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The Content of Art

March 25, 2011

~James McCullough and Wes Vander Lugt

Defining art is an elusive task. In some ways, seeking to understand art is analogous to understanding God. In What Good are the Arts?, a book we are exploring next week on Transpositions, John Carey surmises that all definitions of art—like definitions of religion or God—founder on the shoals of careful examination. In response, Carey concludes that art is whatever one determines art to be. But can we say something more?

In our research, teaching and ministry, we are seeking to make the arts more meaningful, accessible, and theologically significant to the Christians we serve. Recognizing the complexity of the topic is right and commendable, but we are attempting to advance a way of encountering and engaging art that gets beyond reductive emotional and moral analyses. Wordsworth rightly warned that we can “murder to dissect” the “beauteous forms of things,” but our goal is to discover and dialogue with art to bring it alive for people rather than leaving it dead on the examination table.

In two previous posts, including a post on the craft of art, we have proposed that art represents a unique form of communication constituted by three interwoven strands:

The content strand is the meaning-full element of art. Many analyses of art make the familiar distinction between form and content. We recognize the validity of this analysis, while insisting that form and content are woven together in an inseparable whole. With this in mind, we propose the content element of this dynamic whole is best understood as a “story.”

Art tells stories. By this we do not mean plots, but a certain perspective or vision of life and the world. The very choice of subject matter signals what for the artist (or patron) is significant within their perspective on life. Of course, artists may not have a clear idea of the story they are telling, but their art still tells a story. And sometimes, people encountering a work of art will identify a story the artist never intended. Nevertheless, art communicates a story or vision of reality, which we are identifying as the content of art.

Consider a Beethoven symphony. The drive from tension to resolution inherited from the Western harmonic tradition carries within it a certain kind of teleology, a sense of moving forward in time toward an end. Beethoven takes this, and the dramatic possibilities latent in forms like the sonata, and creates an even greater sense of momentum, from conflict and hardship toward resolution and victory. Beethoven’s “story” is culturally Christian but deeply marked by Enlightenment humanism. His story is the victory of the human spirit over all obstacles. This latent vision, this story, informs all of his music. As is often observed of preachers, Beethoven has his basic sermon, preached with remarkable vitality, variety, industry, and inventiveness.

By identifying story as the basic feature of artistic content, we affirm that art is both emotionally evocative and intellectually informative. Like any story, art engages the whole person, sometimes even eliciting a physical and moral response. To engage attentively to a Beethoven symphony, for example, may not only move someone emotionally, but may inspire this person toward heroic human achievement in spite of adversity. Christians may find this particular “story” a form of humanism we cannot endorse without qualification, but Beethoven’s work at least makes this vision of reality profoundly plausible.

To engage with art is to discern a story. The story we identify will reflect the situation of the artist as well as the situations of those receiving and responding to the work of art. We will explore this dimension of art—its context—in our next post, and look forward in the meantime to a helpful discussion on the content of art.

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Watkins permalink*
    March 25, 2011 9:03 am

    Hey guys, thanks for this post. I’m sure you are dreading a comment from me as I tend to throw out a whole list of questions. I’ll apologize up front, and now onto the list:

    First, I was wondering if you would tell me where the Wordsworth quote is from. If he is speaking specifically about science, it would be a quote I can use in my thesis as I use the Romantic reaction against science to support my argument about artistic genius. Any citation you could offer would be helpful.

    Second, are you saying not only that works of art are meaningful, but that to understand that meaning it is most helpful to think of works of art in terms of ‘story’ (would you use the word ‘narrative’)? There is a long tradition of considering one artistic medium in terms of another. For example, Horace suggested that poems are like paintings, and this has had an influence upon poetic theory. Or, more recently, many modern artists argue that paintings are like music. By this they actually mean that painting does not have a narrative structure and that it should be appreciated primarily for its line, color, tone, composition, etc. In other words, they would argue that the visual elements are to the eye what sounds are to the ear.

    Third, you seem to waiver between using the word ‘story’ or ‘vision of reality.’ This seem like remarkably different things, so which one is it? For instance, many people have said that stories (e.g. novel) offer a vision of reality, or one might want to try to articulate their vision of reality in a story form. I’m confused because I can’t see how these two things are synonyms.

