the atonal & the avant-garde: a study in artful antagonism

Leonard Bernstein is sitting at the piano, giving us a tour. He walks us through the first, the fourth, the fifth, the third, and so on, and we see the tones building, we see how they work together, we see so clearly one of life’s most embedded realities: natural order. 

Music history is a saga of exploration – a family tree of composers and interpreters alike, discovering how to follow the rules and how to bend them. In such a varied canvas, the most gaping wonder is the unchanging order that carries every instance of creativity. Bernstein’s fingers seem to declare this deafening reality of meaning. A perfect fifth is a perfect fifth, in every language, on every piano. 

Increasingly, the modern moral virtue of creativity seems to be founded on how artfully one can unravel the melody of meaning and challenge its very existence. This is peak enlightenment, some say; the pinnacle of creativity. The most artful achievement is to deconstruct reality and meaning. 

Yet the question of meaning is the ever-constant hum among museum throngs, in concert halls and classrooms. Creativity is really only ever a reflection of reality – even when it’s purposed to challenge what is real. Absurdism proves this by mocking what is real, thus magnifying it’s existence. Absurdism wouldn’t be funny or intriguing if we didn’t have an ordered reality to compare it to. Atonal music wouldn’t sound dissonant without a concept of consonance. 

Lennon & McCartney were that once-in-a-century dynamic duo that produced in 10 years what many artists could only dream of creating in 20. I love the product of their creativity as much as anyone – no, probably more. I said it only last week: “post-1965 Beatles are the best Beatles.” That’s when the avant-garde started to pierce through the marrow of easy, catchy harmonies they had built an empire on, and their albums became stranger and more substantial, simultaneously.

Is it the strangeness that makes that mature Beatles sound more interesting? I may have thought so if I didn’t know that those post-’65 chord progressions are addicting because they’re echoing the melody of meaning. Abbey Road is in many ways a re-telling of that tour that Bernstein took us on. My husband alluded to it 2 weeks ago, in one of many philosophical dinner conversations which are slowly becoming a fixture in our own little empire. Avant-garde for the sake of itself is just…well, pointless. The avant-garde is appealing only because and only when it reminds us that there’s order woven into the fiber of all life, and that creation is more certain than our own capacity for creativity. 

I’m a museum lover who can usually find it in myself to be more intrigued than irritated by what I don’t understand. But when art is just a monument to baseless, boundary-blurring perception? It’s akin to the agenda assumed by most modern social institutions to wage war on semantics and call everything symbolic and subjective. Symbolism rests on the laurels of meaning. It exists only because meaning exists, and definably so. If nothing means anything objectively, nothing means anything symbolically. In other words, everything means anything and everything means nothing. 

Maybe that’s the traceable conclusion of the modern art crusade – to embrace nihilism, albeit hedonistically. It gloats in its progressiveness, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s really just grasping for relief. When you haven’t found meaning or truth, you’ll fight tooth and nail to convince the world it doesn’t exist. Like absurdism is a mechanism to ultimately magnify what’s real, perhaps radical devotion to the avant-garde reveals the longing that deconstructionism produces. The war waged on meaning has done more to lay hearts to waste than to elevate minds. It’s digging deeper the hole in the human soul that longs for truth – not a chaotic semblance of “lived experiences” and feelings, but dependable, definable truth that is undefiled by the horrific chaos of a broken world. 

Towers of tinfoil collapse at that piano where Bernstein sits, showing off the mesmerizing predictability of the circle of 5ths. If you want proof that life isn’t meaningless or that definable truth isn’t just a façade – look no further than a piano, a pinecone, Pythagorean. 

What Bernstein explains on a keyboard, Fibonacci explains through a pinecone, Pythagorean explains in a triangle. The circle of fifths, the golden ratio, geometric proofs — all testaments to an astoundingly precise order that composes the universe and points inescapably to a characteristically orderly design.

Truth and meaning compose the reality of life, revealed in the pattern of creation, magnifying a Creator Who breathed order into existence, who sustains existence with His breath still, who does everything on purpose. There are no cosmic accidents, there is only Hope to hang your heart on.

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