One the ideas I visit often is the challenge of understanding a work of art in its own context; that is, to try and imagine, for instance, what an impressionist canvas by Monet would have looked like to a viewer contemporary with its creation. How would it have been perceived by eyes accustomed to realism in visual art? How striking and daring would the colors and textures have seemed? Or to imagine--beyond what they literally sounded like, as with the period instrument movement--just how unexpected Beethoven's symphonies were to his audiences' perceptual worlds. How would the motivic play, the technicolor orchestration and suicidal speed, have thrilled listeners whose cutting edge was Mozart? Or how about the truly wild Symphonie Fantastique from Hector Berlioz only a scant six years after Beethoven's revolutionary Ninth?
It can also be important to understand that some works, when considered this way, stripped of the affectionate, context-free veneer of history's storytelling, may have a very different character than is currently popularly ascribed.
For a good thought experiment of what I'm talking about here, just imagine what it was like to see Star Wars for the first time (assuming one is old enough to have seen it within a decade of its release)--those thrilling, unbelievable special effects! What a visual delight! Except that now, several years into the first maturity of CGI, they look kind of lame. Even 1983's Return of the Jedi, whose spectacular speeder bike chase through the forests of Endor completely blew my 11-year old mind, seems sort of slow and boring today. I've just gotten used to more, better. Consider an 11-year old today, seeing Star Wars for the first time. How different is his experience of it from my own, when I was his age? Where might it differ?
This sensation of imagining the experience of a work of art in its own context, and what different kinds of meaning it would have had to a then-contemporary audience, is critical if one seeks real understanding of creative works. It is particularly important when a work might have significant, intentional social or political meaning that has been lost several generations later.
Consider the well-loved, nauseatingly-often played oratorio Messiah, by G. F. Handel. A lovely bit of Christmas celebration, right? Actually, no: turns out it's a work of religious propaganda, and not a particularly nice one. From today's New York Times:
So “Messiah” lovers may be surprised to learn that the work was meant not for Christmas but for Lent, and that the “Hallelujah” chorus was designed not to honor the birth or resurrection of Jesus but to celebrate the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in A.D. 70. For most Christians in Handel’s day, this horrible event was construed as divine retribution on Judaism for its failure to accept Jesus as God’s promised Messiah.The whole article is fascinating. Read it here, it's surprising and thought-provoking, and will make you reconsider one of the ubiquitous masterworks of the classical canon.
More on the importance of context soon.