Yesterday Amy & I took a walking tour of some public art in the La Jolla neighborhood of San Diego. (For those who are unfamiliar with San Diego, La Jolla is an older and very prestigious neighborhood with a spectacular Pacific Ocean waterfront.) The art is privately sponsored through the Athenaeum Music and Art Museum, which is a private, membership-based museum in central La Jolla. In recent years the Athenaeum has been more active and more visible in the local arts community with their sponsorship of more concerts and this public art project. Coincidentally, Amy and I went to a concert sponsored by the Athenaeum featuring jazz legend and San Diego resident Charles McPherson (who is also a friend of mine and the husband of my piano teacher).
We enjoyed the walk around central La Jolla and looking at the art. The art is in the form of giant murals printed on a plastic material and some are over 40 feet tall and wide. They are mounted on walls of commercial buildings and can be seen easily from a half a block away. They usually have a La Jolla-related theme. I have two photos below with some favorites from the tour: there is an image paying homage to architect Louie Kahn who designed the Salk Institute that is overlooking the ocean just north of downtown La Jolla. The other image pays homage to author Raymond Chaldler who lived in La Jolla at the end of his life. His last novel Playback is set in La Jolla (which Chandler called “Esmeralda”) and the mural depicts the author in the “whale bar” in the La Valencia hotel (which is on the same block where the mural is installed).
I was thinking about public art and its purpose. Of course these works are not in the same league as masterpieces from Rembrandt or Van Gough, but they serve a different purpose. I think the purpose is to provoke an interest in art (and also to soften the effect of all of the commercial signage and advertising that is endemic in commercial areas of the U.S.). And as our tour guide (who is the person in charge of the mural project) said: “its more interesting than look at a blank brick wall.”
Last night I was listening to some music and thought about the role of public music in human society. The success of recorded music means that we are inundated with music much of the time: audio and video broadcasts and recordings most often have music, many stores and offices have music playing in the background, cars driving down the street are blasting music, etc. Both art and music have been commercialized in the U.S. and most of the time the “product” is a packaged commercial product that is designed to appeal to the broadest audience (and therefore designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator). There has been much written about the transformation of music and art from a vehicle of personal creativity and expression into a product sold by big corporations for profit. (A good place to start is the essays on music by Theodor Adorno from the early 1950s).
Before the invention of the phonograph and radio broadcasting in the late 19th Century, the only way to hear music was a live performance. (Well, actually at the end of the 19th Century you could buy a player piano or even better: a pneumatic attachment for a grand piano that could include louder and softer dynamics in the recorded piano roll. This actually provided much better sound quality than early recordings or radio.) Many people learned to sing and play musical instruments, and there were various public forums for hearing live music. The latter included churches and various concert and theater venues.
So I was thinking about “public music” and what the effect may have been on the listeners. Church music is of special interest since the people there would attend for the religious activities rather than to listen to the music per se. For example, I was listening to J.S. Bach’s Cantata “Christ lag in Todes Baden” (BWV 4) which is an early work likely written when Bach was a church organist in Muhlhausen, Germany around 1708. While the orchestration is fairly simple, the harmony, counterpoint and changing rhythms are beautiful (especially in the choral singing in Verse I). Much of Bach’s music represents the intersection of public art (the use in regular church services) and masterpieces. Did the church-goers in Muhlhausen appreciated the artistic beauty? By all accounts Bach was a brilliant organist, but did the common people appreciate the brilliance? Did they find the music as inspiring and emotionally touching as I do? I suppose some did but likely many did not. In our current world there are numerous opportunities to hear brilliant masterpieces in music and to see beautiful masterpieces of art, but it seems that the masterpieces in art and music are mostly lost in the din and noise of the commercial projects.
Please feel free to share your thoughts in a comment.