Wednesday, May 7, 2008

All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music - you don't say!

Walter Pater tells us, in the "School of Giorgione" chapter of The Renaissance (1873), that "All art aspires towards the condition of music." Later, in the conclusion, one can find his geniuses burning with their "hard gemlike flame."

One advantage of specializing in a period is that one can, through repeated exposure, begin to make sense of nonsense like this.* I mean insights, one can make sense of these deep insights. I have obviously not reached that point with later 19th century aesthetic theory.

This particular ranking of the arts seems to have begun with Schopenhauer. The very abstractness of music allows it a kind of stronger reality than more concrete arts. Something like that. Richard Wagner swallowed the whole thing (when an eminent philosopher says everyone wants to be, and should be, like you, who among us would gainsay him?), and under his influence so did many others. The idea seems to have been especially strong in France and Germany - it's a major component of French Symbolist poetry, while German novelists created a genre to explore it, the Kunstlerroman.

Since I don't understand this stuff, I'll make a simpler point: people, writers, really believed it. This wasn't just intellectual play. Poets, painters, architects, were told that art aspired towards music, and as a result they themselves aspired to create art that was like music.

Yesterday I wrote a bit about writers who used other artist characters as surrogates for their ideas about writing, but in this intellectual environment, it would be odd if everyone wrote about artists this way. At a minimum, writers would want to see test their art form against others. What does music do that the novel does not? What can the novel do to be more musical?

At a basic level, this is just a set of contrasts. I think this is part of what Marcel Proust is doing with his gallery of artists in In Search of Lost Time. Bergotte the writer, Elstir the painter, Vinteuil the composer (am I forgetting someone?) - these characters allow Proust to knock their art forms up against each other. The little motif of Vinteuil's sonata that runs through the novel, affecting characters in different ways, for example: what is it doing that a written passage can't? Or look at the novelist Bergotte's strange vision of "the tiny patch of yellow wall" in Vermeer's View of Delft. The dying Bergotte says that he should have written his novels like that little patch of wall. What can he mean?

I'll try an earlier example, no less difficult. E. T. A. Hoffmann was not just a writer, but a practising composer. His opera Undine (1814) is still performed in Germany. Here's an author whose composer characters, of which there are a few, are surely not mannequin writers.

The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr (1820-22) presents Hoffmann's divide in an extreme way. The novel abruptly alternates between the autobiography of a cat, written by himself (he's a very talented cat), with a fairy-tale like story of the composer Johannes Kreisler (who is also a person the cat knows). The cat, it turns out, was using the manuscript of the composer's story as blotting paper, so the pages got mixed together.

This is a very strange book. I don't know what it means that the cat-author, in the process of writing, mangles the composer's story. Or that the composer lives in a sort of magical world while the author's concerns - plates of cream, pretty lady cats, and the like - are purely quotidian. I'll bet it means something, and it's not that the creative nature of composing and writing are the same.

* Older examples: Poetry is painting. Shakespeare holds a mirror up to Nature.


  1. This post put me in mind of composer Clive in Ian McEwen's overly contrived Amsterdam:

    "Sometimes Clive worked so hard on a piece that he could lose sight of his ultimate purpose - to create this pleasure at once so sensual and abstract, to translate into vibrating air this non-language whose meanings were forever just beyond reach, suspended tantalisingly at a point where emotion and intellect fused."

  2. Schopenhauer lauded music as the only non-representational art. Listening to music gave us a glimpse of unadorned reality itself ('the Will' in S's terms). Other arts lack this immediacy, presenting the world only indirectly via our imperfect, distorting representations.

    Schopenhauer was for a time quite influential in Austria, where Hofmannsthal, Wittgenstein and others would later deride linguistic representation especially as being deceptive and far too crude to express the truth about the world -- the truth was ineffable, to be experienced rather than said.

    I have no idea why music was thought to be better as a source of such experience, and I'm not sure what it means to say that music is 'non-representational'.

    1. Dear Praymont,
      I would be very interested if you could pinpoint the exact volumes of Schopenhauer's in which he alludes to music. I saw in them in Frankfurt but was unable to read them in German. Doubtless, I could go to the British Library to wade through all of them!
      What aspects of Schopenhauer's writings are you particularly interested in?
      Thanking you in advance for your information, Bernard Staig-Graham.

  3. What does music do that the novel does not? wonderful wonderful question. Is music more abstract than fiction? My inclination is to say yes and then immediately I say no - music seems more purely representational is its attempt to "present" emotion to us without the usual clues or allusions. Yet the representation is completely unique to the listener, cannot be shared in any way.

    All artists aspiring to music - that's such a fantastic notion. Especially if the idea is 'pure' creation, something unique everytime.

    I just read back over that and am not sure I'm making sense. Will have to think more on this idea.

  4. Nigel, thanks, the McEwen quote is an excellent example of a certain kind of impulse behind abstraction - communicating the uncommunicable. Kandinsky turned to abstract painting not just as a way to move painting toward music, but to somehow embody those "just betond reach" meanings, and he really thought he had done it. I don't see it, but he did.

    Praymont, that's much of the source of the 20th century move towards abstraction, isn't it? Pinning down those ineffable truths, in painting, dance, whatever form. Literature, stuck with words (mostly*), has been the most resistant, but plenty of writers have certainly given abstraction a try.

    It's all a great puzzle to me. As you and verbivore ask, are we sure that music is especially non-representational? Are we all hearing the same thing? Why can't words be as pure as tones, or tones as deceptive as words?

