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More than a Feeling: Katy Perry, Arnold Schoenberg, and the Aesthetic and Intellectual Elements of Art

(Katy Perry and Arnold Schoenberg)

We experience art in two ways: aesthetically and intellectually--and making this distinction radically influences our ability to understand and assess it.  

We feel it first; we have a physiological response to it.  It happens instantly.  The physiological response happens when the sound of a piece of music pleases us or it doesn’t.  Or when the movement across the stage, the palette of colors on the canvas, or the expression of the dancer evoke sadness or joy, anxiety or anticipation.  This happens automatically, biologically, like a snap judgment. 

And then we experience it intellectually; it makes us think.  We explore it cognitively.  It takes time, deliberation.  With time, we have the opportunity to evaluate or consider the intellectual experience of the work, the techniques, conventions, or significance of the composition, choreography, or direction.  We can explore how the work taps into our memory.  This is how we begin to consider the intellectual underpinnings or suggestions of a new work.  
(Interestingly enough, biologists and neuroscientists are increasingly recognizing that our thinking, our intellectual experience, would cease to function well without information from our senses, without our feeling.  What we define as rationally sound is affirmed by the information received from our sensory, emotional life...  so much for the sci-fi vision of the brain functioning maximally in a jar...)

This interplay between the feeling and thinking is what makes the arts so complex and interesting.  Unlike pursuits that we perceive as predominantly intellectual, the arts mix our thinking with our feeling in equal measure, probing the soupy human condition.  And in this way, the measure of a work is how it engages the continuum of both components.  


Let’s look at the extremes of what this means.

For example, the music of Katy Perry, one of today's pop superstars.

Katy Perry’s music sure is catchy.  It's teen pop, kid pop--and pop that grown-ups enjoy dancing to in our kitchens.  One listen to the song "Last Friday Night," and it’s in your head for hours.  It is designed to be aesthetically pleasing, and it's almost undeniably fun.  It's commercially package-able and consumable.  With whipped cream and a cherry on top.  But the sensory appeal of it, the pleasure of it, masks the ridiculous (if not altogether shocking) lyrics:

(Katy Perry and the opening lyrics to "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)")

Listen to the music--and maybe even sing along--and the feeling is joyous.  Think about the lyrics (or watch the video), and suddenly the song is problematic for parents of tweens and teens, among the target market for Katy Perry's music.  

But what’s surprising is that we don’t notice... or we don’t mind. What sticks with us is the catchy, happy tune.  The music is so pleasing, it makes us feel so good, that we almost actively don’t think about the lyrics. The aesthetic appeal is so bright, the sensory experience so sunny, that intellectual objections vanish in the glare.  Or, even if the story--the thought--is repellent, we sing the song anyway, because the tune is so catchy.


Conversely, serial music of Schoenberg is intellectually electrifying.  Arnold Schoenberg, the 20th century composer, explored relationships in harmony and melody in staggering ways.  But, his work is about as pleasurable to listen to as it is to look at. 

(Arnold Schoenberg and a matrix made from his twelve-tone technique)

This kind of work--by the intellectual for the intellectual--takes us great places, but the barrier for entry is very high.  If we listen to it without the intellectual understanding of what it is made of--why it is the way it is--then we find little beauty, little pleasure in it.  Sometimes, studying the work and understanding its intellectual foundation can help us feel the music in a new way and find pleasure in it.  Sometimes.

And so, the challenge in making great art is to create works that are both aesthetically appealing and intellectually stimulating.  And this dual nature of art, this striving for both, is what makes teaching and learning in the arts so complex.  Far more than other disciplines, the arts involve the physiological experience of feeling as a complement to the intellectual material of our disciplines.

Then, at last, the translation of this duality into other realms of our lives is what helps us understand so many successes, breakthroughs, and innovations: in business, politics, family, other disciplines in school, etc.  The marriage of what feels good with what enlightens or enhances us is undeniable.  When we encounter beauty in form or expression, and it stimulates new understanding or improvement in performance, we know we are experiencing something good.


Below are the videos for Katy Perry's "Last Friday Night (TGIF)" and Arnold Schoenberg's "Piano Concerto, Op. 42".  If you're interested, try visiting the videos at YouTube, sifting through the comments, and evaluating the ratio of comments for each video that seem to be the result of thinking versus feeling.    (Links to YouTube: click here for Katy Perry and here for Schoenberg)

Katy Perry's "Last Friday Night (TGIF)"

Schoenberg's "Piano Concerto, Op. 42"

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  1. Hey Pete. Interesting blog. I tried to find the comments you referred to at the end of your piece, but I can't seem to link through to them, even when I double click the youtube embeds...

    1. Ah, thanks! I see--the comments aren't visible when the video is embedded. I've added links to the two videos on YouTube itself, where the comments are visible. Enjoy!


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