The beauty of humility

The beauty of humility

John Dickson puts it succinctly:

Humility is beautiful

I’ve been reading Dickson’s book Humilitas which looks at the virtue of humilty, largely through an historical lens; or rather, at how humility became a virtue rather than an insult. It’s a fascinating read, and I don’t mean to focus on the historical development, but rather, something he writes about the aesthetics of humilty. Dickson’s observation is that we tend to be attracted to humilty, and repulsed by arrogance.

There is an aesthetic dimension to virtue. In real life, as opposed to in celluloid, we are attracted to the good and repelled by the bad

I think his observation is accurate. I can certainly relate to the times I’ve met or heard of the antics of great singers, and how it made me feel towards them and towards their art.

We need only think of the stereotypical ‘Diva’ (hey, that stereotype didn’t create itself!). Thankfully, in my experience, they are the exception rather than the rule. How do stories of divas (or Divos) bossing people around, expecting to be honoured and treated is certain ways make you feel about what they do on stage? To my mind it makes their art seem so much more selfish and less authentic. Whenever I meet a great singer, however, who is generous, especially towards young, aspiring singers, it makes me admire them even more – their art seems more genuine – more authentic.

Dickson doesn’t want us confused, however:

humility presupposes your dignity. … it is impossible to be humble in the real sense without a healthy sense of your own worth and abilities.

Humility does not mean underestimation or being a doormat. What it does do, says Dickson, is channel our skills and abilities into the service of others:

humility is about redirecting of your powers, whether physical, intellectual, financial or structural, for the sake of others … Humility is more about how I treat others than how I think about myself

As a performer, we have to believe in what we’re doing, or else doubt will lead to things like performance anxiety (stage fright) or worse. We need to recognise the talents we’ve been given, and hone those skills and develop our craft to the best of our abilities. We do this, however, in service of others. Perhaps we’ve come across those performers who proclaim that it’s all about their fans, when it’s plainly obvious that it’s all about themself. I’m not necessarily talking about fans, though it is important to connect with an audience and share the creation of the music and text with them. We are also in service to the music, and the musicians who we create it with. Personally, there is nothing more satisfying that being on stage with people who are playing off you, and giving you things to play off as well. It seems to me that humility is vital to being a successful artist.

Perhaps one last thing from Dickson, though:

the point … is not to advise us all to “put on” humility in order to impress our friends and colleagues. That would be a rather perverse inversion of the concept I am advocating. For now I am happy for us simply to notice the beauty of humilitas (and corresponding ugliness of arrogance) and to allow that reflection to begin its own work in us. Humility is not an ornament to be worn; it is an ideal that will transform.

Does an artist’s humilty or lack there-of affect the way you appreciate their work?


3 responses to “The beauty of humility”

  1. Thank you for asking me to comment on this – I should probably read the book to which it relates before expressing strong opinions, however, as I suspect the writer’s definition of humility is different to mine – and I also suspect I prefer his!

    It seems to me that sometimes a singer’s bad character is discernible through their art and sometimes not. One famous Wagner singer of a previous generation is said to have had a Swastika tiled into the floor of his swimming pool, and yet his voice is amongst the most beautiful and even charming in the Fach. I don’t hear an ungenerous spirit…but I still can’t listen to him. Another singer of that period, a soprano idolised by many, I don’t enjoy because in part because what I know of her character and her destructive attitudes as a teacher….but for me, her personality is audible in the sound.

    I’m not sure this is relevant to what you asked!

    Richard Wiegold

    • Thanks for your input Richard.

      It seems to me that sometimes a singer’s bad character is discernible through their art and sometimes not.

      Yes, that’s fair. There is at least one famous singer who I still enjoy listening to, and whose artistry I admire, though it is tainted with my knowledge of them as a person – this is not evident in their performing though. I suppose our knowledge of what’s behind the mask taints to varying degrees what they do – sometimes irrepirably, sometimes, it’s more just irksome.

      I’m pretty sure I can guess the late soprano you speak of 😉

What do you think?