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All time favourites are of two kinds.

The first kind is what I call ‘love at first sight’. You like them from the start and by the time you are done with them, you know they are going to become an all time favourite. Your appreciation for them peaks at or towards the end of your first experience with them and future reflection upon them does not increase your liking much higher.

In the second kind, much rarer, you don’t particularly like the object on first taste. By the time you are done with it, you still don’t exactly love it, though you are aware there is something very interesting about them. It is only on reflection, over the next few days or even weeks that you succeed in unraveling the many layers of quality that wrap around them. You fall in love slowly, the process is intrinsic rather than external and the eventual effect is a powerful, permanent one.

I am not trying to imply that one kind of favourite is superior to the other; nor am I saying the opposite. The above is merely an observation and nothing more.

Examples of the first kind in my life: Harry Potter, The Fountainhead, Surely you are joking Mr. Feynman, Saving Private Ryan, No Man’s land, The lives of others, Chungking express, When Harry met Sally, Satyajit Ray movies, most Tarantino movies, Top of the World, El Condor Pasa, Carmen, Dvorak’s 9th symphony, solution to IMO ’99 problem 3.

Examples of the second kind in my life: The Great Gatsby,The old man and the sea, The outsider, American Beauty, most Polanski movies (particularly Bitter Moon), Strawberry fields forever, Bangalore, TJ Bolivian blend coffee.

Some things however, I can’t decide which category to put in. Examples: Mozart’s music, Hardy’s Apology.

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What’s so special about Carmen?

For one, the truly great music. Carmen is magical melody after magical melody. As for the orchestration, this is what Richard Strauss had to say:

“If you want to learn how to orchestrate, don’t study Wagner’s scores, study the score of Carmen. What wonderful economy, and how every note and every rest is in its proper place!”

Carmen also has a great story that is wonderfully presented. As the Wikipedia article points out, Carmen is extremely innovative in its drama: it alternates comic or sentimental scenes found traditionally in opera-comique with stark realism.

Yet, there is something beyond music or drama that lies at the heart of Carmen’s appeal to me. It is easy to distinguish good art; beyond that, things get very personal. The truly special works of art are those with qualities that talk to you, touch you, in ways that separate them fundamentally from others. Obviously, this aspect is highly subjective; this is why  people usually disagree on their favourite movie or piece of music even when they mostly agree on which movie or music is good.

The opera Carmen epitomizes liberty. The character Carmen is relentless in her passion for freedom. She is strong, extremely sexy and gives everything in her relationships with her lovers. However, she can never be possessed or exorcised of her passionate love for self-determination. For Carmen, all true interactions are voluntary and devoid of any notion of ownership of another person or duty to any institution.

Carmen is willing to live life only on her own terms.  As this book correctly points out, Carmen is “brash, vicious and callous”, yet the quality that defines her over and above all this is “her willingness to be Carmen, a determination to be free and follow her own bliss.” Carmen never gives up her “tireless obsession to control her own destiny.” And this extends beyond mere action, it is a fundamental part of her morality. In the final scene, even when Carmen knows that she will die she refuses to compromise on her principles, instead she courageously faces her fate. Her death is not a dessert for her sins but a consequence of her essential nobility in an ignoble world; her refusal to give up her self-ownership to another person.

(Of course, early audiences and critics did not view it the same way. Carmen was universally denounced as a vile, immoral, shockingly offensive creation.  Times have changed — modern audiences would undoubtedly be more sympathetic to my vision of Carmen as a flawed but heroic character murdered by a jealous man who is her moral and emotional inferior. That’s another aspect of all great art, like life they have many contradictory interpretations.)

It is these thematic elements of Carmen that, for me, lift it from a great opera to something far more special. Like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Polanski’s Bitter Moon and Hardy’s A mathematician’s apology, Carmen talks to me in that special way that is both infinitely subtle and passionately stirring. It will forever be a part of my heart.

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I haven’t had time to watch Wall-E yet though I am sure it is fabulous; I absolutely loved Cars and Ratatouille, Pixar’s last two offerings. Anyway, the following quote by Andrew Sullivan is, I feel, an eloquent statement that applies to all great art, and worth repeating.

It’s odd that a movie that predicts ecological doom can in fact make one more certain that the human race will survive our current predicament. Any civilization that can produce something as technically and artistically sublime as Wall-E cannot be doomed.

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“It is a melancholy experience for a professional mathematician to find himself writing about mathematics. The function of a mathematician is to do something, to prove new theorems, to add to mathematics, and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done. Statesmen despise publicists, painters despise art-critics, and physiologists, physicists, or mathematicians have usually similar feelings: there is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds.”

G H Hardy, the opening lines of A Mathematician’s apology.

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