    Fourth, by ‘vision of reality’ do you mean ‘worldview’? If not, how is it different? If so, how is a worldview related to a work of art?

    Fifth, I’m confused about this sentence: “To engage attentively to a Beethoven symphony, for example, may not only move someone emotionally, but may inspire this person toward heroic human achievement in spite of adversity.” How can one be inspired toward some heroic achievement if they are not moved emotionally? Are you just saying that art and life should have some unity, and that, like Baktin says, what unifies them is our ‘answerability’?

    • March 25, 2011 9:35 am

      Re Wordsworth, the line is from his poem called The Tables Turned, specifically line 28. The whole stanza is as follows, but I would recommend reading the entire poem:

      Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
      Our meddling intellect
      Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–
      We murder to dissect.

      And then his next line is: ‘Enough of Science and of Art.’ I would think this poem relates to your thesis.

      By speaking of art in terms of story, our intention was to highlight the way in which art ‘communicates’ more than isolated concepts, but a network of related communicative signals that comprise a story.

      In my view, we are using the word ‘story’ as broadly as possible, which is why we interchanged this with ‘vision.’ Both stories and vision connect disparate elements to offer a bigger perspective. They seem complementary in the sense that stories present visions and visions contain stories, which is the point being made.

      How does this relate to worldview? I think worldview is related to these other terms, but it does imply something more comprehensive, philosophical, and ideological. In other words, just because a work of art tells a story doesn’t mean it presents a coherent worldview. But maybe James has a different angle on this.

      The sentences that confused you is saying that in addition to being moved emotionally, and indeed because of this, art has the moral and transformative power. Next week I am writing a post on a chapter in John Carey’s book What Good are the Arts? that address this issue a bit further. And to answer your last question, I think Baktin’s notion of ‘answerability’ does connect art with life, and also points to art as a communicative event.

      • Jim Watkins permalink*
        March 25, 2011 9:57 am

        Wes, Thanks for the Wordsworth quote. I think I will be able to integrate that into my research.

        I’m still confused about what it means to use the word ‘story’ as broadly as possible. I thought you were talking about something that has a minimum of narrative structure, and so I read your Beethoven example as a way of ‘reading’ a piece of music like a ‘story.’ But now I see that this may not be what you meant. Is ‘story’ or ‘vision of reality’ interchangeable with the word ‘meaningful’? By recognizing that works of art ‘tell stories’ are we only recognizing that works of art are ‘meaningful,’ but we are not saying anything about how we understand that meaning?

        Thanks for pointing out what you meant by that sentence, it is clear to me now that I misread it.

  2. James McCullough permalink
    March 25, 2011 4:26 pm

    Thanks again for taking time to read and respond to our posts, Jim. I do appreciate the opportunity for clarification that your responses provide.

    I thought Wes’ response was very adequate and I affirm it wholeheartedly. But you raise again legitimate questions about what exactly we mean by “story” in terms of the content of a work of art, and whether or not “story” here basically refers to meaningfulness.
    Speaking for myself, I believe that because the arts “tell stories” they therefore express or inhabit meaningfulness, but I wouldn’t be comfortable thinking of “story” and “meaningful” synonymously. Nor would I be comfortable interpreting a piece “like a story.” I think the relationship is more direct. Committed as I am to a art critique centered on communication, I believe what the arts communicate is some aspect or dimension of existence that in that particular piece in that particular moment the artist for whatever reason is addressing or dealing with, however consciously or subconsciously, explicitly or implicitly. From one particular piece we the “audience” may not be able to discern a sense of the “story” that the piece inhabits and expresses, but when set within a larger context of a given artist’s work or performance, we can begin to hear the story. Yes, one can relate this to “worldview” but I agree with Wes in his comments about this above.

    I must say that Bruce Harmon’s comments on earlier posts have remained with me. He reminds me that in these posts I am approaching art from the theorists’ side. The creative side of art is often much more intuitive and spontaneous (as well as sometimes very calculated and rational), an act for the pure and intrinsic value of the act itself. However, I’m still convinced that Wes and I are on to something here that can provide a way of understanding the arts as creative and theological phenomenon. But our project is still in formation and in need of refinement. For that I appreciate the responses.

