Saturday, March 14, 2009

Art as Adam's Commission

A quote of Birnbaum (the theological "mouthpiece" of J. S. Bach) from Christoph Wolff's introduction to Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician:

"The essential aims of true art are to imitate nature, and, where necessary, to aid it. If art imitates nature, then indisputably the natural element must everywhere shine through in works of art. Accordingly it is impossible that art should take away the natural element from those things in which it imitates nature - including music. If art aids nature, then its aim is to preserve it, and to improve its condition; certainly not to destroy it. Many things are delivered to us by nature in the most misshapen states, which, however, acquire the most beautiful appearance when they have been formed by art. Thus art lends nature a beauty it lacks, and increases the beauty it possesses. Now, the greater the art is - that is, the more industriously and painstakingly it works at the improvement of nature - the more brilliantly shines the beauty thus brought into being. Accordingly it is impossible that the greatest art should darken the beauty of a thing." (Christoph Wolff, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, pg. 5, "Prologue: Bach and the Notion of 'Musical Science'")

But what does Birnbaum mean? He perhaps believes the natural realm has been affected by the "total depravity" of man's sin. But could he mean when he says that nature delivers us things "in the most misshapen states" that there are things inherently in nature that need the aid of man's art? Is he suggesting the conceited, humanist notion that God needs help making creation "very good"?

Or perhaps this is simply Birnbaum's exegesis on Adam's commission in Genesis 2 to "subdue" or "rule" the land. As one Old Testament scholar puts it, "When God creates the world, it is all good, so Adam does not have to 'subdue' wicked enemies. Still, Adam has to work hard to subdue the world. Even before Adam sins, it is not easy to rule creation. Animals need training, tress are tough to cut, the earth is hard to dig, and rocks are hard to break... He is supposed to find new ways to use what God has made, so that the whole creation serves man more and more... Today, thousands of years later, we are still learning new ways to 'subdue' creation." (Peter J. Leithart, A House For My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament, pg. 51, "Book of Beginnings")

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