The “Naive” in Art and Music

(unpublished essay by Webster Young)


What is called “the naive” was once  important  in the world of art and music.  In the present day it figures little in thought about artistic style and almost not at all in music, yet in the Enlightenment period, the period in which Mozart worked, the lighter side of expression in fine art was more commonly found. Childlike, innocent, and fun qualities were present in the works of the masters.

In the song and aria forms of Mozart’s operas, for example, one can find both the naive and the serious. Some of his melodies  have the innocent quality of a folk song, while others are quite ambitious in form. In his era, the naive, or childlike, was an important part of musical expression — just as  in paintings of his era, where cherubs expressing a similar innocence were common. That Mozart was the inventor of a musical game, by which one could create melodies, is typical of the spirit of music in his time.

The naive is not synonymous with the primitive in art. Naive styles were practiced by the most well trained and sophisticated artists and composers. Yet the primitive can and often does have a naive quality — and therefore we ought to define what the naive in art is.

It is first of all, a quality in art that corresponds exactly to what the word itself means: innocent, child-like, fresh, at once honest and simple. Yet in a work of fine art, the naive is  transformed.  It becomes something of higher importance. To take a spiritual view – this is because the child-like is close to the Christ-like. In the passages the Gospels where Christ blesses the children, he says,  “their angels always behold the face of my Father”.  There is a revelation behind child-like honesty, and this, historically, has been useful in art.  Innocence becomes an honesty exposing the heart .  With it, the work of art becomes full of meaning.

This revealing naivete often appears in ballets. “Cardboard cut out” characters  have supplied naive material for many ballets  — from the mechanical doll come to life in Coppelia to the pathetic clown in Petrouchka. Characters of the Commedia dell’Arte, like Pierrot, Harlequin, and Columbine have all been given a naive interpretation in ballets. In all these works,  realities of the human heart are revealed.

The naive appeared in many of the great art movements of the early 20th century. It was seen in expressionism, Dadaism, surrealism, and early abstractionism.  Chagall’s work is a wonderful example because he crossed the borders of expressionism, surrealism, and cubism — and yet his work was still naive. Stuart Davis, while an abstractionist, is naive. The Dadaist movement certainly included the naive within its purview (but later became known more for its pattern of rebelliousness). Stravinsky’s Petrouchka is often cited as an example of Dadism , having child-like musical components. Much of Milhaud’s (photo above) music is naive in quality, as is some of Eric Satie’s and that of the rest of the French Six.

The cartoon-like drawing in the paintings of Marc Chagall, even when coupled with his cubism, has an unmistakable naivete. (One can argue that cartoons themselves are a product of the naive movements in  art.) The ways that melody was combined with eccentric harmony in the music of composers such as Stravinsky, Prokofieff, Satie, Milhaud, Poulenc, and many others was naive in effect. The naive lived in new forms in the beginning decades of the twentieth century.

Now in the latter half of the 20th century and in our own era, the naive as described above has been all but suffocated out of existence. Indeed, it appears that the very styles of our art forms are incapable of the childlike and there is something deadly grim about much of what is produced.

There may be some readers who will contest this point about the arts– but in music, none will. Who would ever say that Elliot Carter, Milton Babbit,  even John Corigliano, or  Arvo Part, has produced really naive and fun music? There may be some tinge of the naive somewhere in their output, and yet what does that mean when compared to one, elegant, and cherub-like melody by Mozart?

The defender of new music will say, “Yes, but that was another world — and the style of our time does not allow a composer to be that innocent.” Exactly so. But I have given this exposition precisely because I believe the naive to be of great importance; it is one of the keys to freedom from the problems engendered by Modernism in music.   

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