One of the most powerful experiences of my life was at the end of a 1978 live performance (from Scottish Opera) of Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss - the trio for three soprano voices (lyric, dramatic and mezzo) -
This piece of music is almost unbearably beautiful to me; with its combination of interweaving voices singing long, supple melodic lines; scored for very large, shimmeringly lush forces, by probably the greatest orchestrator of all the great composers - here working at his peak.
The effect (on someone susceptible) is overpowering in a good live performance (or, for that matter, in a recording - I could not watch more than a few seconds of the above movie version without tearing-up).
By the time the two young lovers had inched to the climactic high notes of their duet, I was literally sobbing - and had to remain in my seat for a few minutes after the curtain in order to recover sufficiently to leave the theatre.
Human artistry at one of its peaks. And yet; Rosenkavalier is a thoroughly immoral story of selfish, dishonest, greedy and decadent courtiers engaged in sordid sexual intrigue among the (ig-)nobility.
The opera is also flawed by excessive length - such that the several musical high peaks are surrounded by a couple of hours of tediousness.
And even this final trio/ duet/ coda only offers the (shallow) redemption of the infinite hopes of untested adolescent love at first sight; this being enabled by the senior woman (a Countess), somewhat reluctantly, acknowledging that she is getting too old to retain the young man as her extra-martial 'toy boy'.
As a young man I regarded the best operas as fundamental to my world view; and I felt the same about the best symphonies, sonatas, plays, novels and poetry. Art (selectively) was a kind of religion in my life - taken with the utmost seriousness. I believed there was an intrinsic (even though inexplicit) Goodness to art - and that this was the highest Goodness.
This was, of course, a common idea from the end of the 19th century and up into the middle 20th century - the idea that the best art - deeply experienced - had an intrinsically educative, enlightening, and moral effect. it was Good For people - which is why the arts were widely subsidized and promoted.
However, in retrospect I can now see that most of these (including many of the most beloved) were actually harmful to me in a spiritual sense. Works such as Der Rosenkavalier displayed a very complete dissociation of the transcendental values - supremely aesthetic, yet hedonic or even inverted in terms of virtue.
In more general terms; artists are usually very flawed guides to values when accepted as primary.
A great artists few were themselves Good and providers of wisdom and virtue (JS Bach, JRR Tolkien, or William Blake for instance); but most were even more flawed than the average Man; and therefore their power to move and influence people was hazardous at best.
I would now assert that there may indeed be an intrinsic Goodness in art; but this is only the case when it is apprehended with discrimination and within a broader (Christian) perspective. Otherwise, (i.e. when taken as primary and fundamental) art will be more prone to corrupt than to improve a Man.
This is, indeed, what is found among the specialist (including the best) authors and practitioners of the arts. When The Man is bad, or has an immoral ideology; then no amount of creativity or immersion in the arts has any improving, or even deepening, effect on them.
It is a disillusioning experience to discover how trivial professional musicians usually are; how selfish and hedonic even the finest poets and novelists can be; and as for actors, dancers...
A life spent in artistic activity very obviously does not enrich or ennoble. And even acts of genius artistic creativity (which is a participation in divine creation) does not usually rub-off onto the Whole Man - but instead mostly remains encapsulated.
This is not to single-out the arts as especially defective; because the same applies in science, medicine, scholarship; or in the churches. Excellence, even brilliance, in the specialist activity, is apparently dissociated from broader, deeper and more important considerations.
But in the arts, the personal deficiencies come-out in the work. The work cannot genuinely be greater than the author; and if the author is not a great Man, then the work will not be great in terms of ultimate values - and in that sense, it will not be a worthy basis for living.
Note: By (non-)coincidence; William Wildblood has been inspired to write on a similar theme in today's post at his blog.