Thursday, October 04, 2007
Following my post John Carey and the Mindlessness of Ballet, I have been engaged in an email debate with John. Slightly edited - ie stripped of small talk - here it is.
John: I meant that ballet cannot transmit concepts, any more than football can, since only language can transmit concepts, and ballet and football do not use language. Hence, while it would be possible to teach a chimpanzee to dance or play football, one could not teach it concepts and would be justified (I think) in calling it mindless by comparison with human beings. Sorry I did not make that clear.
Me: The 'mindless' point was intriguing because it implied a particular view of art which I don't think I share. In your chimpanzee example - you could, I suppose, teach a chimp to play football or dance after a fashion but the point is it could not play football as well as Elano ( I am a Man City supporter) or dance as well as Nureyev and that's the point. They play or dance that well because of the presence of mind - not just their own but also the minds of others who create the context. It may not be mind in the sense of high cerebral intelligence but it is mind nonetheless. The further point is that all art is a conceptualised version of something or other. In this sense, dance is a series of concepts as much as any poem or novel.
John: I dare say that the 'mindless' thing comes down, like to many other disputes, to the meaning of words. I'm sure you are right that professional footballers and ballet dancers play football and dance better than chimps (in the opinion of football and ballet fans, if not of chimps). But no matter how well they played or danced they could not transmit concepts. Words can. Take, for example, your email to me. It is made of concepts linked together into an argument and is therefore undoubtedly an expression of mind. You could not have transmitted the same concepts by dancing or running after a ball. That is why, although I might say I disagree with your email, it would be absurd to say that I disagree with a ballet or a football match. They do not contain any concepts to disagree with. Or so it seems to me - but I'm well aware that all such opinions are subjective - which was, indeed, the main point of the book I wrote about the arts.
Me: I think you are setting too much store by agree/disagree. Art expresses concepts by other means. It may not do so as clearly as the verbal statement of those concepts, but that is not its intention. Poetry, on the whole, does not present a series of concepts with which one could agree or disagree. I don't see why, therefore, it's any different from ballet or music.
To be, I am sure, continued.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 9:33 am