The temperature of Art

I view art of all sorts as having a temperature. Whether painting, sculpture, literature, theater, cinema, or music, art can be coolly cerebral or hotly passionate.

Consider, for example, the Mona Lisa.


The most famous painting in the world, she is cool and comforting, her beauty lying in the subtle blend of colors and  mysterious smile. Something to contemplate in serenity matching the subject.

Contrast that with the statue of Cupid and Psyche, a neighbor of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre:


There’s nothing cool or subtle about that sculpture. It’s hot and passionate, and one glimpse can set your heart racing, even as the hearts of the depicted lovers do.

In general, I much prefer hot art.  (And, in fact, Cupid and Psyche was my favorites of the pieces that I saw in the Louvre.)  I prefer romantic symphonies to chamber music, hot rock to cool jazz, the ragings of King Lear to the musings of Hamlet.  I want art that reaches deep into my soul and calls on me to bay passionately at the moon.

A case in point: Friday evening, I went to the National Symphony’s performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony.  This has been one of my favorite pieces of music since the first time I heard it, back when I was in college.  Back then, Julie and I decided on the spur of the moment to go listen to the Symphony.  Mahler was playing, and I had heard good things about Mahler.  (Yeah, I know, a wonderful combination of arrogance and ignorance.  What can I say, I was an undergraduate at the time.)  We stood in line waiting to buy tickets when an older man came up to us and asked in a disgruntled voice, “Are you buying tickets to tonight’s symphony?”  When we said yes, he said, “Don’t bother,” and thrust into my hands two excellent tickets.  I can only assume that someone had stood him up, leaving him with two tickets and a bad attitude.  But whatever the back story, it added a bit of magic to our evening.

As it did this past Friday, on my first listening the music overwhelmed me.  The symphony is big – between orchestra, chorus, and soloists, it takes something like 250 musicians to perform.  It goes from a dramatic and stormy first movement to a transcendent chorale finale that is the music I imagine sung by the angels as one ascends into heaven.

Which makes it, perhaps, my favorite piece of music to listen to when I am in a bad mood.  Because as the stormy first movement plays, I find myself wrapped up in the music as it expresses the gloom in my soul.  But then, the music climbs out of the depths and reaches for the heavens, and I find my spirit reaching with it.

Mahler called it his Resurrection Symphony.  For me, the symphony lives up to its name.

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