Simplicity is the crowning reward of art

The Dancing House, designed by architect Frank Gehry, represents the actor-dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
The Dancing House, designed by architect Frank Gehry, represents the actor-dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.PHOTO: CHUA ENLAI

I was 14 years old when I discovered Fred Astaire.

It was Christmas, 1978. One of the British TV channels showed a series of his movies from the 1930s, and I sat up in bed, night after night, watching them on a black-and-white portable TV set I had received as a present.  The effortless grace and style of his dancing and singing captivated me, and I have adored him ever since.


I have since learnt that his "effortless" grace and style came about only as a result of a prodigious quantity of effort. He would spend weeks planning his dance routines, and weeks more perfecting every detail of his performances. Had he not been so extraordinarily talented and hard-working, he could never have made it all look so easy.

There is a Latin phrase, "ars est celare artem", which translates to "it is true art to conceal art".

For me, Astaire's dancing is the perfect example of this.

Polish composer and virtuoso pianist Frederic Chopin, whose technical proficiency was without equal during his lifetime, said: "Simplicity is the final achievement." After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.

The kind of simplicity he was referring to is very difficult to achieve. It requires great skill and vast experience.

I was thinking about this the other day, when I read a fascinating article in the BBC News magazine about great song lyrics and how they are written.

The writer of the article, Mr Adam Gopnik, made me laugh out loud, early in the piece, by saying: "The haunted, wild look you see in the eyes of professional songwriters at cocktail parties rises from the popular idea that any of us, given the chance, can do what they do as well as they do it."

I have never been to a cocktail party, but I understand precisely what Mr Gopnik means.

Some of the best, most haunting song lyrics are disarmingly simple, so much so that they give the illusion of having been easy to write. But to crystallise an emotion, an experience or an insight, and to express it in a few choice words that perfectly capture the inflections of a melody - that takes rare skill.


I remember reading once that when lyricist Dorothy Fields first heard Jerome Kern's melody for the song The Way You Look Tonight, written for the Fred Astaire movie Swing Time, she could not stop crying and had to leave the room. Her lyrics captured that emotion so perfectly and with such effortless grace that the song still melts hearts today, 80 years on:

Oh, but you're lovely!

With your smile so warm, and your cheek so soft,

There is nothing for me but to love you,

Just the way you look tonight.

It is very simple. But it embodies a Zen-like simplicity.

I could sit and stare at those words for a month without finding a syllable that could be altered for the better.

The French writer, poet and pioneering aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, once said: "In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away."

The older I get, the more I appreciate that kind of simplicity, and the more I admire those who can achieve it.

  • Gary Hayden is a philosophy and science writer.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2015, with the headline 'Simplicity is the crowning reward of art'. Subscribe