Friday, April 25, 2008

Picture this

I'm returning from self-imposed exile known as "no, seriously, you need to finish this paper." And I can happily report that the paper was, in fact, completed, and I may now return to avoiding studying for my special field exams through blogging and attending countless end-of-year barbecues. Mmm.

Anyway, there's a topic that's weighed on me ever since Michael Monroe brought it up a week ago, the relationship between visual art and music. I actualy started on this path initially in graduate school, arriving with BAs in both art history and music, and that desire to explore this n depth has never gone away. It will factor into my dissertation on collage, certainly gets involved in film music, and has crept in to various other side projects. But Michael's post is far more general and deserving of a serious inquiry. He writes:

There's a long history of comparing art to music, whether it's Debussy/Monet, Picasso/Stravinsky, Schoenberg/Munch, Duchamp/Cage, Rothko/Feldman, etc.. While these comparisons are useful, they're often presented in a way that glosses over an important difference: music is experienced as a series of events over time, while still images are taken in all at once. I'm not saying we can't still find lots of common undercurrents in such disparate media, but I guess I want tighter, more direct connections.

I want thos connections too, but I think part of it comes from what exactly we want to say. I find the practise of throwing a couple pictures into a powerpoint and just covering the general style rather unsatisfying. Yes, both Debussy and Monet like blurring of forms. But is that really all there is to say? I think the real root of the problem is the lack of skill musicologists have when it comes to dealing with paintings (the parallel that hits me is the use of classical music on audio tours, which too often simply acts like a marker of culture, but never offering something to the viewer/listener beyond pleasant background, like those benches you can sit down on an rest). Part of the power in understanding a painting, just as in music, comes from the use of and abuse of traditions. Just as when Jonathan Bellman writes about trying to communicate the edginess of Mozart, we have to communicate the edginess of Monet. There's a disconnest in using familiar images seen on calendars, tote bags, dorm room walls, and claiming they're like music that students find challenging (how modern art has attained an air of accessablility and familiarity is worthy of its own discussion).

But another part of the connection is knowing how we approach a painting. Michael is right in acknowledging the difference between hearing and viewing. The listener at a concert has the work laid out in a single line, whereas the viewer of a painting is free to linger as long as he or she likes, return to parts, etc. But even in the act of listening, one can focus on certain parts, or have a sngle impression after the piece has concluded. And in art, I think Michael and plenty of others are wrong in the assumption that a painting is taken in all at once. Look at this painting by Degas:

There are a number of ways in which to view the painting. For me, my eye goes first to the pink bow, emphasized by the vertical line of the wall right abover it and the way the arched back is echoed in the arch of the skirts directly above the bow. From therethe eye could o up to the yellow bow, then immediately to the foreground where the yellow is repeated, or to the yellow wall in the background, and follow the line of dancers to the foreground. It pauses in the lower right, amid the intense reds and pinks, and the dancers who face us more directly. And of course the staircase has its own self-contained world. But each of these parts of the painting are taken in on their own time, in the order the viewer chooses or is directed. Other paintings literally tell a narrative by directing your eye across the canvas from one scene to another. Pollock's paintings allow you to follow the process. I don't think it's just musicians who see movement within images. The point is that while it is easier to glean an overall sense (such as the triangular composition of the Rubens, the act of encountering a painting is more involved than a singular moment. The Rothko/Feldman comparison works because Rothko takes time. You get up close to the canvas and the complexities of shades, colors beneath colors start to come out slowly, the same way Feldman's music subsumes you into a soundscape, and the details become heightened in that stage. And for me there's something wonderful about the intricacies of the simplicity.

I'm not sure how best to translate this into teaching, aside from either teaching in a museum or doing a cross-disciplanary class (which I would love to do someday). But the effort may start with giving art a few more seconds, allowing the students to really look at the art, to see the art evolve alongside the music, or to realize that these works have their own stories. If you're going to use art (and I certainly encourage it), use it responsibly. Maybe students will learn something unexpected.


  • Hi Dan. Thanks for responding. I really like your blog, by the way.

    Not that it's a big deal, but in my defense, I did mention the concept of perceiving direction in an art image, although I didn't expand on the concept much. I think the important distinction is that musical events literally unfold in time - although memory is used to keep both past and future sound events in mind as well (otherwise, how would one make sense even of a melody?), the temporality is unavoidable. With a single image, no matter how complex its content, the viewer has much more freedom to decide in what directions to focus, although you're correct that many images will have built-in ways of leading the focus. I suppose in the extreme one could argue that one never sees an image in one take; the eyes/brain have to process a lot of inputs in virtual simultaneity, but doing that kind of thing is built into the whole idea of “seeing.” Still, I think there's a meaningful way in which one can be said to "take in" an image, even a pretty complex one, at once.

    In fact, this is what interests me the most about the aural/visual connection. I'm intrigued by the idea of "seeing" a musical entity (whether a melody, a progression, a sonata form, etc.) in "one take." I think the connection to what you’ve said about reading a painting is important. Just as the inexperienced listener can become more perceptive by thinking of music as an image, the inexperienced art viewer can become more perceptive by seeing the musical temporality in a painting. That was the point I was trying to make, but I never really got around to writing an effective conclusion.

    The postscript I never wrote to that post was to confess that I'm not really a "visual art" person, so I feel a little out of my element here, but I'm going to explore that issue in another post soon (I hope!).

    By Blogger MICHAEL MONROE, At April 26, 2008 at 9:30 AM  

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