History and value

At the beginning of The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts, in a section entitled ‘History and Value’ (pp.4-6), Milan Kundera discusses the relation between historical consciousness and aesthetic evaluation. He introduces the issue with an imaginary case:

Let us imagine a contemporary composer writing a sonata that in its form, its harmonies, its melodies resembles Beethoven’s. Let’s even imagine that this sonata is so masterfully made that, if it had actually been by Beethoven, it would count among his greatest works. And yet no matter how magnificent, signed by a contemporary composer it would be laughable. At best its author would be applauded as a virtuoso of pastiche.

Kundera is well aware of a possible, and natural, response to the above evaluation of the contemporary composer’s anachronistic piece. Indeed, he mimics such a response:

What? We feel aesthetic pleasure at a sonata by Beethoven and not at one with the same style and charm if it comes from one of our own contemporaries? Isn’t that the height of hypocrisy? So then the sensation of beauty is not spontaneous, spurred by our sensibility, but instead is cerebral, conditioned by our knowing a date?

But he insists that there is “[n]o way around it: historical consciousness is so thoroughly inherent in our perception of art that this anachronism (a Beethoven piece written today) would be spontaneously (that is, without the least hypocrisy) felt to be ridiculous, false, incongruous, even monstrous”. Put more straightforwardly, his point is that “it is only within the context of an art’s historical evolution that aesthetic value can be seen”.

Is Kundera right about the relation between historical consciousness and aesthetic evaluation? This is a big topic and I won’t attempt to show that Kundera is wrong. What I would like to point out is that he might have conflated aesthetic experience and aesthetic judgment. Aesthetic experience necessarily has phenomenological features; by contrast, although aesthetic judgment is usually accompanied by aesthetic experience, the judgment itself is cerebral and does not have to have its own phenomenology. In Kundera’s own words, there is “aesthetic pleasure” or “sensation of beauty”, and there is “perception of art” or “aesthetic value [that] can be seen”; my point is, the two don’t overlap perfectly.

The main subject matter of Kundera’s book is the (modern European) novel, but since he uses a musical example in the passage quoted above, let me use another musical example to illustrate my point.

Prokofiev’s first symphony, completed in 1917, was marked by imitation. As the composer confesses in his autobiography:

I had in mind the thought of writing a symphony in the style of Haydn … If Haydn were living today, I thought, he would keep to his way of writing, while at the same time incorporating some newer ideas. I wanted to compose just such a symphony --- a symphony in the classical style. I finally gave it the name Symphonie classique --- firstly because it was so simple: also in the hope of annoying the Philistines, and in the secret desire to win in the end, if the symphony should prove itself to be a genuine ‘classic’.

The last sentence is intriguing, particularly because of the combination of the word ‘genuine’ and the word ‘classic’ in scare quotes. Prokofiev’s first symphony can never be a genuine classic, but it can be a genuine ‘classic’. As a matter of fact, the symphony was well-received and is still enjoyed by classical music lovers today. It is not felt to be ridiculous, false, incongruous, or monstrous.

Is this a counterexample to Kundera’s view? There is no simple answer to the question. On the one hand, Prokofiev himself admitted that he imitated Haydn and tried to write a symphony in the classical style; on the other hand, it could be maintained that the symphony is not ridiculed because there are enough “newer ideas” in it to distinguish it from a mere imitation --- the classical style is more apparent than real.

In any case, we can still distinguish between the aesthetic experience one has when listening to the symphony and the judgment one may make about the aesthetic value of the piece. Even if the aesthetic judgment has to be made within the context of the historical evolution of the symphony as a form of art, it does not follow that the aesthetic experience cannot be independent of such a context. We don't have to deny that aesthetic judgment can affect aesthetic experience, but we can at least imagine that someone who knows nothing about Haydn, Prokofiev, or the classical style may still enjoy Prokofiev’s Symphonie classique.

The following is the charming, and very short, third movement of the symphony; experience it yourself: