A sculpture of Antinous, the composer Johannes Brahms, and the Jazz Age novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald

A problem which was latent in the time of ancient cultures with figures such as Socrates and Horace, the question of the supremacy between music, art and literature has not ceased to be asked. Below, three students argue their case.


“All art,” said Walter Pater in The Renaissance, “constantly aspires to the condition of music.” Aiming to impose a hierarchy on the arts is a dubious task. It rankles one’s liberal mind, drawing arbitrary comparisons between forms of art that bear little relation to one another. But if we indulge our inner conservative aesthetician, we see that music is different. Pater saw music as an end in itself. Music conveys its message in purely aesthetic terms, without the necessity of words or representational symbols. It has no recourse to traditional methods of communication, and yet still it moves us. Music unifies form and content: what you hear is all there is.

“Music forms the soundtrack to our daily highs and lows, transcending our worldly existence”

Consider, for a moment, these quotations. Tolstoy said that “music is the shorthand of emotion”. Heine thought that “when words leave off, music begins”. Music forms the soundtrack to our daily highs and lows, transcending our worldly existence. Translated from a score into our ears, it is at once grounded yet ethereal. It does away with the necessity of words; an autonomous form of communication that Wackendroder believed highlighted the inadequacy of language.

One does not need to be musically literate to engage with music, to be moved by it or to understand it. We needn’t read a biography of Mahler to discern the anguish that underlies his music; the first plodding chord of Mozart’s Requiem tells us more than enough to work out the mood of the coming work. Or alternatively, take the first seconds of Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 1. We are moved without quite knowing why. The same might go for Louis Armstrong’s classic ‘What a Wonderful World’. Even without Louis’ huskiness, we’d be uplifted. In literature or painting representation is filtered through one more level – the text, or colour on a canvas. Music bypasses this. It is direct, unfiltered, and pure. In music subject and form are one: the highest form of aesthetic expression.


In the 5th Century BCE, Zeuxis and his pal Parrhasius had a competition to see who could paint the most realistic painting, since they’d invented neither Instagram nor the Royal Academy Summer exhibition by then. Clever Zeuxis painted a pair of grapes so lifelike that birds flew towards the picture and tried to peck at the fruit. In 2017 the Twitter account ‘TabloidArtHistory’ noticed the uncanny resemblance between a 2007 photo of Britney Spears at a Del Taco drive-through and David with the head of Goliath by Caravaggio, c. 1607.

And so, throughout history, we see that, as Oscar Wilde opined in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying (or as Will Gompertz discussed in his weekly five-minute BBC art vlog in 2015, if you prefer), “art imitates life just as much as life imitates art”. No truer mimesis can there be than that of the visual arts. I refer you to Ed Sheeran’s 2015 biopic ‘Photograph’ for a fuller exploration of the early modern practice of keeping miniature portraits of one’s beloved worn in a locket.

“No truer mimesis can there be than that of the visual arts. I refer you to Ed Sheeran’s 2015 biopic ‘Photograph’”

We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words, which makes your average weekly essay worth no more than two postcards, and your funniest tweet – say, 20 words, and therefore 2% of a picture – worth about a squared-centimetre’s worth of your average profile pic. If this hard logic hasn’t got you sufficiently convinced, let us turn to the ad-tech company, Adaptly, who recently claimed that a single minute of video content (which, yes, I’m claiming for art) is the equivalent of 1.8 million words. As Private Eye pointed out, this makes the entire corpus of Shakespeare worth a mere 30 seconds of video content. QED. If only the Bard had used Snapchat, things might be different.

So, whether you believe that art is what you can get away with, the only salvation from the horror of our existence, a lie to make us realise the truth and/or all of the above, you’ll find that the paragone can be really only be answered by Horace, who famously declared “ut pictura poesis” – which roughly translates to “idk, do memes count?”


Literature is about stories and human experience, in a form which is so familiar to us. We all use language of some sort in everyday existence, the medium arguably being the most traditional method of communication and the most enduring. It requires no musical instrument or paintbrush: in short, no material essence. It is told from man to man, unadulterated and unpolluted, enabling identification in a way which is so human. In the words of the inimitable F. Scott Fitzgerald: in literature, “you discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

“Who ever knew mankind would still be reading the interminable epics of a figure who died in 701 BCE?”

What a sage you are, Fitzgerald; shared experiences, emotions, and situations are the quintessence of literature. But it is also about projecting our imaginations into other realms, allowing us to dissociate ourselves from the present, and travel back in time to Shakespeare’s Elizabethan era, the Victorian world of Charles Dickens, or the post-war “age of anxiety”, replete with modern icons like T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. There’s an element of transportation. Who ever knew mankind would still be reading the interminable epics of a figure who died almost three millennia ago? Writing is thus timeless, and asituational.

Literature also plays a sacrosanct role in our education: it is The Great Teacher of Life. When I read Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, I journeyed with the protagonist through a life beleaguered by misery and hardship. Hardy revealed the muddy underbelly of life’s reality: death, suicide, heartbreak, failed ambitions. It was arguably one of the most depressing episodes in my life; through a process of osmosis, his problems became mine. Such identification enables us to develop important emotions such as empathy, love, joy, sorrow, and pain. Stendhal was indeed so apt when he wrote: “A good book is an event in my life.”


Mountain View

Connecting Cambridge’s literary community: CUPPS

Sponsored links