire as they move together, in stark contrast to the scenes where Juliet dances with Paris (her parent’s pick). Her dislike for him is almost palpable. The social coordinate plays a major role in responding to folk and ballroom dance styles because the performances consist almost exclusively of ensembles. The one obvious exception is the theater arts (cabaret) numbers in ballroom exhibitions where a couple displays an original virtuoso interpretation of an expressive piece of music.