Believability and the Morality of Art

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Believability is a widely-valued attribute in the performance of song. We value a sense of honesty, of authenticity; we like to experience the performance as a genuine act of communication, of music speaking 'from the heart, to the heart'. The point of bringing music 'to life' in performance is not just to go through the motions, but to generate meaning and interpersonal connection.

One of the standard ways to coach people in how to create this experience is to ask the performer(s) themselves to believe in what they're singing. 'You've got to believe it yourself if you want your audience to believe it,' is one phrase of which I have been on the receiving end. This is fine as a starting point, but it carries some problems with it:

  1. It is artistically reductive, making the music 'all about me'. It subsumes everything to where you are, personally
  2. It stops working where the content of the piece incites personal resistance. Not every piece of music says something that I actually want to identify with

More useful is the actorly idea of 'suspension of disbelief'. This involves creating a world that both performers and audience can enter together; a state of 'as if'.

This actually requires both more imagination and more empathy than simply appropriating the music to express your own feelings. It prompts you to invest more time and attention into exploring how the song feels than into how you do. You are not required to adopt the world view of the song as your own, but you do need to make the effort to understand how the world looks from the song's perspective.

And it is through these kinds of acts of empathy that the arts serve to develop our emotional range, both as listeners and performers. We gain insight into the experience and patterns of feeling of others.

David Hume argued that morality has its roots in empathy, that the capacity to understand the experience of others is the natural foundation of ethical behaviour. It is in this sense, then, that our instincts that the arts have a moral dimension is right. The imaginative leap to see the world from another's perspective, and to experience the emotional states that experience generates along with them is common both to the understanding of the arts and to our operation as competent honourable members of society.

And this in turn helps us understand how we can hear a performance that distorts musical structures not merely as misguided but as somehow reprehensible. An 'indulgent' interpretation is one where the performer places their own feelings ahead of the work's own.

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