  3. Jim Watkins permalink*
    March 25, 2011 7:57 pm

    Wes and Jim, thanks for both of your responses. I am still a bit confused about what is meant by ‘story,’ but you both have explained yourselves well so I won’t belabor the point. At the risk of getting this completely wrong, I thought I would offer another way to think about works of art ‘telling stories,’ and then you can tell me if this is what you mean.

    It seems to me that we all want to affirm that the content of a work of art (which I take to be synonymous to the ‘meaning’ of a work of art) is more than the intentions of the artist. It seems that you say this in the following sentences: “Of course, artists may not have a clear idea of the story they are telling, but their art still tells a story. And sometimes, people encountering a work of art will identify a story the artist never intended.”

    If the meaning of a work of art cannot be reduced to the artist’s intentions, then it would seem that it must also come from other places: historical context, cultural systems, reception, reader response, etc. Perhaps we could think of the ‘story’ of a work of art as its relations to the various people, instutions, systems, etc. that generate its meaning. A work of art would ‘tell a story’ by virtue of all its interactions within the whole ‘story’ in which it is situated.

    Alistair McIntyre has this wonderful quote from After Virtue: “Man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'” The point seems to be that human life only becomes meaningful when it is situated within a larger story (what I would want to affirm is God’s story with creation). Similarly, a work of art becomes meaningful when it is situated within a larger story that includes the other characters and elements above.

    I recognize that you both want to affirm the inter-relatedness of content and context, and perhaps one of the drawbacks of your schema is that you are forced to talk about them separately. So, what I have said above about a particular work of art’s situation within a larger context may be slipping into the next post, but what I am trying to suggest is that works of art ‘tell a story’ by virtue of being part of a larger ‘story.’

    • March 27, 2011 10:37 am

      Hi folks — I’ve been reading and re-reading a number of the postings about craft and content — and am especially intrigued by JIm Watkins’ latest entry about the story of art being placed in the context of a larger story in order to receive meaning. It seems to me that the whole enterprise of your blog depends upon this meta-story placement of the work of art. It’s also interesting that Sarah S. is now beginning another foray into what might be called the “displacement” of art from that larger story in Carey’s book. Here is my question/comment: is it not true that a mere assemblage of information cannot ultimately be called “knowledge”? In order for words (or images) to be meaningful, to be knowledge or wisdom, there must be a prioritization and ordering — a specific valuing process. And for that sort of process a community must come into being — a community who understand themselves as having submitted to a story or set of stories that will shape their corporate identity sufficiently in order to obtain something like meaning. The problem with the premise of Carey’s book (and the confusion of multiple worlds of art) is that meaning is unavailable in any substantive sense when their is no such submission. Tribal stories not only determine identity, they create a hierarchy of meanings — without which there is simply a profusion of Babel tongues.
      The web is a vast and fertile field with seemingly endless possibilities of meaning(s) but no grist mill in which to grind the grain into flour. For that, we do need a larger story — and to leave “religion” out by design is at best disingenuous, at worst ridiculous. I think your blog is by nature an admission of all this. What remains is to think through how that larger context, that larger story gets told — without the guard dogs tearing you to shreds. Religion is only dispensed with by another religion — metanarratives are only dispensed with by establishing another metanarrative.
      Cheers…

  4. James permalink
    March 28, 2011 10:58 pm

    I like that communication plays a special role in your understanding of art. It seems that the fact that art communicates something actually ends up separating it from other, less-valuable things like sport.

    I have been trying hard to find how art is of greater importance than sport, but it has been difficult. Perhaps communication is the key.

  5. March 28, 2011 11:19 pm

    James — actually I distinguish art making from communication in this way — communication is the attempt to convey specific messages, ideas, content by linguistic or symbolic means. Art may be employed in communication, and art also employs a form of communication — but it is also distinct from communication in the following ways. Art is a properly basic mode of human being — it is “making” — a distinct mode from thinking or speaking or communicating. Etienne Gilson has written an entire book in order to clarify all this — and I think his essay THE ARTS OF THE BEAUTIFUL is a masterpiece.
    As for elevating art above sport — I don’t think it is necessary to labor on that front — partly because it is futile to convince the mass of people who ignore art and throng to the games. That seems a losing battle. But art is not a mere pastime or amusement or diversion. It fulfills a basic human need like eating and sleeping and sex. If anyone doubts this, look at the way impoverished peoples all decorate themselves, their dwellings, their conveyances, even their cattle when they have cattle. Art is ubiquitous from the richest of the rich to the poorest of the poor. And that is because it goes to the very nature of our humanity. We’re made in the image of a maker, and our hearts are restless until we make something. That’s why merely talking about art is so unsatisfying…you’ve got to make some!
    🙂

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  6. March 29, 2011 9:00 am

    Thanks for all the great discussion on this post! Jim, I agree that art is situated within a larger story, and hopefully we can clarify this some in our next post about the context of art. Bruce, I think you are right that art employs a form of communication in the mode of making.

