“A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.” Leonard Bernstein
This quote appears at the beginning of the movie “Maestro”, 2023’s biopic about the marriage of Leonard Bernstein to the Costa-Rican/Chilean actress, Felicia Montealegre. I’m not sure why that quote was used, because the movie proceeded to not explain or explore it. It’s a great quote, and one (of the many great Bernstein quotes) I had not heard before. I and the people I was with immediately became intrigued with how they were going to explain what he meant by it, and were disappointed at the end that it had not been addressed. But, it did shine a light on Bernstein’s enduring genius, and his innate understanding of how art relates to the human condition.
When someone puts a piece of artwork out into the world (a creative miracle in itself), and people experience it, it will naturally provoke a variety of reactions. One of the reasons art is so important is that it encourages tolerance and asks questions. If artists simply copied what they saw, like a paint-by-numbers, it might be a pretty picture, but would have no intrinsic meaning beyond that. Similarly, if we hear a piece of music produced with just the notes, as with a computer, it would lose a lot of its appeal immediately.
We humans want meaning in our art, and our interpretation of that meaning varies wildly and widely, but therein lie the answers of some of our most pressing questions, questions like, “Can we allow war to continue?” or “Is there such a thing as God?”.
Art (especially great art) shows us that how we understand the world may not be the way things actually are. It challenges our every day conception of our lives, and raises questions about truth. It positions us so that, if we were aliens visiting planet Earth, we might be confused about how Earth’s physical properties work, or how humans have worked out a way to live on this planet.
Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” for instance (a controversial work about the German bombing of the Basque town Guernica, Spain) shrinks the space between the horrors of war so that it seems as if every living thing, people and animals, is experiencing the agony right on top of each other. Although the piece itself is comparatively massive (11x25 feet), it still has a disquieting feeling of claustrophobia, as the figures writhe amongst each other in the angst of armageddon.
If one had been there, it obviously would look nothing like this. But Picasso was making a point, and the ongoing discussion of what that point is, is what makes this a significant work. The tension between the different points of view of its meaning is what Bernstein is referring to.
My husband Larry Dattilio, a fine art photographer, uses this kind of trickery (well, he would call it artistry…) all the time. Instead of making photos that are replicas of his subject matter, he injects his own artistic leanings and feelings into the image using Photoshop. With his nature photography, he is trying to show that the Earth is a living creature itself, and that it has an intelligence that interacts with whatever is inhabiting it. That give and take, or symbiosis, is part of what gives our lives on Earth meaning, but we must wake up and take note of that fact. This is his ongoing message with the nature photography he creates.
In Jane Austen’s book, “Pride and Prejudice”, she seamlessly shows how either one of these titular human states can derail communication and relationships. We learn how the two main characters' states of pride or prejudice interweave and almost cause them not to end up together in a marriage of true love. The ongoing human discussion and examination of the story since it was written is what gives it meaning and an enduring lesson in how to love another person.
Sometimes an artwork is so controversial and threatening to our way of seeing the world, that it provokes extreme human reaction. Such was the case with Igor Stravinky’s “Rite of Spring”, a composition representing basic human primordial, pagan behavior, and provoking a riot at its premiere in Paris over one hundred years ago. Nowadays, the work is standard orchestral and ballet repertoire, but at its first performance, was widely misunderstood and rejected. In other words, it raised a whole lot of questions, and it took a whole lot of time to answer those questions, which in turn produced a whole lot of contradictory answers. Over time, we untangle those questions and answers until we have a satisfactory understanding, and a way to go forward.
“So what?” you might ask, but this was Bernstein’s point: we have moved ahead so that the “Rite of Spring” seems like a justifiable masterpiece to us, not something to be reviled and rejected. We have adjusted our prejudice about certain things so that now they’re accepted as normal, even great, sign posts of our existence. We have grown, as a species. We are more tolerant and accepting, and maybe our curiosity about life has increased. This is the importance of all art.
Your participation is important, as your questions will be added to the multitudes to arrive at that essential meaning. The next time you have an opportunity, go to an art exhibit, attend a concert, watch a ballet, find street art you like (or that at least provokes something in you). Notice how these things change the way you perceive the world around you. Make your own art. Join this fascinating and vital conversation about our lives on this planet.