Beethoven, Mozart, Cake

April 22, 2010

Basket of Primroses – photograph by Liz Mathews

‘When one goes into a shop to buy a cake, one gets nothing but a cake, which may be very good but is only a cake; whereas if one goes into the kitchen and makes a cake because some people one respects and probably likes are coming to eat at one’s table, one is striking a low note on a scale that is struck higher up by Beethoven and Mozart.’

Although in this passage from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon Rebecca West is making a point about capitalism (she continues ‘we prefer to create than to buy’), the matter of creativity inevitably comes in. The days when ‘shop cake’ seemed grand – because everyone baked – are long gone; it’s probably truer now than it was in 1942 that a homemade cake seems complimentary. What interests me is her assertion that this cake-making is an art, as valid as any great composer’s music, if on a lower note. I think this is, in the context, a feminist stance; also a statement of the importance of intention in making.

In the same book she describes Macedonian peasant women’s embroidery as ‘uncorrupted merchandise’, in contrast to the sort of commercial copy sold elsewhere. There is an integrity of purpose which makes the act of creation genuine, for her, rather than primarily commercial, just as the cakes are only cakes (however good) if they’ve been made for a shop. (Of course, this applies to the sale of her own work; even the hack journalism of her youth is motivated by a passionate belief which is proof enough that she wrote primarily for other reasons.)

The motivation behind the work of art was what couldn’t be bought; the friendly intent of the cake-making would never be replicated by money-making intent. So West was moved by the Macedonian women’s work because artistic expression was a natural part of their life – they might sell the work they made, but that wasn’t why it had come into being. Within her own culture there was already a divide which made the professional artist responsible for this expression, on behalf of society as a whole, but she still considered that those who did it merely for commercial reward were corrupt.

The value that she placed on intention didn’t confuse West into thinking that the results were all the same, or that ‘everyone is an artist’ any more than that she was a professional pastry-cook. Rather, she was valuing a person’s own effort of creation over their powers of buying. Just as she asserted that the cake made for friends is an expression of true creativity for the maker (on a small scale), so she trusted that there were people who would understand the compliment of being offered a created thing.


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