    Where I differ, however, is that I do not understand communication narrowly in terms of imparting ideas or information. I prefer to think of communication more broadly in terms of an interpersonal connection, a commonality of exchange, a coming together in an act of sharing. Conceived in this way, every making is communication and every communication is a making, the creation of a reality that is shared and creates connections. Part of what makes art so powerful is that it creates a social space where communication in this fullest sense can occur, where the artist in her making is a communicator and the recipient/audience/participant of the art is a communicant. The resonances of the last word with the Eucharist I think more than coincidental, pointing to the sacramental nature of art as communicative-making.

  7. March 29, 2011 10:45 am

    Thanks for clarifying Wes…and yes! If only the whole world viewed communication as leading to communion. Mostly, I fear, communication is manipulation these days — advertising and mass communications in the forefront of that. This online conversation, on the other hand, does seem to be leading to the sacramental understanding of art — and certainly that is what I long for as an artist. It is a relatively rare thing, however, and of course that shouldn’t therefore be sidelined. I wonder if we’re developing a theory of art that is only shared by a few. Perhaps all artists in some way want to enter into the mutual submission of the Eucharist — but what I see a lot as a contemporary artist is the opposite: competition, posturing, hype machinery, and an artificial scarcity-based art economy that depends on a pervasive culture of mystique to jack up prices so that only an elite few can enjoy the art firsthand. This seems very far from the sacrificial ethic of the Eucharist where the communicant submits his or her very life before the altar and is willing to be broken alongside Christ for the life of the world.
    I am grateful for this blog conversation that strains toward that mutual submission and charity — which alone will give true understanding. Perhaps if we continue to model this sort of patient conversation, we will see more of the sort of art that would naturally arise from the kind of definition you are striving for. Blessings all ’round… Bruce

  8. James permalink
    March 31, 2011 5:00 pm

    I really like what you guys are doing.

    I guess my biggest question concerns how music communicates. Can there be content in “absolute music” (music without words)? You mentioned Beethoven’s drive from tension to resolution. And after explicating that idea you said, “His story is the victory of the human spirit over all obstacles.”

    My question is, how does Beethoven’s method of resolution communicate “the victory of the human spirit over all obstacles”?

    • April 1, 2011 9:09 am

      Good questions, James, and I’m afraid that an adequate answer would be a lot longer than these comments allow. But I think it’s important to realize that certain musical styles, melodic constructions, chord progressions, and harmonic intervals communicate different feelings and ideas than others. For a simple example, why is it that a minor key sounds more “sad” than a major key? There are many of these dynamics at work in Beethoven’s music, which definitely communicates a different story than, say, the music of Mozart.

      If you are interested in reading more about this, there are several really great books out there, including a new one that just came out with Eerdmans called Resonant Witness. We hope to review that here at Transpositions at some book, but I think you would find it fascinating.

  9. James McCullough permalink
    April 1, 2011 1:35 pm

    From one James to another!

    I want to affirm what Wes had to say, and add some thoughts myself. Music (and my familiarity is largely limited to the Western tradition) has developed norms and conventions and “rules” not unlike the rules of grammar. We live in an age when this musical grammar has largely been exploded, but in more traditional music or contemporary music that seeks to be accessible to popular audiences (think of most film scores), the rules of musical grammar still largely hold that came into place by the 18th and 19th centuries.

    I think built into this musical grammar are dynamics that move along on a series of tensions and resolutions. I’m thinking primarily here of the rules of harmonic progression, which is where I think the “story” in Western music lies. Western music has developed a strong sense of “progression,” and Beethoven inherited this. I think Western music in its way reflects a kind of teleology – a sense of beginning somewhere and going somewhere. Where does it get this idea? There are several sources, but consider the contours of the Creedal section of the Mass which the West has been singing for over 1500 years. Christ descended from heaven, He suffered, He was buried, He arose, ascended, and will come again in glory. Western music has been working with this text – and the Story it outlines – for centuries. It is a story that moves from darkness to light, from tension to resolution, from “defeat” to victory. It becomes part of a cultural DNA.

