Friday, January 04, 2008

Just Some Thoughts...

For the last six or seven years I have been mulling over a set of issues concerning notions of inspiration, sequencing and different forms of art.

It is fairly common that we describe the relationship between two works of art in a way that is chronological, causal and hierarchic: this painting was inspired by that poem; this novel is the sequel to that one; this opera draws upon that epic.

There is an interesting (and somewhat natural) flow to this process. A painting or other visual form of art often depicts a scene from a story. Less often do you find an entire novel that was inspired by a single work of visual art (or even a series of pieces, such as the collected paintings of Monet). You do, however, sometimes find poetry with inspirations ranging from expansive narratives to very simple visual forms. Song, likewise, seems to be a flexible medium, though obviously certain types of songs - such as operas - are less so.

The process is usually, however, quite linear, monodirectional and hierarchic. If a scene from Homer’s Iliad inspired a particular sculpture, there is a certain sense in which we say the sculpture is indebted to the epic and in that regard, inferior to it. At the very least, no one would suggest that the sculpture would go on to influence how Homer writes his work. And yet, the sculpture might change how we read the epic. So why not break the linearity in more material ways?

What if a community of artists were to produce, as a single project, a corpus of interplaying works of art, with none primary - in time, causality or importance - to another? You will sometimes see an exhibit of visual arts which begin to do this, a series of works which revolve around a central theme and were created at roughly the same time. These, however, do little to transcend the distinctions between various forms of art; at most, such an exhibit might include painting, sculpture and prints, with some carefully selected background music. But what if such a body ran a fuller gamut: drawings, paintings, one-act plays, songs, poems, photographs, short stories?

I can imagine a dozen or two interdisciplinary artists choosing a theme - probably something broad like “fathers and sons” - and, over a course of time, producing an interconnected body of works. They might begin with paintings and drawings. One of these might be of a father with two young boys, walking hand in hand to the beach on a windy day. In a second round of creation, someone might wonder what their background was, going on to writing a short story about a husband who had just lost his wife, and took his boys to the beach in an attempt to raise their flagging spirits. Or was it just his own attempt to keep up appearances and deal with his own grief? This in turn might be picked up in a song or poem, and thence recycled into another drawing. A topic of properly-calibrated breadth would allow the artists to incorporate elements from various works in new and interesting ways.

What would the final product look like? I can imagine a sort of coffee table book, full of short stories and poems, lavishly illustrated with a variety of pictures, and containing the lyrics and music to an accompanying album of music. Is this an elaborate set of notes for the album, or is it just background to the book? Are these stories about a series of pictures, or illustrations to the stories? Such a project would relish such ambiguities, and happily play with them. With imagination, film or other artistic media might be included. (Narrative stories with an appendix of recipes are fairly common amongst certain genre of reading; why not include the culinary arts? Or brewing?)

Admittedly, this is a somewhat artificial way of doing something that happens, to a lesser extent, in the ordinary course of human cultural exchanges. Still, it might be a fun and interesting project, for those involved in its creation or appreciation. Alas, I am afraid I shall probably have to relegate myself to the latter category. But I enjoy just thinking about it.

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  • In thinking over examples of this sort of collaboration, one interesting historical case comes to mind: the Arthurian legends. While some tellings clearly predate others, the mixing of various accounts - both prosaic and poetic - can be fascinatingly complex, not to mention the various forms of visual and musical art that the Arthurian stories have produced over the centuries.

    By Blogger Aaron, at 10:12 PM, January 04, 2008  

  • This sounds like a feature film plus merchandise, novelization, and soundtrack.

    By Anonymous Santiago, at 8:01 PM, January 08, 2008  

  • Well, perhaps in the best sense of those terms. But whereas a feature film usually drives the others (not only economically, but also intellectually), what if someone produced a film so as to be particularly novelizationable, soundtrackable and merchandisable? Hmm... Sounds like this might be very profitable, as well as intellectually interesting, at least if done well. If I was in charge, I'd make sure Sufjan was one my music team.

    By Blogger Aaron, at 11:41 PM, January 08, 2008  

  • The movie Magnolia by Paul Thomas Anderson was kind of like this. He was friends with Amiee Mann and she played him some songs off of her new album in the works, he was inspired and wrote the movie to match the songs. I don't know of any sculptural or culinary works to match up with this particular project.

    I'm also reminded of the close relationship between Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage. They were both faculty members at Black Mountain college in the 50's and made some really interesting complimentary painting/composition works.

    I guess the point is that people are doing this now. There is a community of artists, but for us as an audience we rarely take the time to look for any connections beyond the simple and immediate experience of the work.

    By Blogger Nathan, at 1:37 PM, January 10, 2008  

  • A couple of the Quincy House residents have taken to playing Final Fantasy XII of late. This has reminded me that one of the most integrative art forms is - surprisingly to some, no doubt - video games. I remember reading some years ago about all the work that went into creating Riven, the sequel to Myst. Not only are the storyline and the many puzzles integrated, but a lot of work was put into the visual affect, the music, the backstory. At every stage, these things were done in a way that they integrated with one another and gave subtle hints about how to complete the game. Part of what makes this work so well is that a video game has to be a unified whole; it can't simply be an eclectic mix of variations on a theme.

    By Blogger Aaron, at 1:13 PM, January 13, 2008  

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