    Great fun, but now I need to rest my head.

    *Peter Handke, Arno Schmidt, Charles Olson, etc.

  5. Because music has no content, or ideas, whereas all the other art forms contain both form and content, and Pater imagines that these two interact in other artforms in such a way that the work is constantly striving to "annihilate" the content by means of the form, to just hear the pure form, or formal element to a work. This is why music is valued not as the highest artform, but the form of which all the others are aspiring. One might argue (as I do) that literature is superior to music because it performs that function, but also has a content (in that it also has a musical element in its sound.)

  6. Well that's interesting, Michael. I guess I'm usually looking for, or especially valuing, art where form and content seem inseparable. So that's a useful challenge - to think of them as antagonists. Helps me understand Pater, at least.

  7. Apologies for coming so late to this conversation........

    Like the rest of you, I can only guess as to Pater's true meaning.

    But, for my money, he is alluding to the transcendent quality of art. And, wherever it is we believe great art takes us, music takes us there in a more unambiguous, direct and unhindered way than any other art form.

    I would imagine that, for Pater, meaning doesn't really come into it. Music is the purest form of abstraction. Mendelssohn may have been inspired by the Hebrides, but you do not need to know this to be deeply moved (whatever being *moved* really is)by the music.

    Just my tuppence worth.......

  8. For painting to aspire to the condition of music, time and abstract forms must be present. In the past, painting contained representations of forms whose apparent movements were "frozen."

    Image Perception Fading which exploits neural networking of the eye-mind system represents dynamic change of colour and form in space and time.

    Uncommon forms are preferable. They have direct access to transcendental emotions, untrammelled by narrative and identity considerations.

    The ganzfeld is evidence of a neuro-physiological phenomenon in which colour and form dynamically change by spontaneous neural firing.

    Image Perception Fading and the ganzfeld are two ways of aspiring to the condition of music.

  9. In the past, a painting contained representations of coloured forms whose apparent movements were "frozen." For painting to aspire to the condition of music, three conditions are necessary: apparent change of "prepared" colour and form relationships must occur in time.

    Image Perception Fading satisfies these criteria by exploiting the process of neural networking in the eye-mind system. Fading as apparent disappearance and emergence of images occurs in space and time while an observer is in locomotion.

    Unusual colour relationships and forms are preferable. They have direct access to transcendental emotions, untrammelled by narrative and identity considerations.

    The ganzfeld is evidence of neuro-physiological morphing of colour and form by spontaneous neural firing.

    Image Perception Fading and the ganzfeld are two dynamic ways of aspiring to the condition of music.

    I enjoy my ganzfeld in daylight, twilight and at night time. It is TV-free. Good luck!

  10. Denis, Bernard, thanks for the comments. It's especially nice to have a visual artist stop by.

    Denis, you must be right about Pater idea of working past meaning somehow. Maybe that's why it's the mysterious Giorgione who inspires this particular effusion. We , or I, have great trouble understanding Giorgione's meaning.

    But, Bernard - Pater can't possibly have meant something like these neurological effects, can he? This is 1873, in the context of Renaissance painting! Just as an example, the hypothetical observer of the Giorgione painting is presumably standing still. No locomotion.

    Anyway, thanks for the luck.

  11. Dear Amateur Reader, Fevruary 2, 2010,
    I have been researching Image Perception of Fading which aspires to the condition of music by apparent change. The attributes of images- size, shape, colour, and texture apparently change in the mind of a viewer during perceptuo-motor participation with a painting in certain viewing conditions.
    Pater may have known of Goethe's and Purkinje's physiological/subjective changes of colour, and Chevreul's simultaneous contrast colour changes, but he could not understand their importance to painting.
    My hypothetical reason for this is that philosophy and the word of God controlled the intellect that was given power over all the arts and sciences.
    The only way in which change in information could occur was by eye-tracking the surface of a painting during the change in attention of a viewer. As long as a principle of Colour Contrast continued to be applied to painting its image attributes remained unchanged.
    Of course, Pater could not have known about the neuro-physiological structures, mechanisms, processes, and functions of the psycho-physical effects of colour perception.
    However, since the discovery of Image Perception Fading, a principle of Colour Equivalence and a knowledge of neuro-physiology operate in my paintings to aspire to the condition of music -transcendental experiences for me and, hopefully,for others - that are untrammeled by narrative.
    I am developing a principle of Colour Equivalence -music unlike Scriabin's synaesthetics, by an association with the dynamics of sound that are indicated in a score.
    I hope I have answered your comments to your satisfaction.
    Best wishes, Bernard

  12. Wow. Okay, so I haven't read that many books, but for me - it's a little more simple.

    Let me break it down.

    You know music when you feel it.

    work is done. You feel it.

  13. Iain, your point is fundamental. It is the next step that gets complicated. Questions like "Why do I feel this music and not that?" or "Why does a great painting feel different than great music"? or "Why doesn't everyone else feel what I feel when we hear this music?"

    But you have to start with what you say - do you feel it?

  14. What do you make of the apparent/relative lack of appreciation for Tomcat Murr? It sounds somewhat like a The Master and Margarita avant la lettre, and that novel has millions of book bloggers praising it.

    I was thinking about buying the Hoffmann and then came across this old mention of it here. Thanks. Sold!

  15. German literature from Hoffmann's period has always been more like a cult literature in English. It goes off on its own path, while English and French literatures, for example, parallel each other a little more.

    Too bad, Hoffmann is so good.