    Beethoven inherits this musical and religious background, and in the context of Enlightenment humanism and revolutionary political aspirations, as well as his own experience of deprivation and accomplishment, and his music tells and participates in a story that in one sense reflects Christ’s Story but in another sense becomes independent from it.

    Our appeal to “resolutions” in Beethoven’s music is part and parcel of a whole package of form and content wherein Beethoven musically creates a “problem” (usually introduced in the first part of a piece of a first movement of an extended work like a symphony) and resolves it in the end. Beethoven’s music typically ends with a sense of affirmation and overcoming. As we move into the later nineteenth century, we find resolutions that aren’t quite as blazing and affirmative. Once the twentieth century ensues, pieces of music are as “problematic” at the end as at the beginning. But a new story is probably being told, or being explored in new ways.

    People can quibble about the “story” Beethoven’s music expresses, but I do think that we can find that all arts, through their unique “languages,” invite us into ways of seeing or experiencing life that constitute immersions in some sense of story.

  10. James permalink
    April 1, 2011 6:01 pm

    Thanks for both of your helpful thoughts!

    I still struggle with the idea of communication. I agree that conventions have been established in which certain resolutions seem to communicate something to the listener. But are they actually communicating anything intelligible?

    The descending minor 5-3-1 progression sounds depressing and could be interpreted as communicating “falling away from the joy of life.” The progression could mean ‘Never fall away from the joy of life,’ or it could mean ‘It is time to fall away from the joy of life.’ But these two propositions are contradictory. How could this agreed upon chord progression provide an effective means of communication if it lands in absurdity?

    Further, is it proper to say that the drive from ‘tension to resolution’ is a drive that communicates affirmation? Is Beethoven expressing affirmation or is he making music that is expressive of affirmation? There seems to be an important distinction there.

    • April 1, 2011 6:17 pm

      What do you mean by intelligible? What, in your mind, would make music intelligible? We are not arguing that music communicates propositional statements, but that a more general story or vision is communicated. In addition, people may receive this story differently and choose to respond to it differently.

      The question of whether Beethoven was expressing affirmation is hard to answer, and would involve exploring his intentions, of which I am not aware. But the music can express affirmation even if this was not his intention. Does that make sense?

  11. James McCullough permalink
    April 2, 2011 12:18 pm

    James, you are pressing us at good points, and I appreciate your willingness to come back at us.

    I appreciate Wes’ thoughts about “intelligibility.”About the “meanings” of certain chord progressions or modes of music, I feel I may owe some response. As I suspect you know, minor does not always mean sad and major happy. If at certain moments I seem to be suggesting this I don’t mean to. Those rustic Hungarian and Slavonic Dances of Brahms and Dvorak are frequently in the minor but are hardly “sad.” When I speak about “resolutions” and “conflicts,” I’m going back to a basic analysis of storytelling, that nearly all stories involve conflicts and their resolution (or irresolution, if that be the case). Beethoven’s work exemplifies this tradition of dramatic conflicts that finds affirmative resolutions. It is a tradition of course that interrogates itself as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries progress.

    As for our emphasis on communication, for me, communication and story, rather than “beauty” or “emotion” allows for a greater scope of what art is about. Art can be ugly if it has to be (although if its form effectively matches its content, then a certain kind of “beauty” still emerges). Art can be rather intellectual if it has to be. Think about Bach’s Art of the Fugue. Wes and I have been thinking hard about helping people encounter art more on its own terms as well as its implication in a larger scheme of things, and we are also committed to better position the discussion of the arts for theological analysis and assessment, and here again definitions or orientations that solely rely on beauty or emotions or even morality fail to give wide enough scope to what art is about.

    Perhaps sharing where my own involvement in this conversation lies would be helpful at this point. My doctoral research is about the relationship between the arts and spiritual formation. One aspect of this relationship as I see it is the way that the arts effectively insinuate a particular “life-story.” The Bible does this most effectively, as does all good storytelling. I think of the arts as various ways of engaging in good storytelling, either by the story a piece is telling or by the way it invites us into the story in which the work itself participates. To illustrate, I find the haiku of Basho beautiful in form and content. Basho’s Zen Buddhism leads him towards a focus on a non-chronological “now.” I am not a Zen Buddhist, but to the degree I engage with this poetry, to that degree I become open to the Zen worldview. Perhaps one day it will convince me. What it provides right now, however, is a window into another way of experiencing life, a powerful aesthetic experience in its own right, and an immersion into the joy of the simple awareness of things which helps me develop greater capacities for attentiveness, something not at all unrelated to Christian spirituality. For me, the “story” with which we live and navigate life is central to who we become and powerfully what we “see” in life, and this at least in part is how I see art invovled in spiritual formation.

    Your question if whether “Beethoven expressing affirmation or is he making music that is expressive of affirmation?” is a very good one. Gordon Graham addresses this very question in his contribution on Croce and Collingwood in The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (2002) in his analysis and critique of the expressivist definition of art. Graham writes, “What this [distinction] shows is that the initially innocent substitution of ‘being expressive of’ for ‘being an expression of’ signals the abandonment of expressivism. If the function of art is to heighten [emotional] awareness, the special connection between art and emotion which all forms of expressivism try to articulate and maintain is broken, for art can heighten our awareness of much in human experience besides emotion” (p. 142-43).

    Thanks again, James.

  12. James McCullough permalink
    April 17, 2011 5:43 pm

    Some recent research has yielded some material for the conversation we were having about the content of art, with particularl reference to the questions James was raising about music.

    Wes and I have been advancing the proposition that the arts both express and participate in Stories that form the heart of individual and cultural frameworks of meaning; that this contributes powerfully to the content that works of art communicate through crafts in particular contexts of time and circumstance.

    I came across the book “The Language of Music” by Deryck Cooke (Oxford Univeristy Press, 1959). Cooke is a familiar name for those into Bruckner and Mahler for his reconstructions of unfinished works by these two composers in particular. In this text, Cooke explores the expressive “language” of Western music, including the development of the major and minor scale systems out of the earlier modes (i.e the Ionian, the Aeolian, the Lydian, etc.). Pardon the rather long citation, but Cooke helpfully illustrates the built-in significances of artistic expression:

    “It is clear, and needs no arguing, that the development of Western European music has gone hand in hand with the development of Western European man. Now, as has often been pointed out, the essential difference between Western European thought and that of other cultures is the concept of humanism: the belief in the individual’s right to progress towards personal material happiness, which came to the fore at the Renaissance, and had its roots in still earlier times. The insistence on the ‘rightness’ of the sense of happiness has been accompanied by an insistence on the ‘rightness’ of the major third (see, for example, the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, written at the height of the period of confidence). It was for this reason that the church wished from the beginning to keep the note right out of ecclesiastical music. The major triad (and the major scale) belonged to the popular, secular life founded on the desire for pleasure; and this always threatened to undermine the religious ideal of a humble, God-centered existence, in which the emphasis was on the acceptance of one’s lot in ‘this vale of tears’, and to replace it by a concept of a proud, man-centered existence, in which the emphasis was on personal happiness. In fact, of course, this eventually happened: with the increasing secularization of life, from the Renaissance onwards, the modes with their lack of strong tensions, gave way more and more to the powerful tensions of the major and minor systems; eventually the centre of musical life moved from the church to the opera-house (seventeenth-century) and concert-hall (eighteenth-century), and an increasingly secular society expressed its sense of human pleasure and pain by means of the major and minor systems, regular rhythms, and four-bar periods – until the tide turned. Ever since about 1850 – since doubts have been cast, in intellectual circles, on the possibility, or even desirability, of basing one’s life on the concept of personal happiness – chromaticism has brought more and more painful tensions into our art-music, and finally eroded the major system and with it the whole system of tonality.”

    What I think scholarship like this helps to substantiate is that to enter into an artwork, and particularly a tradition of artworks from given times and places, is to enter into the Story that such works explicitly and implicity tell. Cooke suggests that an optimistic humanism informs crucial developments in Western musical language (I believe similar observations can be made of other art forms as well), which challenged the Christian concensus (from which of course it also borrowed heavily), and which in turn also came in for interrogation.

    Who would have thought that something as innocent as the major third would have been freighted with such a background?

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